(This is 2018 Reading Challenge Book #8.)
Setting up this reading challenge, which I am dreadfully behind on, I did not expect it to focus on Doctor Who books. This is my third and there may be a few more, but I suppose that is better than not reading at all. Over on “The Adventure Gamer”, I have been covering the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game by Infocom and Douglas Adams. Without a doubt, it is one of the best adventure games of the 1980s, filled with humor, fun, and devilishly difficult puzzles. I highly recommend it! As background research, I have been diving deep into Douglas Adams lore. I have read most of two biographies (focusing on the 1980s), re-read the Hitchhiker’s Guide novel, already covered the radio plays, and now I find myself looking at Douglas Adams’s four serials for Doctor Who, of which only two were produced. The book that I have just finished, Shada, was actually Mr. Adams’s final script for the program and was partly filmed before an industry strike caused it to be shelved and eventually abandoned altogether. If I have time, I plan to read The Krikkitmen, The Pirate Planet, and The City of Death as well.
I’ve discussed this before, but in the classic era of Doctor Who, almost every story was novelized. In an era before VCRs and regular re-runs, novels were often the only way that a fan could “watch” episodes that they missed. One major exception was that all scripts by Douglas Adams were never given novelizations. Why? Because Mr. Adams reserved the right to write the novels himself and Target Books wouldn’t pay him at a scale to match his level of fame. It seems petty in retrospect, but perhaps not surprising for someone that made a career through his careful and detail-oriented control of his prose. After Shada, all of the other Adams Doctor Who stories were novelized: Pirate Planet and City of Death in 2017, followed by the Krikkitmen in 2018.
Our story opens on board a space station, a research platform where the best and brightest minds have gathered to create a better future. They have been brought together by Skagra, a mysterious figure who wipes their minds and stores their memories and skills in a floating white sphere. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Romana (in her second incarnation) are enjoying a holiday in Cambridge. They have been called by their friend and retired Time Lord, Professor Chronotis, but the good professor is so old even by Time Lord standards that he cannot even remember why he called them. Only after some tea and banter does he recall: in his flight from Gallifrey, he had taken one of the great Artefacts, objects of immense hidden power, and has been hiding it on Earth. He wants the Doctor to return it, but the artefact, a book, is missing; one of the local college students took it by mistake when he was looking for some books on carbon dating. From there, paths cross as Skagra comes to Earth to try to capture the book, the student and his potential girlfriend are taken along for a ride in the TARDIS, and Professor Chronotis is killed only to reveal a deep dark secret. To give away the full plot would be a waste, but needless to say it is a fantastic read. After years as a writer and then script editor for the series, Douglas Adams knew his Doctor Who lore and this story contributes to the overall mythology of the Time Lords while still being a fun adventure yarn. Perhaps as a credit to Mr. Adams’s talents as a comic writer, it is a funny story, but many of Tom Baker’s stories during this period had a sense of levity and none of the jokes stand out as being immersion-breaking.
It’s always a challenge adapting a script as a novel, but Gareth Roberts does a fantastic job of fleshing out characters and situations in ways that would not be possible on short-form television. He admits in the afterward to making some script changes, but it’s all seamless. As the Doctor Who nerd that I am, I couldn’t help but to notice that he stuck in references to the new series that would have been impossible in 1979. Off the top of my head, I caught references to lost Time Lord “the Corsair”, a time lock, and even some details to the planet of Karn which had been first introduced in 1976. None of the details were distracting but I’m sure there’s someone out there really upset about it. If you don’t like the book, you have plenty of other opportunities to enjoy Shada: there was a 1992 reconstruction released on VHS, a 2003 audio series which transposed the story to the Eighth Doctor, a fan-created animation released online in 2010, and finally an official partly-animated reconstruction released in 2017. Of those, the only version that I have seen any of is the 2017 animated edition. As an official BBC production, it features original voice actors returning and even a new scene starring (a noticeably older) Tom Baker in the TARDIS. I haven’t watched more than an episode yet, but it has been fantastic. If I have one complaint it is that my mental image from the book is a bit more “modern” than they had scripted in 1979. As filmed, all of the most brilliant people in the galaxy that were gathered together were middle-aged white men. I have to admit that I imagined a slightly more diverse crowd…
Overall, this was a well-done story. It would have been a fantastic capstone to the 1979 series and on Douglas Adams’s career in the series. It is funny, deep, and expresses a love for Doctor Who and its history. It is a shame that it was never fully produced, but perhaps the mystique of an unfinished adventure have added to the romance of the story. I highly recommend it for fans of the series, especially those who crave one more semi-official adventure with the Fourth Doctor.
Previous posts in this series:
- “Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance” by Lois Bujold (2012)
- “The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan (2017)
- “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” by Don Rosa (1994)
- “Crystal Phoenix” by Michael Berlyn (1980)
- “The Original Hitchhiker’s Guide Radio Scripts” by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd (1978, 1980)
- “Rose” novelization by Russell T. Davies (2018) & “The Day of the Doctor” novelization by Steven Moffat (2018)