[Review] Doctor Who: Shada, by Douglas Adams and Gareth Roberts


A bit of background for the unfamiliar: Douglas Adams was the script editor (equivalent to Steven Moffat's current position as show runner and executive producer) on Doctor Who for the seventeenth season, having previously written the episode the Pirate Planet. If you want a more in depth examination of Douglas' tenure on the show, and how he continues to influence the programme, I highly recommend giving this BBC Radio documentary a listen.

The end of his time on the show came with a touch of disappointment, as the planned six part finale, Shada, was ultimately shut down due to a technicians lockout. In Douglas' mind this might not have been a bad thing, as various interviews and reports over the years have suggested he was never entirely happy with the final scripts (not uncommon for Douglas, who was never entirely happy with any of his finished projects). The material that was filmed for the episode appeared twice afterwards. Once, to fill in Tom Baker's appearances in the Five Doctors anniversary special, and as a slap-dash edit of Shada, strung together with Baker's narration to fill in the gaps, which Douglas hated (and has recently been rereleased on DVD).

Shada itself was rewritten as an Eighth Doctor adventure for the Big Finish audio dramas, with emphasis on rewritten. Shada as Douglas intended never saw the light of day. Until now. In a form that Douglas would have appreciated, as a novel, full of the sorts of descriptive passages that Douglas loved to fill with his unique brand of absurdest philosophy and wayward usefulness. Gareth Roberts, working not from the first draft scripts as other adaptations have, but rather from the shooting scripts, rife with Douglas' last minute alterations and additions, has given us the closest thing to a new work by Douglas Adams we're ever likely to get.

And it's brilliant.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that once took a robot dog to Cambridge, but for entirely different reasons.

Douglas Adams was somewhat unique in his time on Doctor Who, as his scripts were among the few never novelised. Adams, who was becoming very famous and very rich off the popularity of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, reasoned that he would write the novels themselves. This panned out as might be expected from an author who had to be imprisoned by his editor in order to finish a promised book. So, the initial intention was that Shada, via the hand of Adams, would live as a novel. And until now, this has remained a dream.

Gareth Roberts began his involvement with the Doctor during the Bleak Times, working on the novels published by Virgin, eventually getting a crack at the series proper, having written four episodes since the return. Having finished the book, I feel confident that he was the absolute right choice for an adaptor. If nothing else, the success of Shada demonstrates how utterly wrong Eoin Colfer was a choice to "continue' the Hitchhiker's trilogy. Colfer's prose lacked any signature of Douglas Adams, and felt little else like fan fic using the familiar characters then a continuation of the series. Roberts is helped in that regard, as many of the words here are from Douglas himself. The dialogue in large part is taken direct from the script. These are the words Tom Baker and Lalla Ward would have been speaking all those years ago.

And right from the first line, it is Douglas. Even when it is clearly not, it's buffeted on both sides by a voice out of the past, an inescapable, irreplaceable voice. It was so very nice, so very familiar, and so very sad that once it got going, you know in four hundred some odd pages, it would end again. But that Roberts was able to bring that voice back and put it to page is a commendable feat. It makes one wonder, as Roberts bemoans in the afterword, what it might have been like had Douglas lived to see the return of Who, and what might a new script, with today's budget, have looked like.

Roberts does such a good job bringing Douglas back, it is hard to tell where his material ends, and where Roberts own material begins. Which is the best possible result, I suppose. I never once feels like a bifurcated work. It is never obvious and lamentable that "oh, now we're on to this chap," or "and this bloke wrote that." Perhaps its because the script was a script, so the dialogue belong to Douglas, leaving Roberts to fill in the rest. There is no competition for style or content. This also leaves Roberts free to fill in the plot gaps that by his admission existed because Douglas was obviously rushed into finishing the script.

The dialogue is what sets it apart from other Doctor Who expanded universe novels. It is impossible not to hear Tom Baker in your ears. Or Ward's Romana. Or K-9. Douglas had the characters down pat, and they spring off the page in a fit of auditory hallucinations. All the characters do, save Skagra, who I found to be voiceless. Though maybe that was the point, considering his affectless manner of speaking. His words are silent because they don't betray anything. While the Doctor gives away everything with each toothy jest.

The plot will be vaguely familiar with anyone who has read Dirk Gently, since the novel is mostly a blend of this and City of Death. The Doctor and Romana arrive at the behest of retired and long forgotten Time Lord Chronotis, all the while Skagra plots to become the universe. It takes a while, I'd say until after they've left Cambridge behind, before Skagra becomes an effective villain, the plot to that point mostly hinging on the humour and absurdity of the Doctor at Cambridge. Not that it's a bad thing, and considering it was meant to be a serial, the first full episode really is just introducing elements. But Skagra is the sort of traditional 80's Who villain, much like the Pirate of Adams' Pirate Planet, that was really nothing more then an extension of the moustache twirling silent movie era baddie.

It's only when things get into space, when he's taken Romana hostage, when he's interacting with his ship, Ship, that he is really effective. That he is credible as a threat. And then, as Adams never saw a trope he wasn't content to completely steamroll, undercuts that with two delicious breakdowns in the final section. In fact, where Robert's fingers at the keys might be most strongly felt (and I've nothing to back this up but my gut feeling) might be in the more traditional ways things occur between these breakdowns, and with the overly glossy, happy ending. Or I could be wrong. Adams could be a romantic at times.

It's hard to know without seeing the original scripts what is Adams influencing Roberts, and what is Roberts influencing Adams. The obvious shouts outs to the Guide, and to the modern Who are clearly added in for the modern reader. But the characters of Chris and Clara show all the signs of being either prototype Amy and Rory, or have had themselves filled in by a great heap of the modern companion's characterisations. Whichever it was, Chris and Clara have all the markings of great companions that never were, with all the flaws and discomforts that make for great foils for the Doctor's brilliance. I'm especially fond of very smart human characters having their knowledge base decimated by the Doctor's world, and that describes Chris pretty much to a tee.

Clara gets left behind, it's sad to say, though her brief scene with the Doctor near the start, in the lab, is easily one of my favourite pieces of writing this year. It's not just Douglas' wit and words that Baker would have made short, glorious work of, but what is perhaps the best description of the effect the Doctor has on people. While Clara immediately thinks of rational questions to try to explain his oddity, an undeniable and uncontrollable force inside screams "TAKE ME WITH YOU." How utterly, simply perfect is that? It also retroactively explains Clara's compulsion to follow 11 in Moffat's latest Christmas special. Sometimes, they literally can't help themselves.

As a novel, the book is quite good. As a Doctor Who tale, it is better then that. And as a brand new book with the name Douglas Adams on the spine, it makes me really very happy indeed.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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