13 October 2015

Books: Doctor Who: City of Death By James Goss (2015)

When Target Books ended its run of publishing novelizations of Doctor Who serials in 1990, only five (well, seven, but Evil of the Daleks and Power of the Daleks were well on their way to being adapted and even though Virgin Books would release them, they still fell under the Target Books mark) stories remained unwritten in book format. Three were by the legendary Douglas Adams (who spent a year as script supervisor of the show), and two were by former story editor Eric Saward.

You see, the Target had a long standing policy that allowed writers of serials to pen novelizations of their stories for around £600. Some writers took it, and others passed, allowing novelist like the prolific Terrance Dicks to do the job. But when Douglas Adams penned The Pirate Planet, the second serial of the sixthteen season of Doctor Who, the Target offered him a chance to adapt it. However, he declined (probably rightfully so), saying: “I don't want to be embarrassing but I do have a tendency to be a best-selling author”. Which, of course, translated as: Target Books would fear other authors would demand a higher paycheck for adapting their stories, so The Pirate Planet would remain a “lost” book within Target Books line-up (for now). He would do the same with City of Death and the unfinished and unaired Shada that would be part of season seventeen of the series. 

The other two stories, Resurrection of the Daleks and Revelation of the Daleks (season twenty-one and twenty-two respectively) faced similar issues, with writer Eric Saward asking a higher price to adapt them, along with the always complex licensing issues the BBC and Target Books had with Dalek creator Terry Nation.

But getting back to City of Death, which I noted aired during season 17. Originally, this was not a Douglas Adams script at all. David Fisher had been assigned the story A Gamble with Time, which was about a very rich, suave Count and Countess who were rigging tables at a casinos to fund their time travel experiments. The story was to be set in the 1920s and 1970s with some very limited filming scheduled to be done in Paris (the first time the series would leave the UK to film).

But series producer Graham Williams and Production Unit Manager John Nathan-Turner (who would go on to produce the series from season eighteen to its demise) figured out a way to spend more time in Paris than originally planned. This meant a bit of a re-write on episodes, especially the fourth part of the serial. As according to BBC policy, David Fisher was offered the chance to polish up his script. But, as author James Goss notes in his afterword, “…Fisher was in the middle of an interesting divorce at the time”, and was unable to re-write his story. Thus, it fell to new script supervisor Douglas Adams to type out a new script, with aide from producer Williams and the director Michael Hayes. The four-part adventure would eventually be credited under a pseudonym of David Agnew. 

City of Death, despite its production history, became one of the most popular and most watched Doctor Who shows during its original 1963-89 run. Part of the reason was rival broadcast network ITV having a strike, which led to repeats which led Doctor Who to be one of the only TV stations airing new episodes. But City of Death is actually very good. Oh sure, it has plot holes like most Doctor Who serials, sure the plot was a bit wonky, but what made it shine was the script, the witty dialogue and performances from series stars Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and guest-cast Julian Glover, Catherine Schell, and Tom Chadbon. They all seemed to be having fun.

But like Shada, the legend of City of Death grew. Douglas Adams always said he had plans to eventually adapt these two stories and The Pirate Planet, but they were way far down his “to do list”. Sadly, of course, Adams would die of a heart attack in May 2001 leaving a large cadre of fans in mourning. He remains, in my opinion, one the most creative, most genius authors, of the late 20th Century. Had he lived longer, he could be have been called the funniest humorist since Mark Twain. And yes, many fans like me also mourned the fact that his three Doctor Who stories would never be seen in print (though Adams never saw a good idea he could not steal, even from himself, and reworked a lot of elements from both City of Death and Shada into his novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency). 

Eventually, though, BBC Books would work with Adams Estate to have Shada adapted into a book, which was written by Gareth Roberts and released in 2012. For Roberts to write the book, he drew on the latest versions of the scripts that were available, as well as adding new material of his own to "fix" various plot holes and unanswered questions of Adams original script.

Author James Goss does same here when adapting City of Death. He’s added a lot his own material here, but he’s incorporated notes left by Adams, in particular those on the rehearsal scripts for the episodes; it was here he discovered the Countess Scarlioni had a first name, Heidi. But the book, like all the novelizations of Doctor Who, follows the transmitted version (another-words, there are no additional subplots that were deleted during production). But, like Gareth Roberts before him, Goss fixes some of the serials plot holes –like cliffhanger to episode one where Scarlioni (for unknown reasons) removes his fake face to reveal his true visage. Of course, on TV that makes for a great fright, but in book format, it needs to be explained. And surprisingly, Adams made note of that, as Goss discovered. It seems the twelve splintered versions of Jagoroth, who are working through time to save his race, are not aware they’re aliens at all. This new wrinkle adds some great depth to Scarlioni. 

The novel also breathes life into secondary characters like the tour guide at the Louvre, and creates more background information on the artist (which includes his name) who draws Romana with a cracked clock for a face and the two art gallery lovers (played by Eleanor Bron and John Cleese). 

While Goss is a capable writer, and he’s done a fine job adapting this book, like Shada and The Pirate Planet, I feel Adams could’ve made those into wonderful books, if only because he saw things more differently than others. He found humor and meaning in the absurd and there is not many people in this world today who can do that. 

Finally, James Goss will adapt The Pirate Planet, which BBC Books will release next year. It will be interesting to see what the author will do with that story, as it is one of the oddest, funniest, and wholly weirdest serial Doctor Who made.

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