4 years, 2 months ago
After its initial release by Gareth Roberts, which was marked by a strange ambiguity of audience, the Quick Reads set of Doctor Who books settled into a more familiar pattern recognizable as one of the most basic and longstanding tactics in writing a line of Doctor Who books ever: just hire Terrance Dicks to do it. This is, in many ways, impossible to object to. Whatever one might think of various moments in Dicks’s later career, the basic charm of having him write a Tenth Doctor book is irresistible.
We’ve never really talked about the sheer scope of Terrance Dicks’s contributions to Doctor Who. Strictly in television terms, he came on as script editor in the 1960s, while Patrick Troughton was the Doctor. He coauthored Troughton’s regeneration story, The War Games, script edited the entirety of the Pertwee era (and thus in practice wrote several stories when things went terribly wrong), wrote three Tom Baker stories including Baker’s debut, and co-authored a four with Robert Holmes, and wrote The Five Doctors. This alone makes him one of the most longstanding writers of Doctor Who - the range of his contributions rivals Terry Nation and Robert Holmes, and all told he contributed to thirty-five of the hundred and fifty-four classic series stories. Which is to say that if you watch a classic Doctor Who story, there’s nearly a one in four chance Terrance Dicks worked on it.
This would seem impressive were it not for the Target novelizations, a range to which he contributed a staggering sixty-four books, including novels for all of the first six Doctors. These books in many ways form his real legacy - they’re the reason he’s affectionately known as “Uncle Tewwance” among fandom. Dicks is responsible for a vast number of terribly important novelizations: Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, for instance, which kicked off the Target line, and a variety of classic missing stories like Doctor Who and the The Abominable Snowmen and Doctor Who and the The Web of Fear. He novelized An Unearthly Child, Genesis of the Daleks, and a host of other stories. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this - it wasn’t until the 1990s that home video became the easiest way to watch past stories. For decades the Target novelizations were the enduring versions of Doctor Who. They were the only way that anybody could revisit past stories. And the default Target style was Terrance Dicks.
This was not a style defined by flash, or by complex, intricate prose. Dicks’s writing is the very definition of functional, and he demonstrates why that word is straightforwardly a virtue. He can sketch a character quickly, knows how to build excitement, has a decent ear for dialogue, and keeps the plot moving. One rarely stops and drinks in the brilliance of Dicks’s writing, but the reasons for this are simple: one rarely stops with Dicks. It’s not that he doesn’t have an ear for a good phrase - his opening sentences are fantastic, and he’s got a knack for memorable descriptions, even if he does, occasionally, overuse one to the point of mild comedy. But at the end of the day, his goal is to write a page-turner, and he usually nails it.
Yes, there are real problems. He’s crap with women. I mean, really, properly crap, in a way that deserves far more criticism than it gets. He’s single-handedly responsible for the “sole screaming girl companion” model. Beyond that, while he’s deft at sketching characters, he’s never gone much for depth. But look, much as I think he deserves a hiding for his misogynistic moments… I’ve given it to him before. I’m not going to do it again. Because this is the problem with social justice readings. Well, no. This is the problem with people who read social justice readings. As far as I can tell most of us who give them are perfectly capable of recognizing that “racist” and “misogynist” are not labels that erase everything else about a person or a story. They’re things that people are sometimes. It’s the people who read us who seem unable to distinguish between “Terrance Dicks has a really distressing tendency towards rape apologism” and “Terrance Dicks is evil.” Because of course he’s not. And while I’m more than capable of criticizing Terrance Dicks, hating him? I have no idea how I’d even start.
Because, look. There are writers who have had more of an influence on Doctor Who. Dicks is not someone who, like Robert Holmes or David Whitaker, shaped the fundamental vision of what Doctor Who is. His contribution is at once simpler and more important. He didn’t influence its style so much as embody it, providing the most straightforward expression of what Doctor Who feels like - exciting, fun, and full of ideas. For lots of people, the Target novelizations are simply what Doctor Who is, and Terrance Dicks is what the Target novelizations are. It’s that straightforward.
His later career is, perhaps, more checkered. He acquitted himself well during the Virgin era, writing Timewyrm: Exodus, widely considered one of the line’s best books, along with the quite solid Blood Harvest and the not particularly good or bad Shakedown. The BBC Books line was rougher on him - he wrote its disastrous first book, The Eight Doctors, and in doing so dealt a blow to his reputation that he never quite recovered from. His Fifth Doctor novel Warmonger is widely considered one of the worst things ever written, although I stand by my defense of it as an embittered satire of Eric Saward. But he also wrote charming potboilers like World Game, the penultimate Past Doctor Adventure, which featured a Season 6B version of the Second Doctor, and which impishly defied the editorial rule that no references to the new series were allowed in the BBC Books by having the Second Doctor use psychic paper. Dicks figured nobody would dare call him on it, and he was right.
In the end, the only problem with most of Dicks’s wilderness years output was that, as a series of novels, ultimately what was most praised in Doctor Who was innovation and subversion. Writers like Paul Cornell, Lawrence Miles, Kate Orman, and Paul Magrs became hot stuff. Never mind that Magrs and Cornell have never in their lives had a bad word to say about Dicks - his simple adventure stories were unabashed comfort food in a line of books that, ultimately, people wanted more challenging material from. They were still ripping good yarns, because that’s what Dicks does.
