Tiredblogging: The Anchoring Of The Thread (or, Towards A Grand Unified Theory Of Time-Travel In Doctor Who)
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a week now, and been putting it off until I’m less tired. But then I realised that if I hadn’t been less tired in a week, I probably wouldn’t be any time soon. So, here’s my Grand Unified Theory Of Time In Doctor Who, as written by someone who had to take four goes to type the word time because he’s so tired.
I’d been thinking about this for a while (and talked about bits of it with Plok while he was here), but this blog post by Eliezer Yudkowsky, about causality and time travel, gave me the final key. You might want to read that before we go ahead. I’ll wait.
OK, so one of the big things in Doctor Who since Moffat took over is the way that time can be changed, pretty much willy-nilly, when in the old series the rule was, more or less, “you can’t change history, not one line!”
Now, there are various explanations that can be used of this, not least the one I use, which is “they’re two different series with only the loosest possible connection.”
But suppose you want to reconcile them. The usual fanwank explanation is “the Time War” — and I’m going to use that, too. But that doesn’t actually *explain* anything. So I’m going to try.
And I think it can be done.
First, we assume that the uni/multiverse is — or started as — something like the timeless universe of Julian Barbour, or the ultimate ensemble of Max Tegmark. A timeless configuration space of every existing possibility, all equally existent. Every instant of time, existing simultaneously.
In one of these instants, exists an intelligent race. They’re known by various names, such as the Great Houses, but we can call them the Time Lords, because along with them comes the existence of time.
You see, time isn’t something that exists in itself. Time is just another word for the increase in entropy between different states in the configuration space. But since we can (as far as we know) draw a line between any two states, why should entropy increase?
Well, probabilistically, it’s simple. If you take any random point in a configuration space — whatever the point — and make a random perturbation to it, the result will, in the huge majority of cases, have more entropy than the original position. So a random walk among configurations will lead to an increase in entropy.
But we’re not talking about a random walk — we’re talking about a lawlike universe. And if you draw a line between the start and end points, why does it have to have that direction? Why not say that the end is the start and the start is the end?
Well, you can — but not in a universe containing intelligence. Intelligence is, fundamentally, the creation of an isomorphism between one structure (e.g. a brain) and another (e.g. a universe) such that the first can predict the second.
In order to do this, information has to pass from the universe to the brain — and by doing so, entropy in the universe has to increase proportionally.
So in any universe which contains intelligence, that intelligence, at any given point, will have knowledge of a universe which has slightly less entropy than the one in which it’s existing, and so perceive entropy as always increasing. Hence — arrow of time.
So with our Time Lords comes an arrow of time.
Now, what do we know of the Time Lords? Firstly, that they put all of history in place with the Anchoring Of The Thread (see the Book Of The War) and secondly that they could travel through time.
As Yudkowsky points out, if you’re looking at the standard formulation of causality, using Directed Acyclic Graphs, as formulated by Judea Pearl, then you can *either* have cause and effect, *or* you can have a consistent, single-history universe which contains time travel, but you can’t have both.
So, assuming for the moment that current understanding is more-or-less correct, and the universe can be understood or modelled as a computation, then we have a rough idea of what sort of process the Anchoring Of The Thread must have been — a brute-force sweep through all possible events, noting the ones that fit the consistent history the Time Lords wanted, which were then forced together — possibly just by the Time Lords’ perception — into one history. This allowed consistent time travel throughout their history, without the possibility of paradox (or of wiping themselves out of history) but with the disadvantage that there was actually no such thing as cause-and-effect — effects *appeared* to follow causes, but that’s only because they’d been put in that position by the Time Lords.
(It’s possible that Time Lords themselves (and their companions when in a TARDIS?) had the ability to alter the universe on the fly with their perceptions. If so this would mean that time-travellers were the only beings in the universe with true free will — and would explain the changes to time-travellers’ biodata (a concept often mistranslated as ‘DNA’ in the new series). It’s also possible that the computation that put history in place had something to do with the calculations of Logopolis.)
Then comes the Time War. The Time Lords are destroyed. They’re no longer there to perceive the universe, and without their computation to keep it in place, there can’t be a consistent timeline any longer.
