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What is Your Favourite Doctor Who Serial by Terrance Dicks, and Why?

Picking a favourite Terrance Dicks story is like trying to pick your favourite child: everyone has one, but few admit it. (It’s okay; I can get away with that because I don’t have children yet.) It’s really difficult though, eh? I mean, look at the list of stories he’s written: Robot, Horror of Fang Rock, State of Decay, and The Five Doctors, and that’s without mentioning the two he co-wrote (The War Games and The Brain of Morbius) or all the rewrites he made throughout the Third Doctor era.

With this in mind, we took a poll around the DWC HQ (it’s a rather sizeable shack, and not even the good “love shack” kind) to find out which is the best TV Doctor Who serial Dicks wrote. We argued. There was raised voices. Simon unleashed the Raston Warrior Robot. It turned out to be Frank in a silver leotard. There were tears – by which I mean both crying and holes in the fabric. The two were related.

Anyway, here are a few opinions voiced by members of the DWC collective.

Jordan Shortman: Horror of Fang Rock

My favourite Terrance Dicks story is Horror of Fang Rock. It’s a surprisingly creepy little story, set after the Hinchcliffe era yet feels like it’s been ripped out of it. The script is tight and claustrophobic, keeping characters confined to one small space. In many ways, it’s a character study for the Doctor and Leela and with the guest characters being killed off as the story goes on, you do fear for their safety.

Dicks doesn’t hold anything back and all the guests have proper fleshed-out characters, not just the usual silhouettes of them. A few years before The Fog came out, one wonders in John Carpenter saw this story because there are a lot of similarities between both products.

The way Ruben smiles as he kills everyone one by one is chilling and the line, “I thought I’d locked the enemy out. Instead, I’ve locked it in, with us,” is perfectly performed by Baker. Dicks has a classic on his hands here, even if it sometimes overlooked by fans. But that makes Horror all the more special; this is a master class in Doctor Who Horror.

James Baldock: State of Decay

In just the sort of topsy-turvy, inside-out passage of time of which the Doctor would glowingly approve, I got to know State of Decay intimately decades before I actually saw it.

Let’s rewind. It’s 1987 and I’ve been given, as a birthday gift, an audio book: two cassettes, Tom Baker’s face moodily staring out at me from the cover of the box. The first thing that grabs you is the music: it is not the classic Doctor Who theme we know and love, but an upbeat, impossibly jaunty synth-based pop song that sounds like it should be bookending a BBC Schools programme, the sort of thing you watch in a darkened classroom on a TV that sits on a stand, while a teacher fails abysmally with the tracking.

But the story. I remember the story. It had vampires. It had some woman named Romana I didn’t know (my love affair with Who began with Earthshock) and a young man who’s somehow far less irritating when it’s Baker doing the voice. I practically had the thing memorised, even going so far as to give the names Ivo and Habris to two characters in a school play I was writing, along with large chunks of dialogue from the story. It was mercifully never performed.

When you’re a child in a pre-digital age, you work with what information you’ve got, which wasn’t much. We’re told the Doctor is in the wrong universe and that Adric is a stowaway. Dicks describes the TARDIS as a “battered old police box”, a simple, beautifully apt description that’s stuck with me ever since, even if certain other aspects of the story went over my head. In its abridged form, with certain scientific explanations absent, I always assumed that the title referred to the sudden and rapid crumbling of the vampires at the end of side (all right, episode) four. It doesn’t, but these things work on levels.

State of Decay is one of those narratives that’s been ripped from its rightful place in the continuum – that story is well-documented and doesn’t need to be retold – but I can’t help thinking it works quite well where it is, if only because it doesn’t really fit. It is a contractual obligation story: filler material shoehorned in by a new producer trying desperately to move the show away from the gothic horror of Hinchcliffe and the overtly (some would say excessively) comic touch that succeeded it; Season 18 is something new, particularly in its ethereal second half. The E-Space trilogy opens with a story about the dangers of procrastination and concludes with a bizarre tale about the occasional need to stop and let the universe flow around you; hence Rorvik meets a fiery end at the conclusion of Warriors’ Gate just as he’s bellowing “I’M FINALLY GETTING SOMETHING DONE!”.

State of Decay sits firmly in the middle: the need to gather information and then strike, as epitomised by Tarak’s request for proof before they launch a kamikaze run on the Great Tower. It’s a shame that said kamikaze run consists of half a dozen young men in singlets trundling along a corridor behind a tin dog that could be outrun by a pensioner with a zimmer frame. And that’s before we get to the rocket, which is like something from Button Moon. Finally watching it properly, just a few years back, I was simultaneously heartened and disappointed. They say you should never meet your heroes; perhaps it’s a concept that applies to stories as well. Well, the book is always better.

