You Were Expecting Someone Else 25 (Made of Steel)
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.
September 16, 2013 @ 1:01 am
Both for that wonderful essay, and for Uncle Terrance himself.
September 16, 2013 @ 1:44 am
“Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.”
I would put this opening line of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, by Terrance Dicks, forward as one of the greatest opening lines of any novel, ever. So much conveyed in a single sentence; that’s where old Terrance excelled. Read it and you know where you are and with whom. Simply brilliant.
And along with…
“The Doctor was playing Chess with K9. In the control room of the TARDIS the centre column of the many-sided console rose and fell.”
And I’m there again, ready to begin another exciting adventure in time and space.
I’ll let you find that reference for yourself.
Thank you for the elegant and concise summing up on Terrance Dicks.
September 16, 2013 @ 2:33 am
Lovely piece. Top line: “One rarely stops and drinks in the brilliance of Dicks’s writing, but the reasons for this are simple: one rarely stops with Dicks.”
I totally agree with you that he gets Tennant’s Doctor – ironically for someone who says he always just writes for “the Doctor”, he’s clearly put the effort in. And to be fair to him on Martha, this was the only book written and published before she turned up on screen, which is a challenge to an author (I always assumed what the Whispering Man said to her Mum in Lazarus was something like ‘He killed your niece’, so we have the odd experience here that you allude to of a Terrance novel being wider and deeper than the new series).
And if a Cyberman story can’t be “stitched together out of bibs and bobs of earlier work”, what can be? Anyway, I started with Robot, so always happy to recognise it…
This is one of the few new series novels I’ve reviewed, and it’s still for me one of the very best – simply because it feels like a TV episode, while so many others plodding out to 250 pages instead of 99 don’t have anything of the taut economy of new series writing (though the tone is important, too: I praised Made of Steel alongside slating another novel which was horrifyingly BNP in tone and quite against everything the series stands for). I like my Who novels long and deep, or short and crisp, and Terrance does the latter perfectly here, showing just how hard that is to do – you’ve certainly chosen the right point to stop, as for me Terrance’s few more recent offerings show how difficult it is even for Terrance to do it, let alone anyone else. But for this novel, he just hit it.
You missed some of Terrance’s other appealing attributes on show here – particularly the script editor’s instinct to ‘fix’ plot holes, and his dry humour. Both come together in something that, appropriately for this story, Millennium Dome spotted in his review: this is both script-fixing / retconning and taking the piss out of one particular episode of Torchwood (with a bonus Primeval gag). His Cybermen come with the implicit explanation of how the eponymous Cyberwoman wasn’t sucked into the Void, and what is a “Maid of Steel”, after all, but a “Cyberwoman”? Though I won’t spoil Millennium’s joke of who the Cybermen are obviously converted from. You’ll have to read him.
September 16, 2013 @ 2:38 am
Yay! My favourite line, too. First time I ever met Terrance, I presented the book to him and recited the first clause – he joined in on the second, beaming. That's when I realised it was everyone else's favourite line, as well!
September 16, 2013 @ 4:12 am
Thank you, both to Terrance Dicks, and also to our blog host for post. It has lifted my Monday.
September 16, 2013 @ 6:02 am
I am really heartened by your lovely essay – yes, thank you to terrance for so many cool childhood memories!
One of my fave first lines:
"It was a battlefield."
Another – not quite one line but:
"Linx was his name. He was a microsecond from obliteration."
September 16, 2013 @ 6:34 am
Confession: I've never actually read a Terrence Dicks novel. In my defense, although I saw and enjoyed Fourth Doctor episodes on PBS as a kid, I didn't actually become a Doctor Who fan until 1997, which was not a great year to become a new fan.
However, I did want to comment on this:
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.”
September 16, 2013 @ 8:38 am
Lovely essay. I really enjoyed reading this one. Thank you.
I just went and counted up my Target books. Good grief; forty-four of them are by Terrance Dicks. However did he find the time?
September 16, 2013 @ 9:03 am
“Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man”- yes, that is rather wonderful. O ye poetic metre buffs! It’s almost an anapaestic tetrameter. If we scan “ruin” as a long stressed monosyllable and bounce through “city”, it more or less fits the classical form. And the repetition of the content resonates with the metre to make it even more hypnotic- the stresses falling on “ruin”, “city”, “ruin”, “man”. Is the next in the sequence “ruin”, “world”? But to repeat the sequence would make it sound too pat and Dr. Seuss-like for prose, and we’re left to draw the conclusion ourselves. And I love the juxtaposition of “stalked” with the images of ruin; something is still active, hunting, dangerous, despite the apparent collapse. Zombie imagery done right.
Terrance of the Autons was probably the second Target novelisation I swallowed up at the age of 8, with its amazing incomprehensible Nestene cover art. Such a shame to see the TV realisation- a white blob?. But that’s one of the joys of Target novelisations- their descriptions are concise enough to act as spurs to the imagination, not shackles.
By the way, is there a specific reason why it was always 128 pages? Is there a reason that means 129 pages cost disproportionately more? Or was that as much as Uncle T. could slam out on his typewriter in a weekend?
September 16, 2013 @ 9:15 am
"Is there a reason that means 129 pages cost disproportionately more?"
Printing reasons. Going over 128 pages, non-story pages included, would mean adding another 'signature' (a set of folded pages) to the book — signature sizes vary, but 16 and 32 pages are quite common, as they're the result of folding a large sheet 4 or 5 times respectively.
September 16, 2013 @ 9:25 am
"Linx was his name. He was a microsecond from obliteration."
ISTR Robert Holmes wrote the first chapter of that one. As a whole it's more in his style than Terrance's, anyway, unlike the rest of the book.
