Around three years ago, this here blog inadvertently began to take on the shape of a broadsheet obituary section; a remarkable number of famous names fell like dominos in a short space of time and each had made a significant enough mark on me to warrant my noting their passing in a post. No idea what was in the water in 2016, but the legends that shuffled off this mortal coil at the time would’ve been better advised not to drink it. Anyhow, the pace of passing away thankfully seems to have slowed down since then and I only feel compelled to devote a post to the loss of an important figure now if they’d contributed in some shape or form to the person I am today. Bearing in mind what I do for ‘a living’, there’s no way I can let this day go by without paying tribute to Terrance Dicks.
Now, whilst I appreciate his is not a name universally acknowledged, to those in the know – and whose childhoods existed in that surreal cultural bubble called the 1970s – Terrance Dicks was an alchemist of the imagination as much as Lewis Carroll or Kenneth Grahame had been to previous generations. Not only was he ‘Doctor Who’ script-editor during one of the programme’s greatest purple patches (from 1968-74); he also authored the essential novelisations of the show’s stories that were the only method of reliving them or visiting them for the first time in a pre-VHS, DVD and On-Demand era. The first-ever ‘proper’ book I read that didn’t have more pictures than words in it was penned by Dicks – ‘Doctor Who and the Web of Fear’; I wrote my first-ever ‘proper’ book after reading it. Terrance Dicks therefore prised open doors to me that have remained at the very least ajar ever since.
Denied the means of replaying favourite episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ over and over again on a screen, children of the 70s had no choice but to replay them in their heads – something that would have been considerably more difficult had not Dicks painted the Time Lord’s landscape with such vivid and dynamic descriptive expertise. Free from the restraints of a BBC budget, the worlds the Doctor visited (and the creatures that inhabited them) could be visualised on the page of a Target paperback in ways today’s younger fans can’t possibly comprehend. As much as I would’ve loved to have been able to access any Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker adventure on TV whenever I felt like it as an eight-year-old, looking back I’m glad I couldn’t. What the novelisations did was to really facilitate the means to re-imagine them, means that have enabled me to see other worlds and inhabit other imaginary lives from then on, not to mention creating my own – something I couldn’t have done had not Terrance Dicks showed me how.
After co-writing a handful of episodes of ‘The Avengers’ in the late 60s, Terrance Dicks joined the scriptwriting team on ‘Doctor Who’ at a point when the series was faltering in the ratings and beginning to seem as though it had run its course. The exhausting work schedule for all involved in a show that was almost on all-year round (in the manner of a soap) pushed the Second Doctor Patrick Troughton into retiring from the role, and with British television’s monochrome era coming to a close, many figured ‘Doctor Who’ would be just another casualty of the change into colour. Dicks had other ideas. When Dicks was promoted to script-editor, Barry Letts took over as producer and the combination of their respective talents saved the series; the inspired casting of Jon Pertwee undoubtedly played a major part in the transformation of the show’s fortunes, but the men behind the scenes were the ones who rerouted the direction of the programme and took it to unprecedented heights of popularity and success.
The Doctor was now exiled to earth by the Time Lords, which was handy on account of the increase in alien invasions of the south-east poised to take place. With the Tardis temporarily out of action, he was forced to work alongside a military organisation called UNIT; specialising in the unexplained, UNIT was led by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, a character played in consummate officer-class style by Nicholas Courtney; the ‘Brig’ became the Watson to the Doctor’s Holmes. Letts & Dicks then thought it right the pair should have a Moriarty, so they created the character of The Master, played with sinister charisma by Roger Delgado. Augmented by female sidekicks such as Katy Manning’s Jo Grant and Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah-Jane Smith, the UNIT ‘family’ provided the Doctor and the viewer with a solid foundation for repelling the forces of evil and proved a winning formula throughout Dicks’ tenure as script-editor.
Dicks also assembled a formidable team of talents to pen the stories that enraptured millions every Saturday teatime; the likes of Terry Nation, Malcolm Hulke, Robert Holmes, Robert Sloman, Bob Baker and Dave Martin may have severely tested the patience of set designers and monster manufacturers in Shepherd’s Bush, but they gave children with latent imaginations permission to imagine. Some of us have never stopped imagining.
After five years at the helm, Letts & Dicks decided to time their departure with that of Jon Pertwee; but just as the leading man passed on the baton to an actor who pushed the bar even higher, the most successful double act in the programme’s history to date handed over to Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, confident the series was in very safe hands indeed – which it was. After writing the adventure that inaugurated the Tom Baker era, Terrance Dicks finally left ‘Doctor Who’, though in a way he never really did. Not only did he contribute a further handful of stories to the show in the late 70s, but his authorship of over 60 of the Target ‘Doctor Who’ novelisations through the remainder of the 70s and into the 80s ensured his involvement with the series remained a source of income as well as a means of regularly exercising his storytelling talents. He later became a permanent fixture on the generous extras accompanying the DVD releases of ‘Who’ adventures from his era.
If, like me, your time at school was more a case of learning how to survive a beating than learning, the inspirational teacher archetype as portrayed by Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ or Richard Griffiths in ‘The History Boys’ was pure fiction. You therefore had to find that inspiration elsewhere, looking to individuals operating in other arenas to fire the imagination and stoke the curiosity for genuine education. Television was once abundant in such towering tutors: James Burke in the field of science, David Attenborough in natural history, and – through his stewardship of ‘The South Bank Show’ – Melvyn Bragg in the Arts. When it came to an introduction to the written word, for me Terrance Dicks played that part. I’ve travelled far and wide in terms of that word since, but I wouldn’t have been on such an invigorating journey had not Dicks packed my rucksack with paperbacks and sent me on my way. I owe him.
© The Editor
2 thoughts on “IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORDSMITH”
One wonders how ‘Doctor Who’ would have prospered had it first appeared in book-form, only later transferring to the screen? I was a great fan of Hitchhiker’s Guide as its initial radio broadcast, mainly because it allowed the listener to create their own imagery from the text – once converted to TV, it just wasn’t the same, the ‘pictures’ were much better on the radio, probably because they were MY pictures.
Writers rarely gain adequate credit for their creativity: modern celebrity culture appends all the fame and fortune on those who merely ‘pretend for money’ in front of the cameras, so your appreciation of one very creative pen-man and the impact he had on your own path may help to redress that imbalance in some small way.
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The contrast between the respective radio and TV incarnations of ‘Hitchhikers’ is a good example of the limitations of a BBC television budget (of that pre-CGI era) and the limitless pictures painted in the mind of the listener by ‘the wireless’. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone who tuned in to the original R4 series express identical enthusiasm for the TV version. For me, the ‘Doctor Who’ novelisations worked because they built upon what the viewer had seen on screen, almost using the visual material as a launchpad for the imagination that the written word then took on another journey altogether.
Similarly, when it comes to a TV adaptation of a classic novel, I often prefer to see the adaptation first and read the book afterwards. The reader then instantly realises what the screenwriter edited out, so in a way the book is crammed with ‘extras’ that didn’t make the final cut. Done the other way round, I tend to become pissed off, instantly seeing all the cut corners and never being entirely satisfied with the casting either. I’ve never seen an adaptation of ‘Wuthering Heights’, for example (and I’ve seen more than enough) that does real justice to the book.
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