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Terrance Dicks: The Five Lives of "Doctor Who" (1986)

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The series' veteran story editor and leading novelization author reviews his tenure in the TARDIS, adventuring through the universe with the Time Lord.


Few names are so connected to the legend of Doctor Who as that of Terrance Dicks. In 1968, Dicks joined the program during Patrick Troughton's stint as the Doctor. He and producer Barry Letts were the primary forces responsible for the adventures of the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee). Both men were later involved in casting Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor.

Included among Dicks' contributions to the show are such mainstays as the Time Lords' first appearance in "The War Games," the development of U.N.I.T., the creation of that arch-villain, the Master, and the meeting of the Three and, later, the Five Doctors. Most fans also know Dicks for his 50-plus Who novelizations, done for Target Books in England.

A Cambridge alumnus, Dicks began in advertising, where he spent five years. Dicks says he didn't want to be remembered as the man "who wrote very good commercials for dog food," so he went into radio, a traditional British training ground for new writers, and later, TV.

His new TV career soon prompted a job offer: script editor on Doctor Who. "That came about because Derrick Sherwin, the series' script editor at the time, had been offered another job," Dicks remembers. "He couldn't leave until he had found his own replacement. Eventually, as a second, third or even fourth choice, he came to me. I said, 'How long?' and he said very cautiously, 'We give you a three-month trial contract and then we'll see. There's no guarantee you'll be here longer.' That three months turned into some five or six years!"

When Dicks joined Doctor Who, the program was in its sixth season and in severe danger of cancellation. "There was a general feeling at the BBC that Doctor Who had probably run its course, and they were actively looking for a replacement," he recalls. "I know they talked to Nigel Kneale to get the rights to do another Quatermass series, but Nigel didn't want to do any more or have anybody else do them. Then, they were going to do a Victorian science-fiction series, like Jules Verne, and that didn't come to anything either. Eventually, I think they only decided to go on with another year of Doctor Who because they hadn't come up with anything better."

Doctor Who's renewal arrived as Patrick Troughton decided to depart. It was Dicks' job to write Troughton out, which he did, collaborating with Malcolm Hulke, in a 10-part story entitled "The War Games." "What happened," explains Dicks, "was that not one, but two scripts collapsed simultaneously. The show was in a tremendous state of chaos. So, we came up with the idea of having one, very long serial. We didn't really know, however, until the end, whether Patrick was going to leave or not. In retrospect, I think the story could benefit from losing about four episodes."

"The War Games" is a particularly important part of the Doctor Who mythos, because it introduces the Time Lords and reveals the Doctor's origin. "There was no previous explanation about the Time Lords," Dicks notes. "My memory is that Derrick Sherwin told me that the Doctor comes from this superior race called the Time Lords. Where he got that from, I have no idea."

Who on Earth

The 10-part "War Games" also set the stage for the future, when, at its end, the Doctor was condemned by his brethren to an indeterminate exile on Earth. "The concept had, in fact, been worked out by producer Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin," explains Dicks. "It was a purely financial decision, and not an artistic one! It was simply cheaper to do a show with the characters set on Earth. When I first explained it to Malc Hulke, he was absolutely horrified. He said, 'Now, you have only two stories: invasion from outer space and mad scientist.' "

That's why the Time Lords once again entered the picture. "Since they had seemed to work in 'The War Games,'" Dicks relates, "we developed and extended them throughout the Jon Pertwee years. Whenever we wanted to get the Doctor off Earth on some mission, we would have the Time Lords use him as a kind of reluctant secret agent. At the end of 'The Three Doctors,' we finished off that whole concept. So, the Doctor was pardoned and given back his knowledge of time travel."

The Doctor's extended sojourn on Earth caused Dicks to bring back a series element that he had been instrumental in shaping, U.N.I.T., the United Nations military force devoted to fighting off alien invasions. The British arm of U.N.I.T. was led by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), previously seen in "The Web of Fear" and "The Invasion." "We all liked Nick," says Dicks, "and it 'seemed like a good idea to give the Doctor a loose, semi-official status. It answered viewer questions like, where does he live? Where does he get his food?"

The team of Doctor Jon Pertwee (STARLOG #79), producer Barry Letts and script editor Dicks fashioned a total of five seasons of Doctor Who. For the tenth season, in 1972, Letts and Dicks decided to mount a special show—"The Three Doctors." "The fans had been asking for it for years," he explains, "and Barry and I had always looked at it as a ridiculous idea. Eventually, we thought, 'Why not?' We contacted Patrick Troughton and phoned William Hartnell, then living in retirement. William was delighted and said he would love to do it. As it was originally planned, all three Doctors would play considerably active roles.

"Just as we were about to enter production, however, Barry got a call from Mrs. Hartnell, who was in a great state of agitation. She asked, 'What's all this about my husband coming back as Doctor Who? He can't do it. He just isn't well enough.' Of course, that information cast us into a great state of crisis. It was decided that William could manage just one day's filming. I then rewrote the scripts in tremendous haste, so that the First Doctor appears only on the monitor screen in the TARDIS to advise his quarreling other selves.

"We sent a car to William Hartnell's place in the country, drove him to the BBC studios, made him up, sat him in a chair against black drapes, so he appeared to be in limbo, and wrote all the lines on a prompt board so he didn't even have to learn them. Those bits were just inserted, scene by scene, whenever William popped up on the monitor. Originally, he was to be sent to Omega's universe. The show's physical action would then have been divided between three Doctors instead of two. This change was an improvement. It worked much better to have the two Doctors together squabbling, and the third making a commentary."

After five years, Dicks left the TV series. "There was the feeling of coming to the end of an era," he remembers. "Jon had been growing increasingly restless because, although the show was a great success, he didn't want to play Doctor Who for the rest of his life. Barry and I had just assumed that when Jon went, so would we. Then, a new Doctor and new people could take over Doctor Who."

Who In Print

The new Doctor was to be Tom Baker (STARLOG # 34, 77), whose first appearance came in "Robot," a 1974 story scripted by Dicks. "I persuaded the powers that be that there was this tradition—the retiring script editor should write the new season's first show," Dicks explains. "In fact, there may be a tradition, but I started it because nobody had ever thought of it before! It was quite nice to launch the new Doctor."

"Robot" launched Baker with great success, duplicating the ratings jump which had occurred years before when Pertwee succeeded Troughton. Meanwhile, Dicks' professional relationship with the Time Lord continued in a new medium—the Target novelizations. "In the early days of the show, there were three novelizations done: Doctor Who and the Daleks and Doctor Who and the Crusaders by David Whitaker, and Doctor Who and the Zarbi by Bill Strutton," Dicks explains. "They were published in hardback and didn't make any great impression on the world. Then, in the '70s, Tandem books started a children's publishing house called Target. Their first editor was doing the rounds and came across these old books. He bought them and published them in paperback and they sold like hotcakes.

"He very shrewdly went to the BBC, saying he desperately needed more Doctor Who novelizations. He got a contract and eventually got shunted into our office. I then knew I was leaving the program soon, and I had always desperately wanted to write a book. I seized this opportunity and said I would do one, The Auton Invasion. I then became an unofficial editor, and farmed them out amongst a group of the show's writers, like Malc Hulke, Barry Letts, Gerry Davis and Brian Hayles. Gradually, over the years, most of the others dropped out and, for a time, I had a virtual monopoly.

"Since the books have become so successful, more of the original script writers want to novelize their own scripts, which they have every right to do. So now, I do a smaller proportion of them, but that suits me very well because I don't want to do just Doctor Who books forever."

Who on Board

While writing the novelizations, Dicks occasionally contributed to the program, penning "The Brain of Morbius" (as "Robin Bland"), "Horror of Fang Rock," "State of Decay" and "The Five Doctors."

