Every Doctor Who fan who with an interest in the Classic era of the show (1963-1996) knows the work of Terrance Dicks.
He’s not only impossible to ignore, having joined the TV show during the Second Doctor story The Invasion and been directly involved in its storytelling journeys from 1968-1983. He’s unwise to ignore, having been the most prolific novelizer of Doctor Who stories for the original Target range.
Speaking briefly to the bright young things, it’s almost impossible for you to imagine how important that was.
For at least most of the classic era, Doctor Who was broadcast just the once. One episode a week, in one time and place. You had to be there for it, and if you weren’t, the chances were you’d missed it forever. BBC domestic TV shows were ridiculously rarely repeated, and of course, many of the adventures of the first two Doctors simply didn’t exist any more, having been wiped and recorded over in an age where the idea of selling recorded programmes was in itself the stuff of science fiction.
Into that enormous cultural gulf strode Target, a company that turned Doctor Who adventures into short novels, priced for pocket money budgets. And by the far the most frequent author on its Doctor Who range was Terrance Dicks.
And so Terrance Dicks became a kind of Doctor in his own right, taking fans who had never seen some adventures – and had no prospect of ever seeing them – and giving them the ride of their lives, while also earning the grateful thanks of a nation of parents whose Time Tots would be quiet as long as there was a new Terrance Dicks Doctor Who book to read.
In essence, Terrance Dicks did for an earlier generation of geeks the same thing for which JK Rowling is still sometimes credited – he got them into the practice, the patience, and the page-turning discipline of reading.
Thank you, Uncle Terrance, from one among millions.
Now, Penguin, which has inherited the right to publish Doctor Who novelizations, has put out two volumes of what it calls “The Essential Terrance Dicks.” And oh, momma, they’re pretty things.
First thing’s first, if you’re going to get Volume 1, you might as well get Volume 2 as well, because they’re beautiful, beautiful editions. And it’s also worth noting that Penguin has released both volumes in both hardback and paperback, and there’s something incredibly cool about both versions.
The hardbacks are hefty, gorgeous pieces of bookshelf-furniture, with dust jackets that reflect the historical design of Target, without zeroing in on any of the stories within. What does that mean? It means the elevation of Target Doctor Who books beyond the gotta-read-’em-all, slightly pulpy geekiness of their origins to serious compendium volumes with that touch of extra hardcore personal library chic they’ve been missing all their lives.
Meanwhile, the paperbacks pull off a Penguin Classics look that does the same essential job – elevating them from “just TV novelizations” to the importance they actually had for a generation of Doctor Who fans.
Dicks himself always said that getting kids reading for pleasure was a great step forward, and joked that “You can start with me. Start with Dicks and work your way up to Dickens.”
The simple elegance of these now volumes mean whether you’re a hardback home-reader or a paperback adventurer, you can get your Dicks fix while revelling in the class of their new presentation. The paperback editions in particular give you a sense that an important pop culture author has come home. Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and now Dicks – the Penguin Classic look is just chef’s kiss fantastic.
OK, that’s all very well, and most book-fans will already be sold on the idea. But let’s dig a little deeper – what about the stories inside the covers?
Volume 1 gives you one First Doctor story, and two each from Doctors 2 and 3. If that feels like it’s shorting William Hartnell on the deal, it’s worth bearing in mind that the single First Doctor adventure here is an absolute doozy – it’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth.
Rightly regarded these days as the Daleks’ epoch-smashing second album, it’s the story that brought them back, bigger, better, and more deadly after their original outing helped save doctor Who in its very early days. Terry Nation, their creator, initially envisaged them as Nazis in personal tanks, and for their second story, he advanced the idea, having the Daleks come all the way to Earth and put it under siege, allowing him to tell a story of totalitarians and resistance groups that kept kids gripped week after week, and confirmed what most people already believed – the Daleks were a science fiction monster that could stand as a kind of relief valve for the generations, an avatar of totalitarianism against which the Doctor and his friends would always resist.
