Sunday, 25 March 2012

Who Review: Shada by Gareth Roberts and Douglas Adams

The novelisation of Doctor Who’s infamous lost story had been a long time coming. Shada has gained legendary status amongst Who fans over the years, and both fans and officials have created ‘almost’ versions of the story. There’s the cobbled together video release with Tom Baker providing linking narration; the fan novelisation by Paul Scoones for the NZDWFC; the almost mythical patch-up version with animated versions of unmade scenes; the 40th anniversary webcast starring Paul McGann. None of them feel like they are what the story was supposed to be; they’re half-finished stopgaps, and cover versions. Most disappointingly, none of the versions of Shada I’ve previously experienced has convinced me that the story was actually much good. It seemed that Douglas Adams’s final contribution to Doctor Who was simply not his best work.

Then came the news that Gareth Roberts was set to novelise the story, not only giving us the first official novelisation of a Doctor Who TV story since the McGann movie of 1996, but also reviving the long missed line of past Doctor books. This was a bit more interesting. A novelisation would require neither the attempt to fit something around the existing footage, nor would it require recasting the starring roles. We finally have a consistent version of Shada featuring the fourth Doctor. (I do wonder though… if it hadn’t featured other Time Lords, would the story have been adapted to make an episode of the new series, with Matt Smith in the lead, in the mode of David Tennant’s Human Nature?) best of all was the news that it was Gareth Roberts taking the job on, probably the funniest of Who’s current batch of semi-regular writers, and the best match for Adams’s style that I can think of. Who else could have done it, I wonder? Maybe Jonathan Morris, perhaps Steven Moffat himself… but neither would have suited the project as well as Roberts.

Nonetheless, walking in the footsteps of Adams is a daunting task, and his legion of fans have never been shy when it comes to criticising adaptations of his work (remember the tearing apart the Hitchhikers movie got from the purists?) I can’t pretend to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Shada’s various iterations, but I read with interest how Roberts got the chance to work from earlier script material that had been altered for various reasons before going before the cameras, and how he had the opportunity to cherry-pick elements from different versions. He has also added numerous elements, most notably the romance between students Clare and Chris, an aspect wholly missing from previous versions of the story but simply perfect in this. Other additions are less overarching, but equally noteworthy. Skagra’s alarming get-up as he stalks the streets of Cambridge gets Roberts’s camp side going, leading to some of the funniest moments in the story. Later on, the Doctor and Romana talk at length of the various renegades and villains in Time Lord history, a fan-pleasing rundown that not only brings some logic to Salyavin’s first mention in the story but also nods to characters throughout the history of the show. Mention of the Corsair got a little cheer from me; if only he’d included Iris Wildthyme, it would have been perfect! Some elements are reworked for clarity and logic, most notably the final confrontation between Salyavin/Chronotis, the Doctor and Skagra, which now makes a good deal more sense. Skagra’s character and plan are explored and elaborated on, peculiar set pieces are given rationalisation… the story hold together in a way that it previously failed to do.

Above all, though, Shada is funny. Finally, this is a version I genuinely laughed at. Roberts has a turn of phrase that complements Adams’s dialogue, without slavishly copying his style; various witty asides would sit very comfortably in a Hitchhikers novel. It’s far more successful than the last such attempt at continuing the work of Adams, Eoin Colfer’s addition to the Hitchhikers series, which mostly fell flat. Roberts both adds his own jokes and works Adams’s perfectly. Any new fan reading the book, having not seen or heard any of the other versions of the story, would have a very hard time picking out which bits were by Roberts and which Adams. The best novelisations not only ground the story and rationalise events, but take the time to explore the characters in more depth. In my opinion, Chronotis and Wilkins are the Adams greatest creations for this story, both fantastic comic characters. Chronotis, in particular, has enormous potential as a character, something Adams clearly agreed with, using him in his later novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Roberts, however, latches onto Clare and Chris as the characters most in need of development. Aside from the romance subplot, he spends a great deal of time on their characters, sensibly showing us many of the story’s stranger events through their eyes. It’s also evident that he sees them as great potential companions for the Doctor, a role they essentially play in this story only to remain on Earth. Their new found romantic life together is a perfect reason for them to stay behind, but it’s clear that Roberts would rather they got in the TARDIS and shot off with the Doctor.

We’ll never get a chance to experience Shada as it would have appeared on screen, nor as Douglas Adams intended it to be (in fact, given the choice, he would have written an entirely different story). I don’t think we’re necessarily missing out on much there. Part of the joy of novelisation is how they deviate from and embellish upon the original. The best of Target’s Doctor Who novelisations were written by someone other than the scriptwriter, who took the chance to create something grander than the TV serial. Douglas Adams himself was no stranger to reworking his scripts - just look how many versions of Hitchhikers there are, and how they all differ from each other. Gareth Roberts has added another version of Shada to the pile, and it’s undoubtedly the best of the bunch.

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