The much loved Terrance Dicks is 80 years young today, another milestone for an icon of the classic series. Terrance served as Script Editor of the show during a truly golden age, 1968 to 1974, encompassing the entirety of the Pertwee years, but he is possibly even more beloved for his long standing association with the Target range of novels with enthralled a generation of Doctor Who fans. Today we pay tribute to the career of Uncle Terry!
Born in East Ham in 1935, Terrance Dicks was educated at the local grammar school and went on to study English at Downing College, Cambridge before moving into copywriting following his national service, promoting “dog-food, shampoo – nothing terribly exciting”. Speaking to the East Anglican Daily Times in 2008, he revealed the necessity of his situation:
“My school career, such as it was, was ‘top of the class in English, middle to bottom in everything else’, so there was never any doubt about it. But how do you start to be a writer? A friend in the ad business suggested copywriting. I was also broke and needed to earn some money. I thought that would do for a while I looked around. Unfortunately, I turned out to be quite good at it and spent several years in it.”
Malcolm Hulke, author of The Silurians, The Sea Devils, Frontier in Space & Others.
During these five years he began to write plays for the BBC and freelancing as a radio and script editor in his spare time. His break came when the man he was lodging with, a certain Malcolm Hulke, requested his assistance in writing an episode for The Avengers, Dicks receiving co-writing credit for the episode.
“One day he said to me ‘I’m a bit stuck, Terrance. They’ve asked me to write an Avengers and I haven’t got any ideas. Have you? …He was a very kind and generous man was Mac. He insisted on treating it as a 50/50 partnership and we split the money. I’d have done them for nothing, to get my name on the screen and for the experience! Those are my first television credits”
Hulk soon introduced Dicks to the Crossroads production team, which at the time included fellow Derrick Sherwin. Speaking to Doctor Who Magazine in 1990, Terrance tells how he got hired in 1968 for Doctor Who thanks to Derrick Sherwin:
“I was a freelance radio and script editor in the mid-1960’s. I’d just left a well-paying job in advertising to take the plunge and one of the first jobs I got was a soap, ‘Crossroads’. One of the other writers on the series was a guy called Derrick Sherwin. He and I used to go to the weekly story conferences together, and we got to know each other quite well; not best buddies or anything, but we would travel up on the train together and chat. He left ‘Crossroads’ to be the script editor on ‘Doctor Who’, and some time after that he phoned me up out of the blue and said ‘How would you like to be the script editor on Doctor Who?’. It was just as casual as that.”
Originally hired as Assistant Script-Editor, Terrance would join a show in crisis, the BBC seemingly intent on cancelling the series at the end of Series 6 with the departure of Patrick Troughton.
“The first thing I heard when I joined was ‘They’re going to end it this season’. The show was going downwards at that time. I thought it was like being given a job on the Titanic! They were actually looking for a replacement at the time, but they never really found anything, so they decided to do another year of ‘Doctor Who’. Around that time, it all sort of came together. Barry Letts became producer, I took over as script editor, Jon Pertwee became the Doctor, the show went into colour, and the whole thing clicked. We suddenly took off again and started getting really good viewing figures. It was like a renaissance for the show.”
1969’s The War Games was Terrance Dick’ first writing credit on the series.
Prior to this however, Terrance would achieve his first writing credit for the series with the well regarded ten part epic The War Games, the conclusion to the Troughton era. Speaking to The Register in 2013, Dicks revealed the madness that made the story a necessity the story:
“When I arrived, the script situation was fairly diabolical and chaotic – they were very often late, and shows were falling through. The most extreme example of I can think of is when a four-parter and six-parter had fallen through, and [script editor] Derrick Sherwin came into my office and said: ‘Terrance, we need a 10-part Doctor Who and you’re going to write it and we need it next week’. I exaggerate slightly but not much. I called Mac Hulke, who’d been my friend and mentor in the business, as it were, and we wrote The War Games together, a script every two days. Obviously, it’s madness to do a 10-part Doctor Who!”
It was a story that Dicks wasn’t entirely happy with:
“The scripts were written at about the rate of one a day! Malcolm Hulke, who was a very fast touch typist, would sit at the typewriter, and one or the other of us would say a line, and it would appear on the page. In retrospect, I think that the story would benefit from losing about four episodes. The concept of the different time zones, the different wars etc., is good. And some of the cliffhangers were good too. But the plot didn’t actually advance much for several episodes.”
The 1970 Doctor Who crew. Dicks is pictured in the background.
The following season would be all change for Doctor Who. Now broadcast in colour, with a new Doctor, new assistant and new style, the show was headed in a very new direction, inspired in part by the likes of Quatermass. Key to the success of the Pertwee era can be laid at the productive working relationship between Dicks and producer Barry Letts, Dicks working as Script-Editor for all five of Letts seasons on the show between 1970 and 1974. Tightening up the show and bringing and end to the “chaos”of the days when he first joined was a priority for Dicks as he told the BBC in 2004:
“I had a set policy – I would never ask a writer for more than a second draft. The people before me had got into trouble putting people through endless re-writes and there comes a time when the script isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse because the writer’s losing confidence and losing hope. So we’d have extensive discussions first of all, then I’d get a first draft, then I’d discuss that with Barry and with the director, incorporate their notes with mine, send it back to the writer, get the second draft and then I’d say ‘okay, fine’, and pay him off. Anything that wasn’t working, or had to be changed for production or expense reasons or we found it didn’t work when we tried to do it, I would do myself. I used to rewrite ruthlessly, and I think the pleasure was in fixing things and in making the system work.”
Terrance Dicks on the set of The Time Warrior (1973)
It was demanding work for the script editor:
“It was immensely demanding, and it got more demanding as you went along, because you’d start getting your first scripts in and then more and more would come in, and so you’d be working on three or four scripts at different phases. There would be one in post-production and editing, there would be one actually in the studio filming, there would be one in the last stages of scripting, there would be one in first draft and there would be one that was still an idea you were discussing with the writers. All these things would come at you at once. I used to say it was like juggling, and they threw you another ball every now and again, just to keep things going. But it was fun. We never did any write-offs because I reckoned if I commissioned it, I’d make the bugger work somehow or other. The BBC phoned up and said ‘How many write-offs this season?’ and I said ‘We don’t do write-offs on Doctor Who’ and we didn’t.”
After stepping down as script editor, Terrance would continue his association with the show right up until today, producing four further scripts for the series namely Tom Baker’s debut Robot, the classics Brain of Morbius, The Horror of Fang Rock and State of Decay, plus the anniversary special The Five Doctors.
Robot would be one of the many novelisations Terrance penned for Target.
In casting Tom Baker, Terrance says the production team were looking for star quality and tells of how he deliberately highlighted the new Doctor as unbalanced in his debut story Robot:
“What we were looking for always was this star quality, which is not necessarily linked with good, great or even good acting, although it can be. Tom summed it up about Jon, he said he was like a very tall lightbulb, which is lovely, and the thing is that when Pertwee was on the screen you watched him, and Jon, bless him, he was a good actor but he wasn’t the greatest actor, but he had charisma. And if you get someone who’s a good actor, and I think Tom is, that’s a bonus, but that’s not what you go for first. You don’t really want Alec Guinness or someone like that. And Tom has got that enormous vitality about him, which I think is there in real life. That’s really what was the deciding factor, more than anything else. He’s got an innocent-at-large air. If you say something to Tom like ‘Good morning’, he’ll say ‘Good morning? Is it? It’s a wonderful morning? Is it a wonderful morning?’ and all this will come across at you, and I was able from the beginning to write it into the script for the new Doctor. ‘Robot’ obviously is a regeneration story, and what I used was this quality that when the Doctor first comes out of his regeneration he’s quite unbalanced, and I made him quite wild and eccentric for a while. The scenes where he’s tip-toeing about in his night gown trying to find the TARDIS, or the scenes where Harry Sullivan tries to get him to go back to bed, I think Tom comes across very well. And I thought if they thought it was too much, they could calm him down afterwards, and I think they did.”
