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Inventing A Time Lord

Terrance Dicks CatastropheaSaturday, November 23rd, 2013 is the Day of the Doctor. Fifty years ago, the first episode of Doctor Who aired, and to mark this milestone an anniversary special will be airing simultaneously in Britain and around the world. As a longtime fan of both the classic and current series, I’ve set aside my Saturday afternoon to partake in this event, and I’m certainly hoping it lives up to the lofty expectations set by five decades of adventure in time and space.

I’ve already described my affinity for Doctor Who. The show is built around a limitless premise: that a benevolent, heroic, somewhat mad genius can travel anywhere in space and time, bringing his companions (and his audience) along for the adventures. As storytelling opportunities go, that one is pretty incomparable… but if you consider it from the point of view of a writer or editor, it also has its challenges. How do you control such a boundless story opportunity? Worse: how do you make it fit into a storytelling medium (like television) which is confined by depressingly linear and temporal concerns… like aging actors?

In order to survive for fifty years, Doctor Who had to establish some key long-term plot pieces. What’s interesting is that the creators didn’t put all of these structures in place at once. Indeed, as a new docudrama shows, the BBC television executives behind the program really didn’t realize what they had on their hands:

In the beginning, Doctor Who was designed to be an entertainment and educational program for children, in which the Doctor was the wise voice of authority –– more of a teacher than a leading man. Almost immediately, that began to evolve, because the second story of the series introduced alien villains who became rather famous: the Daleks. Suddenly there was an antagonist who could drag the series away from its intended path –– enough to ensure Doctor Who’s popularity would grow… even while the actor behind the eponymous character was gradually losing his ability to maintain the part.

As William Hartnell’s health deteriorated, the producers and writers were left with a dilemma: a highly-successful show, about to lose its main character. They needed to come up with a way to save the story… and they did so, by deciding that like Doctor Jekyll, their Doctor could turn into a different man. It was unprecedented, creative, and imminently practical… but it wasn’t made into a huge element of the plot. How and why the Doctor turned into character actor Patrick Troughton was left ambiguous… but it didn’t matter: the new player quickly redefined the role, and the success continued.

Doctor Who had therefore developed a certain immunity to the challenges of television drama: if the lead actor wanted to leave, he could –– the show would march on. Indeed, when Troughton felt he’d done his time, and the program’s ratings began to sag (it was black and white in a new age of color television), Jon Pertwee was hired to take up the sonic screwdriver… but it was in the process of changing hands that a new writer set the series on the course we know today.

Troughton’s last story was a ten-part marathon called The War Games, and one of the writers on that adventure was newcomer Terrance Dicks. It fell to him, then, to explain why the Doctor was changing faces again –– presumably it could have been left ambiguous, but clearly a change in lead actors was a great opportunity to add to the program’s back story, and to set up plot lines that might serve it going forward. As such, Terrance Dicks did something no other writer had yet done on the program: he named the Doctor’s own species.

Put simply: he invented the Time Lords.

For six seasons, no one had known where the Doctor had come from, or why he had had stolen his time machine and run away. Now there was a reason, and though it was only introduced at the end of The War Games, Dicks was given the opportunity to do more with it. With the arrival of the Third Doctor, Dicks was made script editor, and working with his friend and colleague, producer Barry Letts, he started to tie together the relevant mysteries that had been left over from the first two Doctors’ eras. To do this he would famously re-write scripts (sometimes completely, though always leaving the credit with the original screenwriter), and he would set clear direction for the sorts of stories the program would tell.

The result was the Doctor Who that we know today. While the famous Daleks and Cybermen predated Dicks, the Time Lords, the Master, UNIT, and Sarah Jane Smith all began under his supervision. So did the Silurians, the Sontarans, the Nestene Consciousness, and as a consultant at the beginning of the Fourth Doctor’s era, he even had a hand in the introduction of Davros.

Most importantly: when Jon Pertwee left the program after five years, it was Dicks (and Letts) who finally gave a name, and some explanation, to the process that turned one Doctor into another. These days, we take regeneration for granted, but it began on Dicks’ watch –– he and Letts set the rules for everything that followed.

The era of the First Doctor gave us an incomparable concept, later summarized eloquently: Anywhere you want –– any time you want. One rule: it has to be amazing.

The era of the Second Doctor gave the character the qualities which we know today: he became the heroic mad man in a box.

But the era of the Third Doctor, and specifically the influence of Terrance Dicks, gave us the structure that allowed both concept and character to endure. Without understanding who the Time Lords were, or how they regenerated, we simply couldn’t have the Doctor we know today, and that all started with one writer who was handed an actor change, and decided to make the most of the opportunity.

Terrance Dicks remained close to Doctor Who after his tenure as script editor and consultant was over. He wrote a host of episodes, including the twentieth anniversary special, The Five Doctors, and adapted past stories into short novelizations (handy in the age before home video) before penning original novels (like Catastrophea, pictured above).

But of everything he contributed, I know what I’ll always value most as a fan: if you don’t have Time Lords, your protagonist can’t be the last of the Time Lords. And if our modern Doctor didn’t possess that dramatic identity, I rather doubt the revival of Doctor Who could have succeeded.

So here’s to Terrance Dicks –– and to whatever great adventure we see tomorrow.