However, there *are* still intelligences — humans, Daleks and so on — and at least some of them have time machines. This means that time must still exist. Without the influence of the Time Lords, that means that we have a universe where the past and future are both malleable — but where effects have causes, and thus actions have consequences.
So because the Time Lords have been destroyed, free will has been given to the inhabitants of the universe. They’re no longer just puppets acting out a script planned by superpowerful gods, but people whose actions *matter*. Given the Doctor’s known attitude toward free will, the question is possibly not so much why he destroyed the Time Lords (if, indeed, it was ‘really’ him who did so), as why he didn’t do it much earlier.
And as a side-note, the fact that the universe no longer runs to a fixed plan with an intelligence behind it might go some way to explaining the incoherence of many post-Time War stories…
I hope that makes some kind of sense, or at least the right kind of nonsense. I can’t actually see right now, I’m so tired, so it may not. There’ll be another Who post, on Kinda, on the Mindless Ones tomorrow or Friday, and a Beach Boys post this weekend.
This is less of an essay, more a stream of consciousness braindump that I’m going to type until I fall asleep on the keyboard. I’m too tired today to write my Mindless Ones piece, and certainly too tired to work on the other projects I’m working on, so I’m going to dump a lot of thoughts I’ve been having here, specifically about the vision of the Faction Paradox ‘universe’ presented in Dead Romance, This Town Will Never Let Us Go and (what I take to be) Lawrence Miles’ parts of The Book of the War. Faction Paradox is the work of multiple writers, all of them very good, but here I’m going to look at a thread in, specifically, Miles’ writing. I’m writing this now so I can come back to it later and sift it for the good stuff…
So anyway… the Singularity.
I first came across the argument used by Singulatarians (who despite the name are not Doctor Who villains, although Eliezer Yudkowsky seems to aspire to being one) in the preface to a Robert A Heinlein book, which I read when I was 14 or so but which was written in the 1950s. In this he plots a chart of the top speed attainable by human beings, and shows that up to about 1800 it was maybe 20 miles per hour, then after the railways it was 50mph, and then there were jet planes, and then rockets…
Heinlein goes on to say that most people would predict progress to flatten off or continue at the same rate, but that while he didn’t necessarily believe the result you’d obtain “the correct way to extend an exponential curve is exponentially” and that that prediction said that by the year 2000 we’d be travelling faster than the speed of light.
Of course, as we now know, humanity’s top speed essentially plateaud right at the moment Heinlein wrote those words, because when looking at physical events, rather than mathematical ones, the proper way to extend an exponential curve is as a sigmoid, because rather annoyingly the real world has far fewer infinities in it than mathematics does.
In the 1990s and 2000s, this argument was used by people who were actually in many ways Heinlein’s intellectual heirs — usually right-wing libertarian technofetishists — but with speed replaced by information processing. The argument, as laid out in such books as The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil, runs roughly thus — two hundred years ago, there were no computers. Sixty years ago, there was one computer. Now, there are loads of computers. Therefore, by
wishful thinking mathematical induction, soon there will be infinitely many computers, and we can all go and live in them as software ghosts and make the entire universe into a computer.
There’s more to the argument than that — well, to be accurate, there’s more to some versions of the argument than that, Kurzweil himself being the kind of cretin who seriously argues that in a post-scarcity economy where anyone can have all the material goods they need without expropriating others simply by pressing a button, some sort of mechanism to protect intellectual property would become necessary — but that’s the basis of it.
(What’s this got to do with Faction Paradox? I’ll get there, but I’ll take the long way round).
And speaking of right-wing libertarian idiots, in 1992 Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History and the Last Man. Widely regarded as a masterpiece of political thinking by a great political theorist, it was in fact for the most part a restatement of the ideas of those great thinkers Sellar and Yeatman — “America was thus clearly Top Nation, and history came to a .”
(In fact, in 2002, Fukuyama came into conflict with the singularity people, because he wrote a book called Our Posthuman Future, which as far as I can tell from the summaries I’ve read (reading one book by that idiot is enough for me for this lifetime, I think) says “we’d better stop doing science, in case we accidentally have some more history).
The difference was that Sellar and Yeatman thought that America coming out on top was A Bad Thing, because obviously Britain is best, whereas Fukuyama’s book argued that it was, in fact, A Good Thing.