Brain of Morbius was famously penned under the pseudonym “Robin Bland” after a dispute between Dicks and then script editor Robert Holmes. Terrance tells of how it came about:
“Robert Holmes was a super chap and a great friend of mine. I was always rather proud of him, because he was my protegé, even though he was older than I was. He started writing for Doctor Who while I was script editor, and in fact wrote one of the first stories that I script edited, one of the Auton stories. His was a submission that came out of the blue which I liked, and so I kind of picked it up first, and he became one of the stalwarts of the programme. He was certainly one of the best Doctor Who writers, I think. However, I was furious when I read the rewritten scripts for The Brain of Morbius. I rang up Bob Holmes and shouted at him down the telephone. Eventually, I said ‘Alright. You can do it, but I’m going to take my name off it’ – the ultimate sanctino! Not because it was a bad show, but because it was now more him than me. He asked ‘Well what name do you want to put on it?’. I said ‘I don’t care. You can put it out under some bland pseudonym’ and slam the phone down. Weeks later, when I saw the Radio Times, I noticed it was The Brain of Morbius by Robin Bland. By then, I’d cooled down and the joke disarmed me completely.”
Now well into the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, Doctor Who had taken on a darker and more gothic ethos than Dicks time on the show, yet with stories such as Brain of Morbius and Horror of Fang Rock, Dicks was shown to be easily adaptable, both being well remembered by fans.
“Bob said he’d always wanted to do a story on a lighthouse. So, we really cobbled up Horror of Fang Rock’very quickly. Somewhere towards the end of it, when we were really well on the way, I had the idea of having the villain be a Rutan, to link up with Bob Holmes’ Sontarans, but that was just a little in-joke between us. Now, I think Horror of Fang Rock shows the signs of some of this haste, but it was fun in some ways. I’m quite fond of the first and the last episodes.”
The gothic State of Decay had originally been proposed for the more typical Hinchcliffe/Holmes era.
One story that didn’t make it to production at the time however was The Vampire Mutations, a tale that would have sat easily at home alongside other Hammer inspired tales such as Pyramids of Mars and the aforementioned Brain of Morbius.
“I’d always wanted to do a vampire story on Doctor Who. One day, at Bob Holmes’s request, I put up one which was called The Witch Lords for a while, and then The Vampire Mutations. They commissioned it, and I started writing it for Tom Baker and Leela. Halfway through it, there was an absolute command from on high at the BBC that we were not to do vampires on Doctor Who. At the time, they were doing a serious dramatization of Dracula with Louis Jordan, and they felt if we had vampires on Doctor Who, we would be making fun of their series! In any event, a couple of years later, John Nathan-Turner was looking for new stories for the last Tom Baker season. He had a pile of old, unshot scripts that included The Vampire Mutations, and that was the only one he liked. So he got in touch with me and asked if I would like to do it again. Of course, I was pleased to have another go at it. I then rewrote the story with Romana instead of Leela, but it was basically the same plot. I just had to write in a lot of stuff about how the vampires came to be in E-space since, at the time, the Doctor was trapped there.”
Terrance wouldn’t contribute to the series again until The Five Doctors, yet his work on the Target range of novels continued apace, producing over 60 titles for the range, serving as unofficial editor for the novels. Dicks would endeavour to enlist the script’s writer to pen the novelisation and undertake the work himself should they refuse. Speaking in 1985, Terrance says he had a virtual monopoly on the books:
“In the early days of the show, there were three novelisations – Doctor Who and the Daleks, Doctor Who and the Crusaders by David Whitaker, and Doctor Who and the Zarbi by Bill Strutton Those were published in hardback and really didn’t make any great impression on the world. Then, in the seventies, Tandem books wanted to start a children’s publishing house, which they called Target. Their first editor was doing the rounds, and he came across these three old books. He bought them and published them in paperbacks and they sold like hotcakes. He very shrewdly went to the BBC, saying he desperately needed more ‘Doctor Who’ novelizations. He got himself a contract and eventually got shunted onto our office. I knew then that I was going to be leaving the programme soon, and I’d also always desperately wanted to write a book. I seized on this opportunity and said I would do one for them. That was ‘The Auton Invasion’. I then became a sort of unofficial editor, and farmed them out amongst a group of the writers, like Malc Hulke, Barry Letts, Gerry Davis, Brian Hayles etc. Gradually, over the years, most of the other writers dropped out, and there was a time when I had a virtual monopoly on the books.”
Terrance also wrote the legendary Making of Doctor Who book alongside long time friend Malcolm Hulke.
