Around Christmas 2001 I read the complete Terrance Dicks as part of a read-a-thon and posted my conclusions to the internet. I then completely forgot about them. However following in the excellent footsteps of John Seavey's authorial retrospectives, I've dug out and updated my scribblings in case anyone might find 'em interesting.
Lance Parkin has pointed out that when we talk of Terrance Dicks's "recent work", we're usually talking about the past twenty years (i.e. The Five Doctors onwards). His reputation was gold-plated throughout the Virgin era thanks to his TV credits and Timewyrm: Exodus - and he'd have surely been rated even higher had he not asked Robert Holmes to take his name off The Brain of Morbius. However The Eight Doctors sealed his fate. From then on it was impossible to take the man seriously. To be honest there's not much to choose between his later NAs and his BBC Books (The Eight Doctors and Warmonger excepted) but once fandom's goodwill bubble had burst there was no way back. That was his "blood in the water" book.
But respect to the man - he did write eighty-odd Target novelisations, which were the videos and DVDs of an entire generation of UK fandom. They were children's books, yes, but that doesn't mean they're not still entertaining today. I reread a couple (Planet of the Daleks and Planet of Giants) and Terrance's prose flies like the wind to create snappy, action-filled thrillers that at their best kick the arse of his original novels. In the following list, Planet of the Daleks (brilliant!) would come second after Timewyrm: Exodus while even Planet of Giants (a novelisation I selected as probably the least suited to Terrance's style, just to see him at his worst) is probably hovering somewhere around Deadly Reunion.
Moving on to the present day with Virgin and BBC Books, Terrance's heart is still with Target. He doesn't write full length novels, but instead a few vaguely connected Target-length stories and shoves them together with the minimum of stitching. The only Terrance book not to chop itself up like this is Catastrophea, which is instead SLOOOOOW.
A Terrance Dicks novel is also likely to revisit, namedrop or sequelise one or more of his favourite things. Vampires, Gallifrey, Winston Churchill, Casablanca
, gangsters from 30s Chicago and World War Two are among his favourite tropes. It's interesting to note that his first two Tom Baker TV stories have their roots in Frankenstein
, which is a hobby-horse he seems to have let go in later years. He also has an unfortunate fondness for rape references in his novels, which is usually merely disasteful but in Warmonger becomes outright book-wrecking. Terrance's characterisation is never deep or complex, but he seems to struggle most with female characters; someone tell him to steer clear and concentrate on his strengths instead.
It's fashionable to laugh at Terrance, but I always kinda liked him. His post-Timewyrm: Exodus books are childish and cheerfully dumb, but at least they're usually fun and lively. However in a recent online Head-To-Head competition I conducted, to my surprise people preferred The Time Monster to Endgame (21-17) and The Twin Dilemma to Catastrophea (21-14). The Twin Dilemma?!!? Terrance's work these days is pretty much the embodiment of "trad, trad and more trad, but at least he's good for a laugh." I'd have expected his stuff to be at least skulking in the third division, not going out to TV opposition that might have been hand-picked to be the weakest imaginable.
But on reflection I decided that's probably fair. Most of Terrance's books really are inferior to the dregs of the TV series. We love to bash the weaker stories, forgetting that in television terms even the worst Doctor Who is well up on most of what's out there. I'd sooner watch Seasons 23 and 24 than Star Trek: Enterprise, for instance, and it's not even close. Yes, Terrance's novels are basically crap - but they're also bouncy, cheerful and surprisingly enjoyable if you're not looking for literature. He's well ahead of several other Who authors I could name!
It's time to rank his books! Going from worst to best, to date we have...
10th - The Eight Doctors, of course. Most of Terrance's novels are cheerful no-brainers with only minimal differences from all the others, but this is something special. Brain-damaged, scary (in a bad way) and unintentionally hilarious, this is the book that set Doctor Who back thirty years and probably did more damage to the franchise than any other novel. Yes, even War of the Daleks. It's every kind of crap and more besides. I loved it! 2 out of 10.
9th - Warmonger, in which Terrance tries to do an ambitious galaxy-spanning epic and completely fails to live up to the challenge. The tragedy is that a couple of rewrites might have turned this into another Timewyrm: Exodus. It's full of Terrance's trademark jollity, but Warmonger will leave your intelligence bruised and your skin feeling slimy.
8th - Deadly Reunion, which is mostly okay except for the blatant rip-offs of The Daemons, surprisingly lacklustre 3rd Doctor and Jo, multiple deus ex machina endings and incoherent silliness that passes for a plot.
7th - Blood Harvest. The individual subplots are lots of fun, but they don't mesh. I really wanted more links between Chicago and the vampire planet. Agonal is a prototype Player and the continuity (especially Borusa) is painful even by Terrance standards. Did we need to visit Gallifrey? I think not. 7 out of 10, though I did enjoy it.
6th - Players, though on another day I might almost have placed it second. There's precious little difference between this and, say, Mean Streets, to pick at random. It's undemanding frivolous entertainment, but it deserves a raspberry for writing the second and sixth Doctors (of all people) as Pertwee. 7 out of 10.
5th - Catastrophea. Rereading it gave me a clearer view of its faults, but I still enjoyed it. Slow and daft, but it contains some of Terrance's best intentional comedy and some glorious evocations of the 3rd Doctor and Jo. Another 7 out of 10.
4th - Mean Streets. Perhaps the definitive Terrance novel - daft fun and nothing more, with too much continuity (this time to Shakedown). Does its job perfectly, entertaining you for its duration and not exactly lingering in the mind afterwards. Yet another 7.
3rd - Shakedown, which contains all kinds of un-Terrance-y things... Imagination! Originality! Tension! (Well, during the middle section at least.) It's funny and charming; 8 out of 10.
2nd - Endgame. Terrance doesn't know how lucky he was to get commissioned during the Earth arc. Without its scary Doctor this would lurk somewhere near Players, but as it stands it's an unsettling, effective little piece. 8 out of 10.
1st - Timewyrm: Exodus, again of course. This was Terrance's first full-length novel and for once he worked hard on it. This is his masterpiece, the book where all his quirks and foibles work. The prose is crafted, the Nazis are scary and the alternate future is genuinely unsettling. Even Terrance-haters admit this one's a corker. 10 out of 10.
So there you have it, a trip through the work of Uncle Tewwy. Would I read another Terrance Dicks novel? Well, obviously. I read everything! But despite all my bad experiences with his books - the shallow flimsiness of the prose, cobbled-together plotting, self-indulgent smugness, excessive continuity and rape references... despite all that, I think I'd still look forward to another Terrance Dicks novel. He's fun.