Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Retrospective: Terrance Dicks

(Originally posted at the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 2/13/14.)

It's worth mentioning right at the start that, unlike previous retrospectives, I did not try to read the entirety of Terrance Dicks' published output, or even his published Doctor Who output. "Uncle Terry" has been inextricably linked to the series since before I was born, and his prose stylings practically defined the Doctor for an entire pre-VCR generation. Ask any Doctor Who fan over thirty-five, and their memories of their favorite classic series episode are probably going to be at best half-actual-TV-show, half-novelization. And since Terrance Dicks wrote about a third of the novelizations, the simple math means that Doctor Who as we know it is about 1/6th Terrance Dicks' output by volume. So, for these purposes, I made the cut-off at the start of the Wilderness Years, and read my way through Timewyrm: Exodus, Blood Harvest, Shakedown, The Eight Doctors, Mean Streets, Catastrophea, Players, Endgame, Warmonger, Deadly Reunion, World Game, Made of Steel, and Revenge of the Judoon.

The overall experience was a bit like sitting through the stage show of a magician you remember seeing in childhood, now well past his prime. The robes are a bit threadbare at the sleeves, the collapsible hat creaks dangerously as it expands, and every once in a while one of the tricks goes horribly wrong. But he's got his patter down to a polish so fine that even as you spot the sleight-of-hand, you can't help but be charmed by the act all over again.

The "patter" is a big part of the Terrance Dicks experience. After writing over a hundred books, most of them featuring the same exact character with a change of face here and there, Dicks developed a few turns of phrase that served him well over the course of his Target novelizations. The TARDIS always dematerializes with a wheezing, groaning sound; the Doctor's face is variously "open", "young-old", or "teeth and curls", depending on the incarnation; and the Doctor breezes through situations with a calm, "In an authoritarian society, people tend to obey the voice of authority" or "A path once trodden is never forgotten." It's either brilliantly economical or ferociously lazy, depending on how generous you tend to feel during any given book.

This same ruthless economy of effort extends through to his plots. Terrance Dicks never comes up with anything just to use it once. Looking at the list above, Dicks reuses plot elements from The War Games, State of Decay, Shakedown (once you've written it as a video, why not write it again as a novel?), The Sea Devils, The Daemons, The Five Doctors, Shakedown (again, actually...once you've created some new characters to flesh the script out to novel length, why not reuse them?), Mean Streets (once you've reused your characters, why not reuse the story elements in the new story?) Players (multiple times; if Dicks was going to have to create a new villain, he at least wanted to get some use out of her) and The Brain of Morbius. All of which just happen to have been written or script-edited, by sheerest coincidence, by one Mister Terrance Dicks. (The effect is stronger when one reads the books back to back to back, of course. By the time World Game rolled around, with entire sections quoted word for word from Players, it started to feel like Dicks wasn't so much writing as reprinting.)

Still, the same instinct for economy serves him very well most of the time. Even his most frustratingly lazy works, like Warmonger and The Eight Doctors, are plotted and scripted so concisely that the prose flows with remarkable speed and rapidity. There's never a point where a Terrance Dicks novel feels bogged down or dull; the plot constantly moves from event to event, with no doldrums or unnecessary sequences. Uncle Terry doesn't see the point in writing something that he doesn't absolutely have to in order to move the story along, and while that can sometimes mean that the plots rely on coincidence and the Doctor develops superpowers as needed to get him out of a tight spot (or the right people believe him simply because of his "commanding nature"), it also means that you're never bored reading a Dicks Doctor Who novel. Occasionally flabbergasted, but never bored.

Ultimately, the best of Dicks' original Who is his early and his late work. His first novel, Timewyrm: Exodus, was written for an editor who clearly challenged him to go above and beyond his usual party-pieces. The result is a savagely brilliant, witty indictment of the corrupting nature of power that lingers long after The Eight Doctors has been blessedly forgotten. And his recent Quick Reads books, Made of Steel and Revenge of the Judoon, have deprived him of his usual fallback of reusing his own material. The result is a pair of taut, fast-paced reads that remind you just how much of Doctor Who is, and always will be, the work of Uncle Terry. And just how much we look forward to more.

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