Nonetheless, I’ll always love this one. It is a last hurrah to classic horror and gothic romance (at least until we get to Androzani) and it works, and it has oppressed peasants and sacrifices and rituals and some telling insights into the history of the Doctor’s race, with Baker and Ward as watchable as ever. It’s a shame Adric didn’t meet a pointy death at the end of a wooden stake, but you can’t have everything. At least he didn’t survive Earthshock.

Rick Lundeen: The War Games

1983, Chicago Doctor Who 20th anniversary convention. 3:00 AM.

I can’t in all honesty say that this was my first time seeing a Troughton story – I may have been able to catch one elsewhere – but it was definitely the first time seeing him on the big screen, as the ballrooms were large, with plenty of seating. So I grabbed a beer and a hot dog and sauntered in and settled down for the next 4 1/2 hours to watch…

The War Games by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke.

And it was a treat. The final adventure for any Doctor is kind of a crap shoot. You never know what you’re going to get. With The War Games, you got a lot more than you bargained for. An epic evil plan so huge, that the Doctor actually needs help to wrap it up. I can only imagine the stunned audience at the time — we found out who the Doctor actually is and where he comes from!

Although there’s some back and forth, this massive 10-part story is paced very well and feels every bit as important as it should. The moment one of the other time travel machines materialises, it’s an immediate red flag and you knew that something big was going down. We meet the War Chief and the Security Chief playing up every word to the hilt, contrasted with the brilliant Philip Maddoc as the War Lord, keeping it low key and all the more menacing. Hindsight is 20/20 but after all these years, one wonders if the War Chief managed to regenerate after they hauled his body into the corner?

And finally, the Time Lords. We mourn the loss of the mysterious god-like beings that we only ever saw here but really, seeing only their effect ahead of time — while spooky — is a bit of a one-trick pony. Eventually, you see behind the curtain. We even get a look behind the scenes at the regeneration process as the Doctor receives his sentence of exile. It was our first clue that the Time Lords have a choice in these matters. Powerful stuff.

This story was a key moment in the Doctor’s life. I’m glad we had Patrick Troughton on the screen and Terrance Dicks on the typewriter.

Joe Siegler: The Five Doctors

At the time, I was blown away by this story, and as time progressed, I learned to love it. It’s not the deepest story you’ll ever see on this show. It’s a nostalgia fest which had to balance four actors in the title role, a fifth that didn’t want to be there, and a recasting of one of the four. You had a dozen or so companions in various states of “things to do”; a handful of old enemies; one of the most “Gallifrey” stories there has ever been; and you could have had a disaster. But it wasn’t. This was written by Doctor Who legend, Terrance Dicks, for crying out loud! In the hands of a lesser writer, it would have been too boring, in my opinion. Dicks made this work, and I told him that at a convention I met him at in the 1980s. I was so tempted, when I thought of Dicks’ best work, to go with something like The War Games (which I really like), but I’ve consistently loved The Five Doctors over the decades, so I go with this as my favorite Terrance Dicks story.

Liam Brice-Bateman: Horror of Fang Rock

There are a few production issues with Horror of Fang Rock. The model shot of the shipwreck looks a bit naff; there are not many sets; and Tom Baker was very confrontational towards co-star Louise Jameson. However, despite all that, this is one of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who. It’s all down to Terrance Dick’s script.

With a small cast and a small setting, Dicks manages to create a large story.  Dealing with interplanetary conflict and interpersonal drama. Each character leaps off the screen, delivering some outstanding lines. Leela is wonderfully characterised. She is a skilled hunter who has no time for the delicacy of Adelaide.

All of the characters are fully realised from Vince the naive lighthouse attendant to the brash Colonel Skinsale. It’s a joy to watch how the character interactions change as the tensions and threat grow larger. One of the best written stories from the whole of Doctor Who.

David Traynier: The Five Doctors

My favourite Terrance Dicks story is not his best — Horror of Fang Rock — nor his most epic and influential: The War Games. It’s not much of a story at all: it’s The Five Doctors.

Robert Holmes – Who’s finest – attempted The Six Doctors, in which the Cybermen would fuse the Doctors’ DNA with their own to create ‘Cyberlords’ — a wheeze eventually foiled by Susan and an android First Doctor (the eponymous ‘Sixth’). But Holmes couldn’t build his house on the shifting ground:

You have four Doctors. We might have Katy. We need the Master. And Gallifrey. And a Yeti. Let’s have some Autons. No, we have three Doctors, plus stock footage. We don’t have Katy. Can you add Benton? Carole Ann won’t do it. Can you put the Brigadier with Three? Add Borusa? Carole Ann will do it. Sorry, no Benton, and can you put the Brig with Two? No money for Autons… Oh and Saward wants more Cybermen. Yes, even more.

Exit Bob, enter Uncle Terry. The superior artist gives way to the superior technician. Bob liked to paint on whole canvas, Terry was willing to stitch together pieces. It took a superlative script editor to devise a flexible structure that wouldn’t fall apart under every cash and casting jolt; to shuffle an ever-changing deck of cards and still produce a winning hand.

