Terrance Dicks is a name that, despite his long and bright career working on other TV programmes and novel series, will always be synonymous with Doctor Who. As a script writer, and as the show’s script editor, he oversaw a lot of innovations which became part of the canon of the show.
In particular, with colleagues Barry Letts and Robert Holmes, Dicks added Gallifrey, multi-Doctor stories, the term “regeneration,” the Tardis having telepathic circuits, and three of the show’s favourite companions – Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, and Sarah Jane Smith to the legend.
Almost more than that, though, Dicks became the Doctor Who fan’s best friend when he began novelizing the Doctor’s adventures through the auspices of Target Books. For at least most of the Classic era, there was no way to record stories as they were broadcast – you watched them once or you missed them forever. And of course, lots of stories from the Sixties were wiped at source by the BBC.
The Target novelizations, of which Dicks was by far the undisputed master, brought whole swathes of Doctor Who alive for people who had no reasonable expectation of ever seeing them as they’d existed on-screen. And Terrance Dicks always had a workmanlike approach to the job, which meant that usually, when he wrote you a Doctor Who novelization, you got a version that was at least as good, as dramatic, as funny and as scary as what had appeared on screen. And sometimes, compensating for the budgets of the BBC, what you got was something a whole lot better.
Penguin’s release of two volumes of the “Essential” Terrance Dicks is a celebratory thing, and whether you go for the chunky, authoritative-feeling hardbacks, or the gorgeous Penguin Classics-style paperbacks, you have to give a cheer for whoever was in charge of designing them.
Where Volume 1 focuses on the first three Doctors (although, somewhat bizarrely, not including Dicks’ novelization of The Three Doctors), Volume 2 takes us through Doctors 4 and 5, with the emphasis very heavily on Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor.
There are two stories featuring perennial fan-favourite companion, Srah Jane Smith, two from the more ‘gothic’ era of the programme, when Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes determined to “scare the life out of the little buggers,” featuring the ‘noble savage,’ Leela, and one from the era of Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor – the novelization of Dicks’ final script for the programme, the 20th anniversary special, The Five Doctors.
So is Volume 2 worth the price?
If you’re a book fan, a Doctor Who fan, or a Terrance Dicks fan, the answer is bound to be yes – the editions by Penguin are beautiful, and one thing you know about Terrance Dicks writing Doctor Who novelizations is that (with very rare exceptions – we’re looking at you, Robots of Death) you’re not going to come away disappointed. But what of the stories included here?
We start with an early Tom Baker story, taken from just his first season in the role. Genesis of the Daleks created an intensely logical, horrifying world from which the Daleks could arise. Ironically, it was Dicks, along with producer Barry Letts, who were essentially responsible for the story, after Dalek creator Terry Nation submitted a Dalek script that was essentially very like some of his previous Dalek scripts. “We’ve never seen how the Daleks came about,” they suggested, and Nation went away and wrote the story of a world at perpetual war, with both sides locked in to the notion of their genetic purity. He also created his own avatar, the fictional creator of the Daleks, Davros, for this story.
It’s a glorious thing on-screen – genuinely shocking in places, and with the Daleks very much held in reserve as (and we can only apologise for this phrase) a final solution to the stalemate of the war.
But love it as most fans do, it can’t be denied that there’s still, as with most Terry Nation Dalek stories, a fair bit of faffing about getting from A to B and back again to pad out the six episodes.
Dicks’ novelization is true to the spirit and most of the words of the on-screen version, but tightens the thing slightly, so that the toing and froing between the Kaled dome and the Thal city never feels like padding, which makes it an improvement on the original. All the cliff-hangers you want are still here, with an occasional extraneous one smoothed out into a simple scene change.
Ultimately then, Dicks’ novelization of Genesis is a page-turning belter of a thing, which more than matches the impact of the on-screen version.
We move on a season for Pyramids of Mars, a riff on classic Hollywood B-movies like The Mummy. It’s a story hugely well-regarded for the chemistry between Tom Baker’s Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith, as well as the creepy iconography of robot mummies, some horrific death scenes, and Gabriel Woolf as Sutekh, an alien ‘god’ who’s responsible for a lot of Earth’s Egyptian architecture and tradition.
