Uncle Terrance

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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. 

Comments

D.N. 1 week, 3 days ago

I've been waiting for this tribute since the news broke, El, and it didn't disappoint. This was a really lovely piece.

And, gosh, it really is a unique legacy Terrance Dicks leaves behind. In fact, it's almost *two* legacies. Firstly, Terrance Dicks as script-writer and script-editor: helping usher out Patrick Troughton; co-masterminding the Jon Pertwee era; helping usher in Tom Baker; being a reliable hand thereafter to the point of managing to craft an entertaining romp at relatively short notice out of the insane laundry list that was "The Five Doctors."

Secondly, there is Terrance Dicks the prolific novelist. Before VHS and DVD, before regular repeats on TV, those novelisations were the only way a lot of fans could experience Doctor Who stories - and since Terrance Dicks wrote *so many* of those novels, fans' first experiences of those stories were refracted through the style and sensibilities of Terrance Dicks, for better or worse.

There have been a lot of tweets and tributes that mention Terrance Dicks' influence on children's literacy (Robert Webb: "It would be only a mild exaggeration to say that Terrance Dicks taught me to read,” Jenny Colgan: "Terrance Dicks helped more children (especially boys) develop a lifelong love of reading than almost anyone else who's ever lived," etc). That's a pretty amazing legacy. I mean, is it possible that for a generation, Terrance Dicks was the must-read children's novelist in Britain since Enid Blyton?

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prandeamus 1 week, 3 days ago

Thank you, El. Well worth the read.

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(Not That) Jack 1 week, 3 days ago

So here's my Terrance Dicks story.

I got into Doctor Who in...oh lord...1979, the run of Tom Baker episodes from Robot to Invasion of Time. First episode I saw was Pyramids of Mars episode 4, which is an odd way to start a forty year relationship with Doctor Who. (I loved it on first viewing, only figuring out years later how inferior episode four was to the remainder of it.) But that was the start. For a year and a half, I devoured those seasons of Doctor Who over and over, sometimes on a tiny black and white TV in my parents room because my sister would take over the living room TV to watch...reruns of Petticoat Junction.

Don't ask me to explain that show, or why my sister liked it. I half suspected she was messing with me because she saw I loved Doctor Who, and that was about her only choice on TV back then to pick. It was 1979 before 6PM, we had HBO but it hadn't signed on yet.

At any rate, after eighteen months of bliss, my family relocated from rural West Virginia to suburban coastal Virginia, where, much to my dismay, I discovered that Doctor Who didn't air there. I later did some research into the early years of Doctor Who in America and discovered that while that part of Virginia was one of the first places to air that package of Doctor Who episodes, by September 1981 it had stopped airing there. And a pattern emerged in my life watching Doctor Who: it had a lot of gaps. I might have a forty year relationship with Doctor Who, but it went away from 1981 to 1983, from late '83 to 1992 or so, from 1994 to 1996, and finally resuming in 2004 with the lead in to the 2005.

You're probably wondering where Terrance Dicks fits into this.

In early 1981, I managed to convince my parents to let me start getting books from the Science Fiction Book Club, starting a long tradition of forgetting to send back the card with the monthly selections and winding up just never paying for them. And one of those books, the first one, in fact, I checked off on the sheet, was an omnibus of three Doctor Who novelizations: Genesis of the Daleks, Revenge of the Cybermen, and Terror of the Zygons (or Doctor Who and the Loch Ness monster, as it was known.)

By Terrance Dicks.

In early 1980, I lived in a small town in rural West Virginia with a population of just over 1000 people. In early 1981 I attended a school that had 1,500 students. Culture shock did not do justice to it. I was a kid, small for his age, bullied simply because of that, with very few friends, being steamrolled by not metropolitan life, but suburban life. And the closest thing I had to a lifeline, to a tie to when my young life made sense and there was something on TV I loved and got me through bad days, was an omnibus of Doctor Who stories written by Terrance Dicks.

I read that book until it fell apart somewhere around 1988.

You could take away everything else Terrance Dicks did for Doctor Who as script editor or writer of scripts or novels but those three books, and I would still be eternally grateful to the man for getting me through a lousy time at a young age.

I'm going to miss him.

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David Moran 1 week, 3 days ago

Sad coda to all the lovely posts about what an important writer for children Terrance was.

My wife is the Childrens' Librarian for our home town, does nursery visits, school events and even got invited to Holyrood for The Queen's Garden Party*

" Oh, " she sadly said, "We don't have any of his books on our shelves any more."

That seems wrong, doesn't it ?

* Footnote - at said party I bumped into my old boss who was retiring as Regional Rates Assessor, it being de rigueur that said outgoing official gets the invite

" Oh", says he, " and what have you done to get invited to This ? "

" Me ? " I replied, " Why, nothing. I'm the guest. It's Elizabeth who got the invite. "

I've never felt so proud as watching the nonplussed expression on his face. A memsahib? Unthinkable...

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prandeamus 1 week, 2 days ago

Are the Target novelisations still in print? Sorry to ask so literal a question, but paperbacks in libraries don't usually last thirty+ years.

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David Moran 1 week, 2 days ago

Some still are, and all my targets are in fine form after forty years - admittedly Dr Who And The Zarbi is in liquid form.

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Tim B. 1 week, 2 days ago

There were hardback copies of at least some released (I remember Tomb of the Cybermen and War Games in my school library the best part of 40 years ago.

They've had a few recent reissues around the 50th anniversary and there's a paperback Target Collection series from last year adapting several of the new series stories in the Target format with covers in the classic Chris Achilleos style.

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Austin George Loomis 1 week, 3 days ago

the equivocating liberalism and establishment fetishizing that is always the biggest check on the mercurial possibilities of the program.

Does that mean that, in the Trinity of the Matter of Britain, he was the salt to David Whitaker's mercury? (The sulfur, presumably, would be Robert Holmes.)

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(Not That) Jack 1 week, 1 day ago

"The sulfur, presumably, would be Robert Holmes."

God, that's brilliant.

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Przemek 1 week, 3 days ago

Thank you. I think you really managed to to Terrance Dicks justice.

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John G. Wood 1 week, 2 days ago

Yes, beautifully put. Thank you.

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Neil Snowdon 1 week, 2 days ago

This is such a lovely piece, and for what it's worth. Also worth pointing out, re Dick's literary worth, the Harlan Ellison introduction to the Pinnacle editions of the novelisations. Ellison is obviously talking about Who as a show for much of the time, but he makes specific note of the novels that he's putting his name to, which, let's face it, means he's putting his name and his recommendation, behind Dicks.

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Matt Walker 4 days, 23 hours ago

Thank you El; an incredible tribute.

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