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Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen

Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, the new novel by James Goss, has an unusual and rather tortuous history. A few years back, BBC Books published Shada, a novelisation by Gareth Roberts of a script Douglas Adams had written for Doctor Who, which had been partly filmed but had remained unfinished due to industrial action.

(Shada is very much the Smile of Doctor Who, being a legendarily unfinished Great Work which has somehow been finished and released more often than many actually-completed works, especially since the Adams estate’s licensing frenzy started a few years ago.)

That went well, so it was followed by two novelisations of the two scripts that Adams had written for Doctor Who that had been completed and broadcast — The Pirate Planet and City of Death. Those were novelised by James Goss, and also went well. However, that would appear to have been the last Douglas Adams Who work that could be novelised.

That is, until someone remembered Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen.

This was a story idea that Douglas Adams had brought in to his first meetings with Robert Holmes and Anthony Read about Doctor Who in 1976, and had worked on until 1980 as a possible film treatment. Those people who have read Neil Gaiman’s book Don’t Panic! about Adams’ life and work will have read a few pages of the treatment, which in its final form ran to thirty-three pages.

Adams was never one to waste an idea, and so when the film didn’t get made, he repurposed the main plotline of the treatment for The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, firstly as a plot for the unmade second TV series, and secondly as the main overarching plot for the third novel, Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Goss has taken Adams’ original thirty-three-page film treatment (included as one of the appendices here, published in full for the first time), a discarded initial draft of Life, the Universe, and Everything (not included here), sections of the unproduced Hitch-Hiker’s script, and sundry notes and marginalia, and constructed a novel from them — one featuring the Doctor and Romana instead of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, and Slartibartfast.

The result works surprisingly well. Shorn of the more Hitch-Hikers-ish elements that were added in later, like the mattresses, Agrajag, and Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged (which are, admittedly, some of the best things about Life, the Universe, and Everything) the central plot is a very Doctor Who one, and in fact could almost be considered a generic 60s/70s Doctor Who story — the Doctor and his companion seek out the missing elements of a Giant McGuffin (like in The Keys of Marinus or The Key To Time) in order to stop the return of an Evil From Beyondadawnatime (like in every Hinchcliffe/Holmes story ever) which is being controlled by another Evil From Beyondadawnatime which is actually a computer which is also a mad god which wants to destroy the universe.

So the basic plot structure is fine, and Goss does a more than decent job with the actual writing. He manages to write in a voice which is not precisely Adamsian, but evokes the whole tradition of British humourists of which Adams was a part — there are little turns of phrase here which are reminiscent of Wodehouse, of Beachcomber, of Terry Pratchett, and so on. This means that Goss doesn’t have to attempt the constant linguistic invention which was a characteristic of Adams at his best (and which could at Adams’ worst turn into a rather grating smug slickness), but that the voice he’s writing in is still close enough to Adams’ that he can drop in chunks of Adams’ prose where appropriate.

And fans of Adams *will* find bits they recognise, inserted nearly verbatim. It’s been a good fifteen years since I read much of Adams’ prose, but from about the age of seven until Adams’ death I was an avid fan of his work, and I kept tripping over little chunks of Adams’ work I recognised from other sources. For example, the opening few paragraphs of the book take a big chunk of an abandoned opening to Life, The Universe, And Everything (which has been published elsewhere in bios of Adams, and part of which was used in an interstitial in the finished book) and combines it with some text from the published Life, the Universe, and Everything (from early in Chapter 24, but replacing “Silastic Armorfiends of Striterax” with “Alovians”.

The result, mostly, works, and Goss’ style combines well with Adams’, especially when Goss makes a Pratchettian use of footnotes. He includes some good fan-pleasing asides (like one about Earth getting invaded multiple times on the same day: “Curiously, this was not the only time this had happened. Due to a horrendous diary conflict, the Post Office Tower’s grim attempt at global domination and the Chameleons’ plan to kidnap teenagers from Gatwick Airport had both clashed with the Daleks unleashing chaos from their time-travelling antiques shop”, or the mentions of Vixos (from Nev Fountain’s Mervyn Stone mystery series) and Planet 5 (from Simon Bucher-Jones’ The Taking of Planet 5)) but manages to write these in such a way that, if you’re not aware what he’s doing, they just feel like Adamsian inventiveness.

In fact, one of the few bits of the book I find unimpressive is almost pure Adams — Goss repurposes great chunks of The Private Life of Genghis Khan (a short story Adams wrote based on a sketch he’d written with Graham Chapman and which can be read here — the sketch was originally written about Chapman’s frustration with John Cleese not wanting to get together to do Python stuff because he was too busy, with Khan saying the same things Cleese would say, and you can definitely hear Cleese’s voice in lines like “I’d sort of made a date for meeting this awfully interesting chap who knows absolutely everything about understanding things, which is something I’m awfully bad at.”

But it’s too much of a chunk of undigested Python for this book, even with Genghis Khan reimagined as The Great Khan, a cat-alien.

