Neil Gaiman and Terrance Dicks talked to The Register about Who:
Doctor Who @ 50 Two writers stand at opposite ends of the Doctor Who anniversary – cult graphic novelist and author Neil Gaiman and veteran TV man Terrance Dicks.
Gaiman contributed just a single story to Doctor Who: a tale that personified the TARDIS as a woman named Idris, lending flesh to the love of the Doctor’s life and articulating an intense and eternal relationship that could never be physically consummated.
Dicks wrote many episodes between 1969 and 1974, with 70 Who novelisations to his name. He’s best known for cranking out the epic 10-parter The War Games. If anybody knows Doctor Who it is Dicks, whose Time Lord was more time buccaneer than time anguisher.
On the brink of the fiftieth anniversary episode, on 23 November, Gaiman and Dicks talked to us about five decades of change: simple plots, late scripts, Colin Baker’s silly costume, “incoherent crap”, and getting giggly over the 50th anniversary…
The Reg: You’re the multiverse-minded storyteller whose Who credits include 2011’s The Doctor’s Wife. Are you preposterously excited at the prospect of the fiftieth anniversary episode?
Neil Gaiman: I actually am. I love it so much, especially here in the fiftieth anniversary year. It’s magic. Amanda [Palmer, Gaiman’s musician wife] and I are doing An Evening With Neil And Amanda in New York on Saturday, but because of the magic of the international dateline I will be able to go and see the fiftieth anniversary episode in 3D in the cinema, simulcast with the UK, in the afternoon. I love that. And I think the possibility that I will get through that live show without saying something about Doctor Who is zero – it will definitely happen.
The Reg: Without wishing to grovel, The Doctor’s Wife is one of the outstanding recent episodes.
NG: I felt really, peculiarly honoured to be allowed to write that, and to have been allowed to go and play in the Doctor Who sandbox. I’d had this story in my head and Steven Moffat [writer and later producer of the new Whos] just let me go with it. And when it looked like they couldn’t actually afford it in the first season, rather than try to do it on not enough money, and in a hurry, they bumped it to the next season and gave it lots of money. So we actually got to do it properly. I was just so lucky with that – we had a great director, wonderful actors and I got to use all of the things I’d ever wondered about the TARDIS since I was three.
The Reg :The main one being?
NG: I think I must’ve been about eight when I decided that actually what the TARDIS did was it went to, you know, where the Doctor needed to be. Getting to put that line from eight-year-old Neil into Doctor Who was fantastic. Because we all kind of knew it, there wasn’t anybody who watched The Doctor’s Wife and said: “This is not true!” Everybody said: “Oh yeah – that’s how it works.” And the lovely thing about it is, it kind of ever so slightly changes everything that went before… but it doesn’t.
The Reg: Peter Capaldi looks like he’s going to make a very convincing Doctor – he is just him.
NG: It’s one of those ones. And he’s the perfect Doctor after Matt Smith. Matt Smith’s such a puppy, and you know what whatever Peter does he’s going to be a wise old dog, and I think we need one of them now. There’s something gloriously Hartnellian about him, and it’s nice, that idea that it’s somehow gone full circle.
The Reg: Forty-four years after you first wrote for it, and fifty since its début, how has Doctor Who survived?
Terrance Dicks: I’ve always said that the reason for its success is its variety. The show constantly undergoes change, whether major or minor – getting a new Doctor, the changing companions – and if it’s working it just carries you along. It evolves like a living thing, in fact, but the continuity and the central thread of the show is the Doctor, who is always the Doctor, with the same characteristics and attitudes, ideals and morals.
The Reg: Was this part of your plan when you became script editor?
TD: My plan was to get the bloody show out, on the air! When people asked me: “What were your aims and ambitions for the show?” I’d say: “That the BBC did not have to show the test card at 6pm on Saturday night.”
When I arrived [Dicks was appointed assistant script editor in 1968], the script situation was fairly diabolical and chaotic – they were very often late, and shows were falling through. The most extreme example of I can think of is when a four-parter and six-parter had fallen through, and [script editor] Derrick Sherwin came into my office and said: “Terrance, we need a 10-part Doctor Who and you’re going to write it and we need it next week.”
I exaggerate slightly but not much. I called Mac [Malcolm] Hulke, who’d been my friend and mentor in the business, as it were, and we wrote The War Games together, a script every two days. Obviously, it’s madness to do a 10-part Doctor Who!
Dicks on The War Games
The Reg: But people really dig The War Games!
TD: Yes. In the past I was always a bit apologetic about The War Games, at conventions. I’d say: “The opening episode’s good – they’re in the First World War and a Roman chariot comes out of the mist, that’s a great moment. And the end, with the trial of the Doctor when he’s condemned to turn into Jon Pertwee, is good. But in between there’s a lot of running up and down corridors, escapes and captures.
When it came out on DVD, there was a big review in the Doctor Who magazine which said: “Terrance has been talking nonsense, it’s excellent all the way through.” I was highly delighted to be proved wrong.
The Reg: Is there a particular Who phase you rate?
TD: The whole of the Pertwee era [1970-74], though I’m a bit sort of schizophrenic about the Doctor being exiled to Earth. I love UNIT and the UNIT stories, but of every story is a UNIT story, monotony is going to set in, and in any case, it’s not Doctor Who. Doctor Who is the Doctor saying: “Come for a trip in the TARDIS, I know this delightful planet”, and when they arrive monsters jump on them immediately. So we spent at least a season, maybe more, getting the Doctor up and away again.
The Reg: Some viewers have mixed feelings about the ’80s Who.
TD: My feeling aren’t at all mixed. There was a decline without a doubt. I think the people working on it, particularly John Nathan-Turner [producer 1980-89], were not fit for purpose, as it were. Colin Baker, for example, never got a chance with that silly costume, which I thought was a great shame. I was sorry but I wasn’t surprised when they took it off.
When they did the 1996 movie, Barry [Letts, producer 1969-74) and I both hated it – a BBC mandarin asked me what I thought of it, and I said: “Incoherent crap.” The one thing they got right was Paul McGann. I was sorry when it didn’t go to series, though with an Anglo-American project you’re always in a dodgy situation. So I was highly delighted when it came back with such a bang in 2005.
The Reg: Comparing the two epochs, what has been lost and what’s been gained, do you think?
TD: What has been gained is pace, complexity and of course spectacle, with special effects – they’ve got a much bigger budget than we had. What’s been lost a little, I think, is narrative structure and everything making sense. Having just 50 minutes, they sometimes have to whizz through a story, sometimes too quickly. It’s not the show I worked on and it’s neither better nor worse, just thoroughly different.
I don’t always understand it but I still watch it and I think Matt Smith and David Tennant were both born-to-play-it people, like the first handful (of Doctors) pretty much were. David Tennant was terrific – if it wasn’t for Pertwee he’d be in the running for my favourite I think.
The Reg: Would you pass on any wisdom to the current producers?
TD: I think the essential character of the Doctor certainly shouldn’t change, but I’ve served my time on Who, and it’s not my business to tell them how to do it. It is, though, largely made by people who grew up reading my Doctor Who books, ha ha!