America taking on Britain’s old role and destiny in the world, leaving Britain purposeless, with British imperialism being revealed as a rather shabby thing — hold that thought for me, before it drifts away.
So anyway, the bit about speed (you remember the bit about speed?) is essentially the basis for all science fiction before about 1980ish. We can quibble about dates and how general that is and so on, but in pop-culture terms, certainly, it’s true to say that SF was the literature of fast travel. It’s practically a cliche now to point out that as well as being about Marxism and eugenics, The Time Machine was about bicycling (Wells clearly modelled his machine on the bicycle), but it’s no coincidence that the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of SF was also the period when the human race’s top speed was increasing. In a handful of generations, the horizons of normal people went from an area a few miles across to, potentially, the world. If that continued, why, we’d reach the stars in no time — and given how strange the people in those other countries were, what kind of people would we find out there? It’s a literature of exploration, whether in time or in space.
Post-1980 SF is, on the other hand, more concerned about the idea of the Singularity, in a very loose sense. Writers like Greg Egan, for example, will write whole novels about the implications of ‘uploading’ one’s consciousness into a computer, or about how faster-than-light travel becomes unnecessary when one can spawn multiple immortal copies and send them through space by radio wave, then merge the copies when they get together again. Post 1980, SF has been about information processing, far more than about travel.
Doctor Who was actually in a perfect position to go in this direction in 1980. While Christopher H Bidmead was script editor of the show, there was an extraordinary run of stories (roughly from State Of Decay through Logopolis) which dramatised perfectly ideas from mathematics, information theory and cybernetics, but in a BBC costume drama sense in which these abstract ideas were reified as places and environments.
It was utterly unlike anything else in SF that I’ve come across (though Neal Stephenson’s Anathem has some of the same flavour, or would have had he had an editor who could have cut three quarters of the book out). The closest piece of TV I’ve ever seen to this run of stories is Jonathan Miller’s The Drinking Party, which like the Bidmead stories basically sticks Plato on screen, though Miller’s film has fewer vampires and aliens in it. Bidmead’s version of the show also followed neatly from some elements of the show up to that point (basically, all those stories either written by David Whitaker or Robert Holmes or directed by David Maloney) (another way of phrasing that parenthetical would be ‘the good ones’).
But then Bidmead left the show, and after some of the usual musical chairs in the Doctor Who production office he was replaced by Eric Saward, whose style has been aptly described by Alex Wilcock as “guns with a capital GUNS!”
The show had lost its way, and from then on no matter how good the TV show or the books and audios based on it were (and sometimes they’ve been very, very, very good), they’ve not escaped from the 1960s paradigm of travel and expansion. The brief promise of a Platonist, intellectual, progressive show was recplaced by one that would always be stuck in the past, and one that would always be materialist in the crude sense.
And the Doctor Who notion of ‘future’ is likewise one that is stuck in the past, and has to be. It’s a future of spaceships and Galactic Empires, not a future of disembodied intelligences whose minds span galaxies.
So in the Faction Paradox universe, humanity’s destiny, which was always to transcend the material and become, essentially, gods, has been diverted by the
Time Lords Great Houses, at some time around the early 21st century. A few quotes here from The Book Of The War (which you should all own already), specifically the entry on humanity. I’m assuming these are by Miles, because they fit so well with his preoccupations, but of course many other authors contributed to that book, so they could be by any of them:
Thus, it became the prevalent belief among human societies that the body itself was a tool, an extension of the “real” inner self. The result were belief-systems centred on the idea of a soul or spirit, and as scheduled this became the cornerstone of most human progress for years to come.
Anthropologically speaking, it’s clear from this evidence what the ultimate fate of humanity should have been. With every society believing itself to be made up of spirits-trapped-in-flesh, from humankind’s earliest years there was a clear unconscious desire to leave its collective body behind and achieve a non-corporeal state…
By the early-to-mid twenty-first century, intelligence-form technology was certainly in existence. All humanity needed was the will. But somehow, after millions of years of effort, the will had unexpectedly vanished. On the brink of finding its own personal kind of enlightenment, it was as if the human species had backed down and decided to enter a period of stagnation instead.