That section comes in what is by far the weakest section of the book as a whole, the collect-the-bits-of-the-McGuffin section, which also contains a section about a judicial system based on outrage, which comes a bit close to some of the more tedious modernity-mocking things you get when Private Eye is on an off-week and just complains about people on the Internet.

Luckily, where in Life, the Universe, and Everything the collection of the various elements of the Wikkit Gate took up a good chunk of the book, here it’s very abbreviated, and one gets the impression that Goss wanted to get it over with and get back to the stuff he finds interesting, rather than collecting plot tokens. And Goss’ wit is on much firmer ground when it gets to writing about more Doctor Who-esque (and less Pythonesque/Hitch-Hikery) subjects — lines like the description of Gallifrey as “a world where every door was a portal, and you called a spade ‘the Spade of Rassilon’” work very well, and in general Goss gets the tone exactly right, hitting something that feels like the best of mid-period Tom, where there’s a knowing self-mockery which doesn’t tip over into self-parody, and where the Doctor and Romana go around being wonderfully clever at each other without (too often) tipping over into smugness. For the most part, this feels like a fan-memory of the good bits of the Tom-and-Romana era, that part of the series as we would like to remember it rather than as it sometimes was.

Goss does a lot of work fitting this into the appropriate scale for a novel, as well — he adds a subplot about Time Lord history which ties it into Shada (expanding hugely on a couple of sentences in Adams’ treatment, but appropriately enough for a novel, which has to contain more plot than a ninety-minute film, which The Krikkitmen was intended as), and which also makes it work with the greater Time Lord/Faction Paradox mythology of the later books (though as with his fannish jokes, you don’t have to know those things for it to work — Goss is very, very good at ensuring that details are given in such a way that references don’t sound like references-you-need-to-know, but just background details which might not even be referring to anything at all). This gives the story an appropriately mythic, grandiose, scope, and also lets Goss play a little with continuity (managing to drop in an explanation for Borusa’s complete change of character in The Five Doctors which, if you didn’t know that was what he was doing, would sound like one of Adams’ jokes).

And while, as I said, Goss doesn’t have Adams’ linguistic overinventiveness (which is not necessarily a bad thing — Adams was a great writer at his best, but far too willing to run away with his own cleverness at the expense of every other writerly virtue), he does have a similarly prolific inventiveness when it comes to Big Ideas — there are many, many, throwaway ideas in here, and I wouldn’t want to guess which ones came from some Adamsian scrap and which were Goss’ own.

There is one structural misstep as well. Goss has (for good reasons) split the original Big Bad in Adams’ treatment into two — a Big Bad based on the Krikkit plotline, and another Big Bad from the Gallifrey plotline — but the result is that there are three nested endings, something like the film version of The Lord of the Rings, and while I think Adams’ original two endings (as in the treatment and Life, the Universe, and Everything) work as end and coda, the added one feels a little much.

(On the other hand, the other ending does manage to hang a lampshade on the resemblance between one of the ideas in Adams’ plot and one of the most famous SF stories ever — one which I’d shamefully never noticed even though both Life, the Universe, and Everything and the SF classic were among my favourite books from before I even left primary school. I was clearly not a critical enough reader as a ten-year-old.)

But on the whole, Goss does the best possible job one could do given an utterly impossible brief. He had to do something that would feel like a Douglas Adams book, but not like a bad pastiche of Adams, and that followed Adams’ plot exactly, but that also worked as a novel rather than a film, and that didn’t overly cannibalise Adams’ own novel based on the same plot, and that worked as a Doctor Who story which would feel like a story from the late 70s. The fact that he managed to write an actually good, readable, book that works on its own terms is quite amazing. And while some individual vignettes in the story aren’t to my taste, the whole thing hangs together at least as well as any of Adams’ own novels, and probably better than most.

The best way to think about this, in fact, is as Doctor Who using the same kind of intertextuality towards Adams as it used in Tom Baker’s era towards other texts. Where we once had the Fourth Doctor in Frankenstein, The Manchurian Candidate, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb or Jason and the Argonauts, walking through someone else’s familiar story and making it something other, now we have the Fourth Doctor walking through a Hitch-Hiker’s book. This story, with its hatred of bureaucracy and its returning evils and mind control, is 90% of the way to being a Robert Holmes story anyway, and given that Adams is arguably at least as much of an influence on modern Doctor Who as Hammer Horror was on the 70s version, it makes sense for his work to be used as source material in the same way.

So you can be fairly sure that if you’re the kind of person who would even vaguely consider maybe reading a book like this, you’ll come away having read a book that at least matches your expectations, and maybe exceeds them. I enjoyed it perhaps more than I “should” — it pushes a couple of my particular buttons when it comes to reading material, in ways which are closer to personal fetishes than to anything to do with quality per se — but I can’t imagine anyone who would even consider reading this not enjoying it at least a little. It does what it’s trying to do about as well as one could imagine it being done.

And… there’s something else about the book that does make it more powerful than one might expect, coming at this moment in time.

