For those in the know, there are a couple of memorable stories from the original ‘Star Trek’ series and the Jon Pertwee era of ‘Doctor Who’ in which Captain Kirk and the Doctor follow the same path by slipping sideways into parallel universes – ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and ‘Inferno’. What is now an over-familiar sci-fi trope still seems fresh and novel in these interesting twists on the respective formulas both programmes tended to rely on; the unnerving encounters with darker incarnations of regular cast members are one intriguing element – and the usual good guys are invariably evil when this freak occurrence takes place; just in case the viewer doesn’t twig quick enough, Spock is gifted with a sinister beard and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart has an eye-patch and a scar. However, it is the world these characters inhabit that provides the most fascinating aspect of the adventures.

The Enterprise looks roughly the same, but in this dimension it is a warship belonging to a brutal intergalactic empire, whereas the version of Britain Pertwee’s Doctor finds himself in is a militaristic fascist republic. Both stories play upon the ‘what if?’ factor, pondering on possibilities had global events taken a different turn; and, of course, these events were still fresh at the time ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and ‘Inferno’ were produced (1967 and 1970), when the world was less than 30 years away from the collapse of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy – warnings from recent history transplanted to an alternative present.

I only thought of these two classic examples of two classic series at their best because I keep noticing those movie posters you see pasted on the sides of double-decker buses. Normally I tend to roll my eyes when greeted by any sign of the latest multimillion-dollar dump Hollywood has decided to take on the world’s cinemagoers; but the current ones are catching my eye on account of them not being quite right. Whereas they usually change with such rapid regularity that one rarely sees the same poster on a bus for more than two weeks running, I recently realised the movies being promoted via public transport at the moment were either released way back in February – and have therefore already been forgotten and wouldn’t normally still be there – or give a release date in April/May that never actually happened due the lockdown.

It’s an extremely minor equivalent of suddenly slipping into a parallel universe, but seeing posters for movies still unseen that declare they were premiered at the nation’s picture houses on dates when they weren’t is a weird one, akin to the disorientating differences a character in a genuine parallel universe experiences. Well, it’s as close as I’ve come, anyway. That’s what happens when you queue outside supermarkets situated on a main road and aren’t distracted by a Smartphone screen. I can quite easily pass the minutes by simply pretending I am indeed in a parallel universe where buses don’t lie and those movies did indeed premiere as planned, showing now at a cinema near you; and then I contemplate the queue and the two-metre separation between each person in it and realise this universe is probably far stranger than a parallel one as it is.

Actually, the movies being plugged on those buses may end up representing an even greater financial disaster than they ordinarily would if they had been released and failed to break even at the box-office. Yes, many will be swallowed up by a costly black-hole courtesy of the pandemic, though lockdown aside, the fate that awaits the majority of the over-hyped bilge vomited out by Tinsel Town is generally down to the clueless halfwits behind them gambling everything on what the public will take to. It happens across all creative industries, of course – movies, TV, publishing, music; a hit suddenly appears from nowhere that the people running these industries didn’t predict and then there’s a rush to repeat it in order to capitalise on the success, a rush that swiftly tests the patience of the public with the new craze. There may be an entire army of experts employed by movie studios, TV companies, publishing houses and record labels who reckon they can both anticipate and manipulate what the public will or won’t buy, but the truth is that few ever accurately do. Even if I take my own humble example when it comes to this here blog, it’s near-impossible to guess what will provoke a response and what won’t.

Access to Winegum stats is a behind-the-scenes privilege of ‘Petunia’; they not only inform me in which countries on the planet I’m receiving the most views – India and Cambodia make regular surprise appearances alongside the more expected nations – but they also let me know which posts are pulling the punters in; and there are some vintage ones that keep appearing in the list with such regularity that I’m often baffled by their appeal. Yes, I’m well aware there are certain topics I might choose to write about that I pretty much know in advance will appeal to a particular Twitter audience because they happen to be a pet subject with a passionate crowd who Tweet a lot; equally, when Twitter isn’t especially interested, I may receive an above-average flurry of comments on the post itself without attracting a single retweet.

But for me, the subject matter is more or less secondary to whether or not I personally consider the post a well-written one that makes its intended point as perfectly as I can manage it. There have been times when I’ve put one out and I look at it again and reckon I was too tired when I wrote it or I rushed it when I should’ve taken a bit more time and improved the prose. And then I find it keeps surfacing in the list of most-viewed posts, perhaps two or three years after it was published; just because I might not rate or care for a post doesn’t mean I’m necessarily in the right; if somebody out there likes it, in a way that’s all that matters. Indeed, there are many posts I rate extremely highly and think read just as well today as when they were written; and yet nobody else took to those ones. It’s completely random sometimes.

There’s quite an early one about corporal punishment called ‘The Back of My Hand’ that simply won’t go away, and one I wrote about the trans issue – specifically in relation to children – called ‘Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha’ has been achieving as many views over the past couple of months as anything new I’ve written. I’ll concede that I think the latter is perhaps as good a piece as anything I’ve written on that subject, but I still can’t quite understand why it continues to reel ‘em in. But that highlights my point, I suppose; you really can’t guess what’ll impact and what won’t. I’ve written books I (and others) thought would make my name and they never did – ‘Looking for Alison’ being the prime example.

I seemed on the cusp of recognition with that when I was interviewed for Radio 4’s ‘iPM’ show at the time of the book’s publication, and I recall after the interview I had a free cab-ride home laid on for me by the BBC. I exited said taxi without paying a penny and had a brief sense of what it must be like to be Alan Yentob. It’s easy and understandable to decry ‘how the other half live’ and, let’s face it, we all do it; but even the tiniest glimpse into that world makes one realise how easy it is to fall into its luxurious embrace. I know why there were cries of outrage over author Neil Gaiman travelling all the way from New Zealand to Scotland, but I equally know if I were in his position I’d have probably done the same. Why not, if you can afford it? Maybe there’s a parallel universe where we all can…

© The Editor


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