Terrance Dicks, who has died aged 84, wrote several Doctor Who TV stories and was script editor on many others, joining the show in 1968, as well writing numerous Doctor Who books, in particular over 60 of the Target Books adaptations of the TV series, many published at a time when very few had access to other means of watching classic stories, before the age of Home Video, DVD, Blu-Ray and downloads.
A forthright advocate of tight scripting who endeavoured, often against the odds to practice what he preached, his final televised Doctor Who script was the 20th anniversary story The Five Doctors; other work included The Avengers, Crossroads, Moonbase 3 and Space: 1999.
Terrance also worked as a scriptwriter and producer on a number of BBC shows, overseeing the production of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Vanity Fair.
Here, author and Bugs, Dan Dare Audio Adventures and EastEnders Script Editor Colin Brake pays tribute to an extraordinary talent…
Yesterday, as reports emerged that Terrance Dicks had passed away last week, social media feeds filled up with tributes, memories and emotion as Doctor Who fans reacted to the sad news that one of the giants of the programme had left us.
Many, citing the incredible 64-long run of novelisations that he wrote between 1973 and 1990, claimed that he was responsible for them learning to read or for their life-long love of books. Many of those who have subsequently written for or about Doctor Who, on television, for Big Finish, for BBC Books or for Virgin Books, or in Doctor Who Magazine have stated how influential he was on their own career paths. His achievements – as a scriptwriter, noveliser, and author of children’s books – speak for themselves.
One aspect of his professional life that’s been less celebrated – perhaps – is his Script Editing. As a fellow Script Editor, I wanted to write a few words about that part of Terrance Dicks’ legacy. “Uncle Terry” – as Who fans used to call him – worked as the Script Editor of Doctor Who for the best part of seven years; longer than anyone else either before or after him. He continued to work as a Script Editor at the BBC for many years, alongside his freelance writing, usually in partnership with Barry Letts as his producer. Together they formed a Producer/Script Editor team to rival Julia Smith and Tony Holland in longevity and success.
Script Editing is a much misunderstood craft. The Script Editor serves a unique role as a conduit between the in-house production team responsible for making a programme and the freelance writer who is engaged to write the scripts. It is a role that requires creativity, sensitivity, diplomacy, patience, kindness and toughness. As a go-between, the Script Editor often has to convey multiple and sometimes contradictory notes from a number of sources (Producer, Director, Executive Producers) to the writer and then interpret (and perhaps edit!) the writer’s response to each note to report back to Production. It is a contradictory role too: simultaneously, the Script Editor is part of the production team but also stands outside the machine standing with and for the writer. As well as all the other qualities a good Script Editor needs to be modest and self-effacing. Their work remains invisible, even when they’ve spent long hours contributing far more than an odd line fix or a minor rewrite to a script prior to or during production.
Terrance Dicks was clearly a very good Script Editor, who commissioned, guided, supported and protected some of the greatest writers of Doctor Who during a time of great changes for the programme.
It is because of Terrance Dicks that I discovered what a script editor did, and decided that it was a job I would like to do myself. Sadly, I never got to meet Terrance in person: by the time I arrived at the BBC, he had all but retired from TV production so I never bumped into him in Threshold House or TV Centre. I did see him at conventions, but never managed to speak to him; a consequence of my shyness rather than his friendliness!
I did however get to work with him, albeit briefly, as a Script Editor myself. Many years after his last TV commission, and indeed over a decade after he had retired from programme-making, I commissioned a script from him for a soap opera on which I had quite suddenly become the senior Script Editor. There were a lot of young and relatively inexperienced writers on the programme and I was desperate for some more mature heads. I rang Terrance and asked if he might be interested in returning to his roots (some of his first TV commissions had been scripts for the ITV soap Crossroads) and he was intrigued by the idea. Sadly, although the script he delivered was perfectly competent, it didn’t really fit the show we were making and the crazy schedule meant there was no time to fix it. I was instructed by the Executive Producer to terminate the commission.
There is no worse situation for a Script Editor. It is, however, an inevitable part of the job and I know that Terrance will have had many occasions when he had to make “the call.” For me it was, I think, the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a Script Editor. For his part, when I made the phone call, Terrance couldn’t have made it easier. He understood the situation, thanked me for the opportunity and bowed out with no hard feelings.
A couple of years ago, Benjamin Cook interviewed Terrance for Doctor Who Magazine and asked him how he would like to be remembered. “I’d like them to say ‘he was a professional,’” Ben reports him as saying. In my brief working encounter with him he was certainly that – a complete professional and a total gentleman.
