Terrance Dicks (1990)

Here’s a long DWM interview with Terrance Dicks, covering his first time working on ‘Doctor Who’ during Patrick Troughton’s era, through the Jon Pertwee years, onto his blazing row with Robert Holmes over ‘The Brain of Morbius’, then his original script for ‘The Five Doctors’ before Tom Baker pulled out, and then ‘The Ultimate Adventure’ stage play.

“I was a freelance radio and script editor in the mid-1960’s. I’d just left a well-paying job in advertising to take the plunge and one of the first jobs I got was a soap, ‘Crossroads’. One of the other writers on the series was a guy called Derrick Sherwin. He and I used to go to the weekly story conferences together, and we got to know each other quite well; not best buddies or anything, but we would travel up on the train together and chat. He left ‘Crossroads’ to be the script editor on ‘Doctor Who’, and some time after that he phoned me up out of the blue and said ‘How would you like to be the script editor on Doctor Who?’. It was just as casual as that.

“The first thing I heard when I joined was ‘They’re going to end it this season’. The show was going downwards at that time. I thought it was like being given a job on the Titanic! They were actually looking for a replacement at the time, but they never really found anything, so they decided to do another year of ‘Doctor Who’. Around that time, it all sort of came together. Barry Letts became producer, I took over as script editor, Jon Pertwee became the Doctor, the show went into colour, and the whole thing clicked. We suddenly took off again and started getting really good viewing figures. It was like a renaissance for the show.

“With ‘The War Games’, if I remember correctly, what happened was that not one but two script projects 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 at the end or not. The scripts were written at about the rate of one a day! Malcolm Hulke, who was a very fast touch typist, would sit at the typewriter, and one or the other of us would say a line, and it would appear on the page. In retrospect, I think that the story would benefit from losing about four episodes. The concept of the different time zones, the different wars etc., is good. And some of the cliffhangers were good too. But the plot didn’t actually advance much for several episodes.

“My memory is that Derrick Sherwin said that the Doctor comes from this superior race of beings called the Time Lords. Where he got that from, I have no idea. Since they seemed to work in ‘The War Games’, we developed and extended them over the Jon Pertwee years. Whenever we wanted to get the Doctor off Earth on some mission, we’d have the Time Lords use him as a kind of reluctant secret agent. That was all quite fun, the idea of having the Doctor arrive somewhere in a state of great indignation, and then get involved! Then, at the end of ‘The Three Doctors’, we decided we wanted to be finished with that whole concept. So, the Doctor was pardoned and given back his knowledge of time travel and some vital component of the TARDIS.

“In the early years, it was a general feeling of getting the show working again, because there had been a lot of changes of script editor and producer, and it was a mess. When Barry and I took over, it was a shambles, and there was a lot of pleasure in bringing order out of that.

“Having a season that was one giant story was an option that Barry and I considered several times, and always rejected because we felt the disadvantages outweighed the advantages. Obviously when they made ‘Trial of a Time Lord’, they made the opposite decision. I feel on that whole that they proved we were right. We did it in season ten with the Master, because you can have him come and go, and yet you have the liberty to do certain stories. The way the Master worked best was to keep him up our sleeves, do two or three shows without him, and then kind of bring him in suddenly. It’s rather like the Daleks.

“Robert Holmes was a super chap and a great friend of mine. I was always rather proud of him, because he was my protege, even though he was older than I was. He started writing for ‘Doctor Who’ while I was script editor, and in fact wrote one of the first stories that I script edited, one of the Auton stories. His was a submission that came out of the blue which I liked, and so I kind of picked it up first, and he became one of the stalwarts of the programme. He was certainly one of the best ‘Doctor Who’ writers, I think.

“However, I was furious when I read the rewritten scripts for ‘The Brain of Morbius’. I rang up Bob Holmes and shouted at him down the telephone. Eventually, I said ‘Alright. You can do it, but I’m going to take my name off it’ – the ultimate sanctino! Not because it was a bad show, but because it was now more him than me. He asked ‘Well what name do you want to put on it?’. I said ‘I don’t care. You can put it out under some bland pseudonym’ and slamme the phone down. Weeks later, when I saw the Radio Times, I noticed it was ‘The Brain of Morbius’ by Robin Bland. By then, I’d cooled down and the joke disarmed me completely.

“I’d always wanted to do a vampire story on ‘Doctor Who’. One day, at Bob Holmes’s request, I put up one which was called ‘The Witch Lords’ for a while, and then ‘The Vampire Mutations’. They commissioned it, and I started writing it for Tom Baker and Leela. Halfway through it, 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 were doing a serious dramatization of ‘Dracula’ with Louis Jordan, and they felt if we had vampires on ‘Doctor Who’, we would be making fun of their series!