In a BBC interview, Terrance was delighted so many had grown up with his Doctor Who novelisations:
“It’s nice. One of the advantages of being around so long and reaching my great age is that there are a lot of people in the business who grew up reading Doctor Who books – and some of them in fact are in a position to give me jobs. Like [then range editor] Justin Richards. He was a fan, you know. With quite a lot of them, it’s not only learning to read, but that the Who books and Doctor Who itself gave them the interest in working in the media. There’s a surprising number out there. I did a novelisation of one of the Spitting Image people, Fluck and Flaw’s projects called The Whingeing Pom. It was a failed puppet series about Australian animals in England in a magic van, weird stuff, and the show never got anywhere. They asked me to do the novelisation for vast sums of money. So I did it. I went down there for a conference with them, and all the staff made a huge fuss of me because everybody who works at that outfit is a Doctor Who fan. Almost to a man. It’s very common. Anywhere in the media, you’ll probably find someone or other.”
And revealed Planet of Giants was the hardest novel he had written:
“I think probably the one that was hardest to do was Planet of the Giants, because there was practically no script left. I think it was either a four parter and they cut it to two, or a two parter and they cut it to three, so there was not enough material to work with. I had to add and pad a great deal, so that was quite difficult, purely technically. When I did a lot, I always used to enjoy doing them. In the early days I’d have the programme as broadcast script and when video came in I got a video in my office, so I would watch the scene and then write it. It was a technical process but it was always great fun tackling the challenges of going from one medium to another so to speak.”
By 1983, the show had reached it’s own milestone, it’s 20th anniversary, and the decision was made for a Three Doctors style special featuring all five incarnations of the Doctor. There was only one man up to the task!
“When the BBC contacted me about The Five Doctors, I was in America at a science fiction convention in New Orleans. At about 8 o’clock in the morning, the phone rang and a voice at the other end said ‘This is Eric’. And I thought, ‘Eric who?’. It was Eric Saward, the current script editor of ‘Doctor Who’, and he said ‘We’d like you to write the twentieth anniversary special for us’. Of course, I was very pleased. It was like one of those games where you write a story out of objects found in a box. This particular box had an awful large number of objects in it. So, you just started shuffling them around, trying to find a reason for them to fit together. Obviously, they wanted to have all the five Doctors in it. The’d come up with the idea of having Richard Hurndall as a William Hartnell look-a-like, because, I think, he’d been seen playing a rather Hartnellish old man in Blake’s 7. Various companions were also to be in it. One of the things that made it confusing was they they never knew quite who was going to be in it. So they were constantly telling me to write in so-and-so, and then, just when I’d written then in, they’d ring up and say ‘No, write him out, he can’t do it’. We also had to have a Dalek in it, and K9 too.”
Terrance Dicks, pictured here in the 1980s
Terrance reveals that originally he had envisioned The Master as the main villain of the piece:
“The main job was to come up with a concept that would take in all the Doctors. I had the feeling that it had to be in some way a Time Lord story, because that would be appropriate. It really all sort of worked for me when I came up with the concept of the Game. Somebody would be playing a game in which all the Doctors, and all their companions, would be like pieces on a board. Then, you could have them kidnapped out of time and space. As soon as I got that central image of the hand putting the little model on the board, it gave the project a kind of unity that held it all together. The Master was going to be the final villain instead of Borusa, but Eric Saward said, quite rightly I think, ‘You really can’t have the Master as the final villain, because nobody is ever going to believe the Master is not the villain. You’ll never have any element of deceit’. So instead we chose to have Borusa as the villain, ostensibly trying to help the Doctor, but in fact being the player behind the scenes. It was possible to make it convincing, because Borusa had always been arrogant and rather paranoid. You could believe that even the good Borusa could become convinced that he should rule forever because it would be to everybody’s good… You had to exaggerate what his good points were in order to make him a believable villain.”