So we have Made of Steel, Dicks’s first take on the new series. Unsurprisingly, it aims for functionality and hits it squarely. This isn’t really the point. Nor is it the point that he does, in fact, get the new series; his Tenth Doctor is tangibly Tennant’s Doctor, with the same mannerisms and ticks. His Martha is slightly more “generic companion,” but he gets her too. He gets the changes to the storytelling, including a bit where Martha asks about Adeoloa and the Doctor consciously lies so as to avoid having to tell her he killed her cousin - an emotional beat that wouldn’t normally have been a part of Dicks’s storytelling. But none of this is surprising.
Nor are the appearances of some of his standard obsessions. It’s not a Terrance Dicks book without a reference to World War II. There is, however, some delightful cheek in this - he consciously holds off on “wheezing, groaning sound” until virtually the end of the book, although he does earlier allow for “a sort of wheezing” that is accompanied by “a kind of groaning,” just to build anticipation. This is, of course, absolutely wonderful; Dicks keeps us in suspense as to whether or not we’re going to get his trademark phrase.
Yes, Made of Steel is inessential. Yes, it’s stitched together out of bibs and bobs of earlier work. But there are still moments of such charm: the Doctor proceeding to be terribly stubborn to everybody and to angrily cite the Geneva Conventions because a cop elbows him in the ribs when he’s being annoying, for instance. The Doctor remarking that “at least someone’s found a use for it at last” when discovering that the Cybermen are hidden in the Millennium Dome. And perhaps most intriguingly, the Doctor admitting that he revealed where he was to the Cybermen so that they’d attack a military base because “they’d have found me sooner or later” and if they had, the deaths would have been defenseless innocents - an absolutely chilling inversion of the usual Doctor/military relationship - a relationship, let’s recall, that is largely the invention of Dicks himself.
But none of this is really the point. The point is far simpler: a Terrance Dicks story for the new series. There are not a lot of writers this would be a useful exercise with. Davies apparently tried to hire Cartmel for Torchwood, and has said that if Robert Holmes were still alive he’d have hired him in a heartbeat. One assumes Douglas Adams could have gotten a look in as well. But past that Davies never really looked to the classic series for his bench of writers. And it’s understandable - the classic series is a very different skill, and a very different pace. There’s not a lot of writers who could make the jump. Just look at how strangely theatrical PJ Hammond’s Torchwood scripts were, and remember that he was, on the whole, a better writer than most of the people who worked on the classic series.
But Terrance Dicks… yes, by 2005 it was probably reasonable not to hire Dicks for the screen. It had, after all, been rather a long time since his best work. But on the other hand, to do Doctor Who novels without him seems ridiculous. Who in their right minds wouldn’t want that?
Throughout the first two seasons, we speculated politely that the novels did not entirely have a purpose beyond letting Gareth Roberts show that Davies was wrong not to hire him. They were cash-ins without a clear sense of audience. And the Quick Reads initiative, ostensibly about adult literacy, proved even stranger for Doctor Who. But here, with Made in Steel, we have a book with impeccable purpose. It exists so that Terrance Dicks can write a Target-style book about the Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones.
This is just about Dicks’s last contribution to Doctor Who. He did another Quick Reads in 2008 with the Judoon, and a couple Big Finishes related to the old Doctor Who stageplays. The most recent of these was two years ago, and he’s 78 now. He’s sat the 50th out, which, realistically, means he’s probably enjoying a deserved retirement at this point. Which means that this post is TARDIS Eruditorum’s farewell to Terrance Dicks.
That means ending with some sort of reflection, but really, what do you say? I grew up with Terrance Dicks, same as anyone else. He’s the prose of my childhood. I read Terrance Dicks while curled up in the corners of more classrooms than I can count. In the Virgin era, his were the books I dove right into. I still have… jeez, actually. Let’s go count. Fifty-seven Terrance Dicks books scattered about the house. Or, rather, fifty-seven that I could find. There’s probably more - I didn’t see The Making of Doctor Who, and I could have sworn I’ve got a copy of Mean Streets clanging around here somewhere. And look, I could very easily have missed a Target novelization or two.
Still, it’s almost certainly the single author I have the most books by. By some margin. And I can’t imagine I’m in the least bit unusual about this. I’m sure more than a few people reading this post have more. That’s the nature of Terrance Dicks. The amount he’s surely done for childhood literacy is unfathomable. He is the literary soundtrack to countless childhoods beyond my own. In a very real sense, as I said earlier, he is Doctor Who.
For a man who clearly doesn’t like to write more than 128 pages of something, he sure as heck wrote a lot of Doctor Who. His Doctor Who career covers forty of the series’ fifty years, nine Doctors and thirty companions, including every single one from Ben and Polly through Peri (The only classic series companions that he’s never written for, so far as I can tell, are Vicki, Stephen, Katarina, Sara Kingdom, Dodo, and Mel). He is a titan. A monolith. And here we are, with less than a year to run on the project, and we’re only just now wrapping him up. This is, perhaps, the most wonderful thing - that we got to delay this entry for so long. That this isn’t an elegy, but a celebration of someone who’s still alive and giving interviews, and who contributed a Sixth Doctor story to Big Finish just two years ago. That we got to say goodbye to Terrance Dicks in the midst of the new series, after Doctor Who had become a massive hit again.
Yes, that’s the only reason to talk about this book. It really is. It’s the absolute only reason we’re covering it. But if you ask me, that’s a far better reason to cover a story than “it happens to have aired on television.”
So no, not farewell to Terrance Dicks. Congratulations.
And thank you.
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