Dicks’ novelization is arguably one of his finest. He was never one to especially waste words while he had a wordcount and a deadline to consider, but he adds texture to elements like the Robomen – human slaves of the Daleks who are under radio control – and his replication of the moving human dramas, and especially the final drama, where the Doctor says goodbye to his granddaughter, Susan, will have you flipping pages like you’re reading secret undercover documents before the Daleks come and catch you.
The two Second Doctor stories in Volume 1 are reflections of their on-screen storytelling quality. The Abominable Snowmen saw the introduction of a creepy new villain – the Great Intelligence (who returned in the Eleventh Doctor’s time), machinations in a monastery, and the enormous Yeti referred to in the title.
If it wasn’t exactly a new Dalek in terms of invention, it delivered plenty of scares and creepiness, and Dicks always gives you the chills you’re hoping for at the back of your neck. Unlike The Dalek Invasion of Earth, where you’ll be conscious of devouring pages, with The Abominable Snowmen, you’ll still turn the pages fast, but you’ll be less aware that you’re doing it, because Dicks conjures up plenty of chill and atmosphere, so by the time you’re finished, you’ll feel like you’ve been on a properly horrific possession-journey, with big roaring monsters to boot.
The Wheel In Space brings the Silver Medal Monsters of Doctor Who into the collection – it’s the turn of the Cybermen to be up to no good, and The Wheel actually gives you a real sense of one of Dicks’ particular talents. When everything necessary was in a script and a story, sometimes, Terrance Dicks would see his job as just translating the adventure from the screen to the page – and that was more than enough for most Target readers.
But where the script or the story was a little sparse, or a touch illogical and demented, Dicks would cut through some of the nonsense, and dive deeper, giving you some human touchpoints that, while they rarely went against what was shown on-screen, sometimes enhanced the world of the story. That’s what he did in The Wheel In Space, which is a story that has lots of fundamental potential, but delivers a lot of relatively tedious back-and-forth on screen. The Dicks version gives you the world of the Wheel as it should be, and delivers excitement where the on-screen version lacked it.
In the Pertwee era, Volume 1 gives us the first Doctor Who novelization Dicks ever wrote – and the inaugural Pertwee story, Spearhead From Space, with its title changed to The Auton Invasion. You can absolutely see why Dicks got the most regular commissions from Target based on his first Doctor Who adaptation – there’s energy, adventure, and importantly, Dicks delivers an awful lot of backstory and a whole new team with economy and solid characterization. It’s a breathtaking story on-screen, and the novelization captures all of its magic, with some additional Terrance Dicks twinkle and character.
Of all the stories in the first volume, Day of the Daleks is the most clunky – and weirdly enough, that’s down to the Dicks additions to the story.
The story on screen is a joyously odd but irresistible piece of science fiction. A future Earth has been conquered by the Daleks, and history took a wrong turn at a failed peace conference. Some would-be rebels, unable to destroy the Daleks in their own world, jump back in time to the peace conference with a mission to kill a diplomat who’s gone down in their history as being the reason everything went wrong.
Terrance Dicks delivers the story from the screen with panache, and a richly developed take on the relationship between the Third Doctor and Jo Grant. But doing his usual thing of adding depth to the characterization, particularly of those temporal freedom fighters, actually overburdens the story here with more stuffing than it needs.
That said, it’s still a rocking Seventies time travel story, and Dicks embellishes some of the on screen version’s weaknesses, including the very very miniature squad of Daleks and their Ogron slaves that try and assault the country house belonging to the contentious diplomat. On screen, it looks very much like an invasion on an early Seventies BBC budget – to the extent that it was eventually re-shot for an enhanced DVD release.
Before the money was there to enhance the version committed to film, Terrance Dicks inherently knew what it needed, and delivered it in the novelization of Day of the Daleks.
Overall, The Essential Terrance Dicks, Volume 1 delivers exactly on what it promises – five of the best Terrance Dicks Doctor Who novelizations from the first three Doctors. Having them all in an unabridged compendium is like holding Christmas in your hands, and the quality of the presentation and production from Penguin elevates the first volume to the point where it’s something extra special. Tony Fyler