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Book review: Shada

  • by STUART KELLY
 

WHEN I wrote my Book Of Lost Books, I slightly fraudulently claimed that Penguin Classics was my inspiration for examining literary loss and destruction.

In truth, it was Doctor Who. I knew, as a child, that I’d never be able to see every episode – not just because they weren’t repeated in the days of three channels, but because the BBC had lost parts of the Hartnell and Troughton eras. But I thought I could read all the novelisations: except for the fact that Douglas Adams had refused to have other writers create novels for the two stories he wrote when he was script editor of the show, The Pirate Planet and the wonderful City Of Death. But there was an even more glaring gap: the Douglas Adams Doctor Who story that, because of strike action in 1979, was never fully made. Shada was slightly legendary in that respect: the unseeable, unreadable episode. When The Five Doctors was broadcast in 1983 to celebrate the programme’s 20th anniversary, the thing that thrilled me most was that they used a few snippets of Shada, with Tom Baker and Lalla Ward punting on the Cam. In short, I’ve been waiting 32 years for this book.

Taking on writing the novel of Shada involves living up to the expectations of two sets of fans; the lovers of Doctor Who and the devotees of Douglas Adams, the finest comic writer of his generation. Gareth Roberts manages the task with flair: the quote selected on the flyleaf perfectly captures the mixture of silliness and grandeur anyone would hope of such a combination: “At the age of five, Skagra decided emphatically that God did not exist. This revelation tends to make most people in the universe who have it react in one of two ways – with relief or with despair. Only Skagra responded to it by thinking “Wait a second. That means there’s a situation vacant”.

Shada has had a strange afterlife already: it was released on video in 1992, with Tom Baker narrating the missing sections, and then became a Big Finish audio production and webcast in 2003, with Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor. Adams himself used parts of Shada for his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, particularly the character of Professor Chronotis. In Shada he is the retired Time Lord with a dark secret and a stolen book; in Dirk Gently he is almost identically the same character but without any references to Gallifrey or Tardises, right down to having part of a Cambridge College as a disguised time-machine.

It’s a typical Douglas Adams story in so many ways. Skagra, the would-be conqueror of the universe, is a bit of a jerk, and the incredibly wicked villain Salyavin, whom he intends to break out of the Time Lord’s forgotten prison planet of Shada, is just a bit naughty in reality. In comparison to the new series’ constant hankering after the epic and the eerie, Shada is rather beautifully childish and fun. This is the Doctor as cosmic hobo and eternal optimist rather than the “Oncoming Storm” or the “Lonely God” of the new series.

Although there are times when Roberts slightly overuses some devices – the constant references to cups of tea are mildly less tiresome than Skagra’s throbbing vein on the temple – for the most part, he ventriloquises Adams very well indeed, and brings back the enchanting, not-really-for-grown-ups feel of late 1970s Doctor Who.

Roberts throws in a few smart jokes that fuse Adams and Doctor Who very well. When recounting all the dangerous enemies the Doctor has defeated from Time Lord history, there’s glancing reference to the Meddling Monk (who last appeared on screen in 1966 in The Daleks’ Master Plan, a mostly lost story), but there’s an Adamsy twist when Roberts adds in a reference to “the Interfering Nun” as another former foe. It keeps up with contemporary stories via a little wink at Neil Gaiman’s recent episode, and the gender-switching Time Lord, the Corsair.

Skagra’s sentient ship is a first cousin to Marvin the Paranoid Android from the novel Adams had published a few months before Shada should have aired: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. The ship’s existential crisis, where it believes itself to be dead but cannot understand why, if it is dead, it is still capable of thinking, provides the most gleeful parts of the comedy. In one respect, the book is far better than the television programme. Skagra’s menial servants, the Kraags, are one of the less convincing pieces of BBC special effects. Living monsters of lava are far easier to leave to the reader’s imagination.

It’s a sweet conceit that the punishment of Skagra in this version is to watch all the Doctor’s adventures; the hell of the non-geek and the Elysium of the fanboy. As a fanboy, I was ever so slightly peeved that we didn’t get the intended cameo appearance of the Daleks, Cybermen and Zygons. As a moderately grown-up reviewer of literary fiction, I adored spending a couple of bus trips quietly chortling and chuckling.

Much though I enjoyed it, this version of Shada still encapsulates the irony of lost works. When it was just a case of rumours and hints, ‘Shada’ was, without a doubt, the greatest ever episode of Doctor Who. In this form, it’s just rather good.

Shada

by Douglas Adams, novelised by Gareth Roberts

BBC Books, 416pp, £16.99

 

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