There’s a TARDIS Eruditorum tradition of writing farewell posts to major creative figures. But one never really got one: Terrance Dicks. I covered one of his two Tenth Doctor novels with a sense of valediction, but it never felt permanent. There always felt like the possibility he could swoop in one more time. Heck, he just wrote a story for that Target Storybook, which I’ve not gotten around to looking at, but which serves to extend his tenure as an active figure in Doctor Who by another decade. I was right not to count him out. Except, of course, now he’s gone, it’s the end, and I am hopelessly unprepared, sitting around on a cool September morning without the faintest idea of how to react to something I’ve known was coming for years.
I mean, how does one begin grappling with the legacy of Terrance Dicks? He invented the basic structure of a Doctor Who story as we recognize it today. He did as much for childhood literacy as anyone ever has. He wrote seminal stories for six different Doctors in six different eras—more if you break up the Tom Baker years a bit. He’s a lion—as legendary a figure as the history of Doctor Who has.
And yet articulating his virtues in 2019 is a strangely challenging task. The ones that stand out sound vaguely condescending or patronizing—he was a master of a clean and readable prose style, he had a sly knack for a good turn of phrase, and he could bang out entertaining adventure yarns with seemingly no end. All perfectly good things to be good at, but when organized into a list scarcely a convincing case of his legendary prowess.
On top of that, he’s got some glaring downsides. He was a quietly reactionary figure, not in a grandiose and programmatic way, but in the sense of being a kind of small-minded little Englander who believed the British Empire to have been a good thing, was routinely sexist, and who consistently opposed things like a female Doctor. He’s one of those figures you’re mostly glad kept quiet in his later years for fear of what he might have said about Brexit or SJWs or god only knows what. If you wanted to make an argument that the modern Doctor Who writer who is the most direct heir to Terrance Dicks was Gareth Roberts, you’d frankly be spoiled for choice.
And yet this seems part and parcel of his legacy. Dicks has been an object of loving mockery within fandom for decades, whether for his effective but highly noticeable recycling of descriptions (all together now, “a pleasant, open face”), his distinctive speech patterns, or his at times hilariously middling books for the BBC Books line. (Case in point, the delightful crackfic Warmonger, subject of what remains my favorite redemptive reading across TARDIS Eruditorum.) He’s a titan, but he’s also a faintly ridiculous figure. Where the other people who round out a list of Doctor Who’s most significant writers are all figures who invite arguments for their objective literary genius, Dicks was a dogged professional, a jobbing hack of the best sort, and has always been loved as that.
Steven Moffat, on Instagram, made the typically witty claim that Dicks “sorted out how the Doctor thinks. He thinks, as it turns out, exactly the way Terrance wrote.” This is a sentence that begs for snarky replies. “Very quickly over a weekend, while drinking, and for no more than 130 pages?” But there’s a fundamental truth to it as well. In defining so much of what Doctor Who is like, the failings and contradictions of Dicks became thoroughly baked into the essence of the series. When Jack and I rail against the fundamentally limited political vision of Doctor Who, it is ultimately Terrance Dicks’s biases that we are running up against. He, more than anyone, is the source of the equivocating liberalism and establishment fetishizing that is always the biggest check on the mercurial possibilities of the program.
This sounds like criticism, but it’s not. The biggest rebuke I can offer to anyone who accuses me of letting my politics dictate my taste is, ultimately, Dicks, a writer I love unequivocally. Because the limitations that his vision sets on Doctor Who are what generates the scraping tension that animates the series. Doctor Who isn’t interesting because it can do anything. It’s interesting because it can do anything and yet over and over again circles back to lionizing a utopian view of British liberalism in which history is just a series of improvements leading inexorably to the present moment. With limitless possibility, what you choose not to do is often more interesting than what you choose to do. Dicks crafted the limits that Doctor Who will never opt to transcend. Had he not done so, there would be nothing for me to write about.
But more to the point, the precise contours of those limits are endlessly fascinating. Consider what is probably his greatest solo work, Horror of Fang Rock. It is a story that is almost impossible to fully get a grip on, largely because of how many contradictions it encompasses. Its views on modernity, on class, on what constitutes virtue, all of these are utterly confused. And this confusion is wrapped up into a structure that leans hard on the tensions and liminalities between the gothic and the weird. But instead of collapsing under the weight of these contradictions, the story explodes under them, propelled forward by Dicks’s unrelenting capacity to write a ripping adventure story. The result is transcendent precisely because it’s not easily claimed by any coherent political view.