The Great Houses take over humanity’s role, becoming the embodiments of time and history in the universe, and being more like concepts than people. But they, too, stagnate — the replacement paradigm is just as stale as the old one. By creating a settled history, they literally do end history, both for humanity and for themselves. Earth is reduced to merely having an empire, not being really important, but the Great Houses turn inward and don’t bother about the universe. Because the growth of information processing is just as much a sigmoid curve as the growth of speed (and in fact, it’s about to flatline right about now).
But then an enemy appears, and manages to find a weakness in the Great Houses, who were previously thought invincible. A new concept, a way of thinking that is totally alien to them.
But that new concept isn’t the real threat… the real threat is what the Houses do to themselves when confronted by it…
The War is not, of course, the War On Terror — the concept was created years before the September 11, 2001 attacks — but Faction Paradox is at least in part about the larger cultural problems of which they were a symptom.
And I’m too tired to continue this now, so the stuff about Islam, steampunk and identity will have to wait for another of these posts.
(Written before seeing tonight’s episode, partly inspired by @first_doctor on Twitter)
Doctor Who And The Spaceship Of Dinosaurs
by Terrance Dicks
Based on a BBC Television serial written by John Lucarotti and first broadcast in 1965.
Inside the spaceship
No sooner had the doors opened of that police-box that was not a police-box at all, and the travellers stepped out into the corridor, than Vicki let out a scream.
At the other end of the corridor, charging towards them, was a fierce dinosaur!
Ian, Vicki and Barbara ran around a nearby corner, but the Doctor stood his ground.
“Quickly, Doctor! You’ll be trampled!” shouted Ian.
“Nonsense, my dear boy. Arrant nonsense. I’ve never run away from a dinosaur in my life, and I’m hardly about to start now, at my time of life.”
The Doctor turned, slightly, so he was facing his friends, and side-on to the monster.
With a puzzled expression, the dinosaur stopped running!
The Doctor walked up to the dinosaur, and allowed it to sniff him. He patted it on the nose and said “You’re quite safe to come out, now.”
The three friends emerged from their hiding place, cautiously at first, but after seeing they were in no danger they walked up and looked more closely at the beast.
“How did you get it to stop charging, Doctor?” asked Barbara.
“Oh, quite simple, my dear, quite simple. The triceratops, much like the rhinoceros or the bull, is a herbivore. And like those animals it has a blind spot, right here.” The Doctor gestured with his cane at the creature’s horn. “All I had to do was turn sideways, like so, and it could no longer see me. Quite straightforward.”
“It sounds so simple when you put it like that,” laughed Ian, “I should have thought of it!”
“Ah, but it wouldn’t have worked for you, Chatterton,” smiled the Doctor, patting Ian’s belly affectionately, “only those of us with a more athletic build.”
“He’s gorgeous!” said Vicki, petting the dinosaur.
“See, Doctor, don’t be so critical!” said Ian, in a pretend-hurt voice.
“No, silly, I was talking about the dinosaur!” laughed Vicki. “What kind of dinosaur did you say he is again, Doctor?”
“A triceratops, my dear.”
“That’s a bit of a mouthful! I shall call him Tricky!”
This week is the 260th anniversary of the founding of the Eleven Day Empire, and ‘coincidentally’ a lot of people have been linking to the Faction Paradox wiki, which has had a new lease of life recently after several years of inactivity.
This is mostly because there has been a huge doctrinal schism on wikia, and the result of it has been that the Faction Paradox series has been cast out of ‘Doctor Who canon’, and all mentions of anything from the Faction Paradox books or audios have been moved from the Doctor Who wiki over to the FP one. Both wikis now have very strict canon policies. The Faction Paradox one is here, while the Doctor Who one is here.
I do worry about the inability of geeks to understand jokes sometimes.
This inability is shown in little ways — like the fact that until I gave in to the compulsion to edit it, the Faction Paradox wiki had an entry on House Lucia and the role it plays in the War that assumed that House Lucia exists ‘in universe’ (people who have read The Book Of The War will now be giggling). But this ‘canon’ business itself is that inability writ large.
The idea of ‘canon’ in the geek sense was invented by Monsignor Ronald Knox, in his 1911 essay “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes“. This essay was a joke, pure and simple. Knox was parodying liberal Biblical scholars who try to reconstruct sources for the Synoptic Gospels (if anyone’s interested in what I think of those, I tend to agree with Mark Goodacre’s argument for Marcan priority but no Q, but anyway…) or try to separate a ‘historical Jesus’ from the Christ of the Bible, by using their methods to try to analyse the Holmes stories in the same way.
