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Tardis Party: the Adams apple of Douglas’s eye? Shada ~ Gareth Roberts (Review)

September 25, 2013

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Author: Gareth Roberts

Year: 2012

Publisher: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing)

ISBN: ISBN-10: 184990328x/ ISBN-13: 9781849903288

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Thanks be to Rassilion, for in the wake of the UK (and, to some extent, the wider world) going truly Who crazy in recent years, the Beeb finally got its arse in gear last year and ensured the unfinished, never broadcast, should-have-been-awesome Douglas Adams-penned, Tom Baker-toting Doctor Who serial Shada (1980) has finally lived up to its potential and been realised in a wholly satisfying, entirely successful incarnation.

Over the years, Shada has (ahem) regenerated from its original TV story into an audio adventure (oddly with Paul McGann’s Doctor) and back to a very underwhelming, cobbled together DVD release of the original serial, but don’t doubt it, happily Gareth Roberts’ novel(isation) of last year can absolutely lay claim to being the definitive version. This literary Shada from Roberts then (‘NuWho’ scribe  of 2007’s The Shakespeare Code, 2008’s The Unicorn And The Wasp, 2010’s The Lodger and 2011’s Closing Time and script editor of 2007-11’s spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures) is the only one to realise the sadly deceased Adams’ vision. That’s to say, it’s an adventuresome, acerbic, silly, very funny and very polished biblio-centric version of Shada that’s surely the triumph Adams could only have dreamed his TV serial would be.

The fate of the original Shada‘s a sad one – not least for Baker fans. Given the transitory, disappointing and, well, pretty crappy nature of the thesp’s final season on the show (1980-81’s Season 18), he and his fans should at least have enjoyed, in the shape of his penultimate season’s final serial – yes, Shada – a last hurrah. But thanks to industrial action affecting the BBC (this was the fag end of the ’70s/ the ’80s’ crap new dawn), that was never to be; Shada didn’t see its filming finished, let alone get broadcast. Alas, indeed. For here was a four-part story that on paper (or, rather, on the page) rivaled the blissfully brilliant story City Of Death (1979) from earlier in its season.

Like City Of Death, it too of course was written by The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy supremo Douglas Adams (Doctor Who‘s then script editor), and like that serial too (and Hitch-Hiker’s) featured a clever-clever, twisty-turny, space-travel-meets-time-travel-meets-marvellously-mundane-Britishness plot and comic sensibility. The ‘Britishness’ came courtesy of its major setting being a Cambridge University college, itself a hotbed of eccentricity and the unique, of course, if nicely humdrum when compared to the colliding glamour and adventure of The Doctor’s universe-wide world.

But fast-forward over 30 years into the future and, yes, Shada is now back in book form. The plot’s exactly the same – testament indeed to Roberts wisely trying to keep the novel as faithful to the original script and as, well, Adamsian as possible. It’s, yes, 1979 and Baker’s Fourth Doc and Lalla Ward‘s Romana (II) are visiting Cambridge college St. Cedd’s, as they’ve been messaged by a certain Professor Chronotis that he wants to see them. Only the highly forgetful, very old and loveably doddery Chronotis doesn’t remember sending them a message at all.

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And just as our hero wonders who did and, more worryingly, why they did, so appears on the scene a jumped up, ludicrously dressed but brilliantly intelligent psychopathic alien named Skagra, whom in addition to stealing other genius’s minds with a silver spherical globe device, wants something Chronotis has. It couldn’t be a particular book the old duffer (whom, worryingly but most intriguingly, it turns out is a retired Time Lord) allowed a lovelorn postgrad scientist Chris Parsons to borrow in order to impress his would-be girlfriend, but has suddenly discovered can seemingly bring to life memories, fantasies and things that may happen in the future, could it? No it couldn’t be that. Surely not…

Shada‘s success lies in its marvellously well honed, irresistible combination of the familiar and the unexpected. First, the familiar. The protagonists here could only be the Baker and Ward incarnations of The Doctor and Romana, respectively (him full of gleeful-abandon one-second, oh-so-sober-cosmic-caretaker-foreboding the next with his daft curls, even dafter boggle eyes and even dafter never-ending scarf; she with her delightful aristocratic angelic air that all but overpowers poor Chris Parsons); K-9 could only be the incredibly intelligent, incredibly useful, but also incredibly dangerous robot dog he is and the TARDIS could only be, well, the TARDIS. So far so good; Roberts truly deserves a medal for bringing to life the late ’70s Doctor Who so fondly, amusingly and satisfyingly with these perfectly realised tenets.

Yet now we come to the unexpected, for its here that Shada earns its stripes just as much, if not more. Unlike – what was filmed of – the original TV serial (see above video clip), Roberts absolutely nails the characters of Parsons, Claire Keightly (his love interest), Chronotis and despicable baddie Skagra, their respective worlds and their collective importance and driving nature to the overall plot. In short, Shada is far from just The Doctor, Romana And K-9 Show. The original serial sees a Chris Parsons (played by Waiting For God‘s Daniel Hill) whom seems rather too old and smooth to be the socially awkward and even more amorously awkward postgrad of the story. Here, Roberts puts that utterly right and, in doing so, turns the character into an Arthur Dent-esque bemused, nicely comic soundboard for the audience (masquerading as a human ally for the heroes). Additionally, it’s utterly obvious why Chris has fallen for Claire; she’s everything he’s not, confident, resourceful, forceful and quick-witted – at one point (thanks to a bit of hypnotism) she even rivals Romana in the indispensable companion stakes.

Chronotis too is a far more satisfying character here than in the original serial; a quirky, adorable old grandpa figure whom you get the idea maybe hides an extraordinary secret, not just an estimable bookcase-cum-TARDIS and a big penchant for tea. But, perhaps most memorable of all, is Skagra, a wonderful villain of the piece. Blessed with a huge intellect, an amazing propensity to build 2001: A Space Odyssey-style spaceships, ruthlessly cold and totally bonkers (rather like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper gone very, very wrong). Yet his best moment may just come when a street yob compares his unwittingly ridiculous get-up to that of  ’70s funkster Disco Tex (“How’s the Sex-o-lettes?” – priceless).

Apparently, Roberts felt he would  have to fix one or two plot holes when he went through the original serial’s scripts to write his adaptation – no wonder then the plotting’s so tight and the story’s final, almost devastating complication (accompanied, fittingly, by what we may assume is a Gallifreyan swearword on the Doctor’s lips) so effective. Speaking of such humour, the author indulges in further Adamsian humour by coming up with a wonderful near ethereal character in the shape of the pseudo-consciousness of Skagra’s awesome spaceship – it’s a wonderful echo of Hitch-Hiker’s Marvin the Paranoid Android. Indeed, you’d never realise it (always the mark of a good writer and a well edited novel this), but apparently as he started adapting Shada, Roberts found it a task far more difficult and far more time-consuming than he’d thought it would be. Just goes to show, then, that if it’s tough work, like The Doc when we first meet him on a boat on the River Cam, some things are very much worth a punt.

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Further reading:

Shada’s page at BBC Books/ Ebury Publishing

twitter.com/OldRoberts953

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