Ten of the Best: Terrance Dicks

❉ A personal pantheon of Uncle Terrance’s greatest hits.

“The greatest Doctor Who writer of the twentieth century is Terrance Dicks.” – Paul Cornell, 2019.

Terrance Dicks (1935 – 2019) was one of the Doctor Who greats, and his passing has seen a uniformly positive outpouring of love, affection, gratitude and appreciation for his legacy. Not only the man who invented the Time Lords, the Raston Warrior Robot, the Rutans, the Records of Rassilon, Great Vampires & Bow-ships, and who brought Borusa back from the dead not once but TWICE!; but also the man who script-edited the series throughout the heroic Jon Pertwee era and penned more Doctor Who novelisations than any other writer.

Only last month, in the pages of the long-running Doctor Who Magazine, Paul Cornell was quoted as saying: “The greatest Doctor Who writer of the twentieth century is Terrance Dicks.”

Earlier this week we shared Black Archive writer and regular We Are Cult contributor Jon Arnold’s tribute to Terrance Dicks’ life and work. Here, we present We Are Cult editor James Gent’s personal picks of Dicks’ top ten contributions to the world of Doctor Who. YMMV!

10. Made Of Steel (2007)

The first time a ‘classic series’ writer crossed over into ‘Nu Who’ (as we called it back then, in the dizzying days of 2007), Made Of Steel introduced us to new companion Martha Jones, a month before her screen debut. A World Book Day (UK) initiative, ‘Quick Reads’ was a series of slim books, designed to promote literacy amongst adults who did not read often or had poor literacy.  There was no better candidate for Doctor Who’s first entry in this range than Terrance Dicks, the man who famously transformed an entire generation of British schoolkids – mainly boys – into dedicated readers, and this novella was a great fit for his brisk, economical prose style, although long-term fans were deprived of a ‘changing face of the Doctor’ style one-line summary of Tennant’s Doctor’s appearance.

9. Players (1999)

Published in 1999, the first volume of Terrance Dicks’ ‘Players’ trilogy, chronicling the antics of immortal beings toying with the timeline (shades of Terrance and Hulke’s epic The War Games, and the Committee of Three from his New Adventure, Blood Harvest), was remarkable for offering a take on the abrasive Sixth Doctor and his companion Peri that was far more simpatico than many of their on-screen adventures, and for enshrining in licensed fiction the fan theory of ‘Season 6b’ – as extrapolated in Virgin’s Discontinuity Guide, with foreword by one Terrance Dicks – as well as introducing Churchill into Who lore way before fat-bottomed Daleks. Players was reissued with a new cover in 2013.

8. State Of Decay: Audiobook (1981)

Reworked from an abandoned script originally written for Tom Baker’s fourth season, feudal sci-fi vampire yarn State Of Decay returned Doctor Who to the realms of Hammer horror at a time when it was flirting with an alchemical combination of sci-fi tech and fairytale mysticism, with this story firmly in the middle. It’s most fondly remembered by fans of a certain age in the form of a 1981 cassette tape reading from budget label Pickwick, narrated by Tom Baker’s velvety tones and played to death by all who owned it until the tape wore out. An alternative adaptation to the contemporaneous Target novel, it introduced another line in the Who fan’s lexicon in the form of Mad Tom’s dolefully expressed line, “Romana was APPALLED”, and boasted a sprightly jingle worlds apart from Peter Howell’s electropop theme music.

7. The Making of Doctor Who (1976)

Co-written with Malcolm Hulke, the original, Piccolo edition of the first non-fiction Doctor Who book provided a brisk retelling of the series’ on-screen history in the form of memos from the Time Lords, appended by a behind-the-scenes diary of The Sea Devils. Retooled by Target Books in 1976, this new edition offered an accessible, full glossary of the series’ then thirteen-years-old legacy, introducing into the fan lexicon a number of phrases such as the description of the first three Doctors as “a crotchety old man”, “a sort of cosmic hobo” and “tall, lean and elegant… with a shock of white hair” respectively, and most famously, in all his incarnations “never cruel or cowardly”.

Alongside the first of many evocative, succinct episode guides when past stories were mostly inaccessible, the highly insightful production diary behind the scenes of Tom Baker’s debut, Robot, offered budding scriptwriters an insight into the script-to-screen process, with a scene from the serial presented as an extract from a writers’ breakdown, camera script and novelisation, complete with layman explanations of television jargon and script-writing idiom – demystifying and rendering accessible the dark arts of TV production.

6. Junior Doctor Who and The Brain of Morbius (1980)

Don’t be fooled by the name! ‘Junior Doctor Who’ wasn’t a fulfilling of William Hartnell’s ‘Son of Who’ concept, but a short-lived range of simplified Target novelisations aimed at younger readers. The second and final in the series, Junior Doctor Who and the Brain of Morbius niftily retold the 1976 story (infamously reworked by script editor Robert Holmes, and broadcast with Dicks’ writing credit attributed to ‘Robin Bland’) condensed from the 1978 novelisation without missing any of the story’s beats, and adding another layer of Grand Guignol to the proceedings with its frankly terrifying artwork by pulp fiction jacket designer Harry Hants, closer in spirit to the eyeball-bashing, Gothic nightmares of Doctor Who annual artwork than Alan Willow’s sensitively depicted Target artwork!

