Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams wrote three Doctor Who scripts — but only two of them made it to the screen. The third, "Shada," was killed halfway through filming by one of the strikes that the British used to be famous for. And since then, we've had a terrible VHS release, a script book, an animated web version, and a fan-written novelization to give us glimpses of Adams' lost story. (Plus, of course, Adams' own Dirk Gently novel which borrows from "Shada.")
But now, at last, there's a proper book version, written by Doctor Who writer Gareth Roberts. And, somewhat shockingly, it's rather an entertaining read. Minor spoilers ahead.
Why should it be shocking that Shada, the book, is an entertaining read? Well, first of all, "Shada," the TV episode, never looked like it was going to be that good, if it had been finished. Coming on the heels of the masterful "City of Death," "Shada" looks like it would have been a longer, slower version of the same thing — the location filming in Paris is replaced with bountiful scenes of Cambridge, in which Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are clearly having more fun than the viewers. Instead of Julian Glover's fantastic Scaroth, "Shada" is saddled with the silver-lame-wearing, somewhat prissy Skagra, who doesn't quite get any lines as good as, "My dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems." The plot involves a lot of Time Lord mumbo-jumbo, something the show had clearly overused at that point. And so on. To watch the surviving footage of "Shada" and read the (apparently early) circulating script draft is to feel a bit of a tragic letdown.
And second of all, you can easily imagine how Roberts — who is an entertaining novelist in his own right, I highly recommend his Who novel The Highest Science — would get stuck trying to do a pastiche of Douglas Adams' inimitable prose style. And that could have gone very, very badly indeed.
But in fact, Shada is an entertaining read, which respects Adams' original story without being afraid to plug some huge holes and make some much-needed improvements. Roberts manages a zippy, fast-paced writing style that nods to Adams without ever trying to do any Adamsian acrobatics across the page. The exposition is kept pretty business-like, and the narrator's main concern is giving an amusing window into the state of the minds of the characters, both major and minor. In fact, Roberts' writing style, in Shada, owes just as much to classic Terrance Dicks — early Dicks, not later Dicks — in that he's not afraid to end a section of the novel with a short one-sentence paragraph, crowned with an exclamation point. The way in which very minor characters, who appear on screen for a few seconds before dying, get fleshed out in the novel feels very Dicksian.
In Shada, the Doctor and his companion Romana are summoned to Cambridge in 1979 to visit Professor Chronotis, a retired Time Lord who's now living as a Cambridge don. Chronotis turns out to have "borrowed" a very special book from Gallifrey, the home planet of the Time Lords, and now he wants the Doctor to give it back — but the evil Skagra is looking for this same book, because it contains the key to one of the Time Lords' greatest secrets, which could fuel Skagra's plans for universal domination. And unfortunately, Skagra is armed with a mind-sucking sphere that can erase your memory and identity, leaving you a hollow shell. Plus an army of rock creatures called Krargs. (Roberts insists on spelling their name "Kraags," which has shattered my world-view.)
So you're probably in one of two camps here. Either you're familiar with "Shada," in one of its many previous incarnations, in which case you're wondering if Roberts has helped it achieve its potential for greatness. Or you're a fan of the new series, who's vaguely aware that Douglas Adams wrote for classic Who, and maybe you've seen "City of Death," and you're wondering if this is a good way to explore further into Adams' Doctor Who legacy. And I'd say the answer to both questions is a pretty solid "Yes."
Adams built a lot of clever ideas into the original "Shada" — without giving away too much, Skagra's plan for universal domination is actually quite clever and fits together pretty neatly in the end. And Professor Chronotis is one of the great Douglas Adams characters, full of dotty mannerisms and a certain amount of amiable silliness. There are some lovely set pieces and a decent amount of quotable dialogue.
But what Roberts has done, in a nutshell, is turn it into a solid story. For the first time, the villain Skagra has a backstory and a bit more of a rounded personality than he managed to get in Adams' original script. Not only does Roberts work hard to plug some of the huge logic holes in Adams' scenario, but in the process he also creates more sense of forward momentum with the storytelling, and an increased sense of the stakes. (Roberts has obviously spent hours thinking through questions like, "Why doesn't the Doctor ever notify the Time Lords that this super-powerful secret book has gone missing?")
But the best part of the book is almost certainly the work Roberts has done on shoring up the two human supporting characters, two graduate students named Claire and Chris. As Roberts himself notes in afterword, Claire and Chris seem like they're going to be important characters early on in the story, but they soon get lost in the shuffle and devolve into extra pairs of hands and opportunities for exposition. Roberts approaches Claire and Chris as an extra pair of companions, giving them the sort of treatment that Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat might have accorded them — and yes, that includes a love story.
Given that Roberts has written for the new Doctor Who series, plus a lot of episodes of the Sarah Jane Adventures, it should come as no surprise that there's a definite "new Who" feeling to the book — including a few little moments, here and there, that bring out the emotion that was always right there, just under the surface, in Tom Baker's episodes with his bride-to-be Lalla Ward. Fans of the newer episodes will appreciate the moments of added character development, but even if you're a die-hard traditionalist who's refused to watch any episodes since they got rid of Bessie, you'll recognize the Doctor at his quixotic best.
All in all, it's a pretty fun read — and given that we're in the midst of a long period with no new Doctor Who, it's a nice extra story to carry you over. (Oh, and speaking of which — there are some new set photos featuring some notable guest stars, which are going in tomorrow's morning spoilers but you can check them out now.) Fans of Douglas Adams will find this probably the most palatable way to sample one of his most famous lost works, and anyone who enjoys both the big heart and the boundless silliness of Doctor Who will be pleased with what Roberts has managed to put together here.