A Tribute by Tymbus Robins
Terrance Dicks, the generous and avuncular writer and script editor for Doctor Who has died aged 84. For a while, when Dicks’ death was announced, his name topped Twitter’s list of trending topics as tributes were posted across social media in the UK.
Authors such as Jenny Colgan and Neil Gaiman paid tribute to Dicks’ influence. “Terrance Dicks helped more children (especially boys) develop a lifelong love of reading than almost anyone else who’s ever lived,” Colgan tweeted. “I don’t think he even got an OBE”.
Neil Gaiman tweeted: “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. RIP Terrance Dicks.”
Doctor Who and “New Who” writer Mark Gattiss tweeted “Very hard to express what Terrance Dicks meant to a whole generation. 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”.
On a personal note, I remember, as a youngish fan, ringing the BBC to arrange an interview with Terrance Dicks for a fanzine, and was shocked to find that I was put straight through to his office. Much waffle on my part ensued as I tried to remember the questions that I wanted to ask him and the interview took place there and then.
Some years earlier, I had written to Dicks to ask if we could publish his unused Doctor Who script The Vampire Mutations, about Space Vampires, that the BBC set aside because they felt that it would undermine their new production of Dracula (as a replacement, Dicks penned the fan favourite, The Horror of Fang Rock). In the event, Dicks declined my request but said that we were free to write our own vampire story. As things turned out, it was a smart move by Dicks as his story was used years later as State of Decay.
In terms of Doctor Who on TV, Dicks first, on-screen credit was for co-writing The War Games, notable for introducing the Time Lords and seeing the departure of Patrick Troughton as The Doctor. In the 1970s, with producer, Barry Letts, Dicks took Doctor Who to new heights of popularity.
Dicks’ tenure caught and defined the mood of The Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, and the scripts that he commissioned often contained an unlikely mix of James Bond action adventure and Star Trek-ish space opera, against a background of social issues, such as the environmental movement (The Green Death), the industrial conflict of the 1970s (The Monster of Peladon) and colonisation (The Mutants).
Two particularly noteworthy stories were Carnival of Monsters by Robert Holmes, which lampooned critics of Doctor Who who claimed the drama was too scary and violent for children, and The Planet of Spiders. The latter story was to be Jon Pertwee’s last, as the actor had threatened to leave the show if he wasn’t paid more. The production team waved good-bye and cast Tom Baker in the role, but not before a story in which Pertwee’s Doctor was confronted by a giant spider – a symbol of greed!
Dicks attracted competent script writers to the series, whilst never being afraid to pitch in on the writing chores himself, sometimes uncredited or, if necessity, under pseudonyms. Dicks’ first scripts for Doctor Who were an uncredited re-write of The Seeds of Death while his story The Brain of Morbius went out under the name Robin Bland. Dicks was unhappy with changes made to the script by the then script editor Robert Holmes and asked for his name to be removed and replaced with something bland. Holmes took the request literally.
Dicks was also the prolific author of Target Book novelisations of Doctor Who. In the days before DVDs or even video tape recording, his novelisations were one of the few ways of reliving the excitement of stories recently seen and newly discovered by fans. But more than this, his books were often children’s first taste of science fiction and, as Colgan noted, helped inspire youngsters to read and write stories of their own.
Today, with some fans demanding the show employ actual science fiction writers, it is worth remembering that Doctor Who was once at its best in the hands of pragmatic writers, who understood how to write adventure stories for television. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any writer other than Dicks could, for instance, craft The Five Doctors, an anniversary story whose ever-expanding and changing cast defeated the auteurish Robert Holmes, leading Dicks to craft an entertaining patchwork that included cast members appearing as holograms, footage of Tom Baker from the unscreened story Shada, Yeti, Cybermen, the Daleks and various Doctors.
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide. His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for the Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’
• Terrance Dicks Interview at the North Wales Doctor Who Group
An informative and humorous interview with the ever entertaining and highly respected writer, filmed in 2007