(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.