"Horror of Fang Rock" had a complicated genesis. It originally began with the idea that became "State of Decay." Dicks remembers: "I had always wanted to do a vampire story on Doctor Who. One day, at Bob Holmes' request, I suggested a story which was called 'The Witch Lords,' and then 'The Vampire Mutations.' They commissioned it, and I started writing it for Tom Baker and Leela.

"Halfway through, there was an absolute command from on high at the BBC that we were not to do vampires on Doctor Who. At the time, they had a serious dramatization of Dracula with Louis Jourdan, and they felt if we had vampires on Doctor Who, we would be making fun of their other series! Again, we were in a crisis situation. We had to do something quickly. Bob said he had always wanted to do a story on a lighthouse. So, we cobbled up 'Fang Rock' very quickly."

Fortunately for Who fans, "State of Decay" eventually was finished at the request of producer John Nathan-Turner (STARLOG #82). "What I think happened," recalls Dicks, "was that he had a pile of old, unshot scripts that included 'The Vampire Mutations' and it was the only one he liked. He asked if I would like to do it again. Of course, I was pleased to have another go at it. I then rewrote the story with Romana instead of Leela, but it was, basically, the same plot. I just had to write in stuff about how the vampires came to be in E-space since, at the time, the Doctor was trapped there."

His involvement in the 1983 special, "The Five Doctors," began in an unusual way. "I was actually in America at the time," he admits, "at a science-fiction convention in New Orleans. At about 8 a.m., the phone rang and a voice at the other end said, 'This is Eric.' And I thought, 'Eric who?' It was Eric Saward, the current script editor of Doctor Who, and he said, 'We would like you to write the 20th anniversary special for us.' Of course, I was very pleased.

"Obviously they wanted to have all the five Doctors in it. They had decided to have Richard Hurndall as a William Hartnell lookalike, because, I think, he had been seen playing a rather Hartnellish old man in Blake's Seven. Various companions were also to be in it. We also had to have a Dalek and K-9, too.

"The main job was to come up with a concept which would take in all the Doctors. I felt it had to be, in some way, a Time Lord story, because that would be appropriate. It really all worked for me when I came up with the concept of The Game. Somebody would be playing a game in which all the Doctors and their companions would be pieces on a board. Then, you could have them kidnapped out of time and space. As soon as I had that central image of the hand putting the little model on the board, it gave the project a kind of unity which held it all together."

Who In Review

The part that Tom Baker, as the Fourth Doctor, was scheduled to play in "The Five Doctors" underwent several radical changes. At one time, his character was thought to have become crazy, and he was suspected of being the villain. Then, the unexpected occurred. "I had just completed my first draft," Dicks remembers, "when I got a call from Eric Saward saying, 'Well, I'm terribly sorry, but there was confusion between Tom, his agent and us. Despite the fact we thought he was going to do it, he now isn't. So, you must rewrite it without Tom Baker.'

"What they did have were these clips from 'Shada,' the unfinished story, with Tom and Romana on the river in Cambridge. So, I rearranged the action again. Originally, the Baker Doctor stole the Master's transportation device to return to Gallifrey and unearth the plot. The Peter Davison Doctor was going to remain in the Death Zone and conquer the Dark Tower by the main gate. I redid that, and Baker got caught in a time warp, which gave an added menace because, since he was temporally unstable, he affected the Davison Doctor's stability. Davison started fading into invisibility every now and again. It all worked. That stuff from 'Shada' fits beautifully and you would never guess that it hadn't been meant to be like that. It fits in with the story's logic. The astonishing thing is, I think, it actually improved the story, because it was easier to cope with four Doctors rather than five. It was like what happened with The Three Doctors.' It's funny the way history repeated itself."

