Escapes into Danger – Reflections on Terrance Dicks’ Doctor Who work

Image Credit: Matthew Kilburn

Image Description: Terrance Dicks speaking at the Oxford Doctor Who Society

Rogan Clark discovers two of the many Doctor Who novelisations of the late Terrance Dicks, who died on 29 August 2019.

You don’t really get novelisations like you used to. Sure, since its revival in 2005, Doctor Who has always been accompanied by a variety of book series, from the New Series Adventures to The Darksmith Legacy. There’s even been a bit of branching out into novelising the unnovelised recently, be it Revelation of the Daleks or Rose, but in general, the experience of having to read a book to revisit what was once on television is a lost one. Some might argue that, in the age of DVDs, BluRay, iPlayer and the official Doctor Who YouTube channel, we now have the ability to experience Doctor Who stories in their original broadcast form, and that’s how it should be. Nevertheless, as a child of the modern age, I’m setting out to see if the novelisations of the late Terrance Dicks, the most prolific author of the Target range, can hold their own in the twenty-first century.

Dangerous Arrival

I started with a story I had no experience with: Carnival of Monsters. Released in print as a bit of a mouthful–Doctor Who and the Carnival of Monsters–I’d be judging everything by Dicks’s prose, be it plot, characterisation or atmosphere, you know the drill. And, to my pleasure, it was a fun read! From what I’ve heard since, Carnival is held to be a good story anyway, but the book itself was an exciting jaunt into a miniscope, benefiting greatly from not needing to fit everything into a twenty-five minute structure, with the cliffhangers, though present, disguised by the more frequent chapters. I also didn’t feel like I had to remember the onscreen story to understand any of it, or even to have seen the show! The Third Doctor is well characterised as a heroic, dashing figure, and Jo comes across just as she does in the show; a little klutzy, but well-meaning and brave. Even when she’s noticeably sidelined in the latter half, being chased round and round a ship, Dicks is able to give us a little comic relief through her own tiredness of the situation. The alien world of Inter Minor is also given enough broad-strokes character to carry it through the short novelisation, and while perhaps a little stereotypical to have a whole planet of bureaucrats, that’s Robert Holmes for you. Dicks does well at translating Holmes’s penchant for wit into text form, and it’s made me satisfied enough that I’m not actually sure I need to see Carnival “properly” now–the book is enough!

The Legend

Next, the flipside. Rather than something new, I’m reading Doctor Who and the Horns of Nimon; the book of a story I’ve already seen. Does that affect my enjoyment of his writing? Not really, it just means that I notice the differences. Dicks does his best to add some depth to the Skonnos Empire, as well as Soldeed himself, giving their situation a little more pathos than it has in the very campy television story. With the acting stripped back, the surprisingly good story is forced to transform into somewhat more standard Doctor Who fare. It works well enough, as the prose can hide the shortcomings of the story (the Nimon costumes and dodgy CGI for one) while focusing on its strengths, with Romana getting some well-deserved focus even if the Doctor’s scenes alone in the TARDIS become all the more odd. Then again, they’re pretty odd in the TV version, so it’s fair to say that Dicks could only work with what he was given. Anthony Read is no Robert Holmes, I’m sure people will agree, but his dialogue still reads well, even when removed from the performances. That’s not to say the highlights aren’t present, and I’m glad to see that the immortal “I have seen three Nimon!” was kept in really. Overall, it’s interesting to see how things have been subtly modified between screen and page, which has made me rethink my opinions of the story. After all, there’s only so many times you can laugh at “Weakling scum!”, but with Dicks’s context, it becomes that much more grounded, difficult though that may be.

The page isn’t television, but Dicks certainly knew how to make Doctor Who work on it. Maybe I’ve just managed to find two good ones out of many, and I’m sure I’d think differently if I’d chosen The Krotons. His way of expanding on the story as seen on screen, while making it accessible to someone who has no idea of the original context, makes these books worth a read, even today. Even if his output in the new millennium was nowhere near what it was during the heyday of the classic era, Terrance Dicks’s loss can still be felt throughout all reaches of the fandom. Personally, I read some of his work on the new series growing up, and while I don’t perhaps feel his loss as keenly as some older members of the fandom, it’s still good to realise I can keep his memory alive through his prose, and that people will continue to do so for as long as Doctor Who is alive. I can see why people still sing the praises of the Target range, and along with the new series adaptations under my belt, I look forward to reading many more.

Tides 44 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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