More often than not, when you’re a child, you don’t understand or even consider the significance of things. Take, for example, my Reception age daughter who is currently discovering the wacky madness of Sooty, Sweep, and Soo. She is aware that there was another friend of the trio before Richard Cadell, but that’s not important to her. Nor is it of any interest to her that Sooty is nearly 70 years old (and not even threadbare) nor that the character is the silent star of the longest running children’s programme in the world. She just enjoys the show for what it is: daft, funny, hilarious in places, and — most important of all — cosy.
Likewise, she knows that daddy’s fridge magnet of the man in the multi-coloured coat sporting blonde curly hair is called “The Doctor”. She also knows that an adjacent fridge magnet of the man in the brown suit, with spiky hair and specs is somehow also called “The Doctor”. She knows the odd thing on top of a bookshelf is a “Dalek” (she stomps around the house with arms outstretched shouting that she’s going to get us — even though she’s so far never even seen one in action), and that the swarm of blue boxes with lights on top dotted across other bookshelves is something to do with it. What she doesn’t yet realise is how important just those few items alone are to her father.
In the mid-1980s, I started down a road that I didn’t consider I’d still be travelling down some 30+ years later. It was at Longleat and, yes, specifically the Doctor Who shop that accompanied the exhibition. My mum bought me the paperback of Doctor Who and the Cybermen and I devoured the book with utter passion previously unseen by my 10-year old psyche. That was my first foray into the heady world of Doctor Who novelisations and I have never looked back.
Coming around in 2021, then, to re-read one specific novelisation was a chance I couldn’t pass up. Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion was crying out to me and, plucking the long-loved, musty little paperback with its pages now edged brown, the scent of old paper a familiar comfort as much as the name of the author on its front, I read with impassioned joy 156 pages of sheer excitement.
Terrance Dicks has long-been considered by many to be the go-to chap to knock out a stack of Target novelisations and, while it could be argued that his writing isn’t complex or requiring much in the way of deep concentration, it’s that fine line between children’s fiction and aiming for the adults alike that he was master of.
His 1974 adaptation of Robert Holmes’ four-episode serial, Spearhead From Space, is every bit the archetypal Terrance Dicks. Even though it was his first foray into novelising for the show, it already has the trademark lashings of delicious prose to remind viewers of what they’d seen on the telly four years before or intriguing and beguiling descriptions of events that a young fan could only ever dream of seeing. We’re given a tentative insight into the Brigadier’s feelings of friendship towards the Doctor through new companion Liz Shaw’s silent observations and presented with a version of the Time Lord himself that only Dicks could convey: the simplicity of a man lost in time, of finding his way on a familiar yet disbelieving world, and of being our hero of the hour, every hour, every day.
And if there was ever an author to describe the sheer excitement of coming home to find a Yeti sitting on your loo in Tooting Bec, it was Terrance. Yes, while we all know that This Never Happened, Jon Pertwee’s quip damn well should have done and it damn well should have been Terrance to have novelised it.
The Autons’ invasion we know will be thwarted by the new Doctor and his new/old team but that doesn’t matter (and so I’m not going to sit here and preach to you the plot of a story that you probably know far, far better than me). Hell, that can be said of any Doctor Who serial. We all know he’s going to save the day; it’s how he’s going to do it is what keeps us here – even if we’ve seen the episodes a thousand times or read the books a million more. And that’s what keeps me dipping into my Target library every now and again, what lures me to read yet again one of Terrance’s novelisations so many decades later.
I can jump from Ian Fleming to Terrance Dicks, then to Carlos Ruiz Zafón and back to Terrance again, via perhaps Abir Mukherjee and Empar Moliner. But whoever I want to read, lurking there in the background are the hordes of evil kept at bay by Terrance himself, by his flair at getting everything we need to know, to feel, to understand, by holding our hand as he guides us with apparent ease through a turbulent universe of Autons, Yetis, Daleks, Sontarans, and faceless ones and more.
I should (and do) thank my much-loved, much-missed ma and pa for my formative childhood years, but you won’t let on that dear Terrance helped out too, will you?
Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion is available to read as part of the anthology title, The Essential Terrance Dicks: Volume One.