The joy of Terrance Dicks, in other words, is precisely that he’s not coherent. That the utopian view of English progress that he’s so enchanted by is so utterly riddled with blood, atrocity, and lies that it cannot possibly stand—cannot even feign coherence long enough to express itself persuasively. And yet, expressed by a master of efficient clarity, it does so anyway, not with the gleaming monstrosity of propaganda’s glossy sheen, but with a gloriously rickety sense of zip and thrill that threatens to collapse at any moment even as it spurs itself ever onwards.
In this regard it is no surprise that the era of Doctor Who over which Dicks had the most influence is the Pertwee era, one in which Doctor Who seems to do innumerable things wrong only to have them improbably work out anyway. It does away with its best weapon, its flexible premise, in favor of trying to be the camp cousin to Doomwatch. It throws away all of the brilliant innovations that Patrick Troughton brought to the role and that every successful Doctor going forward would lean on in favor of a main character who is in many ways even more patrician than Hartnell’s take. It surrounds the Doctor with the trappings of militarism. None of these are good ideas. Any of them would kill the show stone dead if attempted today. And the result was a second wind that revived the show, lodged it in popular consciousness for a second time and in a way that ensured it would always be worth trying to evolve it again, and that improbably still holds up today not in spite of how ridiculous and dated it looks but because of it.
Much of this, it must be said, is down to the peculiar alchemy of Dicks’s working relationship with the show’s other primary creative figure, producer Barry Letts. Letts, a businesslike post-hippie Buddhist, was the perfect foil for Dicks, embodying in his own way a set of contradictions every bit as fascinating as his script editor’s. And this is key to Dicks’s success. He is never better than when he’s on uncertain ground, working within a context as muddled and contradictory as he is. His two best solo scripts, Horror of Fang Rock and State of Decay, are refugees from other eras, pressed into awkward service where they don’t quite belong. Tasked with helping launch the at times childishly “mature” Virgin New Adventures line, he wrote a book about the horrors of Naziism that could easily have felt quaint and old-fashioned, but was instead second only to Paul Cornell for actual depth and maturity within the line’s first eighteen months.
And this, of course, brings us to the creative partnership that most defined Dicks’s work, his only plausible rival for the biggest creative figure of the 1970s: Robert Holmes. Holmes is unmistakably the better writer—the one you can make a case belongs with Moorcock, Ballard, Ellison, and LeGuin as defining figures of the new wave of science fiction. And yet his influence is ultimately far more narrow. There are numerous Doctor Who stories in Holmes’s image, true; there are scarcely any that aren’t in Dicks’s.
But ultimately treating them as two figures is a mistake. Under Dicks, Holmes was the most trusted lieutenant, turned to over and over again with absolute faith that he could write a belter. Under Holmes, Dicks lurked as the grand reliable hand. When Holmes proved unable to make The Six Doctors work, Dicks stepped in to make it work with five. They are two sides of the same coin, two writers driven by their overlapping contradictions. Holmes was a small-c conservative, an ex-cop whose sense of righteous injustice and contempt for authority made him hilariously unable to actually express a conservative view, to the point where he couldn’t even whinge about his taxes without accidentally writing a brilliant piece of Marxist propaganda. Dicks, meanwhile, is the small-l liberal who can’t stop valorizing the whiggish progression of history long enough to see the contradictions and who isn’t inclined to write anything so turgidly slow as to be that contemplative anyway. Each of them, in their own way, perfectly captures the tensions and contradictions of post-war Britain and frames them within a sense of breathless adventure that has proven as timeless as the great works of British children’s adventure stories.
There are countless figures who made Doctor Who what it is. Indeed, there’s countless figures who made it great. But Terrance Dicks is the man who made it a show that thrills and vexes me enough to pen a million words analyzing it and still not feel done with it. He made it at once inscrutable and approachable, simple and fun yet endlessly thorny. He’s not why Doctor Who is good. But he is why generations love it, and why generations more will. There will never be anyone like him again on the program. There never could be. People like him don’t happen twice. They scarcely happen once. Thank the gods they did.Share on Twitter Share on Facebook