September 16, 2013 @ 9:32 am
“Such a shame to see the TV realisation” – absolutely. When I eventually saw the TV version, it took me a very long time to love it. I still think, of all Terrance’s books, Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons is the one he most stunningly improves on the transmitted form, both in the imagery and in the plot. Terrance himself says adapting Holmes stories made him rise to his best because Bob’s were simply the best scripts, but this one’s just so very much better: it’s not quite Terrance’s best, but it might just be the best to recommend to someone who’s got all the DVDs and wants to know why to bother with the novelisations. Geoffrey Beevers is another reason in this case, of course…
It was also one of the first I ever read, and my most dedicated ‘Terrance Dicks tribute review’ (complete with terrifying pic of me aged 7. Bow ties are not cool).
September 16, 2013 @ 9:33 am
I think JK Rowling must have read more than her fair share of Uncle Tewwance. Her prose (in both the Potter books and Casual Vacancy- I'm yet to read her detective novel) has the same wonderful, breathless functionality to it.
September 16, 2013 @ 9:56 am
As well as, 'wheezing and groaning' there were also always the, 'heavy metal doors'.
September 16, 2013 @ 10:05 am
Not to mention the horrific injury that left the fifth Doctor with a perpetually "open face"
September 16, 2013 @ 10:36 am
Ah well – I really like my first one a lot more anyway.
Henry R. Kujawa
September 16, 2013 @ 10:38 am
Terreence Dicks was one of the two guests at the very 1st DOCTOR WHO convention I ever went to. The other was John Leeson! (Can you imagine?)
I wish I could go back and experience that day all over again, now. I'm sure I'd appreciate him a LOT more than I did at the time.
Call me crazy, but SHAKEDOWN was my very favorite WHO-related spin-off video of the 90's. The reason was simple… I could UNDERSTAND the story without having to struggle with it. It was so refreshing at that point to be once again dealing with a writer who knew how to WRITE, instead of one who spent too much time instead trying to be "too clever for anybody's good".
September 16, 2013 @ 10:42 am
Shakedown was definitely more like a story and less like a four way highway collision of in-jokes and writers trying to be clever than any of its contemporaries. (Well, maybe Airzone, but Airzone's plot was so full of holes and nonsense that you'd expect the Beatles to fly the yellow submarine through it to get to the Sea of Green.)
September 16, 2013 @ 11:11 am
I've just discovered the Target Novelizations, what are the best by Dicks?
September 16, 2013 @ 12:24 pm
How long is a piece of string?
Everyone’s mileage varies, but for me the best is still Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion (multi-review of the six BBC reprints here).
I’d also particularly recommend Terrance’s Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons (again), Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars (detailed review here, Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen, Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth with its award-winning opening line, Doctor Who and the Giant Robot, Doctor Who – Inferno and, one to surprise people, Doctor Who and the Horns of Nimon.
A few favourites that aren’t Terrance: Doctor Who In An Exciting Adventure With The Daleks (characterful); Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters and Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon (in-depth); Doctor Who and the Ark in Space (scary); Doctor Who – The Leisure Hive (funny); Doctor Who – Logopolis (compelling); and especially Doctor Who – Remembrance of the Daleks (just stunning).
September 16, 2013 @ 1:29 pm
I actually think the Mara stories are two of his best – certainly the only two of his I've ever re-read. Whether its because filtering them through his simplifying mindset makes them more straightforwardly enjoyable that the TV versions, or whether the superior scripts and characters lifted his otherwise rudimentary prose is for you to decide. Or maybe I just loved the Snakedance front cover.
September 16, 2013 @ 1:31 pm
I'd certainly second Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with the Daleks (aka just And the Daleks) for an alternative universe version of An Unearthly Child. My 9-year-old self was very disappointed that the VHS video of the story started on Skaro, and not with Ian tearing his jacket on a nail back at home, followed by a car crash on a deserted heath one foggy night. I'd add John Lucarotti's novelisation of The Aztecs, with large extra chunks of Aztec culture. And possibly the funniest, most ambitious and original of them all: The Romans, by Donald Cotton. Anyone who describes the Emperor Trajan as "the well-known columnist" gets my vote.
September 16, 2013 @ 11:41 pm
Gave me a nice wam feeling, this one, though it had enough 'meat' to go along with that. Thanks.
I've just counted, and Terrance Dicks was involved in 29 out of the 45 stories I watched as a child (well, 47 if you include the Peter Cushing films). That's an awesome record!
I've also read five of his books (putting him in joint second place for number read, behind Justin Richards – joint first if you discount the Darksmith series) and thoroughly enjoyed all of them except the Judoon one, which lacked something. I wholeheartedly endorse …and the Auton Invasion as well as ..and the Dalek Invasion of Earth (with its awesome opening line) and actually enjoyed Blood Harvest more than Paul Cornell's better-received Goth Opera.
So thanks to you too, Mr. Dicks!
September 17, 2013 @ 2:36 am
Starts on Skaro? Oh I see, yes it does but Whittaker cleverly conflated parts of 'An Unearthly Child' with the Dalek story to give a much more exciting 'secret origin' of the Doctor. Actually I often wonder why. was it a copywrite issue with Anthony Coburn? Much as I love early Hartnell I think DWIAEAWTD improves on the opening episodes by cutting the tedious cavemen and ramping up the potential threat of the mysterious time traveller and his grandaughter. And yes, Barnes Common will always be a place of foggy magic to me.
September 18, 2013 @ 9:19 pm
When I set about collecting the Target novelizations, I was mainly focusing on the ones written by other writers, only picking up the Dicks ones if they happened to be an immensely favorite story of mine.
This post, and the comments in the conversation, make me want to go for the whole set now.