Review No.13 – Shada

Shada – Douglas Adams and Gareth Roberts

BBC Books, 2012

I grew up with classic Doctor Who (my favourite Doctor being John Pertwee) and adore all things Douglas Adams, so when this updated novelisation of the unscreened Fourth Doctor episode Shada was released, I had mixed feelings. It was either going to be fantastic or rubbish or an awkward combination of the two. Gareth Roberts, who reworked and added to Adams’s original scripts to create this novel, is a current writer for the series. In a good omen, his episodes include ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’ (one of my sister’s favourite stories) and ‘The Lodger’ (one of my favourites). It’s rare I get pulled into the novelisation of a Doctor Who story, the energy is rarely successfully transferred from screen to page, but Shada is a most exceptional exception to that rule.

Chris Parsons wants to impress attractive fellow Cambridge postgraduate Clare with a few works on carbon dating. As you do. Visiting the extremely eccentric Professor Chronotis, he is instead given a book he can neither read nor identify that will set off a chain of events he could never have imagined. Scientific mastermind Skagra arrives on Earth in search of that same book, convinced it is the key to one of Gallifrey’s most powerful secrets and his own domination of the universe. There is, however, a slight glitch in his plan. Because the Doctor is in town, accompanied by fellow Time Lord Romana and pet robot K-9, to answer a distress message its originator can’t actually remember sending. He has no plans of his own, no idea what he’s doing, and no one knows what he might do next…

There were times when I was reading this book that I felt like I was back in the comfortably zany world of the original series, when the Doctor was Tom Baker dashing madly about in a long stripy scarf, complaining about Gallifrey and drinking cups of tea. (A brief rant – something I resent in the new series is how they killed off the Time Lords. I liked it better when the Doctor was an eccentric renegade, not sole saviour of the universe with humans tugging him back to Earth by his coat tails every other episode and telling him to save the world. Again. And again. And again…Not that that didn’t often happen in the old series, the Third Doctor worked for UNIT for a while after all, but he didn’t seem to think of Earth as his planet so much, more like a favoured holiday destination. Now everyone expects him to turn up and save the day, and often blame him for stuff when he does.)

A lot of what I loved in Shada is recognisably Adams, but Gareth Roberts shows immense skill and sensitivity adapting the scripts into a very witty 407 page long novel. New scenes have been added, modern Who references made (like how come alien writing is in English), and characters that might have received very little time in a screened version of the story are rounded out very well. It occasionally goes over the top (the talking Ship, for instance) but who cares? I was laughing aloud all the way through and saying things like “Yes, yes, of course he does!” There were silly hats. Invisible spaceships. Mind-sucking spheres. Cliffhangers I could almost see. The best of both worlds in a deliciously thick book.

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