By William Gallagher
One of the glorious and happy things about how Doctor Who has earned itself the most enormous group of fans, is that those fans like writers. There can’t be many other shows where the names of the writers are so known, are so discussed, are so debated. And yet of all the writers who shaped Doctor Who over its five decades, not a single one is regarded in quite the same way as Terrance Dicks (pictured left).
He wrote or co-wrote particularly well-loved Doctor Who serials such as “The War Games”, a marathon 10-part story that ended Patrick Troughton’s time as the second Doctor and introduced us to the whole mythos of the Time Lords.
Dicks was also particularly key during Jon Pertwee’s time as the third Doctor and so key that it’s likely without him the show would have ended then. With Dicks as script editor and Barry Letts as producer, Doctor Who was revamped and arguably re-energised for a new generation.
Always a canny writer, when Dicks left at the end of Pertwee’s range, he invented a tradition that saw the departing script editor “always” be commissioned to write the next story as a freelancer.
So it was Terrance Dicks who, in 1975, wrote Robot, the story that introduced us to Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor. He also wrote Horror of Fang Rock in 1977, which to this day is the only Doctor Who story in which every character bar the Doctor and his or her companion is killed. It’s also the only Doctor Who story to have been made in Birmingham, though that was more because there was a strike on at TVC at the time.
If this were all he’d done or even all he’d done with Doctor Who, Terrance Dicks would be remembered by writers as someone who knew and played the system very well, and he’d be remembered as a hugely successful and entertaining writer.
However, every bit of this is outshone by one other thing he did. Or to be more specific, by over 60 other things he did.
For Terrance Dicks novelised that many Doctor Who stories and he did so at a truly crucial time. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was no streaming video, not even VHS, and yet Doctor Who was creating fans who had insatiable appetites for the show. That appetite was inflamed more by knowing, by actually knowing that there were years and then decades of the series that had been aired.
Since they were rarely repeated and there was no possibility, it seemed, of ever seeing them again, Doctor Who fans would even wear their first stories as a badge of honour. It’s why I knew people who would boast of having been watching since the Troughton years.
Into all of that came the Target Doctor Who novels. Begun by original series script editor David Whittaker, the range was so successful that ultimately just about every Doctor Who story became a novel.
Terrance Dicks wrote 60 or more, and he became so entwined with the range that it was he who would find other writers, it was he who might as well have been the editor.
You had to be there. This was all pre-internet so we didn’t even know when new books were coming out, let alone which Doctor Who story would be next.
Which is also why I can tell you that when I learned Terrance Dicks had died, I was immediately back in the hot July of 1978. I was on holiday with my family, but still I had to phone a friend to ask if a new Doctor Who book had come out.
There was. It was Death to the Daleks. By Terrance Dicks.
So when I read this man had died, this man I’d never met, I looked up that book to see if I could get a copy. And even seeing the cover image online, I was back in that summer, I was back being 13 years old, and I could feel the book in my hand.
Terrance Dicks wrote in a very special, small niche, but it was one that made the most enormous impact on his audiences. He’s now gone and the world where Doctor Who novels could thrive has died too, but that impact and those books will live on.
Photo: Stephen Dicks