Countdown To Doctor Who: Book Review: ‘Shada’

Doctor Who: Shada
By Gareth Roberts
Original Script by Douglas Adams
Ace Publishing
Release Date: June 26, 2012
Cover Price: $12.99 (Kindle Edition)

In a rather captivating, though curious manner, you might find it astonishing that Gareth Roberts‘ adaptation of the Doctor Who adventure by Douglas Adams called Shada caused music to play in my head.

That sounds a little weird, of course. But when it comes to both Doctor Who and Douglas Adams, the strangeness should not only be expected by now, but mandatory par for the course.

Allow me to explain.

I have found, in my years of being an overly obsessive geek that the best adaptations of already established franchises inspire your mind to create the ambience of the universe you’re investing in. In all types of writing, a good author will not only be able to explain the scene to you, but totally immerse you in it: you can see the brightness (or gloominess) of the sky, you can almost feel the floors or walls of the setting, and you can smell the odors described, such as the scent of rain on a hot day”¦ or petrichor, for example…

With an established franchise, the best authors adapting the stories can make you hear Chewbacca’s roar; or feel the shuddering of the Enterprise as it comes under attack. But the ultimate authors are so magical, they make the soundtrack from the films and shows accompany your mind.

Such is the case with Shada. The entire read is an incredibly delightful experience that you will not only find yourself immersed in the strangeness associated with Doctor Who, but you will hear the classic atmospheric music from the Douglas Adams days, as well as the contemporary Murray Gold soundtrack along with the modern voice that Gareth Roberts provides.

A little backstory for those new to the concept of Shada: during the 17th season of Doctor Who from 1979 to 1980, then script editor on the series, Douglas Adams, had written the finale and dubbed it Shada. Pre-production, casting, and filming eventually began on the serial, but was cut short due to industrial action (read: strikes!) at the BBC.

The industrial action brought production to a complete stand-still, and unfortunately, it was left in limbo – never to be seen on screen during that season. An attempt to tie the episode together with narration by Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, was made by the BBC for a VHS release in 1992, much to the disgust of Douglas Adams who was highly disappointed by the version released.

Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, was signed up for an audio adventure adaptation of the story, in a Big Finish Production release, and also featured Lalla Ward reprising her role as Romana for the audio play. Adams himself had adapted elements into his novel, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency; but it still wasn’t the Shada that Doctor Who fans had heard of. Despite the two BBC attempts and Dirk Gently, none successfully captured that which Douglas Adams had tried to create.

Until now.

It may – though it almost certainly will not – come as a surprise to discover that Gareth Roberts writes effectively well in an Adams-style voice. In fact, he does it so well, it’s almost like he is channeling the great Hitchhiker himself, bringing forth the same voice of the man that cut his teeth with Doctor Who as script editor during the Seventies.

Furthermore, like Adams, Roberts almost breaks the fourth wall – meaning that he doesn’t exactly break it, but instead cracks a little hole in it and peeks through at you, as if to say that, “Hey! I know you’re reading me! And I know you’re not going to be surprised that this blue box is a TARDIS and the Doctor is a time traveler, but by gosh, you’re going to play along with me anyway, okay? Alright then! Carry on!”

Or something to that effect”¦ for Gareth Roberts approaches this with the same amount of love and care and affection that a fan (or rather, a scholar) of the great Douglas Adams would. The volume is full of in-line references to multiple facets of his work, from the Doctor Who TV Series, to the Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, and to Dirk Gently; as if to have been written in tribute to Adams in many ways – a final thank you note and valentine to a genius author from Gareth Roberts who, for all intents and purposes, represents the fans. Or rather, the scholars with towels. And extremely long scarves. Don’t leave your TARDIS without either.

Additionally, Roberts carries on with numerous elements from Adams’ writing style. There are moments in the book that make use of literary elements like footnotes and diagrams. But perhaps the loveliest tip of the hat to Adams is the reverence towards his style of comedy – which is embraced fully in most moments. Just as in his days from collaborating with Monty Python and the crew from Doctor Who, right through to his Hitchhiker days, the comedy approach of Adams is mimicked beautifully in this novel. A joke will hit you in the face, and make you (almost) piss yourself with laughter; but just when you thought you’ve already seen the punchline, the REAL punchline sneaks up on you on a later page or in a much later paragraph. Such as in the case of the creation of a brand new, indistinguishable, indescribable, and unpronounceable rude cuss word, that must be delightful to shout out when reaching a moment of frustration.

But while these elements of punchlines and naughty cuss words are lovely little additions, the true hero of the book is the story itself. Using the framework created and worked on by Douglas Adams, Gareth Roberts has fleshed out a story that feels incredibly Adams throughout, and is solid in its structure, components, twists and turns, and in elements of ridiculousness too. Having had 30 odd years of time since its initial inception, Roberts uses this to his advantage in trimming unnecessary fat off the story, making a tight, exciting read that makes it such a page turner that the pages actually turn themselves.

The story follows, of course, The Doctor – or specifically the Tom Baker fourth incarnation of The Doctor – and his companion from the time of the series, Romana (in her second incarnation as played by Lalla Ward). The two arrive at Cambridge University after having received a distress call from retired Time Lord, Professor Chronitis. Meanwhile, the villainous Skagra is heading to the location of Chronitis as well, to steal from him an item of great power and magnitude that could be the mechanism to ruining the universe as we know it (or rather, knew it). Guest companions Chris Parsons and Clare Keightly are swept up in a dangerous adventure in which the question must be answered: What is Shada?

Roberts’ characterization of the Doctor is efficient, and at the same time, elemental. He exudes the silliness and the charisma from the Tom Baker performances, but at the same time somehow manages to capture aspects from all other Doctors, including the modern versions. Personally, my favorite character from the entire book was The Ship, a computerized space craft owned by Skagra that evolves from a dumb computer operating on logic alone to a new AI species discovering the time vortex with some assistance from the Doctor. The character is not only a highlight of some of the crazy stuff that came from the brain of Douglas Adams, but also a firm representation of the Classic series interpretation of early computers from the Tom Baker era and beforehand.

There isn’t much I can criticize about this publication. The only element I had issues with was in the development of the relationship between the two guest companion characters, Chris and Claire. It’s a typical boy meets girl scenario, but it comes across as hurriedly forced and incredibly underdeveloped. Reading it feels as awkward as the situations the two must be feeling in their scenarios. At some times, it will make you shout out that unpronounceable rude cuss word when reaching such a moment of frustration. Oh dear, there’s that delayed punchline again.

In all honesty, this book is spectacular. Gareth Roberts has done a remarkable job of channeling the vision of Douglas Adams for this publication, so much so that not only Doctor Who fans will enjoy it, but I think Sci-Fi and Hitchhiker fans will love it as well.

Roberts treats the classic era material with honored reverence, but at the same time throws in some winks, nudges, and hints at the modern Doctor Who series, bringing Adams vision into the future and beyond. Or into the past and within. Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey, you know what I mean: A must read for Sci-Fi fans.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

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