Tuesday 3 September 2019

Robots, Sisterhoods, and Vampires: A Tribute to Terrance Dicks

The things we see and hear, watch and read in childhood can have a lasting impact on our lives. They influence us, often in imperceptible ways, and help shape us into the people we become as adults. Some have more influence; some have less. Some we’re aware of; some we’re not.

Some of my earliest memories are of Doctor Who, years before I even started watching the programme regularly. My mom watched it though, and I often caught bits and pieces of it. It usually terrified me, so I wouldn’t stick around for entire episodes. Yet, perhaps because of that fear, it imprinted itself on me. The adventures of the fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith became a significant part of my early childhood even if I only partially watched them. I talked about this a little more when I paid tribute to Elisabeth Sladen in my review of The Sarah Jane Adventures episode, “Sky”.

I started watching Doctor Who regularly when I was ten after I saw episode two of “Full Circle”. It hooked me in for good. Just a few weeks later, the story “State of Decay” began and that became one of my favourites at the time. This story of the Great Vampires was written by a certain Terrance Dicks, a name I would soon come to know very well, a name that most fans of 60s through 80s Doctor Who know well.

In those days, it wasn’t yet possible to get Doctor Who on video, so there was no easy way to watch earlier episodes, but I was determined to learn as much as I could about this show that I had now become obsessed with. I quickly discovered that there were Doctor Who books—novelizations of television stories, a great way to discover older stories. It was through these books that I got my first experience with Doctors before Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor (well, in truth, I discovered I had actually seen some Jon Pertwee, but I was so young at the time, Tom Baker had gone on to supplant Pertwee in my memories; see the above linked tribute to Elisabeth Sladen for more information about that). I also noticed that a significantly large number of these novelizations were written by Terrance Dicks, even in cases where he wasn’t the writer of the original television episodes.

I would later learn just how involved Dicks was with the show. Not only did he write episodes and novelizations, but he had also been script editor of Doctor Who from 1968-1974. Along with producer Barry Letts from 1970-1974, he had overseen the entirety of the third Doctor’s era. Over the years, his scripts added things that have gone on to be enduring elements of Doctor Who lore. He introduced the Time Lords for the first time in the epic 10-episode Patrick Troughton finale “The War Games” in 1969. He was instrumental in the selection of Tom Baker to play the fourth Doctor, generally the most well-known and loved Doctor of the classic series, and he wrote the fourth Doctor’s introductory story, “Robot”, which helped set the tone for the next seven years. In “The Brain of Morbius”, he further developed Time Lord history and introduced the Sisterhood of Karn, who have reappeared in Doctor Who in recent years. “State of Decay” added yet more to Time Lord history. His final script for the TV show was the 20th-anniversary special “The Five Doctors” in 1983, which managed the incredibly ambitious task of bringing all five (at the time) incarnations of the Doctor together at the same time.

But while “The Five Doctors” might have been his last TV script for Doctor Who, it was far from the last thing he wrote. Not only did he continue to novelize stories, when the first original Doctor Who novels began to be released in the 90s, it was only natural that he would pen one of the earliest. Timewyrm: Exodus was the second original Doctor Who novel and it demonstrated how a written format could take Doctor Who in directions that weren’t possible on the screen. Dicks would go on to write other Doctor Who novels as well, including one of my personal favourites, Blood Harvest, which took readers back to the location of “State of Decay” and further fleshed out the lore of the Great Vampires, ancient enemies of the Time Lords.

Dicks also wrote two Doctor Who stage plays, Doctor Who and the Daleks in the Seven Keys to Doomsday and Doctor Who—The Ultimate Adventure in 1974 and 1989 respectively. He also wrote several scripts for Big Finish Productions’ audio Doctor Who series, his final one being a Bernice Summerfield (one of the seventh Doctor’s companions from the novels he helped start) story in 2011.

Some of his more recent works include a novelization of The Sarah Jane Adventures story Invasion of the Bane. He also wrote two books for the Doctor Who Quick Reads series (a book series for young readers), Made of Steel and Revenge of the Judoon, both featuring the tenth Doctor. His final Doctor Who story, “Save Yourself” will be published posthumously in Doctor Who: The Target Storybook in October 2019.

But while Doctor Who was a major part of Dicks’s career, it was far from the whole of it.

I have never met anyone who isn’t a Doctor Who fan who has heard of Terrance Dicks, and most Doctor Who fans know little of his work beyond Doctor Who. However, the fact is, Dicks was a hugely prolific writer. He wrote numerous scripts for various television shows, starting with The Avengers in the 60s. He also wrote scores of books, most for children. These included The Baker Street Irregulars, a series of ten books inspired by the Sherlock Holmes characters. All in all, Dicks wrote well over 200 books in his lifetime, and while his Doctor Who books make up a significant portion of that number, they are not the majority.

I am sorry to say that I have read almost nothing of his non-Doctor Who works as they’re virtually impossible to find in my part of the world. And that’s a shame. Dicks had an incredible ability to be succinct in his writing, while still conveying everything that needed to be conveyed. He could take Doctor Who serials that ran four to six episodes, sometimes longer, and fit them into a 150-page book and still somehow expand on what was seen on screen, adding new depths to characters and background, while still keeping the tale exciting and fun. Even his longer novels, like Blood Harvest demonstrated this trait. He also had a great knack for writing for middle grade and younger readers.

My early reading and especially writing was heavily shaped by Terrance Dicks’s Doctor Who novelizations. Not only did they inspire me, they helped teach me the art of writing itself. Most of my early understanding of spelling, grammar, and punctuation came not from school, but from paying attention to what Terrance Dicks did in those books. When I started writing a series of Doctor Who stories when I was 12 (not my first ever writing, but my first serious attempt), I frequently referenced his Target Doctor Who books to help me along the way. I would sometimes use some of the ones not written by him, but his tended to be my favourites and the ones I usually went for.

When I learned yesterday that Terrance Dicks had died at the age of 84, I was devastated and heart-broken. This was a man who had inspired countless children over the decades. For me personally, my early formative writing years would have been very different. I would not be the same writer I am now without him.

Farewell, Terrance Dicks. Rest in peace.