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Terrance Dicks: Writing the Past, Present and Future

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TERRANCE DICKS is one of the best-known names in the history of Doctor Who. Apart from script editing the programme from 1968 to 1974, and writing the vast majority of the Target novelizations of the show, he also contributed to The Avengers and Space: 1999, and co-devised the short-lived 1973 adult Science Fiction series Moonbase 3. Most recently he has written the second Timewyrm novel, and has another New Adventures book under commission.

TV Zone: How did you become a writer?

Terrance Dicks: When I was at school English was my best subject, I was always top of the class at English, middle to bottom at everything else. I think that's because I was an only child, you're pushed on a bit faster because you spend more time with grown-ups. I was the stock kid with his head in a book all the time. I was born in East Ham, East London, I got a scholarship from grammar school to Cambridge, and read English there.

I always had the ultimate end of being a writer, though at first I worked for a time in advertising as a copywriter, simply as a way of earning a living. I got trapped for about five years because I have these fairly dubious talents of which I'm ashamed, one of them is advertising. I was quite good at copywriting, and I was enjoying myself and making good money. It took me a long time to realize, 'This isn't what I set out to do'.

I kept going, trying to sell radio scripts mostly, I sold some radio plays, and then a radio comedy series — and that was the beginning of it. I gradually made the shift out of advertising, when I felt I was getting enough work I moved into script writing full time.

TV Zone: You also worked on The Avengers?

Terrance Dicks: Yes, with a writer called Mac Hulke — he was my mentor in the business. Mac did a great deal for me in my early days, I was always very grateful to him for that. The first television sales I made, I co-wrote two of the Avengers with Mac.

Doctor Who

TV Zone: We've heard that for Jon Pertwee's first season of Doctor Who you had a lot of problems with the story The Ambassadors of Death...

Terrance Dicks: That was going on when I took over, and had been through lots of rewrites. I always feel that you don't need more than one rewrite on a script. You get your first drafts in, it's useful to have everybody including the director have a look at it, and then you do a second draft, .and that should be it. Now you see, this show — it was before I came, they kept On changing their minds about it — and David Whitaker had rewritten it about four times with an ever-changing brief, and the whole thing got into a lot of trouble. I'm not disparaging David — it got to a stage where he was so desperately unhappy. In the end we paid him in full as if he had written it, and Mac [Hulke] and I finished it.

TV Zone: You seemed to use more or less the same writers during your time as script editor on Doctor Who...

Terrance Dicks: What works best in practical terms is to get a small team of writers who you know can deliver the goods, you tend to build up a kind of a rep company. The only new writers I can claim to have discovered on Who were Bob Baker and Dave Martin, but it took us about a year to get a usable show out of them, we kept coming back to them and coming back to them, and of course we felt they had great talent and great promise, but they were writing stuff that was so outrageous we couldn't use it!

Inventing Companions

TV Zone: Who exactly creates a new companion? Is it part of a script editor's job?

Terrance Dicks: Yes, usually in conjunction with the producer, you discuss that sort of thing and see what contrasts with whoever you had before. The first Pertwee one was Liz Shaw, and the trouble with the .character was that she was meant to be almost as bright as the Doctor was, a sort of super-scientist, and you don't need two geniuses on one show. We decided to have somebody completely unscientific and untrained, so Barry and I invented the character of Jo Grant, then eventually cast Katy Manning, who was actually perfect for the role — and she was completely unsophisticated, and was always saying, "I don't understand Doctor, what's happening?" and he could tell her what was going on, which was a useful thing. We were constantly getting into trouble, with the rise of feminism, for having heroines who screamed and were rescued, and did nothing but tell the Doctor how wonderful he was, which, as an unreconstructed male chauvinist, I believe to be the role of the female companion! But we were obviously going against the spirit of the times, so we invented Sarah Jane Smith, who Lis Sladen played, who was an attempt at least to move in the direction of & stronger more independent female character.

TV Zone: And, of course, the Master was invented by Barry Letts and yourself...

Terrance Dicks: We were thinking that the Doctor is very much like Sherlock Holmes, and I suddenly got the idea that he needed a Moriarty, so we invented an evil Time Lord of almost equal weight. Barry said, "Great, and I know just who to play him", because he was an old friend of Roger Delgado's. So that sort of thing we invented in-house, and we then went to the writer and said here's how we see the character, and briefed them.

TV Zone: Did you ever have problems with the Master; you used him less-as time went on...

Terrance Dicks: Yes, the problem was dramatic in that if you used him for every story, you always knew who the villain was. It was tough on Roger in a sense because it cut down the work, though he was very nice about it, but eventually we would bring the character in once or twice a season, and in fact he would then make a bigger entrance, or you'd bring him in at the second or third episode and he'd be revealed as being behind the scenes, and that worked quite successfully for us.

