Friday, October 24, 2014

A Long-Winded, Discursive, and Possibly Educational Review of 'Shada'

(This review has been cross-posted to

It occurred to me that the novelization of 'Shada' might be something that readers here would be interested in, if they knew about it, and that it might also be something that readers here might not know about. So this is both a review, and an explanation of what exactly 'Shada' was, and how there came to be a novelization of it by Gareth Roberts from Douglas Adams' original script.

In addition to being tremendously famous for his 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' series, Douglas Adams also spent a bit of time as a writer and script editor for Doctor Who. This was just before 'Guide' hit it big, when he was mainly known for contributing a few bits to the final series of "Monty Python's Flying Circus". (The one without John Cleese.) His big breaks came in a sudden burst, which is why he wasn't on Doctor Who for very long. But he did do three scripts--the modestly successful "Pirate Planet", the incredibly well-regarded "City of Death", and "Shada"...which never actually completed filming due to a strike at the BBC, and which wasn't remounted for the ensuing season because incoming producer John Nathan-Turner had no interest in doing anything his predecessor Graham Williams thought was a good idea.

"Shada", in other words, is that rare beast - an unproduced screenplay by a now-deceased legend of science fiction at the absolute height of his skill, which can't be filmed at this point due to a simply insurmountable number of practical hurdles. But this is where a peculiar tradition of Doctor Who comes in, a legacy of one of the few sci-fi/fantasy series out there to predate video recording in any of its media. Virtually every single episode of the classic series of Doctor Who was adapted as a novel, in order to allow fans to experience episodes that had been broadcast before their time and which (due to the BBC's policies at the time on repeats and the previously noted lack of home media) they would probably never have the chance to see again. These novels were occasionally done by the original author, but frequently they were adapted by other hands.

While he was alive, Douglas Adams' stories were among the few that had not been adapted into novels; Adams preferred to adapt his own stories, and the company with the rights to the Doctor Who books simply couldn't afford his page rate. (According to Adams, every time a new editor took over the line, they had the exact same conversation with him about the chances of adapting his books, and he politely gave them the exact same responses each time.) But tragically, Adams died far younger than anyone that brilliant has a right to, which meant that even the adaptations seemed like a longshot.

Enter Gareth Roberts. Those of you who are fans of the new series might recognize him as the screenwriter of "The Lodger" and "The Shakespeare Code", among others, but he made his reputation on Doctor Who as an author of several pastiches of the Graham Williams era of the show. His novel 'The English Way of Death' (now sadly out of print) is considered to be one of the finest encapsulations of that period's whimsy, effortless humor, and penchant for borderline fantasy, and he's always been an outspoken fan of Williams and Adams. As such, when the rights issues were finally sorted out with the Adams estate, Roberts was the first choice to adapt Adams' unfilmed script into a novel. (For the pedants in the crowd, yes I am aware that the script was also adapted for audio by Big Finish Productions with Paul McGann reprising Tom Baker's part, and that there is an unofficial animated adaptation done by Ian Levine using Paul Jones as a Tom Baker impersonator. This is the first mass-market adaptation.)

(Yes, I'm also aware that the sequences that were shot were released on video and DVD, with Baker providing linking narration. That's not a proper adaptation. Sheesh.)

So now that you know what the novelization of 'Shada' is, the question that undoubtedly follows is, "Is it actually any good?" And the answer is, "Yes. Not as good as you'd expect a lost Douglas Adams masterpiece to be, but it's definitely a fun read." Roberts doesn't quite have Adams' deft touch for comic prose, but singling him out for that is almost entirely unfair. He's not trying to be Douglas Adams. He's trying to write Gareth Roberts' very good adaptation of a Douglas Adams story, and he succeeds magnificently at that. His opening line alone is one of the better starts to a novel that I've read lately: "At the age of five, Skagra decided emphatically that God did not exist. This revelation tends to make most people in the universe who have it react in one of two ways - with relief or with despair. Only Skagra responded to it by thinking, 'Wait a second. That means there's a situation vacant.'"

The plot is a fairly classic Doctor Who concept - a megalomaniac (in about as literal a sense as you can get this time) plans to take over the universe using forbidden Time Lord secrets that have been concealed at Cambridge, and the Doctor (accompanied by Time Lady Romana and robot dog K-9) have to stop him. But there are a number of clever twists and elegant misdirections between Cambridge and the lost Time Lord prison of Shada, and I really don't want to give any of them away for the benefit of those of you who haven't had the whole thing summarized multiple times in old Doctor Who episode guides. Suffice to say that this is a perfect example of doing something new and clever with an old idea, and the story hangs together very well.

The only issue I had with the book, and this may be my reaction as a long-time Doctor Who fan who had heard about this one for years as a "lost classic", was that I couldn't help spending my time wondering which bits were taken directly from Adams' original script and which were added by Roberts with the benefit of thirty-odd years of hindsight. (The joke about "edible ball bearings", for example, I'm reasonably sure belonged to Roberts.) I wound up wishing they'd also simply published the shooting script, so that I could see what had been done and when and by whom. It was a bit of a distraction, but one that a less obsessive person might not have to deal with.

On the whole, though, I thought it was a great story well-told, and I think that any fans of Douglas Adams will enjoy it. Pastiches of classic authors have a shaky track record, especially of Douglas Adams (I don't think, for example, that I'll ever recommend Eoin Colfer's 'And Another Thing...') but this one stands out as a fun read in its own right.

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