Before I go any further, I must stress that while James Goss and I follow each other on Twitter, I don’t know his personal politics. There are a couple of moments in here (like a small appearance by Margaret Thatcher) that might suggest conservatism, but which may also just be the satirist going for the easy joke. The tradition in which Adams was writing — the tradition of Wodehouse and Beachcomber and The Screwtape Letters and a good deal of Private Eye — is a fundamentally small-c-conservative one, albeit an anti-authoritarian conservatism. It’s the tradition that started with Swift, who Orwell described as “one of those people who are driven into a sort of perverse Toryism by the follies of the progressive party of the moment”, and this is a very Swiftian book. That affects the whole way in which jokes in this kind of book are structured, and so I would absolutely not want to argue one way or the other from a text deliberately written in that tradition about the author’s viewpoint. I’m a radical liberal, but were I to write a book like this, it would have a flavour of Burkean conservatism. So I’m not making any statements at all about authorial intention when I talk about the implicit politics of the book. I’m not saying what follows was intended, but nor am I saying it wasn’t.

But the interesting thing is that while some of the individual vignettes may be conservative, the overarching Krikkit plot… well, here’s a few paragraphs:

The people of Krikkit had thought themselves alone in creation. They’d discovered this not to be the case. Instinct told them that all other life was wrong and must be wiped out because … it wasn’t like them. They’d followed this plan thoroughly, and, when, unfairly, they’d failed, the rest of the Universe had responded by telling them they wanted nothing further to do with them. It was a pretty classic example of doubling down.
Faced with the knowledge that the Universe was done with them, the people of Krikkit did not react with bitter self-recrimination. Safe in the knowledge that the next time they saw the Universe, it would be a dead wasteland unable to answer back, they blamed everyone else in the Universe except themselves.
The Elders of Krikkit, the people responsible for their current isolation, didn’t even shrug and say, ‘Well, we gave it a try.’ With only a whiff of a sulk, they decided that the thing their first go at universal obliteration had lacked was conviction.

That’s something that reads very differently in 2018 than it would have in 1976, when Adams came up with the idea, or 1980, when the film was being planned, or in 1982 when Adams based Life, the Universe, and Everything on this plotline. Because since then, Brexit has happened.

The attitude of the Krikkitas is, fundamentally, the attitude of the Brexiters, and this book, largely by accident rather than design (because all of these elements were in Adams’ original plot — though whether this fed into the decision to do this book now I have no way of knowing) has a fuck [for American readers, a Belgium] of a lot of resonance with Brexit. Isolationist xenophobes angry at the rest of the universe for existing, the weaponisation of specifically-British symbols like the game of cricket in service of evil, nastiness from the past returning even more malignant… it could easily be called Doctor Who and the Brexitmen.

(I suspect there may also be resonances for USians, as Trumpism shares some, though not all, of its characteristics with Brexit).

There’s even an utterly woeful resistance who don’t really know how to resist things very well and who are still quite xenophobic themselves (hello hashtag-remainers!) (one of the few parallels here that was introduced by Goss rather than being in Adams’ treatment) and (if one wants to get into the realms of conspiracy theory), the plot point of the isolationists being manipulated by a computer from outside which has its own agenda has some passing resemblance to the stories of Russian troll-farms.

Of course, Little Englanders have always been with us, as has rose-tinted nostalgia and a romanticisation of a past that was actually fairly horrible, but those aspects of the culture, which were largely dormant when Adams was writing, have now metastasised. And intentionally or otherwise, that means that Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen resonates with current events in a way it couldn’t have had it been a 1980 post-Star-Wars cash-in film. It’s been turned from the cartoon versions of Gulliver’s Travels which seem like adventure stories into Swift’s original angry howl of disgust at humanity, just by changing the context in which it’s released.

As a book in itself, this is just an entertaining, very silly, romp. But the multiplicity of voices in its writing make it resonate in weird ways, and as a book in dialogue with other Doctor Who, with Adams’ other work, and with current politics, it enriches the whole dialogue, recontextualising things we already know as if it were Rassilon and Omega Are Dead.

I don’t want to oversell this as some great literary work or anything, and I could easily pick holes in it, but it’s a book that made me think, and in a way I genuinely didn’t expect it to. That doesn’t mean it will make you think about those things, or even that the author intended to make me think about those things, but it’s there in the work to be found.

I’ve been very critical about some of the other recent attempts to adapt Adams’ scraps and expand on his ideas, but we should remember how much Adams leaned on Michael Bywater and Steve Meretzky for his computer game writing, or Terry Jones’ novelisation of Starship Titanic, or the way Adams cannibalised big chunks of a John Lloyd novel for the last two episodes of the original Hitch-Hiker’s radio series, or the way City of Death was largely based on a plot by David Fisher (who sadly died earlier this week). When done well, this kind of profligate incorporation of other people’s ideas is entirely appropriate, and Goss does it well.

The posthumous canonisation and exploitation of Adams has led to some other, much less well-done, works which may put people off this one, but this is about as good a version of this story as we could hope for.

Buy Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen

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