Moving On

TV Zone: What was it really that made you decide to give up doing Doctor Who?

Terrance Dicks: It was simply that we'd all been doing it for five years, it was doing better than ever before, and it felt as though we should quit while we were ahead. Jon and Barry and I all came to it sort of independently. Barry and I were thinking, 'How are we going to tell Jon?' because we'd got a good relationship with him, and Jon was thinking, 'How am I going to tell Barry and Terrance? I'll be letting them down'. Eventually we all raised it mutually, and found to our great relief that we were all thinking the same thing.

Jon was being offered other things and kept having to say no, and it's a big trap for an actor to spend all your life on one show. But for about five years after we left the show stayed at a peak, with Tom as the Doctor. We decided that five years was a good span to spend on it.

TV Zone: There were some scripts in development that you handed to the new production team — like Genesis of the Daleks...

Terrance Dicks: Yes, Barry and I worked on Genesis certainly, which we set up with Terry Nation. I don't think we had anything to do with Revenge of the Cybermen, that was alter our time.

TV Zone: When you left the show in 1974, your successor Robert Holmes immediately commissioned you to write Tom Baker's first story, Robot...

Terrance Dicks: Well, I wanted to set myself up with a job when I left, so I went around telling everybody, "You know it's a tradition that the retiring script editor writes the first story of the new season?"... "Oh is it? Yes I suppose it is really!" and that was an instant tradition I'd invented for my own purposes! I thought that was fair enough after five years on the show.

Men on the Moon

TV Zone: While you were script editing Doctor Who, you and producer Barry Lens created another Science Fiction series, Moonbase 3. What was the thinking behind it?

Terrance Dicks: Erroneous, I think, is probably the best answer! Because Who was doing well and were the blue-eyed boys, we were asked to come up with an idea for an adult series, and for some reason we decided we didn't want to do anything like Star Trek, we wanted to do something very serious 'and gloomy. It was a BBC attitude at the time that Star Trek was too frivolous, so we were going to do something serious; what it would 'really be like', and we certainly managed to do something quite unlike Star Trek because Star Trek was a very successful show! We should have thought perhaps a bit more about why!

One of the decisions, which I really didn't go along with, was that we would not use aliens in any way, there wouldn't be men from Mars or anything. The trouble was that we built a too restrictive format for ourselves. I think we got some very good scripts, but somebody said they were stories which could have taken place on a lighthouse or in a submarine or in a deserted fort in the desert, anywhere where people are isolated in a harsh environment... they lacked the sense of wonder and the outrageousness which I now believe is very much a part of Science Fiction. We deliberately cut ourselves off from the kind of Science Fiction that the public liked most, so although it was well reviewed and generally well received it never drew a big audience. If it had been hailed as a smash, we'd have done a lot more.

We did one story [Behemoth] which was very good, it had equipment mysteriously wrecked, people found dead, that kind of thing, and there began to be a kind of scare on the moonbase that there was a monster out there, killing people. We had to find a natural explanation for it, because I wasn't allowed to have aliens, and it was subsidence which was causing all these things! A friend of mine, another writer, said, "I watched with mounting excitement waiting to see the monster, and what did you give me at the end, subsidence! Of all the boring denouements!" Although we worked hard on it and we meant well, it was not the right kind of format. It could have worked in novels, and it was a very serious-minded show in lots of ways. I can't think why we did it now!

Novelizing Who

TV Zone: After leaving Doctor Who you began writing novelizations of the series. How did that come about?

Terrance Dicks: I thought I was leaving Doctor Who and I found myself more involved in it than ever. And in the following five years I clocked up most of my sixty or seventy Doctor Who novelizations. There had been three Doctor Who books written in the Sixties and they had not really sold particularly well. In the Seventies a publisher bought them up and published them in paperback, and they sold like hot cakes. So he got those original three, and in one of the all-time good deals he went along to the BBC and got a kind of life-time contract for novelizing Doctor Who. That got launched as a successful series, he came to us at the BBC and said, I need some more, who'll write them? And I said, well I will, or at least I'll write one, and I wrote The Auton Invasion, which was the first of the new lot of Doctor Who books, and my first ever book of any kind.

Initially I was a sort of assistant/unofficial editor, and I would ask somebody like Mac or Barry or whoever, to write one, and they would. Gradually the other people lost interest and dropped out, and I found that I was doing pretty well all of them. Then when they became best sellers and did really well, the other writers thought, 'Ah, hang on a minute', and started coming back in again!

TV Zone: How would you set about novelizing a story in those days?

Terrance Dicks: Well, if it wasn't something particularly ancient, and in the

early days they liked to do more of the Doctor who was on screen, because they thought they would sell better, I would get the script from the script library, who were always very good. Then I would arrange for a showing, and take a tape recorder along and make notes about the visual range of things, and then I'd go away and write the book. Another thing I used to do is go to the BBC photo library. They'd usually have a few publicity stills, and if there was nothing else, you might get the odd picture which would give you some idea. If you've only got the script you are at a disadvantage.

