21 July 2012

Books: Doctor Who: Shada by Gareth Roberts (2012)

Shada was an untransmitted tale of the original Doctor Who series. It was a six-part serial scheduled to be the final story of season seventeen. But with all location footage finished and one block of three studio sessions done, there was a strike at the BBC. After it was settled, and the scheduling was done to get series back into production, a decision was made to scrap Shada, mostly because the effects for the story could not be finished on time, along with various other reasons.

Over the last 30 years, the legend of this story grew, mostly because it was written by Douglas Adams, of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fame.  He had scripted a season sixteen serial, Pirate Planet (part of the Key of Time arc) which then earned him script editor duties for season seventeen. That year opened with one of the most highly acclaimed serials, City of Death (with producer Graham Williams, from an original storyline by writer David Fisher. It was transmitted under the pseudonym "David Agnew"). 

As most contracts with Doctor Who writers went, they were given the option to novelize their stories or have someone else do them.  Adams, however, would not allow anyone else to write them, plus he asked for a higher price than the publishers were willing to pay. So his three stories, and two that where aired during the fifth Doctor era (Resurrection of the Daleks and Revelation of the Daleks written by Eric Saward) remained unwritten as novels.

And when Douglas Adams died in May of 2001, not only did we lose one of most creative, most genius authors, many fans mourned the fact that his three Doctor Who stories would never be seen in print –though elements of Shada and City of Death were reused in Adams's later novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Now 11 years after his death, Gareth Roberts was authorized by the Adams estate to novelize Shada. Roberts began his association with Doctor Who in the 1990’s, writing original novels that were part of the New Adventures and Missing Adventures, The Highest Science,Tragedy Day, Zamper, The Romance of Crime, The English Way of Death, The Plotters and The Well-Mannered War. He also wrote two original novels for the New Series, Only Human and I am a Dalek.

He’s also written 4 episodes of the new series, The Shakespeare Code, The Unicorn and the Wasp, The Lodger and Closing Time, as well as episodes for The Sarah Jane Adventures, Revenge of the Slitheen, Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?, Secret of the Stars, The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith, The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, The Empty Planet and co-wrote Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith. He also wrote what would be the series ender, The Man Who Never Was.

Shada revolves around the lost planet Shada, on which the Time Lords built a prison for defeated would-be conquerors of the universe. Skagra, an up-and-coming would-be conqueror of the universe, needs the assistance of one of the prison's inmates, but finds that nobody knows where Shada is anymore except one aged Time Lord who has retired to Earth, where he is masquerading as a professor at St. Cedd's College, Cambridge. Luckily for the fate of the universe, Skagra's attempt to force the information out of Professor Chronotis coincides with a visit by the professor's old friend, the Doctor.

It’s clear that Roberts tried to emulate Adams as much as possible, though no one can be Douglas Adams.

The story pretty much makes sense, and the plot is interesting, almost justifying what would have been a 6 episode serial (which seemed a rarity back then).  Twenty years ago, the BBC released this story on video with linking elements narrated by Tom Baker and you can clearly see the plot holes this story had.  Adams often said that the story was not very good, that he plate was full with him be the series story editor all while writing scripts for the Hitchhiker radio play and TV series and novel (which was why he recycled them for Dirk Gently). And you can tell because it has some silly humor, bad puns and looks cheap. 

And in 2004, the About Time (the definitive [albeit unofficial] guide books to Doctor Who) boys Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood took a critical look at Shada and pointed out its problems. It seems Roberts took those criticisms to heart and dealt with them in the novel. And Roberts himself is an extremely witty writer, which helps, and it’s sometimes hard to know what Adams wrote and what Roberts added, beyond the more modern references, like “fixed points in time” and Neil Gaiman’s unseen Time Lord the Corsair. He also fixes one of the plot holes by quoting from The Impossible Astronaut.

In the end, Shada is a good novelization, but because Douglas Adams is not around, it’s not the best it could have been had he decided in the 22 years between its making and his death to write his own version of it.

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