The One That Got Away

Shada by Gareth Roberts

It’s appropriate that so much of Shada is concerned with the power and significance of an ancient book, as Douglas Adams’ original has itself become a kind of palimpsest, with layer upon layer of new material being added but with the original material still visible underneath. Over the years since the television production was scrapped partway through filming, there have been a number of attempts to complete the work, all of them adding new material, until what we understand when people discuss Shada is so much more than the 70 minutes or so of footage that was actually completed.

The 1992 video reconstruction of the story, including Tom Baker roaming around MOMI with occasional ejaculations of “Beat you cock!” is just as much a part of Shada as Lalla Ward performing the role of Romana twice, once with Tom Baker and once with Paul McGann for the 2003 BBC webcast version, or Douglas Adams himself re-using Professor Chronotis and his TARDIS in his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Thanks to a technicians’ strike about the Play School clock (a detail Adams would have appreciated) Shada has, improbably, become a much richer and layered text than if it had been transmitted. And now, thanks to the Adams Estate there has been another paradoxical development – Shada, the non-existent, yet insistently present non-story has finally been novelised.

Thankfully this daunting task was given to Gareth Roberts, a veteran from the days of the Virgin New Adventures range of Doctor Who stories and, of course, more recently a successful writer for the new television series during both the Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat eras. Roberts is steeped in Doctor Who, knows the history of the show backwards, and is a huge fan of Douglas Adams to boot. All of those qualities could have made for a disastrous book, pickled in reverence and leaving the inadequacies of the original script untouched and unimproved. Fortunately, Roberts makes Shada his own, just as Ian Marter and Donald Cotton did with their Target novelisations, and he isn’t afraid to change some of Adams’ original scripts where he feels it necessary.

It’s possible that some Doctor Who fans might not like this, but getting worried about changes to a story that was never completed would be a bit neurotic even for die-hard followers of the show. It’s very hard to pin down what the correct version of Shada is anyway. Roberts mentions in an afterword that he had access to camera and rehearsal scripts that post-dated the only other versions that had previously made it into the public domain. When you also consider that Adams was famous for script changes made at the eleventh hour, and that the main cast spent most of Season Seventeen doing their best to avoid saying any of the lines written for them, then it becomes clear that the idea of a definitive version of Shada is illusory.

Any lingering doubts about straying from the “text” should also be dispelled by the fact that Adams himself had a very low opinion of his own script. He wrote Shada in three days after a stand-off with series producer Graham Williams, and (as Roberts rightly points out in this fascinating interview) he’d also become staggeringly wealthy almost overnight just before writing it. In that situation, with one last contractual writing obligation to fulfil in his old job, I think Adams can be forgiven for perhaps not giving the story his undivided attention. While it’s remarkable he managed come up with a halfway decent script at all, Shada is no masterpiece, and Adams himself treated it roughly, and had no qualms about hacking out the good ideas and ditching the rest.

It’s appropriate then that Roberts takes a respectful but robust approach to the original material. In his hands, Skagra becomes a character rather than the unfathomable human sneer that we’re familiar with from the television footage. Clare Keightley and Chris Parsons are allowed to have the romance that old softies like me always thought they should have, and even the most minor characters, like the unfortunate driver who give’s Skagra a lift, become memorable and convincing. Even the Krargs, monsters surely added by a desperate Adams at the behest of his producer, are convincingly powerful and formidable unlike their rather weedy television incarnations.

It’s precisely being away from the screen that allows this Shada to be the epic that everyone had imagined before they actually saw the footage in 1992. Despite the presence of Time Lord mythology and an apocalyptic threat to the universe, the original script was very much a Season Seventeen kind of epic. The cast was small; the budget likewise, despite location filming in Cambridge; and much of the action in the surviving footage featured characters sitting around chatting to not much purpose – padding in fact. Sometimes it feels that Shada is a Doctor Who story where the only thing we have left is padding. This might actually be a mercy, as it’s entirely possible that the protracted final battle between the Doctor and Skagra in Episode Six would have made The Horns of Nimon look like Heimat.

It’s a tribute to the author’s achievement that not only does he extract every ounce of potential from all of the big set pieces, but he also very equitably develops some areas that are core to both Adams’ work and Doctor Who itself. Skagra’s computer is particularly well handled: a classic Adams creation, that achieves its full potential in Roberts’ hands. The Time Lord mythology originally present is also enriched by Roberts with nods towards The War Games and The Doctor’s Wife and when we reach Shada the events make a lot more sense thanks to some changes to the plot and a different set of inhabitants. Throughout all of this, Roberts avoids any portentousness and maintains an appropriately playful tone, which is surely the best way to approach a Douglas Adams script of this era.

Ed Victor, the agent who represents the Adams estate apparently said that Shada was “like having a sketch on a canvas by Rubens, and now the studio of Rubens is completing it.” As well as being a bit grandiose, I feel that this comment underplays Roberts’ contribution. He’s taken a patchy and rushed piece of original work, that was not even really finished as a script let alone as a television production, changed the bad bits and strengthened the good, while infusing it all with the tone of the best of both Douglas Adams and Season Seventeen, as well as a delicate hint of the new series. It’s funny, pacey, epic in scope and right up there with the best novelisations.

And yet it still leaves me wanting more from Shada. When I read Roberts’ afterword which mentions variant scripts and previously missing hand-written scenes, I immediately had fantasies of a future publication: a large format script book – the Definitive Shada Variorum Edition. I won’t be happy until I have that in my sweaty hands, along with the Gareth Roberts’ novelisations of The Pirate Planet and City of Death. No matter how much is released, there will always be something missing from the lives of Doctor Who fans, and even a book as effective as Shada won’t change that.

Shada is published by BBC Books.

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