Doctor Who: Shada review

Based on the unaired Douglas Adams Doctor Who 1979 serial, Gareth Roberts' novelisation of Shada is a brisk, entertaining read...

Shada is a challenge for a writer. Firstly, it’s based on a Douglas Adams script, rush written in 1979 (the show’s production was never finished due to industrial action), that its author was not hugely enamoured of anyway. Those aspects Adams did like he used in other stories, most notably in the first Dirk Gently novel. Footage from Shada was used to represent the Fourth Doctor and Romana in The Five Doctors (Tom Baker having declined a return to the role), and what was shot was released on VHS in 1992 with linking narration by Tom Baker.

There have been several fan adaptations, including a Target-style novelisation by Paul Scoones which is available as an E-book, and in 2003 Big Finish and the BBC produced an audioplay with Paul McGann as the Doctor, accompanied by some animation for a webcast version that is still available on the BBC’s Doctor Who website.

Shada is also, whether by coincidence or design, an acronym for the Sexual Health And Disability Alliance charity (it’s the first hit when you Google the word – have a look, maybe make a donation), but this probably wasn’t considered an additional pressure for Gareth Roberts when he sat down to write the novelisation.

After Eoin Colfer’s sixth Hitchhiker‘s novel was not brilliantly received, Roberts had a difficult task in writing a novelisation of a familiar story which also had Adams’ legacy hanging over it. Fortunately, Roberts has several factors on his side:

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1. Anyone who has read his Virgin Missing Adventures novels featuring the Fourth Doctor and Romana will know that he is one of the few authors to nail Tom Baker’s mannerisms in prose. Here the Doctor speaks with Baker’s voice, and also occasional bursts of Tennant and Smith. It’s hard to know whether this is Roberts or Adams’ doing, as with much of the story. For nearly every line, you can hear Tom Baker and Lalla Ward’s readings in your head, and their physical mannerisms are also well-realised.

2. In interviews, he comes across as pretty damn forthright if he thinks something doesn’t work, so any aspect of the story that didn’t come up to scratch is fair game for revision, irrespective of who wrote them (be it those with the legacy Douglas Adams or Tom Baker).

3. Seven Virgin novels, four TV scripts, two Big Finish plays, multiple TARDISodes, Attack Of The Graske and one novelisation for the new series later, and Roberts is able to combine the best of all these approaches to the show. As a result, we have a full six-parter with room for the story to breathe, expanded sub-plots, and more depth of character than we would expect from a Target-length version of the story. Oh, and in-jokes. Such brilliant in-jokes. There are plenty of fan-pleasing continuity references in there too, even foreshadowing the events of Logopolis. I’ll leave you to discover these for yourselves. They’re very satisfying.

For the first time, Roberts delves into Gallifreyan lore (through necessity due to Shada‘s plot, which concerns a lost Time Lord artefact), which is great fun for long-term fans and a brilliant, potentially dazzling introduction to much of it for those coming to the story for the first time. If you have no previous experience of Shada or of the original series of the show, this book manages to combine Doctor Who, Gallifrey, and Douglas Adams together to form a handy introductory package for all three. Possibly the book should come with a recommendation and a warning: “If you liked this, why not try watching The Creature From The Pit? Warning: In 1979 CGI was known as “Mat Irvine”‘

While it displays Douglas Adams’ imagination, the writing style is markedly different from his longer, sketch-like chapters. At 400-plus pages, Shada still zips along nicely. The chapters are short, and the story is structured into six parts roughly along the lines of the TV version. If you’re disciplined, you may choose to read the book in six chunks, leaving yourself on a cliffhanger. Taking six weeks to read it, however, might be a step too far. Congratulations if you have the sheer bloody mindedness to see such an endeavour through.

Its most impressive feat is in rendering Skagra, the villain of the piece, laughable, annoying, pathetic and threatening. Incorporating a cloak and floppy hat into his ensemble early in the story, his over-the-top campness is a good source of laughs, but crucially he also has a sufficient level of threat to back him up. Ferociously intelligent and possibly the biggest sociopath in the universe, Skagra’s appearance belies his meticulously planned scheme, the scale of his ambitions, and his utter lack of empathy.

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On audio, Andrew Sachs’ camp snarl rendered the character both boring and annoying. Skagra as fleshed out by Roberts is an insane megalomaniac whose meticulous planning and desire to control everything give motivation and logic to his scheme. It’s an impressively unique plan, with a huge scope that doesn’t necessitate budget-stretching visuals. Skagra’s home planet is reminiscent of Adam’s concept of Ursa Minor, with an added Time Lord backstory.

The second half of the story, which noticeably flags during the Big Finish version when we get round to resolving the mysteries, makes full use of the medium to expand on visuals and characterisation. It can be dull to have characters talk about how impressive buildings are in any great detail, and the Graham Williams era of the show struggled with even lower budgets than normal. Romantic sub-plots were not a big part of the show at the time either, not when surprise marriage was considered an acceptable means of sending a companion on their way. As with many things, the start of such a storyline has been sketched out, but it seems to have been lost along the way as a mad rush to finish takes hold. With less emphasis on the monsters, and more on the supporting cast, the fairly simple resolution has much more impact.

With things tweaked, expanded, streamlined and reinforced, Shada is a glorious mix of the tones of now and then, fun for young and old alike. The effort that has gone into it doesn’t show, in the best possible way. It feels like it may have been as fun to write as it is to read. This is a novel brimming with great ideas, one-liners and visuals.

Despite its episodic structure, Shada feels like the kind of story that would work for a Doctor Who film. Douglas Adams’ ideas for the show generally do seem like they’d make good films (indeed, he pitched a Doctor Who film at one point), and if David Yates is looking for an idea for one, he could do worse than flicking through this book.

If nothing else comes of it, he is at least guaranteed a good read.

Shada is available now.

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4 out of 5