The novelization faithfully gives us the creepiness, the characterisation, the chemistry, and the appallingly high body-count, but one thing it can’t replicate is the story-making vocal performance of Gabriel Woolf. Still, as a representation of the story if you’ve never seen it, Dicks’ version has very little to do or add – it simply gives us as much as it can of the story as it appeared, and that’s more than enough to make it a gloriously immersive, deeply creepy scarefest.
The two Leela stories, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Horror of Fang Rock take us back to Victorian and Edwardian times, as the Doctor tries to teach his post-space-age savage friend about her distant ancestors.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang is a somewhat divisive story. Lots of fans love it, and there are lots of good reasons – creepy ventriloquist dummies moving (and killing) on their own, a glorious supporting character double act in Professor Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago, Louise Jameson’s superb portrayal of a reluctant ‘Eliza Doolittle’ as Leela, and the innovative idea of a villain from Earth’s future having escaped into the past and having to set up something like a Jack the Ripper operation to keep himself alive.
But the story on-screen also has significant issues, not the least of which is the use of Yellowface – white actors playing stereotyped versions of Asian characters, complete with Fu Manchu makeup – and some well-meaning but ultimately unsuccessful creature effects used to render a giant rat.
Dicks is able to capitalise on the budget of your imagination to render things like the giant rat as genuinely scary, and also to remove the feeling that “that’s a white guy playing an Asian stereotype” by making his B-villain, Li H’sen Chang feel real and complex – something which is only crowbarred into the on-screen version very late in the day.
The rest of the on-screen experience (which is to say, all the great stuff), Dicks delivers faithfully and with a brisk pace, cutting through the foggy streets of Victorian London with a strong take on the story’s direction. And while Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter became enduring legends as Jago and Litefoot (even running to 11 series of their own audio adventures at Big Finish), Dicks gives us a Jago and Litefoot that don’t suffer by comparison to the on-screen versions. Result – the novelization avoids the uncomfortable sensations that the on-screen Talons can engender, while delivering all of the good stuff, and improving the giant rat. We’d call that a win any day of the week.
Horror of Fang Rock is in some ways a tale of revenge. When Dicks was Script Editor on Doctor Who in the Jon Pertwee years, he set writer Robert Holmes the task of writing a story set in the Middle Ages, particularly because Holmes wasn’t keen on the period and knew little about it. The result was the creation of the Sontarans in The Time Warrior.
When, later in the Tom Baker years, Holmes had become Script Editor, he turned the tables and challenged Dicks to write a story about a lighthouse – a subject, again, which didn’t exactly float Dicks’ boat.
The result was the expansion of a line in The Time Warrior about the Sontarans being constantly at war with a race called the Rutans, and the creation of one of the most bleak and atmospheric stories in the history of Doctor Who. The Horror of Fang Rock is a bodysnatching home invasion Edwardian base under siege story, and the only time we’ve ever seen the Rutans in full-on Doctor Who. Dicks’ novelization of his own story maintains the tight, sharp, violin-strokes of mounting horror, but adds extra character background to the people who arrive on Fang Rock on the fateful night the Rutan comes to call, making it the kind of book you want to be alone with from start to finish.
And finally, Volume 2 gives us The Five Doctors. This was an event book even when it was first published, and as a story, there’s barely an ounce of fat on it. With various incarnations of the Doctor brought to Gallifrey’s Death Zone to play ‘the Game of Rassilon” (more important creations straight out of Dicks’ head), it’s a story that prepared us for the upswing in quality storytelling towards the end of Peter Davison’s time in the Tardis, and while there are moments in the novelization where Dicks is forced into some unusual descriptions to maintain the mystery of his villain, it’s still a joyful recreation of the story, hitting all the right fan buttons and delivering more out and out grins, after the murky, mist-infested terrors of The Horror of Fang Rock.
Dicks is able to capture the performances of a whole host Doctors, companions, Time Lords and, gives Anthony Ainley’s Master one of the best stories of his career.
Whether you go with the shelf-jewellery that are the hardback versions, or the gorgeous paperbacks, both volumes of The Essential Terrance Dicks are superb collections of some of the best Doctor Who novelizations Dicks ever wrote. Not by any means all the best – any third volume would be hugely welcome if and when it comes – but Volume 2 gives you some spectacular Tom Baker adventures and one sparkling Peter Davison jewel. Tony Fyler