A spanner was thrown into Dicks’ plans however as Tom Baker decided against appearing in the special, causing drastic rewrites to the script:
“I’d just completed my first draft when I got a phone call from Eric Saward, saying ‘How’s it coming? Have you finished?’. I very proudly told him I’d just finished, and he said ‘Oh my God!’, which is not the reaction you’d expect. I asked what had happened, and he said ‘Well, I’m terribly sorry, but there was a confusion between Tom, his agent, and us. In spite of the fact that we thought he was going to do it, he now isn’t. So you’ve got to rewrite it without Tom Baker’. What they did have were these clips from Shada, the unfinished story, with Tom and Romana on the river in Cambridge. There wasn’t even time to show me that, but they told me what was in it. So I rejigged the action again. Originally, the Tom Baker Doctor eventually stole the Master’s transportation device to head back to Gallifrey and unearth the plot. The Peter Davison Doctor was going to stay in the Death Zone and conquer the Dark Tower by the main gate. I re-did that, and Tom Baker got caught in a time warp, which gave an added menace because, since he was temporarily unstable, he affected the stability of the Peter Davison Doctor, who started fading into invisibility every now and again. It all worked beautifully. I think that stuff from Shada fits beautifully and you would never guess that it hadn’t been meant to be like that. I think it actually improved the story, because it was easier to cope with four Doctors rather than five. It was like what happened with The Three Doctors. It’s funny the way history repeated itself.”
Despite agreeing to pen the special, Terrance wasn’t a fan of the letter years of the show, producer John Nathan-Turner coming in for some criticism from the former script editor:
“There was a decline without a doubt. I think the people working on it, particularly John Nathan-Turner, were not fit for purpose, as it were. Colin Baker, for example, never got a chance with that silly costume, which I thought was a great shame. I was sorry but I wasn’t surprised when they took it off.”
Terrance’s work outside Doctor Who includes The Avengers, Space: 1999 and the series he co-created with Barry Letts, Moonrise 3
While The Five Doctors would mark his last official work on the television show, Terrance would continue to work on the Target range and in 1989 he penned the script to The Ultimate Adventure stage play, starring Jon Pertwee and Colin Baker in the lead role. While the play has divided opinion of fans, Terrance says he’s proud of the end product which was adapted for audio by Big Finish in 2008:
“I was pleased with how The Ultimate Adventure turned out. There were one or two things that were sort of given from the beginning, such as the songs, which we all felt to be a bit of a burden at times. There were two or three songs, and one of them was a rousing pirates’ chorus called ‘Business is Business’, which was very good and which we all liked, but we were stuck with a romantic ballad which the producer insisted on, and which was a bit of an embarrassment. If it had been my own choice, that ballad wouldn’t have been there, but it was there for other reasons. Obviously, if we’d had the money of Starlight Express then we could have done it even more spectacularly, but within the practical budget that we had, I think they did quite a good job.”
Following the end of the Target range Terrance would turn his hand to original Doctor Who fiction, penning several novels under the Virgin and BBC Books banners, notably the likes of Timewyrm: Exodus, Blood Harvest, The Eight Doctors, Players and Deadly Reunion with old friend Barry Letts. Terrance would also try his hand at audio, writing for the Sarah Jane Smith series for Big Finish before returning to television, again with Sarah Jane, penning the Invasion of the Bane for the Sarah Jane Adventures.
Speaking in 2013, Dicks revealed the secret behind the longevity of the series:
“I’ve always said that the reason for its success is its variety. The show constantly undergoes change, whether major or minor – getting a new Doctor, the changing companions – and if it’s working it just carries you along. It evolves like a living thing, in fact, but the continuity and the central thread of the show is the Doctor, who is always the Doctor, with the same characteristics and attitudes, ideals and morals.”
Terrance in more recent times, pictured here in 2011
Terrance’s latest project will be the Lethbridge-Stewart novel Beast of Fang Rock, written alongside Andy Frankham-Allen. Perhaps next Terrance should reveal the secrets behind his own longevity! Terrance believes that his great secret lay in his imagination:
“All my children are now grown up and I don’t see any children; I haven’t yet got grandchildren, so I guess I must be capable of getting to the level of an eight-year-old occasionally! My main ambition has always been to keep the reader turning the page, ending a chapter on a cliffhanger. [Writing is] a job. I’ve always been a professional writer, earning by and large a very good living, but there came a period when things slackened off a bit and got quiet – this has now ended, strangely enough, and I’m very busy again – but in that period I was quite happy doing nothing… I used to sit with my feet up and watch television. I didn’t have any compulsive urge to write. Someone once said ‘What gives you the urge to write?’ and I said ‘An advance and a contract!’ It’s always been a job to me, and I like doing it and take pride in doing it as well as I can, but I don’t do it for fun or to express my great thoughts!”
From everyone at Doctor Who Worldwide, a big happy birthday to Terrance! long live the King!
Terrance’s latest book Beast of Fang Rock will be available in September from Candy Jar Books.