Dicks is one of the few people to have worked with the first five actors who portrayed the Doctor on television. His opinion of each reflects his vast experience with the show. "I had very little contact with William Hartnell, so I don't know much about him," Dicks comments. "One of the things I liked about his performance was that he was less lovable than the others. There's a tendency sometimes for the Doctor to become too 'cozy.' I quite like an acid, sharp-tongued Doctor who will behave mysteriously, arrogantly or even coolly. You're not really dealing with a kindly, human uncle, but rather this alien being who may one day do something strange for his own reasons. I like having a bit of mystery and menace about the Doctor.

"Patrick Troughton, the first one I actually worked with, is a lovely chap. A very nice and private man, he worked very hard and then at the day's end, kind of dematerialized! He's perhaps the most neglected Doctor and, in a sense, perhaps the most classically-trained actor to play the Doctor.

"Jon Pertwee was, I suppose, the first Doctor to use his own personality. The Doctor you saw on the screen was very much Jon. He's a tremendous personality, very charming and professional. He would read scripts with enormous attention to detail. If there was anything he didn't understand or felt was illogical, you would have to explain it and justify it.

"Tom Baker, again like Jon, was much the same on-screen and off. He's a rather strange, disconcerting person. He had tremendous charm, and like Jon, could go from being charming to dominating and do a kind of strong, dramatic thing.

"I've only written for Peter Davison in 'The Five Doctors.' I don't know him well, but he's a very nice man. He's a little like Patrick perhaps, a genuinely shy and modest person who stops being the Doctor when he's not acting. Throughout 'The Five Doctors,' I was always concerned that he should appear to be in charge. Of course, it was very tough against all these old foes and scene-stealers like Patrick and Jon. So, I made sure that I gave Peter the best lines and scenes."

He admits knowing little about the latest Doctor, Colin Baker. "It was as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. I know nothing about Colin Baker," Terrance Dicks concludes. "I think it's important that Doctor Who is done in exactly the same way that it always has been done."


Captions:

Tom Baker is "a strange, disconcerting person," according to Dicks. As Doctor Who, Baker fought "The Terror of the Zygons" a year after Dicks left the series.

Time lord tale-teller Terrance Dicks.

Patrick Troughton disembarked the TARDIS after "The War Games," written by Dicks and Malcom Hulke. Hulke later penned the novelization.

Jon Pertwee "didn't want to play Doctor Who for the rest of his life," notes Dicks. Did the actor secretly plan to take on the role of another legendary screen hero?

Dicks always presumed that when Pertwee left the show, so would he.

They're the five Doctors who have experienced Terrance Dicks adventures: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison.

"I had always desperately wanted to write a book," reveals Dicks. He realized his dreams through his Who novelizations.

"I don't want to do just Doctor Who books forever," is Dicks' other-side-of-the-coin comment on his post-TV career.

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to whovian@cuttingsarchive.org

  • APA 6th ed.: Lofficier, Randy & Jean-Marc (number 107 (June 1986)). Terrance Dicks: The Five Lives of "Doctor Who". Starlog p. 68.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Lofficier, Randy & Jean-Marc. "Terrance Dicks: The Five Lives of "Doctor Who"." Starlog [add city] number 107 (June 1986), 68. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Lofficier, Randy & Jean-Marc. "Terrance Dicks: The Five Lives of "Doctor Who"." Starlog, edition, sec., number 107 (June 1986)
  • Turabian: Lofficier, Randy & Jean-Marc. "Terrance Dicks: The Five Lives of "Doctor Who"." Starlog, number 107 (June 1986), section, 68 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Terrance Dicks: The Five Lives of "Doctor Who" | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Terrance_Dicks:_The_Five_Lives_of_%22Doctor_Who%22 | work=Starlog | pages=68 | date=number 107 (June 1986) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=21 July 2019 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Terrance Dicks: The Five Lives of "Doctor Who" | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Terrance_Dicks:_The_Five_Lives_of_%22Doctor_Who%22 | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=21 July 2019}}</ref>