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Monday, October 13, 2014

Terrance Dicks & Christopher H Bidmead Clash Over Vampires

A forbidding castle
Guards the village of Tamworth,
In the English Midlands.

This post is Part 1 of a series on Doctor Who and the State of Decay by Terrance Dicks.

Looming above the Village was the dark Tower. Its pointed turrets reared up against the night sky, dominating the landscape as they had done for a thousand years. The simple village dwellings huddled around its base. Beyond the Village was a scattering of ploughed fields, bordered on one side by dense forests, on the other by swamp.

So begins Doctor Who and the State of Decay, a novel by Terrance Dicks. Soon the TARDIS will materialize in the forests, and the fourth Doctor and his companions will investigate the only inhabited area of this planet. There they find threadbare peasants horrified by the idea of visitors. These people, worn and weary, eek out a miserable existence, giving the fruits of their labors to the Lords in the Tower. Each harvest seems worse than the last, and the Lords leave them with fewer scraps on which to survive. And then there are the Selections, when the Guards take away the strongest and most vital inhabitants. A few of those selected become Guards. The rest are never seen again.

But then, the lot of the Guards is little better than that of the peasants. 

One of them was Habris, Captain of the Guard. Lean and grim-faced like his fellows, he marched along the gloomy corridors of the Tower, with reluctant haste. The haste was because he was on the business of the Lords, and dared not delay. The reluctance was because, as always, to enter the presence of his rulers made Habris sweat with fear.

He's not sure why this should be, as he stands high in their favor. But there is something cold and distant in them, something lacking. Something not quite human.

Terrance Dicks initially proposed Doctor Who and the State of Decay for the fourth Doctor and his beautiful but uncivilized companion Leela. Then the BBC commissioned a big budget production of Dracula, and forbid Doctor Who to film a story about vampires. So all work on the project ceased, and the story seemed destined to be forgotten. Then, a few years later, a new producer named John Nathan-Turner took over the show. He had great plans for improving the series, ideas he had carefully considered during his years of working in lesser roles on the series. Most of his predecessors had inherited several stories commissioned by the previous producer that were ready to be put into production. After taking the reins of the show, he discovered that he had little to begin his tenure with. More importantly, as a first-time producer, many in the BBC hierarchy wondered if he was up to the task. In taking over such a long-running TV show, with seventeen previous seasons at this point, Nathan-Turner knew he couldn't afford to fail. He and his Script Editor, Christopher H Bidmead, would have to scramble to commission scripts that they could shape to incorporate their ideas to help steer the series in their desired direction.

The young producer went through Doctor Who archives. During his research, he came across a file that writer Terrance Dicks has suggested might have been labeled "Stories We Didn't Film For One Reason Or Another." Amid this treasure trove of possible stories, he found the notes from Dicks' ideas about vampires in Outer Space, and fell in love with them. Having served as Script Editor during the third Doctor era, and with his solid track record of delivering easily-filmable scripts on time (sometimes even in a rush), Terrance Dicks seemed like a safe bet to deliver a script on time that needed little input from or reshaping by Christopher H Bidmead to incorporate into their upcoming schedule. So John Nathan-Turner commissioned Dicks to write the story for the fourth Doctor and his current companions: the beautiful and sophisticated Time Lady Romana, the young boy Adric, and his robot dog K-9. Certain he knew the perfect person to direct it, he sent the story treatment to Peter Moffatt, with whom he had worked on All Creatures Great and Small. Moffatt likewise fell in love with the story, and agreed to direct it. Content with the good start he had made, Nathan-Turner left the task of developing the story for production to Bidmead, and went on to other tasks. 

Unfortunately, Christopher H Bidmead did not share the producer and director's enthusiasm for the story. He wrestled with Terrance Dicks over the ideas in the story, trying to bring it more into line with his more Hard-Science vision of the series. They argued over the title.  Bidmead wanted to call it "The Wasting," and dismissed Dicks' initial title "The Vampire Mutation." Dicks hated "The Wasting," believing that critics and viewers might belittle it as "A waste of their time." They argued over the structure. In order to make one scene work to Bidmead's satisfaction, the Script Editor suggested a change that would have necessitated numerous changes to other scenes. Dicks refused to rewrite all four episodes to "fix" whatever problems Bidmead perceived in that single scene. It was Bidmead's job to shape scripts to steer the production in the direction that his John Nathan-Turner wished to take the series. In his opinion, Terrance Dicks refused to adapt his storytelling approach accordingly. The two men clashed violently and often, and with each argument, each man's opinion of the other fell.

Imagine how the poor, overworked Doctor Who staff members must have crept past Bidmead's office when these two men met. Picture the storm clouds that gathered around the BBC tower as these men fought and raged. Fear for those who, with reluctant haste, had to interrupt either writer during these titanic story sessions. For some storytellers are mere humans, while others are Lords of Story.

Dragon Dave

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