Inside this book is another book – the strangest, most important and most dangerous book in the entire universe. The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey is one of the Artefacts, dating from dark days of Rassilon. It wields enormous power, and it must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Skagra – who believes he should be God and permits himself only two smiles per day – most definitely has the wrong hands. Beware Skagra. Beware the Sphere. Beware Shada.
Shada has been elusive since it failed to show up on our screens in early 1980. It needs little introduction, if you’re reading this site you already know it was a six part story by Douglas Adams that fell foul of BBC industrial action about a third of its way through production, and for many years represented one of Doctor Who’s great unknowns….we’ll never know for sure how the other two thirds of it would have looked and sounded.
Even what we can see, the raw footage shot before the studio doors were bolted represents part of a puzzle. It eluded John Nathan-Turner’s attempts to remount it in 1980. It eluded novelisation as Douglas Adams had bigger fish to fry, and didn’t want anyone else adapting his work, despite his own low regard for the story.
The bootleg video copy that did the rounds in the 80’s with the blanks filled in by text from an archaic computer was succeeded in 1992 by JNT’s no-budget attempt at reconstructing it for home video, even that took twenty years to eventually crawl onto DVD in the same form. Big Finish’s audio adaptation is impressive but is missing something due to being retooled and recast for a different Doctor, not to mention the obvious lack of visuals. More recently, Ian Levine produced an animated version that eludes us for copyright reasons.
Shada was a watershed for the 1970s that never came, the Doctor saw off Soldeed and the Nimon, then the season abruptly ended. There was also a change of production team, this was supposed to be the swan song for both Douglas Adams and producer Graham Williams. Imagine if you reached the end of term and it ended early, but there was no party. It’s a shame, from what we can see of Shada Tom Baker was clearly having a whale of a time. When our hero returned in Autumn, it was with a foul mood, a new costume, star field titles, and a po-faced obsession with ‘entropy’.
Gareth Roberts’ wonderful novelisation of Shada managed to elude me for a couple of years, until curiosity finally got the better of me in Waterstones, and I marched out with it in paperback form. (I resisted wearing a silver hat and cape and saying “Give me. The book.”, but only just.) I’m glad curiosity won out, as this is the most fully realised Shada we could have hoped for.
The original scripts for Shada were knocked off in a panic by a genius writer with an insane Hitch-Hikers Guide related workload on his plate, and his not inconsiderable Doctor Who commitments piled up precariously on a similarly-sized side plate.
Consequently in amongst brilliant dialogue and ideas there are threads set up that aren’t seen through to the end, and elements which suffer from Douglas, a man never on the best terms with a deadline, rushing it desperately through to completion just to get it made.
It’s perhaps telling, given the writer’s history with fraughtness and writer’s block that the macguffin of the story is a book that people read and can’t understand.
It’s still worth pointing out though, that despite his low opinion of his Who work compared to his own I.P, the scripts still sparkle and knock a lot of Who’s 80’s output into a cocked hat, possibly a silver one at that. He clearly couldn’t help himself. A story by an exhausted, rushed Douglas Adams that he isn’t that interested in is still a better story than a lot of other stories.
Gareth Roberts is perfect casting for Shada. He has form with the Fourth Doctor, Romana II, and K-9, his marvellous Missing Adventures novels set in that era effortlessly capture both the characters and the wild, witty, fun nature of that season. The Adams-guided Season 17, barring City of Death tends to cop a lot of flack. That said, I was surprised on a recent re-watch how well Destiny of the Daleks hung together as a script, considering the chalk and cheese nature of credited writer and script editor, it’s only really Davros and the Daleks that let it down.
The rest of that season is hit and miss, but the TARDIS team of the time have great chemistry. This book version of Shada evokes the best of that era perfectly, and dials up the dramatic elements to give you something from the 1970s that is also very evocative of modern Who. Roberts seamlessly inserts new scenes with the leads that you’d struggle to tell weren’t there already, I won’t spoil it for you and tell you where to look.
Perhaps in a parallel universe a version of Shada exists in print where Terrance Dicks somehow managed to economically cram it all into under 150 pages. Gareth hasn’t done a ‘Target’ here, this version of Shada sings, and breathes beautifully at 407 pages. That said, Terrance’s influence can be felt to a degree, as although Gareth expands on the source material, he also shares Uncle Terry’s script editor’s eye for tidying up plot holes and making changes for the better.
The characters, already beautifully written, are allowed their own internal dialogue, interests, and insights. In particular, Professor Chronotis and Wilkin the porter spring off the page. Even Skagra’s Uriah Heep-like computer, an idea done far less well a couple of years later by Blake’s 7 sparkles as a character. It’s not all character and local colour either. The drama and fear factor are beefed up somewhat from what you’d expect from the post-Mary Whitehouse Who of 1979, the horror of losing your identity and the creepiness of the sphere are well defined here.
Our caped and pimp-hatted villain, Skagra, is fleshed out and given a plausible god complex from the start. