In Review: The Essential Terrance Dicks

For over 50 years, Terrance Dicks was the secret beating heart(s) of Doctor Who – from joining production of The Invasion in 1968 to his final short story in 2019. As the undisputed master of Doctor Who fiction, Terrance wrote 64 Target novels from his first commission in 1973 to his last, published in 1990. He helped introduce an entire generation to the pleasures of reading and writing, and his fans include Neil Gaiman, Sarah Waters, Mark Gatiss, Alastair Reynolds, Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, and Robert Webb, among many others.

With the publication of the two volume The Essential Terrance Dicks, Russell Cook offers his thoughts…

Terrance Dicks in 1993, at his home in Hampstead in his ‘Doctor Who ‘ book library. Photo copyright and courtesy Russell Cook
Terrance Dicks in 1993, at his home in Hampstead in his ‘Doctor Who ‘ book library. Photo copyright and courtesy Russell Cook

Within days of the second anniversary of Terrance Dicks’ death in 2019 at the age of 84, Ebury Press have published two hefty tomes under the banner The Essential Terrance Dicks, through their imprint of BBC Books.

When the announcement was made that a fitting tribute was being planned to celebrate the writer’s contribution to the literary world of Doctor Who, we were all delighted that there we were afforded the opportunity to vote for ten titles from the 64-strong strong stable of Doctor Who novelisations that Terrance contributed to the best-selling Target book range, between 1974 and 1990. These volumes represent the winners, the ten titles most wanted and most fondly remembered.

It has to be acknowledged that it would be impossible to produce two celebratory volumes that will please all. For every fan of The Auton Invasion, there will be a Terror of the Autons devotee ready to hand over a bunch of daffodils at the earliest opportunity. Lovers of The Abominable Snowmen will be aware of The Web of Fear fans lurking at an Underground station nearby.

Just under a fifth of the novelisation output is represented in these volumes one thousand pages, many thousands of words bringing to life the adventures of The Doctor in the first five of his incarnations that represent the Changing Face of Doctor Who over the decades.

The Essential Terrance Dicks Volume One

The novels are presented across the volumes in broadcast order, so The Dalek Invasion of Earth is an impressive place to start revisiting the prose of this master storyteller, and never has there been a better opening sentence to a novel, yes novel. The now accepted word of novelisation doesn’t do justice to the majority of the books collected in these volumes.

“Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man”. That’s the grab, and it’s a tight hold that won’t let go, as the reader tumbles into the black and white world of a battered fearful Earth now ruled by Daleks. Terrance doesn’t disappoint. He captures the First Doctor and his irascible personality perfectly. He’s enjoying himself!

In fact, Volume One features four terrific novels that show the skill of the masterful storyteller weaving and polishing his craft with each new tale bringing to life long ago transmitted tales into print. Yeti terrorising the inhabitants of the Himalayas, Waxworks coming to life in Madame Tussauds, Guerrilla fighters and 22nd century battles that bring on The Day of The Daleks – and yes, in the novel there are certainly more than three Daleks!

Perhaps the odd one out is The Wheel in Space. This has clearly and understandably been chosen as the novel, published in 1988, that suffers from being classified as “rare”. This regenerates into “vastly overpriced on online auction sites”. It is a serviceable adaptation of a tale that seems tired. Essential to be included in this volume? Open to debate.

The Essential Terrance Dicks Volume Two

In later years, when Mr. Dicks was novelising the script adaptations on a full time basis, often producing it appeared a book a month, the criticisms most often levelled at him were the “he said, she said, cut and paste into a book”, as if no effort was being given to expand on the televised story. This is an interesting and at times valid point of view. However, it depends on the material that Terrance is presented with, and the aforementioned timescales. His lighter adaptations of Pyramids of Mars and The Talons of Weng Chiang appeared when Terrance was indeed almost the sole writer of the Target novelisations, and stand out due to the success of the TV shows and the underlying influence of Robert Holmes and the richness of the scripted dialogue that is transferred to the page.

Volume Two features two of Terrance’s own screen plays adapted into book form. Horror of Fang Rock has always been a slow burning tale that, as the decades have passed, has been recognised as the atmospheric, creepy and disturbing adventure that it is. Terrance goes to town with the book, and within the first few paragraphs the warnings are all there, at first the lighthouse lamp is burning steadily soon to be eclipsed by a bright light in the sky from an alien presence that eventually spreads darkness across the island of Fang Rock. The author takes no prisoners as he channels his inner Edgar Alan Poe as the concise bullet like prose unfolds this tale of horror. It is the stand out story in this second five-strong volume.

Volume One is introduced by screenwriter, novelist and actor Frank Cottrell-Boyce, whilst comedian, presenter, actor and writer Robert Webb provides one for the second – and both go on to confirm what we all know, the influence that Terrance had on a generation of children who grew up reading these novelisations, the skill of these slim colourful books to wrap up childhood memories in one hundred and twenty six pages of adventure and excitement that stand the test of time and space.

These are beautifully produced volumes and to see the three coloured Target Logo on the spines of these hefty tomes adds to the nostalgia.

The Essential Terrance Dicks, old and regenerated, courtesy of Russell Cook
The Essential Terrance Dicks, old and regenerated, courtesy of Russell Cook

An oversight, however, is the lack of the internal illustrations that accompanied some of the earliest books such as The Day of the Daleks. As for the original book covers, certainly as important and remembered as the books themselves, these too are sadly absent; the broody second Doctor’s face huddled next to a Yeti, the fourth Doctor in roundel like pose next to Davros, iconic Chris Achilleos covers along with Andrew Skilleter’s The Five Doctors; and Jeff Cummins, with his gorgeous The Horror of Fang Rock, which Terrance Dicks himself nominated the latter his favourite, as has Tom Baker! Instead, in the final pages of the first volume the reader is presented with some very poor black and white reproductions of some of the new Target books such as Dalek and The Crimson Horror. Shame.

Missing from the mix – the Target Books original covers

With the fiftieth anniversary of the beginnings of the Target book Doctor Who range just over the horizon, these volumes celebrate the art of the consummate storyteller who arguably kept the series going through his contribution especially in the early years. If he had not continued to write the books after The Auton Invasion, the few titles released would be fondly remembered by a handful, idle curiosities turning up in charity shops and car boot sales. The other writers dropped away and Terrance typed on solo, for a good number of years. For that we owe him so much.

Will these volumes stand the test of time to be discovered by future generations? Perhaps one day, on a dusty bookshelf in the musty surroundings of a second hand bookshop the Target Symbol will live on and a whole new readership will have the opportunity to Escape to Danger. Time will tell. It always does.

Russell Cook

The Essential Terrance Dicks: Volumes One and Two are published by BBC Books and available now

The Essential Terrance Dicks

Volume One contains, complete and unabridged:

• Doctor Who and The Dalek Invasion of Earth
• Doctor Who and The Abominable Snowmen
• Doctor Who and The Wheel in Space
• Doctor Who and The Auton Invasion
• Doctor Who and The Day of the Daleks
Imprint: BBC Books
Published: 26/08/2021
ISBN: 9781785946646
Length: 576 Pages
Dimensions: 240mm x 48mm x 162mm
Weight: 835g
RRP: £25.00

Volume Two contains, complete and unabridged:

• Doctor Who and The Genesis of the Daleks
• Doctor Who and The Pyramids of Mars
• Doctor Who and The Talons of Weng Chiang
• Doctor Who and The Horror of Fang Rock
• Doctor Who and The Five Doctors
Imprint: BBC Books
Published: 26/08/2021
ISBN: 9781785947353
Length: 480 Pages
Dimensions: 240mm x 42mm x 162mm
Weight: 723g
RRP: £25.00

Russell Cook’s personal, unconnected memoir, Castles in the Sky, a story of love, loss and learning to live again is available from Amazon

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