The Time Warrior

Terrance Dicks, the prolific British writer of genre television and novels, died last week, at the age of 84. His most enduring work was his decade-and-change association with Doctor Who, as both a screenwriter and script editor. Most classic Who fans have at least one Dicks-associated episode among their favorites. My debt runs a little deeper: I like the Dicks-penned 1977 serial “Horror of Fang Rock” so much that I wrote an entire book about it.

Dicks evolved as a writer over that decade. One of his early scripts, the 10-episode epic “The War Games” (co-written with Malcolm Hulke) drops Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor into an extensive and expansive piece of world-building, somewhat leisurely explorations within deftly sketched borders. The scripts Dicks wrote after his five-year run as script editor lean much more on the deftness, paring away anything that would hold back humming engines of character and atmosphere. Dicks’s plot mechanics and science-fiction contrivances usually came with a bare minimum of explanation, which gave his scripts an effect reminiscent of a well-written piece of music: as a viewer, you accepted each turn of events not so much because of any logical justification, but because of its congruence with the established grammar of the story’s telling. The virtues of Dicks’s scripts were musical virtues—rhythm, tone, forward motion. That efficiency extended to the novelizations of Who episodes published by Target Books, of which Dicks wrote the considerable majority. His brevity could be bracing. His novelization of his own “Fang Rock” script clocks in at a mere 126 not-very-tightly-spaced pocket-paperback pages; you could probably read it in less time than it would take to watch the actual broadcast. But the pithiness could have a paradoxically rich effect, outlining the stakes and structure with a high-contrast clarity that let you hold the whole thing in your imagination, turning it about and filling in texture and interpretation.

Like most U.S.-based Who fans of a certain age, I read dozens of Dicks’s novelizations, filling in the show’s lore at a time when broadcasts were happenstance and videotapes were scarce. I occasionally have wondered whether that reading was a symptom or a cause of my longtime fascination with forms of musical translation—not just transcriptions and arrangements, but also the myriad of ways in which scholars and critics have used language to describe music, from the driest technical analyses to the most florid poetic impressions. Even if it didn’t directly seed such obsessions, my many hours spent with Dicks’s renditions scratched that particular itch to an extent that very probably helped guide me toward my wayward creative path. Hail and farewell.

UPDATE: Two more smart appreciations from Ethan Iverson and Elizabeth Sandifer.

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