Among Holmes fans, then, the ‘canon’ became the works of Doyle, as they joined in Knox’s harmless game, trying to come up with explanations for inconsistencies. (My own attempt at writing a Holmes story, Doctor Watson Investigates, contains a hint at one of these explanations that I’ve come up with. It’s a fun game).
But then the idea got taken over by geeks, and like everything touched by geeks, it turned rotten.
(NOTE: I am here using ‘geek’ to refer to a specific type of person. Not everyone who calls themselves a geek is this type of person, and certainly not everyone who has interests in some ‘geekish’ things — I am, after all, someone who works as a software engineer on GNU/Linux systems and then in his spare time writes blog posts about comics and Doctor Who. Indeed, I’m someone who calls GNU/Linux GNU/Linux rather than just Linux.)
In the hands of the Sherlockians, the concept of ‘the canon’ was part of ‘the great game’, and whatever the intentions of Knox (an ultra-conservative figure) it became an expansive thing, a tool for playing with notions of authorship. It made the filling-in of plot holes and inconsistencies something with which the reader could play, something that turns the act of reading into a participatory act. It allows the reader to respect the blatant intentions of the author (that the Holmes stories are all about the same characters, are detective stories rather than cookery books, that sort of thing) but makes authorial intention secondary to the imagination of the reader.
Well, obviously we can’t be having any of that!
Because if there’s one thing a particular type of geek can’t cope with, it’s imagination and ambiguity. This is why for all the Libertarian posturing in geekdom, geek-Libertarianism is always on the lookout for a strong man to lead them, and is of the type that can easily tip into Fascism. There must be Rules, and Rules must be Obeyed!
And so Star Trek has a ‘canon’ set by Gene Roddenberry and Paramount Pictures. Star Wars has a ‘canon’ set by George Lucas. There are rules there about which made-up stories count more than which other made-up stories. There are ‘canonical’ and non-canonical Marvel and DC Comics too. These aren’t game-rules being set up by the players of an interpretive game — rather they’re rules imposed from outside, by owners of corporate properties. But they’re still imposed because the audience wants them — so they can tell which stories matter.
Now, for most things that geeks are interested in — ‘properties’ or ‘franchises’ — this is possible. Star Trek and everything in it are owned by Paramount, and they can say “the cartoons don’t count” if they want. They can’t expect me to pay any attention to them, but they can say it.
But this isn’t possible for Doctor Who, and for what I think is a rather wonderful reason. The only things about Doctor Who that the BBC actually owns are the character of the Doctor, the TARDIS, the phrase “Time Lord”, the theme music and a couple of other bits. Many of the things most identified with the programme — the Daleks, K-9, the Cybermen, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, the Sontarans, and more — are owned by the writers who came up with them, and can be used, perfectly legally, with no involvement from the BBC.
Which means that if you want to do a story in which the Brigadier teams up with the Doctor’s former companion Nyssa and K-9 to fight off an invasion by a team of Daleks, Cybermen and Axons, which has been secretly masterminded by Magnus Greel, you can do so, so long as you can get the permission of the various writers involved, and so long as you don’t call it Doctor Who.
And many people *have* done stories like that. There are now many entire series of books, audio plays, and videos, of qualities ranging from diabolical to extraordinarily good, that are based off characters that originally appeared in some Doctor Who story or other — Faction Paradox, Kaldor City, Time Hunter, PROBE, Iris Wildthyme, Bernice Summerfield, The Minister Of Chance and more.
And these stories are all meant to be read in the context of Doctor Who, in some sense. Lawrence Miles has talked of Doctor Who as being ‘his native mythology’ and his stories as additions to it — no-one expected any two stories about Hercules to be consistent with each other, but they were both still about Hercules.
The Doctor Who wiki people acknowledge this — they have a whole page about “why the DWU isn’t like other franchises” — but that terminology itself says all you need to know. “The DWU” is a “franchise”. It may be a bit different from other ones, but it still needs to be looked at in the context of media “franchises” rather than examined as a set of artistic, creative works.