5. The Dalek Invasion Of Earth (Novelisation, 1977)

With its Chris Achilleos cover artwork offering a mash-up of visual sources from both the AARU movie of the story and those Century 21 Daleks, Dicks’ novelisation of Terry Nation’s epic Dalek serial is one of the key Terrance Dicks novelisations. Without any hyperbole, its opening line – “through the ruins of a city stalked the ruins of a man” – is up there with George Orwell’s “It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” from 1984 as an arresting opener. Dating from the Imperial period of Terrance Dicks’ Doctor Who novelisations, his treatment of The Dalek Invasion Of Earth is so rich in description, every page bursting with engaging, lucid and dramatic prose that it’s a masterclass – even moreso when encountered, as with this reader, as part of 1983’s Dalek Omnibus, a three-story Dalek Empire epic also containing within its stunning, Andrew Skilleter-designed hardback cover, Dicks’ gripping and evocative treatments of Day… and Planet of The Daleks.

Terrance Dicks’ reputation is due in no small part to the many years he produced pocket money-friendly and totally readable novelisations of prior Doctor Who adventures, at a time when repeats where scarce and VHS recorders were well beyond the average household budget. As Paul Cornell recently told Doctor Who Magazine, “he goes on fixing the plots… in the Target books – so even if he didn’t get it right the first time, he’ll change it completely in the book!”

4. Robot (1974)

It fell to Terrance Dicks to script the maverick Tom Baker’s screen debut, and its testament to Dicks’ skills as a populist writer that he manufactured a romp that’s both sublime and ridiculous, drinking in everything from riffs on old Avengers plots to overt steals from monster movies (in this case, King Kong – predating the Hinchcliffe & Holmes fetish for upcycling Universal horrors), and simultaneously aping the ‘UNIT years’ format whilst foregrounding this new eccentric, otherworldly Doctor to denote the changing of the guard. The Target novelisation would be a touchstone for the new series, with Planet of The Dead’s scientific advisor Malcolm referencing “the one with the giant robot” as his “favourite” UNIT file.

3. The Five Doctors (1983)

The headline act of Doctor Who’s twentieth birthday jamboree, The Five Doctors was the Greatest Hits compilation the anniversary deserved, and all credit to the man who pulled it all together from a wish-list of returning villains, more Gallifrey continuity, and an ever-changing line-up of returning Doctors and companions after Robert Holmes’ original treatment was abandoned. In a move which would have twenty-first century spoilerphobes reaching for the smelling salts, when it came to the obligatory Target novelisation, a certain high street retailer broke the publisher’s embargo, and the Dicks-penned Target flooded bookshop shelves before the much-trumpeted anniversary special landed up on the tellybox. Boasting a fancy silver-foil cover, and offering some extra minor details (notably a fleeting insight into an adult Susan’s life in post-Dalek invasion Earth), the book’s surprising appearance didn’t spoilt the party – oh, no. It just whetted the anticipation. And a splendid time was guaranteed for all.

2. The War Games (1969)

Terrance Dicks once modestly said, “When people asked me: “What were your aims and ambitions for the show?” I’d say: “That the BBC did not have to show the test card at 6pm on Saturday night.” This actually came close to happening, when the incoming script editor Dicks, alongside fellow The Avengers scribe Mac Hulke, wrote The War Games, under deadline pressure. “When I arrived, the script situation was fairly diabolical and chaotic – they were very often late, and shows were falling through… The most extreme example I can think of is when a four-parter and six-parter had fallen through, and [script editor] Derrick Sherwin came into my office and said: ‘Terrance, we need a 10-part Doctor Who and you’re going to write it and we need it next week.’”

The ten-part epic made a virtue of its extended run time by subverting the traditional ‘capture and escape’ Doctor Who format, as the Time Lord and his companions cross different warring time zones, with each episode heightening the drama by offering a new revelation or shock twist, ultimately leading to the introduction of not only a Time Lord adversary (The War Chief, only the second of his kind since The Time Meddler) but also a MASSIVE chunk of Doctor Who lore with yer actual Time Lords, culminating in the Doctor’s forced regeneration and exile to twentieth century Earth. The series, and continuity, would never be the same again.

1. Horror of Fang Rock (1977)

It’s no secret that, after Terrance Dicks (as then-current script editor) commissioned Robert Holmes to write a story set in the Middle Ages in the form of The Time Warrior, when the roles were reversed, Holmes took revenge by stranding Dicks on a turn of the century lighthouse – yet there’s a certain symmetry between these two commissions, not least that the former story introduced the martial clones the Sontarans, and the latter their eternal enemies, the gelatinous Rutans, and both stories offer original takes on the ‘base under seige’ format of ’60s Who.

Structurally, a pitch-perfect Doctor Who serial, and one that Russell T Davies’ own modern-day classic Tooth & Claw more or less homages outright, Horror of Fang Rock may well be Terrance Dicks’ finest one hundred minutes. Despite (or perhaps, because of) its production difficulties it’s one of Doctor Who’s stone-cold classics, and is a favourite of Paul Cornell, who wrote: “This sort of archetypal work, where the plot seems channeled rather than written, is the mark of a high level of craft. This is what Terrance does.”

❉ James Gent is the editor of pop culture webzine We Are Cult, and has previously contributed to volumes such such as 1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die, Blakes Heaven: Maximum Fan Power, You and 42: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Douglas Adams and Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television in the 1980s. He is the co-editor of Me And The Starman (Cult Ink), available to buy from Amazon, RRP £11.99. UK: https://amzn.to/30ZE8KE | US: bit.ly/starmanUSA ISBN: 9798664990546.

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1 Comment

  1. That man, via his Target books, taught me to read and to love reading.

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