It’s almost impossible for me to quantify how many hundreds of hours of enjoyment I’ve derived from Terrance Dicks’ Doctor Who books over the years. It’s almost impossible to overstate how many expressions and phrases from Dicks’ books have worked their way into my vocabulary.
But I’d never actually sat down and tried to rank which of his books are my favorite. Only his death has inspired me to do that.
This is, of course, a very opinionated and personal list. Yours will doubtless vary greatly.
As with any list, this reflects how I feel at this given moment in time, September 2019. There is a bias towards his books that I’ve read lately, or that I’ve reviewed lately, either for this blog, or on the Ratings Guide. With about 60 novelizations from 1973 through 1990, and about a dozen original full-length novels from 1991 through 2005, there are, as much as I love his work, great chunks of his literary canon that I have not read in years, or, in a couple of cases, decades.
But, of course, this is why Internet posts have comments sections.
Any top-10 list should open with a controversial choice. Kinda is usually held up as an example of one of Terrance Dicks’ weaker novelizations. That’s cause it’s a TV story of unusual complexity, with an allegorical script brimming with Buddhist, Freudian, and Christian allusions, and Terrance’s book, at pamphlet length, was necessarily going to have to leave out a lot. Even I myself have put it down in the past. But it’s also the book I’m reading this week, as I work through an intermittent story-order Target read-through.
What impresses me is that he still manages to work in some deceptively simple world-building. He doesn’t let any of the Christian allegories pass by. And, while he doesn’t explicitly mention any of the Buddhist or Freudian allusions, he also turns many of the sizzling dialogue passages into Tom Stoppard-esque back-and-forths, turning off his usual gift for explanatory prose. He gets right into Hindle’s madness, and does a remarkable job with the surrealist dream-sequence Part Three cliffhanger.
And, honestly, if someone did try to turn Kinda into a dense 320-page mind-bender, the prose would almost certainly be tortured and sophomoric, compared to Terrance’s effortless way with words.
Honorable Mention: Warriors of the Deep. Terrance is not the father of the Silurians or Sea Devils, but he is their uncle, and he swoops in here to correct the continuity errors and other bits of plot illogic from this grim Season 21 bloodbath.
9. Blood Harvest
I was a regular on rec.arts.drwho when this came out, and it wasn’t popular at the time. The New Adventures were at their zenith in 1993/1994, and the line was very much doing its own thing with the “too broad and too deep for the small screen” mandate. The books were getting longer and more experimental (Falls the Shadow came out a few months later), with increasing amounts of sex and violence, and the very young corps of authors, in their early 20s mostly, added their own pop culture influences from theater, poetry, pop music, and Marvel Comics.
And then Terrance turned in a sequel to State of Decay, building up on his own Time Lord mythology from The Five Doctors. So traditional that it hurts, right?
But in the the summer of 1994, I was just 20 years old myself. I had a deep list of books that I’d already read, but not a broad list. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that Terrance was doing the same thing that the other NA writers were doing — it’s just that he was doing it from 30 years older, with a different set of pop culture influences. To read this thing now, as I did this past summer, is to notice the gleeful Raymond Chandler pastiche, and the opening epigraph from Nelson Algren, and at least two Casablanca references in the first 30 pages.
Blood Harvest is terribly traditional, yes, and it is to some extent Terrance resting on his own laurels by recycling his own characters, with a sequel to two TV stories at once. But it’s also Terrance showing us what he loves, what influences him. And, in giving Borusa a happier ending than the end of The Five Doctors, he’s not doing anything much different to what Steven Moffat did in Day of the Doctor.
Honorable Mention: Catastrophea. This Past Doctor Adventures from the late ’90s is a genial late-Pertwee-era romp, with even more blatant lifts from Casablanca. It was Terrance’s first Third-Doctor story since Pertwee stepped down, and its reception on rec.arts.drwho at the time was, unlike that of Blood Harvest, one of almost universal praise.
8. The Claws of Axos
Some stories look ludicrous on TV. The TV scripts here were by Bob Baker & Dave Martin, who were never my favorite writers. But it was Terrance who first commissioned them and made them regulars. The TV story had a chaotic production and multiple rewrites before it was workable in the Who format, and the choppy feel to Episode One and the instantly-dated TV effects make this one of the weaker Pertwee TV stories.
But Terrance liked Bob & Dave’s stuff for a reason. The novelization gets to reinsert of a lot of Episode One material cut for timing reasons, and adds a lot of political barbs and subtext. Then you realize that Claws of Axos was a biting political satire, and you hadn’t noticed that before cause the TV production looked so silly, but the novelization is lush and epic and just makes a lot more sense.