They defend the exclusion of stories by saying
Thus we need to know which stories “count” and which don’t. If we didn’t attempt a little bit of definition, our biography of the Doctor would have to include “the time he spent on Earth when he was a human called Dr. Who” or “the incident in which he regenerated into his thirteenth body that looked an awful lot like Joanna Lumley”, “the one time he sounded an awful lot like Nick Briggs, “the other time he sounded an awful lot like Nick Briggs”, and so forth.
You’ll be telling me that Robin Hood was never a fox, next…
It may seem like I’m getting overly annoyed at what is, after all, a few geeks doing geek things, but it’s not the separation of these two wikis that annoys me in itself. Rather it’s that this is a symptom of a larger problem, a basic illiteracy which is spreading.
For example, there was a character called Chris Cwej in some of the Doctor Who books. He also appears in the book Dead Romance, which was originally published in the Bernice Summerfield series (counted as canon on the Doctor Who wiki) before being republished as a prequel to the Faction Paradox series. He then appears in The Book Of The War (a Faction Paradox book), where he’s cloned into a whole subspecies called the Cwejen. One of the Cwejen then appears in a Bernice Summerfield audio drama.
Makes sense, right? Simple enough.
Except that because of this enforced split, these people are insisting that one should instead read it as “there was a character called Chris Cwej in some of the Doctor Who books. Later a clone of him called a Cwejen appeared from nowhere” or “a character called Chris Cwej didn’t do very much, and he was cloned, and the clones did nothing of importance either”. The Chris Cwej in “the DWU” has to be different from the Chris Cwej in “the FPU”. The same goes for the Sontarans, Iris Wildthyme, the Peking Homunculus, Sutekh, even Faction Paradox themselves. Totally different, unconnected characters, in two different ‘franchises’.
The need for rules, for consistency, and for a ‘canon’ has overruled all intelligent reading of the texts, any engagement with them. Not only the author’s intention (and it’s *clearly* the intention that, say, the Sontarans in The Faction Paradox Protocols are the same species as in The Invasion Of Time — there’s a clear intertextuality going on there) but also any kind of sensible reading of the text at all. It’s like trying to read The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen while pretending that the Alan Quartermain or Mr Hyde in it are totally different to the ones who appear in Victorian fiction.
And this is a very, very dangerous idea. Texts should be read with as much context as possible, not as little. While authorial intention isn’t everything, it is *something*, and all works have inspirations from other texts.
Trying to look at texts completely in isolation from their context — and trying to pretend that it’s because of some great authority, even when no authority has spoken — is the mindset of fundamentalism. For anyone who doubts the importance of what I’m talking about, take a look at the way American politics is being distorted by people who insist on ‘literal’ readings of the Bible without paying attention to things like authorial voice or metaphor, without differentiating between recountings of myths and attempts at accurate history, within that very complex, difficult book.
There is a direct link between the mindset that says “Mary Christmas, Santa’s ex-wife who left him because she thought he had an affair with Iris Wildthyme, is ‘canon’, but the Iris Wildthyme who she thought was having an affair isn’t the same one who tried to visit the City Of The Saved. That would just be silly”, and the mindset that uses Scofield Reference Bibles to link completely unlinked pieces of text, written thousands of years apart by different people, into an incoherent but ‘literal’ whole.
It’s only to be expected, though. While Ronald Knox would not have approved of fundamentalism (as a Catholic theologian, he would hardly have supported Calvinist sola scriptura readings, even ones far more intelligent than the Darby/Scofield ones that dominate American fundamentalism), there’s still a profoundly anti-intellectual bent to his essay.
One of the things I like about Doctor Who is that its central character questions authority at all times. To find Doctor Who fans trying to impose imagined authorities is saddening, but sadly unsurprising. Bad laws are made to be enforced rigorously, apparently.
(Continuing my policy of reviewing every new book I buy and read, I’m crossposting this to Amazon UK)
It’s difficult to know how much information to give in a review of Shada, the latest in the BBC’s line of Doctor Who prestige hardbacks, because it’s aimed at at least three different, though overlapping, audiences – Doctor Who fans, Douglas Adams fans, and people who would, when in a bookshop, be interested in a book about Doctor Who if it’s got the name of someone they recognise on the cover but wouldn’t otherwise consider themselves a fan. I am, of course, a member of both the first two groups.