The Five Doctors skates over a dozen gaping holes in the road. The Doctors barely see each other, Sarah Jane’s cliffhanger is a joke, the Master’s is feeble. The Cybermen are moronic and myopic, and Mark Strickson gets fewer lines than the superfluous Dalek. Nor is the story loaded with revelations, long-kept secrets, and long-sought payoffs. This is no game changer. And no, not the mindprobe.

But, like Dicks, it gets the job done. Brilliantly and more cleverly than a casual viewing might suggest. It doesn’t impose itself on the continuity in the way Steven Moffat’s far more egoistic writing would years later. It doesn’t attempt to bookend the Doctor’s life, or have him declare his credo in some operatic, character crystallizing speech. The closest is this:

Tegan: “You mean you’re deliberately choosing to go on the run from your own people, in a rackety old TARDIS?”

The Fifth Doctor: “Why not? After all, that’s how it all started.”

Instead, it celebrates. At a time when Doctor Who was fixated on its own continuity, it welcomed the casual viewer, introducing its characters and settings so that you didn’t need Ian Levine on speed dial to enjoy it. This was Who built for the bigger stage of Children in Need night. It gives the kids monsters and the grown-ups nostalgia, with the Doctors cleverly sketched in the soft, honeyed strokes of reminiscence.

This was simply the most exciting thing ever to have happened to this 8-year-old. The Time Scoop frightened and fascinated me. The Raston carnage thrilled me. Borusa’s entombment – all those bloodshot, frantic eyes – the second most disturbing paving slab in Who history. I still love Peter Howell’s superbly eerie soundtrack with its evocative metronome. Only Russell T. Davies since has captured the sense of joyous, story-be-damned festivity, when he garlanded the TARDIS console with heroes in Journey’s End.

I see it for what it is now — creaky plot, creaky Gallifreyan Formica, Raston zip and all — but my affection has achieved immortality. The Five Doctors is a triumph because Terrance Dicks was a professional who took on a job that would have crumpled other writers. He threw a party, and everyone was invited. When those splendid chaps began saying their goodbyes, I remember wanting desperately for it not to end. I didn’t want to go home.

Colin Burden: State of Decay

My favourite Terrance Dicks’ story is a two-horse race between State of Decay and The Five Doctors, but it’s the former that wins out.

What gives State of Decay the edge is that it was part of my first full season as a proper Doctor Who fan, instead of just being a casual viewer (albeit a child one). Despite featuring the unpopular Adric (15-year-old me didn’t have an issue with him), State of Decay definitely harked back to a time when Doctor Who was scarier and could court a little controversy; wasn’t there a rumour that a question was asked in the Commons about the depiction of bats? Of course, as we now all know, this was written for a previous era and rejected due to the BBC’s 1977 adaptation of Dracula. I rather think that this is in State of Decay’s favour; that it was intended for what many people viewed as Doctor Who’s finest era, but it wasn’t rejected due to not making the grade.

Having said that, State of Decay has an utterly bonkers ending (that 15-year-old even thought so). But that didn’t matter; it still had that gothic atmosphere and a proper thrilling climax. It’s worth a mention that State of Decay has been released on audiobook twice: a much-played Pickwick short version (read by Tom Baker) in 1981, and a reading of the Target novelisation in 2015, both adapted by Dicks. State of Decay is also on the list of Target book I’ve read more than once.

Simon Danes: The War Games

I know he co-wrote it, but it’s got to be The War Games. Terrance never wrote a bad script. The War Games has the edge, though.

The superb opening episode, which seems to be a historical until we start to realise that something is very wrong as General Smythe hypnotises people just by putting on his glasses (“It is glear. They are all. GUILTY! All. Guilty!”). Superb performances from Noel Coleman, David Garfield, Edward Brayshaw, James Bree, and the silkily sinister Philip Madoc. And all the others. David Maloney. The psychedelic War Lords’ headquarters. Troughton, the definitive Doctor, at his mesmerising best. The introduction of the Time Lords and the Doctor’s trial.

Exciting, epic and mind-boggling.

One of the best stories ever made.

So that’s what we think. And yes, I’m surprised that no one chose The Brain of Morbius too! Maybe the water was muddied after Robert Holmes’ rewrite, resulting in its being credited to Robin Bland.

But what do you think, dear reader? Tell us about your favourite Terrance Dicks TV story below!

Philip Bates

Editor and co-founder of the Doctor Who Companion. When he’s not watching television, reading books ‘n’ Marvel comics, listening to The Killers, and obsessing over script ideas, Philip Bates pretends to be a freelance writer. He enjoys collecting everything. Writer of The Black Archive: The Pandorica Opens/ The Big Bang, The Silver Archive: The Stone Tape, and 100 Objects of Doctor Who.

What is Your Favourite Doctor Who Serial by Terrance Dicks, and Why?

by Philip Bates time to read: 12 min
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