In later years when everything went on to VCR, I would just have the show on cassette. I got a little television and VCR up in my office, and I would simply go between the scripts and the show, I could run a scene and read it, and between the two put it on the page.

TV Zone: Do you have to get approval of novelizations?

Terrance Dicks: You had to have a contractual agreement with the writer —if it. was something like The Five Doctors that's fine, because that's my script and my book. If you're doing someone else's you have to do a deal with him, and it's roughly a fifty-fifty split of all the proceeds, and then I would just write them and send them in, I would send them in to the editor, and they were published, I don't think I ever had any comments for years and years and years on them!

Back to the Moon

TV Zone: How did you come to do the episode The Lambda Factor in the second series of Space: 1999?

Terrance Dicks: That was hilarious, that came out of the blue, from my agent. He said Space 1999 are producing over here, and in order to do that they've come to some kind of an agreement with the Writers' Guild that they've agreed to use a certain number of English writers. But my agent said, "So far everybody's been turned down, and I don't think there's much point, but do you want to have a go?" And I said, "All right, I'll try", and he fixed up for me to go down and see Fred Freiberger, who was then producing what was to be the last series.

So I went down there to... I forget where it was, Shepperton or somewhere like that, where they were making it, and eventually got shown into the presence of the great man, and this very busy American rushed in and said, "OK, you're working on a project for us," and I said, "No!" and he said, "But we do have an idea under development!" and I said, "No!" and he said, "But you've seen all our briefing material," and I said, "No!" and he said, "Oh Jesus Christ, why does nobody tell me anything?" And eventually we worked out that this was my first contact, so he then gave me the spiel about the show and all that, and he said, "If you get an idea give us a ring," and I went off again and thought this is all going to be a dead loss, and I didn't do anything about it for like a couple of weeks, it didn't seem to me to be a real prospect.

Then I felt guilty about it and I started thinking about it and I came up with, eventually, what I thought was quite a reasonable idea, which was basically to have ghosts on the Space station, to get the sort of contrast between the Gothic and the Sci-Fi. So I phoned up, and eventually got through relays of secretaries, saying, "You won't remember me but I'm this writer who came the other day and Mr Freiberger did say..." and eventually I got through and this voice said, "Yeah?" and I said, "You won't remember me... but we talked about...you know, and I do have an idea for you now," and he said, "OK —shoot!" And I then kind of spieled this story down the phone into a total unnerving silence! When I finished there was a bit more silence and he said, "OK, we have a deal!" and put the phone down!

From Script to Screen...

I wrote the script, and sent it in, and they paid all the money, which was quite handsome, and I never heard another word! I never got invited to go down there, or see the shooting, or talk about script revisions, it just vanished. And I thought, obviously they decided not to do it, they cancelled it or something, because that happens a lot, and you've heard all kinds of horror stories. Then a friend of mine came back from America and said, "I saw your Space 1999!" And I was amazed to find that they'd actually made it! I eventually saw it, when they showed the final series over here, but it was something very odd like eleven o'clock on Sunday morning.

TV Zone: Do you like keeping in touch with production on your scripts?

Terrance Dicks: Well no, it's just that the normal routine of a writer in an English series is that you send in your first draft, you go back and have a meeting with the script editor and discuss it, you'd certainly be asked to do a second draft, then you might be asked for bits of minor tinkering, you'd be invited to the read-through; these are all routine, this is what you'd expect to happen. If you want to you can go and see a bit of the shooting, though you're a bit of a spare part, in fact one of the script editor's jobs was, the script editor looks after the writer — if the writer comes to a rehearsal, the script editor looks after him, finds him somewhere to sit, gives him a cup of coffee, introduces him to the actors, and generally sees that nobody hurts his feelings — and there was none of this, I fired this script off into total silence, a large cheque came back, and then two years later I heard it was on the screen... And there were very minor changes, they'd put some linking stuff which was nothing to do with me, the odd scene or two, but the basic story and all the main scenes were exactly as I'd written them. So I guess they'd just decided it was OK and done it. That was a very weird kind of episode in my life.

Panic and Pants

TV Zone: As a writer, how do you actually set about working?

Terrance Dicks: PG Wodehouse said writing demands application: application of the seat of the pants to the typing chair! Basically at the end of the day you've got to sit down and do it, however much you try and put it off. Mostly I work under the pressure of various deadlines, things that have got to be done by a certain time, and I usually wait until it's a bit late and I'm kind of mildly panicked, then that pushes me into doing it...

TV Zone: Do you find then that you do what you're asked to do rather than what you want to do?