In the late 1970s, Douglas Adams (who almost everyone reading this will know was to become the best-selling author of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Dirk Gently series before dying too young) wrote three scripts for Doctor Who, as well as script-editing the TV series for a year. The first of these, The Pirate Planet, is a passable romp, while the second, City Of Death, is often regarded as the single best story the TV show ever did. Shada was the third, and was meant to be broadcast at the end of the series Adams script-edited, but filming was stopped two-thirds of the way through because of strike action, and the story was never completed.
It’s not quite as lost as the publicity material around this book suggests – a VHS release about twenty years ago, now long-deleted, with Tom Baker doing linking narration, and a remake as a cartoon for the BBC website featuring eighth Doctor Paul McGann (the soundtrack CD of which is available from Big Finish for five pounds, and is well worth getting) mean that many of us have experienced this story in a relatively complete form already. However, it is true that it was never completed in the way Adams intended – and it’s also true that Adams was unhappy with his scripts and thought they needed more polishing – so it’s a perfect candidate for novelisation.
Gareth Roberts, the author of the book, will be less familiar than Adams by a long way, but is a reasonable choice for the job. I’m not a huge fan of Roberts’ work, but he’s what is generally called a safe pair of hands. He’s written for Doctor Who on TV, audio dramas, novels and comics before, including a novel (The Well-Mannered War) featuring the Fourth Doctor, who appears here, and his usual style is a sort of whimsical mildly parodic SF that is clearly influenced by Adams.
Roberts is nowhere near the writer that Adams was, but he doesn’t need to be for this. What he *is* good at is functional storytelling, and structure, two things that were among Adams’ weaker points. So while he keeps all the plot beats and important scenes from Adams’ script, and at least 90% of Adams’ dialogue, he fixes at least one big plot hole, completes a sub-plot that Adams seemed to start and then give up on, and provides a lot of back-story and character motivation.
For the most part, Roberts’ inventions fit perfectly with the Adams material, to the point where I’d challenge anyone unfamiliar with the source material to say what came from where. And it’s still recognisably the same story – the story of Skagra trying to turn the entire universe into his own mind in a Darkseid-like fashion, and of his search for the ancient Time Lord criminal Salyavin, and how the Doctor gets involved with this when visiting his old friend Professor Chronotis at St Cedd’s College, Cambridge. Reading it at times does feel spookily like reading a ‘new’ late-period Adams book – like a third Dirk Gently novel. (The first Dirk Gently novel, of course, used some characters and dialogue from Shada, along with the basic plot of City Of Death).
There are a couple of places where it goes wrong, though. For the most part, Roberts’ prose is functional, but he occasionally tries to ape Adams’ style, with predictably poor results. Adams’ tics are very easy to emulate, the sensibility behind them much less so – Roberts actually feels far more like Adams when he’s not copying his prose style but just telling Adams’ story.
Also, the jokes Roberts adds in the descriptive passages are nowhere near up to the standard of those in Adams’ dialogue, and often descend into an almost Peter Kay like “Remember the late 1970s? Things were slightly different then, weren’t they? What’s that all about?”. The occasional pun (the status quo one stands out in the memory as particularly bad) seems to be put in more because this is ‘a Douglas Adams book’ and therefore has to be funny, rather than because it makes any kind of artistic sense.
Even less excusable are the occasional continuity references, thrown in merely in order that people like myself will recognise them – “Wow, the Fourth Doctor mentioned the Rani!” There are quite a few knowing winks to the status of Doctor Who as a national institution, as well, which quite frankly just feel smug (and a rather more forgivable single one acting as a tribute to Adams).
But this is, fundamentally, nit-picking. What we have here is the best actual story Douglas Adams ever wrote for Doctor Who, adapted as well as one could reasonably expect. If it’s not as funny, clever, or exciting as it thinks it is, it’s still funnier, cleverer and more exciting than it has any right to be given its tortured genesis.
If Amazon allowed half-stars in reviews I’d probably give this three and a half, because it’s not going to change anyone’s life or make anyone think differently about the world. But it’s a very pleasant way to spend a few hours, and that’s still worth a lot, so I’ll round up to four.