The process of novelising a television or film script is unenviable, and while there are those who have made successful careers out of it, such as Alan Dean Foster, who has transferred everything from the Star Trek animated series to Disney’s The Black Hole and Chronicles of Riddick to book form, and Terrance Dicks, the former Doctor Who script editor who novelised over sixty stories from that show, the work involves tight deadlines for poor pay on scripts that may undergo vast changes before they reach the screen.
The mediums are also very different, with the structure of a standard television show being much more inflexible than that of a novel, where creative freedom can more easily be expressed, and the scripts themselves are often little more than sketches for the actors and directors to build the full story upon. One writer who was very aware of the difference was Douglas Adams. His background was in television, having worked with members of the Monty Python team and as a script editor on Doctor Who himself before his greatest success which made him a household name.
The Primary Phase of his radio series The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy was broadcast in March 1978, but the first novel did not appear until October the following year; while substantially faithful, it was based on only four of the six episodes. The second novel, 1980’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe concluded with those missing two episodes, but by way of a diversion that encompassed some – but not all – of the Secondary Phase of the radio series. Later novels were even more gleefully disrespectful of the notion of continuity that is so troublesome to lesser writers than Adams.
During his time on Doctor Who, Adams contributed three scripts, The Pirate Planet, City of Death and Shada, which was to have been the concluding story of season seventeen, but filming was never completed. Industrial action at the BBC meant that while location work in Cambridge was filmed, no studio footage was committed to film. A brief scene featuring Tom Baker and Lalla Ward was used in the 1993 20th anniversary story The Five Doctors, but Shada was never completed as originally intended.
Three previous approximations have been made in an attempt to complete the story; a video release with Tom Baker narrating the missing scenes, then an audio adventure with Paul McGann taking the role which was then used as the basis for an animated version through the BBC website. Now a fourth version has materialised, in the form of the official novelisation courtesy of Gareth Roberts, himself a contributor to the new version of Doctor Who, based not only on the various versions of the script, but Adams’ notes, details never before captured, including a previously undiscovered scene found handwritten on a shooting script.
The early scenes of the book are fun and fast paced, with Adams effortlessly capturing the Doctor’s voice, setting up what could be a classic adventure, as the Doctor, Romana and K9 visit Professor Chronotis, a Time Lord living out his retirement in the grounds of Cambridge University. Unbeknownst to them, Chronotis has taken with him from the archives of Gallifrey an ancient book which is being sought by the alien criminal Skagra in hopes it will lead him to the Time Lord prison asteroid Shada. Needless to say, the book falls into the wrong hands, and soon the entire universe is in deadly peril.
Roberts had the opportunity to thoroughly overhaul the story, but has instead opted for a slavish novelisation rather than allowing Shada to become the novel it clearly wants to be, that even Adams wanted it to be, as many of the ideas surfaced again in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Divided into six parts, a reflection of the televised version had it been completed, the book suffers from the enforced structure of artificially created cliffhangers which are immediately resolved after the break, a common complaint of the writers of the original show, and repetitive padding in the later passages, capture and escape, running down corridors only to be captured again.
Despite the hopes expressed in Roberts’ fascinating afterword, which adds much colour to a story already well known to followers of the show, little attempt has been made to expand the peripheral characters, and although there are references to Who new and old – The Creature from the Pit and The Armageddon Factor as well as The Impossible Astronaut and The Doctor’s Wife to name a few – the most obvious inconsistency is the change in the treatment of the companions between then and now, with Romana serving little function other than to be held hostage and ask questions that encourage exposition.
While his recreation of Adams’ prose style is excellent even in the more tiresome scenes, Roberts would have done better to also adopt Adams’ flexible attitude towards source material when appropriate, allowing this to become a Doctor Who story freed of budget and studio constriction rather than an emulation of the Target series, always straining against the scripts they were tied to; instead of expanding the scope, the prose channels cheap sets and dodgy colour separation overlays.
Douglas Adams should have celebrated his 60th birthday in 2012, and even in his absence his work lives on with Dirk Gently on television and the forthcoming Hitch-Hikers Guide radio tour, but it is disappointing that Shada is a compromised dream, constrained by too faithful an adherence to a script never completed to his satisfaction in 1979 rather than what he might have created for a modern reader had he been given the chance to complete the work himself.