10 Things I Learned From Terrance Dicks

Screengrab of Terrance Dicks taken from a BBC DVD "Extra", talking against a background of stars.
“Uncle” Terrance Dicks, on DVD or Blu-Ray.

When you’re 84, a hashtag of your name on Twitter is seldom a good sign.

So it proved today, as I caught up with the announcement of the death of the English television and book writer and editor Terrance Dicks.

I’d only met him on three occasions, and each of those was within the somewhat unbalanced social situation of a convention or book festival, where he was the “revered guest” sitting, signing his books, and I the “poor nervous fanboy”.

Nevertheless, I respected and admired him; despite those occasionally un-PC remarks about girl companions being tied to railway tracks.

For Terrance’s work has had an immense affect on me.

I am, you see, a life-long Doctor Who fan. Terrance was already the programme’s script editor when I first started seriously watching the series back in 1970. After reluctantly deciding to move on, in 1974, he began to write many of the new “novelisations” being published by Target Books.

He would ultimately write some 80 novels based on Doctor Who and its various spin-offs. His absolute professionalism and reliability led him to being commissioned by other editors: by regularly producing exciting, entertaining and accessible stories, Terrance helped several generations of British children to read, and to enjoy reading.

And, in the cases of many individuals, also to write.

Even when he stopped writing new novels (finishing, in 2008, with a delightfully straightforward Cybermen adventure for David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor), Terrance remained a notable figure within the wider world of Doctor Who, as a regular on DVD/Blu-Ray commentaries and extras. Genre magazines, not least Doctor Who Magazine, continued to find him an extremely willing interviewee, as long as they were paying for lunch in one of his favourite restaurants. And why not?

My biggest regret now regarding Terrance is that I never got off my arse to arrange an interview about the rest of his writing career. His Doctor Who stories were so wonderfully familiar to hear or read but, by the end, there was actually little new to discover in them.

I’d have loved to learn more about writing those many children’s stories; his many years working on the BBC Sunday Classic Serials (alongside former Doctor Who colleague Barry Letts) in which he helped redefine what the BBC meant by “Classic”.

Perhaps most of all, to learn about his thoughts on whether or not he had been right to accept promotion to become a BBC Producer.

Too late now, of course. As I contemplate writing something to calm me down, though, what comes to mind most is just how much I’ve learned from Terrance Dicks interviews down the years, both as a writer and a freelancer.

Terrance was an undoubted master of an attention-grabbing opening line. Arguably my favourite remains: “Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.” (Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth.) It’s thanks to Terrance, more than any other writer, that I’ve become both a reader and writer very impatient with those who assume their readers will stick around while they perambulate or clear their literary throats. Don’t dilly-dally around.

When asked about what eventually became the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie starring Paul McGann, Terrance perhaps surprised fans by denying he’d wasted any time on it. “It was never a proper job with an advance and a deadline. I don’t think about things unless you pay me to.” An eminently sensible attitude for any freelance writer, in my opinion: there are plenty of articles I’ve never written because no one (has yet) commissioned them.

Perhaps this was down to his background as a script writer, and many of his earliest books being based on scripts where there’s little more than dialogue to build on, but Terrance carried this principle over into his original fiction. No long sections of purple prose in a Terrance Dicks novel! For me, the same goes for articles and interviews: I leave as much as possible of the “hard lifting” to the quotes I’m using.

The vital importance of having a script ready for when it’s needed was, of course, drummed into Terrance while working in television, on both sides of the story/script editor’s desk. Apparently he initially found the somewhat more “relaxed” schedules of publishing hard to get used to, but his reliability was undoubtedly one reason why Terrance ended up writing so many Doctor Who books for a while. Editors always like contributors they can rely on.

… and use them to your advantage. I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve sold that were hooked on some kind of anniversary, for example. It’s a cliché, but one that undoubtedly works! (That’s why they’re clichés, of course.)

Ogrons, for those who don’t know, were ape-like humanoid monsters which appeared in a couple of 1970s Doctor Who adventures which Terrance script-edited (and probably rewrote at least once). He was fond of the stupid plods, and so added them into some of the later original Doctor Who novels he wrote. I guess this really is about being bold enough to put what you want into your work, because… well, it’s your work!

There was a time when some fans fell out of love with Terrance’s books, preferring the small but growing number of novels by original scriptwriters who significantly added to, or reimagined, their scripts. This was somewhat unfair: Terrance was still doing exactly what was being required of him by Target Books at the time – writing straightforward adaptations for children. Don’t criticise authors just because you’re no longer in the age-group of their target audience.

Many of Terrance’s novelisations were subdivided into 12 chapters; based on four part serials, the ends of Chapters Three, Six and Nine would correspond with the cliff-hangers of Episodes/Parts One, Two and Three. This might have struck some people as mechanical, but there’s much to be said for giving yourself imposed limits in which to work. I love working to strict word-counts; most of these 10 lessons are precisely 75 words long.

Back when I was a stupid little fanboy, something which annoyed me about several of Terrance’s novelisations (of Doctor Who stories originally broadcast in 1976 and 1977) was that he had failed to incorporate the TARDIS’s wood-panelled secondary control room. Though it had only appeared in one season on television, I’d really liked it; now, thanks to Terrance, it only actually featured in one novelisation: Philip Hinchcliffe’s Doctor Who and the Masque of Mandragora.
Terrance’s sensible response was that to mention the Secondary control room would have required explaining about both it and the original, why the Doctor decided to switch, and what this might mean about how the TARDIS actually worked—all of which would have eaten into the word count. I wasn’t convinced at the time, but now… well, anything that delays getting to the exciting bit, or what readers need to know, needs to be cut!

Despite any protestations to the contrary, it’s clear that Terrance Dicks loved writing. And Editing. Or, perhaps more accurately, loved having written or edited something. That people enjoyed what he’d worked on pleased him; that he was still being asked about his Doctor Who work more than 40 years later, astonished him. He looked back on what he’d done with some pleasure: who doesn’t wish they could do the same?

Bye Terrance. And thank you.