Like many others, I feel I owe Terrance Dicks so much. He was an essential part of my childhood and has had a long-standing influence over my adult, professional life too. His legacy is there in the books on our shelves and in the huge numbers of writers, script editors, artists, editors and publishers working in creative industries today who were inspired by his works.
I wish him peace, and hope that a “strange wheezing and groaning” fills the air wherever he may go…
• Terrance Dicks, born 14th April 1935, died 29th August 2019
• Terrance Dicks – Wikipedia (which includes a list of his Doctor Who and non-Who writing, addition to TV credits)
Celebrating Terrance Dicks, here’s a blog post once bookseller Nick Campbell once wrote for him on his 79th birthday, including some favourite Target moments
• Unroll: Writer Robert Shearman recalls his first encounter with Terrance Dicks when he was 14. Terrance had agreed to be interviewed by Robert for a fanzine he produced with my best friend from school
— HG2G Scrapbook (@HG2G_Covers) September 2, 2019
TRIBUTES FROM round the globe…
“In 2015, Simon Fraser and I had the chance to tell him that his books inspired us to become storytelling pros and we were working on Doctor Who comics. Doctor Who would not be what it is without you.
“Thank you and godspeed… [to a wheezing, groaning sound]”
“The lights of Doctor Who are dimmer tonight. He was one of the greatest contributors to Doctor Who‘s history, on screen and off.
“Everyone working on Doctor Who sends his family and friends our love and condolences at this difficult time.”
Chris Chibnall, Doctor Who’s current showrunner, also noting Terrance had been responsible for some of the show’s greatest moments and iconic creations.
“I’m so sad that Doctor Who legend Terrance Dicks has died. I know how many authors he inspired, and how many millions he entertained as a writer, script-editor, producer and raconteur. I first met him at a library talk when I was eight and edited his final short story this year.”
“Not only was Terrance Dicks admired and respected by all his Dr Who fan-base but Brenda Gardner, who published him first at WH Allen and then on her Piccadilly Press list for over 30 years, said he was an editor’s dream author – delivering his well-written manuscripts on time, always open to editorial suggestions and felt that the author/editor relationship was always strengthened by alternating who paid for lunch!.”
“I’m very sorry to hear of the passing of Terrance Dicks, a legend of the Doctor Who creative firmament. Sympathies to all those who knew and worked with him down the years. A true legend in my book, and all of his.
“A singular talent, who will be much missed, I can well remember him lambasting poor scriptwriting during a party celebrating the tenth anniversary of Doctor Who Magazine; if anyone was well placed to make such comments, it was very definitely him. Without his Target Books, aimed at younger readers, many of us would not have known the earlier Doctor Who serials, until their later media releases.”
John Freeman, former Doctor Who Magazine editor
“I remember reading his and Malcolm Hulke’s book The Making of Doctor Who when I was eleven or twelve, and deciding then that I would one day write an episode of Doctor Who, because they had shown me how.”
“It’s very hard to express what Terrance Dicks meant to a whole generation,” commented . “A brilliant TV professional, a funny and generous soul. Most of all, though, an inspirational writer who took so many of us on unforgettable journeys into space and time. Bless you, Terrance.”
“He genuinely was a hugely influential, formative author for so many of us, and I think he was under appreciated. He was certainly the first author I thought of as ‘mine’ rather than something chosen for me, and the first I learned to look out for on the library shelves. I know that he was what got me into reading SF, and without his books I wouldn’t be where I am now. I also think his direct style is much underrated as it looks so simple, but is so brilliantly done.”
Marcus Gipps, editorial director at Gollancz & SF Gateway
“So sad to hear that Terrance Dicks has left us. Like millions of other Doctor Who fans, I loved his work on the TV series and the Target novels. An absolute legend.”
“Tragedy to have lost Terrance Dicks – among the true greats of Doctor Who, and the sweetest, most self-effacing man. One comfort… His work, which has inspired so many, will go on to inspire millions more who are not yet born, passed from parent to child for generations to come.”
“Many of us owe our love of Doctor Who to Terrance Dicks: his books made the stories come to life and expanded our vocabulary as they did so. Writer, script editor & one of its greatest ambassadors, he enunciated the show brilliantly. A kind man. Terrance Dicks was Doctor Who. RIP.”
“I will never forget sitting crosslegged in the library, in front of all the #DoctorWho Target books, reading steadily from one end of the shelf to the other.”
“He was, I think, the writer who sorted out how the Doctor thinks. He thinks, as it turns out, exactly the way Terrance wrote.”
“I remember the first time I got to ask Terrance Dicks a question at an event, after waiting many years for the chance. ‘What advice would you give to a hopeful Who writer?’ I asked. He paused just for a moment. ‘Write something else!’, he said.”
• More tributes on Twitter