Terrance Dicks: If you're working in the media it's a combination of both, there's always a brief of some kind, what the person commissioning the show wants, and if you take the job you have to follow that. The trick of it is to kind of take that and make that your own. The whole thing about television, and film, and the stage, is that they're collaborative media, you have to work with other people, and you have to take into account the practicalities, and also the views of the producer and the director or whoever —the actors. But that's a very specific way of working, you see, it's a collaborative business, and if you can't do that, you shouldn't be in it.

The nice thing about writing books is that the interference from the outside is to a minimum, you just go away and do it by and large, I mean you'll have an editor to work to, perhaps. But then again it's a very lonely business, because you're in solitary confinement with your word processor all the time. It's a kind of swings and roundabouts thing, I'm happiest by and large writing books, but I like occasionally to get involved in some project that can get you out and about, and you have meetings and lunches and all that kind of stuff, that's all quite fun.

New Adventures

TV Zone: Diverging for a moment away from the Seventies, and moving on to Exodus, the New Adventures book, how did that come about?

Terrance Dicks: There had been talk on and off of doing original Doctor Who stories, in the way that they've been doing original Star Trek stories for a long time. Who never had to do that because they had twenty-seven years of material. Eventually, almost all that was exhausted, I think everything which can be novelized has been novelized, except for one or two things which are tied up for contractual reasons.

WH Allen were keen to carry on with it, the only way they could was to do originals — before that they tried these spin-offs, with the companions, but as I could have told them had they asked... I think at some stage I was asked if I wanted to do one, and I said "No, because I don't think it's a good idea".

Launch

Peter Darvill-Evans, who's the new editor at WH Allen, Virgin as it is now, launched with a linked series of four and asked me to write one of them, and that's Timewyrm: Exodus. Peter and John Peel, who wrote the first one, had come up with this concept of the Timewyrm, so I had to build that in, which didn't give me any problems, particularly as part of the brief was to keep it in the background.

There's several layers of it, there's the Timewyrm and the Nazis, and the War Lords behind the Nazis, then the Timewyrm behind all them, though they don't really understand why, and that was the kind of fairly complex story.

TV Zone: Was the subject matter, the Nazis, Festival of Britain, something you wanted to do?

Terrance Dicks: Oh yes, the only brief was that the Doctor had got to encounter the Timewyrm at the beginning and defeat it at the end, all the rest of it was free for me to use as I wanted... so I came up with this 'What if we'd lost in 1940?' thing, which is something that had always fascinated me, because it was a very near thing around the time of Dunkirk. All of that I was able to work in and use for myself, and luckily it was a period I knew quite a bit about. It was easier to choose a background that I knew, and I actually remembered going to the Festival of Britain with a school party in 1951, so it was fun to bring that in, I remember it rained all the time!

Writing for Doctor Seven

TV Zone: What about writing for Sylvester McCoy's Doctor?

Terrance Dicks: That was a problem because I'd never done that before, it's not a great problem in the sense that the Doctor is always the same character, the superficialities change because of who's playing the part, but the Doctor's always the Doctor, so you've got that. I got hold of the video of The Curse of Fenric, and I watched that a few times, to try and get the feel of his character.

I think really more of a problem was Ace, who I'd never written for either, who had to feature quite a lot, and people seem to think I got her OK, so I was quite pleased about that.

TV Zone: Have you been approached to write another one?

Terrance Dicks: Yes, since the first four have been so successful, Peter's now got quite a few under way, he's got a whole second series called Cat's Cradle which is already coming out. There's a reasonable amount of time, I think the idea is that I write it sometime this year, and deliver it at the end of the year and it will probably be published in '93... a new adventure!


Captions:

Terrance co-wrote two Blackman Avengers episodes with Mac Hulke

Terrance Dicks: script-editor, script writer, novelist — raconteur! Photo® Stephen Payne

Rehearsals for Doctor Who's Genesis of the Daleks, a story Terrance Dicks commissioned before he left the series as script editor

Moonbase 3 Relaxation for the moonbase staff. The only 'monster' present on the Moon was the interior decorator!

Opposite page: Michel Lebrun (Ralph Bates) contemplates Earth's doom in Moonbase 3

The Five Doctors Terrance's script and book — no fifty-fifty split!

Koenig, stalked by the 'ghosts' of Terrance's Space 1999 script?

Sylvester McCoy as he appeared in Curse of Fenric, Terrance's only seventh Doctor reference material

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  • APA 6th ed.: Martin, Andrew (special #5 (1992)). Terrance Dicks: Writing the Past, Present and Future. TV Zone p. 17.
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Terrance Dicks: Writing the Past, Present and Future | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Terrance_Dicks:_Writing_the_Past,_Present_and_Future | work=TV Zone | pages=17 | date=special #5 (1992) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=2 March 2024 }}</ref>
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