It's exactly 20 years today that I began my writing career. Having successfully passed my Journalism Diploma, I secured myself a job scribbling TV listings for a living. After years of fretting and frowning and regretting going down that university route, I had finally accomplished what I had always wanted to do ever since I was a kid: write.
And the man who inspired me to write? Terrance Dicks.
Terrance Dicks sadly passed away on 29th August 2019. The reporting of his passing has prompted an outpouring of tributes and respectful memories on social media, and in the news. On Twitter alone, Terrance's name was among the highest Tweet trends, showing how much he meant to so many.
To the not-Doctor-Who-we, the name Terrance Dicks may not instantly spring to mind. But the chances are that you've come across at least one instance of his work. A string of successful book series including The Mounties, T.R. Bear, and The Baker Street Irregulars. On TV, he penned episodes of series ranging from The Avengers to Crossroads. He worked on those classic BBC Sunday night dramas, firstly as script editor, and then as producer.
But it's his Doctor Who work that Dicks was best known for. Originally, he started out as the script editor in the late 1960s, a position he remained in until 1974. He wrote a clutch of classic Doctor Who stories such as Horror Of Fang Rock, State Of Decay and The Five Doctors. Plus, he penned a string of adaptations which have adorned many a bookshelf and library van.
My first encounter with the work of Terrance Dicks was on a rainy June afternoon in 1980. At the age of five years and nine months, I went with the school to our first library visit. We were encouraged to browse through some dog-eared copies of Where The Wild Things Are and Dr Seuss gems, but it was one book that caught my eye. Having become a Doctor Who fan the previous September, I instantly spotted a copy of Doctor Who And The Robots Of Death standing tall on one of the bookshelves. I quickly scuttled over, my interest piqued, and asked a slightly bemused Mrs Quiggin the teacher if I could borrow the book. With a nod of approval, I excitedly went home with the prize tome, eagerly anticipating what was in store behind that enigmatic green-tinged cover of a red-eyed Voc and a curly-headed Doc. Not even a new series of the dreaded How could dampen my spirits – the terrifying theme tune, like Doctor Who, would also send me running screaming out of the lounge with my hands over my ears.
While I enjoyed the book, that was all the local London library had. But two years later, having moved to Sussex, the new local library had a great collection of Doctor Who hardback books on the shelves, and with my interest in the series on the rise, this was a godsend. In the pre-DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming days, books were the only way of seeking out Doctor Who, and Terrance Dicks helped open my eyes to this great big world.
The superb cover illustrations helped draw me in – whether a ghoulish Master skull dripping blood over a moody Fourth Doctor, a spaghetti monster creeping behind a spooky golden child, or a giant Mighty Trout watching over a Yeti and a trapped Sergeant Arnold – but it was the power of Terrance's writing that kept me fully immersed in that world. Many reasons for this. The unforgettable descriptions. The TARDIS would arrive and depart with a “wheezing, groaning sound”. The Doctors were marked out by a “crop of curly hair”, a “deeply lined young/old face” and “a pleasant, open face”. Even minor characters were accurately described in a couple of sentences that summed up tall, short, round-faced, gloomy... the lot.
Then there was the world building. Other writers may have veered away from the televised version, but Terrance had that knack for skilfully weaving in subtle details. The Auton Invasion, for example, features John Ransome knocking back the pints in a local pub while working out how best to come back from Hibbert's out-of-the-blue rejection. Pigbin Josh in The Claws Of Axos, is mentally dreaming of fame and fortune after stumbling across a big old alien spaceship buried in the local coastal area. He's picturing news reporters queuing up for an interview, and a bunch of fivers for the rewards of his discovery. Even slimmer tomes include some wonderful attention to detail. The aforementioned Robots Of Death expands on Uvanov's evident dislike of the Founding Families, and his annoyance at Chub's death disrupting his beloved hunt for Zelanite, Keefan and Lucanol.
Never one to shy away from the behind-the-sofa tag of Doctor Who, Terrance's descriptions of monsters and scary situations don't pull their punches. In Genesis Of The Daleks, Davros is described as the “shattered, ruined remnant of what had once been a man” with a “withered husk of a body”, blank, sunken eye sockets and a “lipless slit” of a mouth. The Deadly Assassin Master is described as “a mummified corpse”, “a decaying corpse”, “ravaged” with a “ghastly, skull-like face”. Meanwhile the death scenes are given extra weight, with a plethora of scream descriptions including “terrifying” (Chub, Warlock, De Haan etc), “appalling” (Angus), and “terrible” (Salamar, the Hiker...), and even more grisly fates for the likes of the Three Who Rule (skeletons leering at the Doctor in mid-grimace) and the victims of the Zygons, who are stung to death.