Honorary Mention: The Mutants. Another Bob & Dave story where, if you read the novelization first, the TV broadcast was a crushing disappointment. Which, to be fair, many people thought even without the novelization.
7. The Web of Fear
This was one of my favorite novelizations to read as a kid. Terrance as always writes breathless action sequences, and, with this 2nd Doctor/Great Intelligence story which, in the mid-1980s, I never expected to be able to see, I thought this was my best chance to experience a beloved lost episode.
The original episode has aged somewhat poorly thanks to the ethnic stereotpyes, but Terrance thankfully renames “Julius Silverstein” to “Emil Julius” to rob the story of its overt anti-Semitism, and also puts in a line, about the cowardly Welsh driver Evans, having Lethbridge-Stewart reflect that the Welsh usually made such good soldiers.
Terrance also does wonderful world-building, adding in a first onscreen meeting for the Doctor and the future Brigadier — not done on TV — and signposting the wonderful future those two guys would have together (a future that Terrance was largely responsible for). And he adds another scene at the end, where we overhear Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart announcing his pitch for UNIT.
The only reason this isn’t higher on my list is because the TV episode is now largely recovered, minus Episode 3 , and we now know what a phenomenal job Douglas Camfield did directing the story, Episode 4 being one of Who‘s most visually graphic and frightening half-hours. Little Patrick Troughton’s attempts to pull a Yeti off of a dying Captain Knight are expertly staged, and the rest of the installment is the Yeti’s slow-motion massacre of just about every named guest character except for two. It’s a white-knuckle half-hour. But in the book, and now with Terrance writing squarely for younger kids, the Episode 4 material is fairly cursory, and Knight’s death scene is relegated to off-screen, and the Yeti just aren’t as frightening. So Web of Fear the novelization goes from classic to mildly disappointing, and one of the few moments where Terrance’s writing is actually less visual and evocative than its parent TV story …
Honorary Mention: The Dalek Invasion of Earth. If only for its first sentence alone, “Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man”, pretty much the consensus choice for the best sentence Terrance ever wrote.
6. An Unearthly Child
I’ve written quite a bit about my first three purchased novelizations, two of which were by Terrance. But I have not written much about my second set of three, purchased two weeks later. The Daemons, by Barry Letts; The Visitation, by Eric Saward (two great ones, there)… and An Unearthly Child, by Terrance Dicks, which I bought largely because a tab on the front cover sells it as the first-ever Doctor Who story and, as a baby fan (six months away from seeing my first William Hartnell story at a convention), I did not know that.
Terrance adds proper mythology to the opening chapters, encompassing the first TV episode. But watch what he does with the back three parts, the caveman stuff, as well. I’d love to travel back in time to December 14, 1963, to take in the vitriol from fandom about the first time that Doctor Who ever got political. “I’ve been watching this show for its entire run, and I think that you should just get back to telling stories!”, you can imagine someone writing in to Radio Times. Terrance delights in all the back-and-forth between Kal and Za, the two would-be cavemen leaders. And, after the TARDIS crew throws their lot behind Za and urges the Tribe to drive Kal out… well, it turns out that Za just wasn’t much better.
Honorary Mention: Genesis of the Daleks. Terrance turns his epic scope to the Doctor’s journey back to the dawn of the Dalek menace on Skaro. Suffers a bit from trying to cram six episodes’ worth of material into the length of a four-part book, but the stuff between the Doctor and Davros is as electric in print as it was on TV.
You can always tell when Terrance likes a TV story that he didn’t write or script-edit. His introductions to Pyramids of Mars and The Horns of Nimon lend those stories a mythic dimension. But you can also tell when he didn’t like a TV story. Meglos is a perennial bottom-twenty candidate for anyone’s list of Doctor Who stories, but Terrance in the novelization pokes such relentless fun at the plot logic that he’s really doing MST3K ten years early. But, even with that, he adds an introduction showing the Gaztak abduction of The Earthling, gives the Earthling a name and career and home life, and explains a lot of what’s going on behind the Savants and Deons on Tigella. He lends to Meglos a logic and gravitas that the TV story didn’t really deserve, and rescues a story that almost didn’t merit rescuing.
Honorary Mention: The prologue to The Eight Doctors. Terrance’s savage single-sentence takedown of the plot of the 1996 TV movie (“It had been a weird, fantastic adventure, full of improbable, illogical events”) would have played better… had the rest of the book not been so derivative and one-dimensional.