“Again, we were in a crisis situation and had to do something very quickly. Bob said he’d always wanted to do a story on a lighthouse. So, we really cobbled up ‘Horror of Fang Rock’ very quickly. Somewhere towards the end of it, when we were really well on the way, I had the idea of having the villain be a Rutan, to link up with Bob Holmes’ Sontarans, but that was just a little in-joke between us. Now, I think ‘Horror of Fang Rock’ shows the signs of some of this haste, but it was fun in some ways. I’m quite fond of the first and the last episodes.

“In any event, a couple of years later, John Nathan-Turner was looking for new stories for the last Tom Baker season. He had a pile of old, unshot scripts that included ‘The Vampire Mutations’, and that was the only one he liked. So he got in touch with me and 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 a lot of stuff about how the vampires came to be in E-space since, at the time, the Doctor was trapped there.

“When the BBC contacted me about ‘The Five Doctors’, I was in America at a science fiction convention in New Orleans. At about 8 o’clock in the morning, 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’d like you to write the twentieth anniversary special for us’. Of course, I was very pleased. It was like one of those games where you write a story out of objects found in a box. This particular box had an awful large number of objects in it. So, you just started shuffling them around, trying to find a reason for them to fit together.

“Obviously, they wanted to have all the five Doctors in it. The’d come up with the idea of having Richard Hurndall as  a William Hartnell look-a-like, because, I think, he’d been seen playing a rather Hartnellish old man in ‘Blake’s 7’. Various companions were also to be in it. One of the things that made it confusing was they they never knew quite who was going to be in it. So they were constantly telling me to write in so-and-so, and then, just when I’d written then in, they’d ring up and say ‘No, write him out, he can’t do it’. We also had to have a Dalek in it, and K9 too.

“The main job was to come up with a concept that would take in all the Doctors. I had the feeling that it had to be in some way a Time Lord story, because that would be appropriate. It really all sort of 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 all their companions, would be like pieces on a board. Then, you could have them kidnapped out of time and space. As soon as I got that central image of the hand putting the little model on the board, it gave the project a kind of unity that held it all together.

“The Master was going to be the final villain instead of Borusa, but Eric Saward said, quite rightly I think, ‘You really can’t have the Master as the final villain, because nobody is ever going to believe the Master is not the villain. You’ll never have any element of deceit’. So instead we chose to have Borusa as the villain, ostensibly trying to help the Doctor, but in fact being the player behind the scenes. It was possible to make it convincing, because Borusa had always been arrogant and rather paranoid. You could believe that even the good Borusa could become convinced that he should rule forever becuase it would be to everybody’s good… You had to exaggerate what his good points were in order to make him a believable villain.

“I’d just completed my first draft when I got a phone call from Eric Saward, saying ‘How’s it coming? Have you finished?’. I very proudly told him I’d just finished, and he said ‘Oh my God!’, which is not the reaction you’d expect. I asked what had happened, and he said ‘Well, I’m terribly sorry, but there was a confusion between Tom, his agent, and us. In spite of the fact that we thought he was going to do it, he now isn’t. So you’ve got to 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. There wasn’t even time to show me that, but they told me what was in it. So I rejigged the action again.

“Originally, the Tom Baker Doctor eventually stole the Master’s transportation device to head back to Gallifrey and unearth the plot. The Peter Davison Doctor was going to stay in the Death Zone and conquer the Dark Tower by the main gate. I re-did that, and Tom Baker got caught in a time warp, which gave an added menace because, since he was temporarily unstable, he affected the stability of the Peter Davison Doctor, who started fading into invisibility every now and again. It all worked beautifully. I think that stuff from ‘Shada’ fits beautifully and you would never guess that it hadn’t been meant to be like that. 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.

“I was pleased with how ‘The Ultimate Adventure turned out. There were one or two things that were sort of given from the beginning, such as the songs, which we all felt to be a bit of a burden at times. There were two or three songs, and one of them was a rousing pirates’ chorus called ‘Business is Business’, which was very good and which we all liked, but we were stuck with a romantic ballad which the producer insisted on, and which was a bit of an embarrassment. If it had been my own choice, that ballad wouldn’t have been there, but it was there for other reasons. Obviously, if we’d had the money of ‘Starlight Express’ then we could have done it even more spectacularly, but within the practical budget that we had, I think they did quite a good job. There are plans to novelize it. There’s a fairly complicated contractual position, you see, and all that has to be sorted out. There are more interests involved in the play than there are in a normal ‘Doctor Who’ book, but W.H. Allen is keen for it to be done and I’m going to be talking to them about it very soon.”

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