One of my favourite elements of Dicks' books is the down to earth nature. Characters take part in everyday, ordinary rituals such as reading the morning paper or swilling coffee. It's the ideal contrast to the weird alien happenings around these regular people. I especially like the references to food, which actually happen a lot in Terrance's novels. On Nerva Beacon, Sarah Jane miserably eschews food pills while dreaming longingly of steak and chips. In The Loch Ness Monster, Sarah and Angus chinwag over a plate of scones, while the Doctor and co later heartily tuck into bowls of traditional Scottish porridge. Meanwhile, in The Claws Of Axos, the Doctor and UNIT work out their next move while eagerly chowing down on chicken sandwiches. It's that wonderful sense of the ordinary that Terrance brought so easily to his books.
Countless generations of Doctor Who fans have absorbed the work of Terrance Dicks. His novels have been reprinted many a time, even into the 21st century. It was Terrance's books that spurred me on to write many a creative writing story as a primary school kid – right down to his unique choice of words, such as “babble”. I remember always trying to include the word “babble” in my stories as a kind of tribute, I suppose. Age 11, I wrote my very own space opera book called Space Kids, a 107-page tome that bizarrely combined Doctor Who, the Fighting Fantasy books, and Roxy Music for some odd reason. But always, at the back of my mind, there was Terrance's unique writing style, spurring me on, and encouraging me to complete the book.
Terrance's contribution to the series itself cannot be underestimated either. Working as script editor from 1968 to 1974, he oversaw one of the most consistent periods in Doctor Who history. The Jon Pertwee era saw a steady rise in viewing figures, to the point where 10-odd million-strong audiences were tuning in. That's one heck of an achievement, and that's down to the assured guidance of both Terrance and his producer Barry Letts.
Both Barry and Terrance made the perfect double act. On the surface, they were different personalities, with Barry's quiet, contemplative sensitivity contrasting with Terrance's more ebullient, outspoken persona. But the two meshed together perfectly, forming an enduring working team that understood the mechanics of Doctor Who inside out.
A common element of today's Doctor Who is the political angle. Which is nothing new, since both Dicks and Letts incorporated a moral message at the heart of many a Pertwee yarn. The ecology of The Green Death. The anti-racist message of Frontier In Space. The colonialism of The Mutants. The difference, however, is that Terrance was first and foremost, a storyteller. He understood that by putting the story first and then weaving in the moral message, you'd get the perfect mix of entertainment and education. The fact that so many Pertwee-era classics resonate today are testament to Terrance's deft handling of the scripts.
A quick glance at Terrance's written contributions reveal many a fan favourite. The War Games. The Brain Of Morbius (hello, Robin Bland). Robot. Horror Of Fang Rock. State Of Decay. The Five Doctors. That's not too shabby a line-up. An eclectic mix of styles from wartime grit through to Gothic melodrama, the common denominator is Dicks' undeniable talent for good old-fashioned storytelling. The plotting is second to none. The characters are well drawn. Plus, all of these examples are massively enjoyable Doctor Who stories. Even more challenging assignments like The War Games and The Five Doctors stand the test of time in 2019.
Doctor Who fans are lucky in that contributors such as Terrance Dicks contributed extensively to the DVD range. Terrance was one of the most enthusiastic contributors to a wealth of commentaries and interviews. Yes, it's easy to spotlight the repeated anecdotes and comments about Pertwee's bouffant, green monsters and the “long-shanked rascal with the mighty nose” from The Time Warrior – but there's no denying the warmth, enthusiasm and childlike fun that Terrance brought to so many of those classic story yak tracks. Both Terrance and Barry were a considerable asset to the DVD range, bringing the perfect mix of insight and good humour to the table.
So as I sign off writing this babble, all I can say is thanks to Uncle Terrance who not only spurred my interest in reading, but prompted my writing career.
“HE NEVER GIVES IN AND HE NEVER GIVES UP… HE IS NEVER CRUEL OR COWARDLY.” Terrance Dicks: 1935-2019