4. The Invasion of Time
Everyone has their own “first Terrance Dicks” book. This was mine. I borrowed a copy from my friend John during an open period in grade school (the sixth grade, early 1985), and read about 40% of it in less than an hour. My first exposure to Terrance’s iconic description of the 4th Doctor’s costume and the TARDIS console. This is a witty (if poorly remembered) TV story, and Terrance instinctively grasps all the political machinations. Kelner, the toady Castellan, finds someone sitting in the Doctor’s Presidential chair, and Dicks tells us that he had ambitions about sitting in that chair himself. I was 11 years old concrete with my abstractions and didn’t get that line. But I do now. That’s some pretty subversive writing.
There’s also the lengthy TARDIS interior chase from the Parts Five and Six material, shot in an abandoned hospital and looking pretty incongruous on TV, but it’s big-budget material in the book. And Leela’s departure scene is even given a logical explanation.
Honorable Mention: Pyramids of Mars. Terrance always did well adapting Robert Holmes’ work (see the next entry), and his fake-newspaper account of the story’s events in the epilogue, as read by a future Sarah Jane, is a terrific idea, the sort of literary device that we didn’t see much of in the novelizations of that era.
3. The Power of Kroll
Yes, that’s right. The Power of Kroll. Micro-length book based on a bad TV script. What am I talking about? Well, this is my list, so I’ll be as controversial as I want. But, again, this list has a recency bias, and I just wrote about this novelization last week. This looks like a trifle so slight that a stiff breeze could blow it across three states, and it’s dwarfed on the shelf by my copy of the Junior Scholastic Weekly Reader than came out the same week. But the Shakespeare quote worked in to define the one-dimensional refinery crewmen, and the breathless, propelling action of the death scenes, and the epic prologue, and the out-and-out celebration of Robert Holmes political parallels — a shocking bit of left-wing agitprop — makes this thing a joy to read aloud. If this is what Terrance could do with 40,000 words written in a single week, what could have have done with more time, more space?
Honorable Mention: The Time Warrior. Robert Holmes wrote the prologue and then asked Terrance to write the rest. Which, as crackling as the TV script was, this has to have been about as much fun as Terrance ever had writing a novelization.
2. Timewyrm: Exodus
I was a freshman in college when I bought this, in November 1991. My dormmate Rich, the only other Doctor Who fan I’d met in my incoming class, found the Timewyrm books on sale locally — and this was three months before I was introduced to rec.arts.drwho, so I didn’t even know there were New Adventures at that point. I was a bit disappointed to see Terrance Dicks’ name on the second book. I was 18 years old, you know (a full six weeks past my birthday), and had ostentatiously outgrown childish things, and that meant I had outgrown Terrance Dicks and his 110-page kiddie novelizations.
Then I read the book.
Exodus is a deeply confident book. It’s got alternate universe stuff, it’s got World War II stuff, it’s got an astonishingly captivating Sylvester McCoy (Terrance never adapted any of McCoy’s 12 TV stories, so this was his first crack at the 7th Doctor), and, just when you’ve fallen in love with the rhythm and the pacing and the storytelling — so this is what Terrance can do with 275 pages instead of 110 — it turns into a sequel to The War Games, which makes so much sense in the context of the rest of the book that it hurts.
This was my first semester of college, and I was an English major, and I was reading Heart of Darkness and King Lear and Frankenstein and the great American short stories (Alice Walker, Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme)… and yet, Timewyrm: Exodus was my personal favorite book of 1991.
Honorable Mention: Day of the Daleks. Another early Target epic from Terrance, with imaginative prologues and epilogues invented for the book, so picture-perfect that it’s still a shock to watch the TV episodes and not see that material on screen.
1. The Auton Invasion
An easy choice. Terrance’s first Doctor Who novelization and his crowning achievement. Later on, Terrance was adapting camera scripts and adding frissons of humor and plot-hole workarounds and short-form action sequences. But this thing is turned into a $75 million dollar budget blockbuster. Compare any scene to the online episode transcripts of Spearhead from Space, and marvel at how much extra detail and dialogue Terrance works into the book.
And Ransome’s death scene. It’s pretty goofily shot on TV, but, as Terrance writes it, it’s one of the more horrifying death scenes in the Target canon.
If only all his other Target books could have been this lavish.
Honorable Mention: Inferno. Or Mind of Evil. Or The Abominable Snowmen. Or Terror of the Autons. Or The Caves of Androzani. But, seriously, Inferno, the seven-part Pertwee epic with the mirror-universe fascist version of UNIT, is possibly his best work of the 1980s.
… now, check back with me in a year, after I’ve had a chance to re-read some of the books that I haven’t read in far too long, and see how much about this list might change.