Monday, 27 August 2012

Doctor Who: Shada by Gareth Roberts – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

DNA, the Doctor, and another punt at Cambridge. Doctor Who: Shada by Gareth Roberts, based on the original scripts by Douglas Adams (BBC Books, hb, 407pp).

When Chris Parsons, in an attempt to impress a girl he’s serially failed to declare his love for, borrows some books on carbon dating from retired Cambridge don Professor Chronotis, he has no idea that the Professor is actually a Time Lord, that Chronotis’s college room is the inside of a TARDIS, or that one of the books Chris has borrowed is, in fact, the most dangerous book in the entire universe. As the coldly villainous Skagra appears on campus, armed with a mind-sucking sphere, and intent on unlocking the secret of Shada (the long-lost prison planet of the Time Lords), Chris finds himself embroiled in it all and, to his own enduring bafflement, hitchhiking through time and space with a long-scarfed eccentric known to all and sundry (even the college porter) as the Doctor.

Had Douglas Adams novelised his three Doctor Who scripts, it seems likely that readers could have traversed his Hitchhiker’s and Doctor Who books as if they were all part of the same, skewed Möbius strip. (Or, throw in Dirk Gently and one could lap them up as if drinking from a Klein bottle.) Adams’s first attempted involvement with Doctor Who was a rejected script, Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, which he later novelised, sans the Doctor, as Life, the Universe and Everything. His first actual involvement came as the result of submitting his pilot Hitchhiker’s script to the Doctor Who production office, whereupon he was commissioned to write The Pirate Planet, and subsequently taken on as script editor. It was in this capacity that he wrote City of Death (notoriously in a single, coffee-fuelled weekend) and Shada, the infamous “lost” serial that was abandoned, partially made, after strikes at the BBC. And, of course, it was from City of Death and Shada that Adams drew much of the framework for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Everything was interconnected. And still is.

The BBC, having launched Adams to stardom through the Hitchhiker’s radio serial, inexplicably turned down the rights to the novel, just as Target Books then declined to offer Adams more than £600 per story to novelise his Doctor Who scripts. The reasons behind these precipitate non-actions have always been something of a mystery … until now, when finally the probability has been calculated of the TARDIS materialising onboard the Heart of Gold, and Douglas Adams’s lost story thus has manifested, not on film or in a paltry Target offering, but instead, at last, between the solid covers and with the gilded lettering of a BBC hardcover. This, one cannot help but feel, is what was always meant to happen when Adams threw himself at Doctor Who but missed.

Of course, Douglas Adams hasn’t actually written this new book, but Adams/Hitchhiker’s/Who fans should rest assured that, in this instance, the act of not writing it has been carried out in rather a good way. To elucidate: when Terry Jones novelised Adams’s interactive computer game Starship Titanic, expectant fans were rightfully disappointed that the book, though true to what Adams had scripted in the game, and funny enough in a Jones-ey sort of way, nevertheless carried no obvious input from Adams himself (who was very much alive at this point); and more recently, when with Adams having passed away Eoin Colfer was bequeathed the task of penning a sixth Hitchhiker’s novel, And Another Thing . . ., he did sowith Adams’s characters and overt Hitchhiker’s references yet very much in Colfer’s own—not Adams’s—style. The overarching response engendered by these pseudo-Adams offerings must necessarily be a somewhat muted joy, that Adams’s imagination continues at least in some sense—but not the most important one—to produce new works. Yet, this is not the case with Gareth Roberts’ novel. With Shada, there can be no misgivings or second guessings.

Because Shada—and Adams fans should brace themselves at this point, and promise not to snarl and come after the reviewer with Agrajagian intent—is better than what Adams would have written.

“Would” rather than “could”—an important distinction, representing not the obvious tragedy that Adams is no longer with us, but instead two rather telling features of Adams’s later output (and particularly his ongoing Hitchhiker’s saga): firstly, the fact that his books post-Restaurant at the End of the Universe did not feature the Doctor or any character of equivalent strength, and yet clearly were written anyway, in full and certain knowledge of this shortcoming; and secondly, that Adams clearly had no great desire to write these books at all. The job of crafting novels had become, for Adams, an onerous, unwanted task that was necessitated, to be sure, by having accepted the six-figure advances, but in all other respects was merely a distraction from life, lunches, and everything technological. What’s more, Shada wasn’t something that Adams had fully embraced even at the time of scripting it. He’d had a different idea in mind (vetoed, unfortunately, by producer Graham Williams), and in any case was working concurrently on the Restaurant at the End of the Universe novelisation, the second Hitchhiker’s radio series, and also a script for the Hitchhiker’s television adaptation. Shada, not surprisingly, was put off and put off some more, until inviolable deadlines necessitated that it be written—in just the sort of madcap frenzy that could be guaranteed to trip all the synapses of Adams’s unparalleled imagination—and then abandoned and wiped from his brow with a sigh of relief.

Whereas Adams’s interest in Shada, then, extended no further than delving back into it and reusing the character of Professor Chronotis, Gareth Roberts has approached the story with the reverence of an Adams fan, the professional background of a long-time Doctor Who novelist, and the investigative nous of a screenwriter turned private investigator. He’s tied up the loose ends left flapping by Adams’s hasty scripting and the abandoning of Shada’s production. He’s taken the mind-blowing glut of Adams’s ideas and, while staying true to everything that Adams actually wrote for Shada, has fleshed out and made perfect sense of it all, giving depth to characters that otherwise were there just to project a stream of zany inventiveness onto, and generally managing to make a rounded, humorous novel out of what would, had it been completed, have been a no-less-funny but probably quite shambolic television production.

Roberts channels Adams’s voice remarkably well; not, perhaps, the exquisitely droll prose of Adams at his finest, but certainly the satirical frivolity of the first Hitchhiker’s radio series. In essence, he presents us with another Hitchhiker’s novel (for Arthur Dent, read Chris Parsons), but he does so far more faithfully than did Jones or Colfer, and furthermore, succeeds in the task also while staying within the bounds of—indeed, while managing to enhance—the structured universe of Doctor Who in general and in particular the iconic, some would say sacred, era of Tom Baker. Perhaps this is not so surprising, given that Adams’s Doctor Who was basically Hitchhiker’s with a more established lead character; but even so, Gareth Roberts’ novelisation is a who/ptious achievement indeed, melding Hitchhiker’s to Doctor Who in a way that Adams clearly would have loved to do when writing Life, the Universe and Everything without recourse to that same bond. It remains to be seen whether Roberts will be invited back to novelise Pirate Planet and City of Death, but if Shada is anything to go by then one might certainly hope so. For what could be better, given the constraints of history yet unexpected access to the TARDIS, than another Hitchhiker’s trilogy?

Jacob’s review originally appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 56. For his review of And Another Thing…, see “A Biro From the Blue” in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 44.

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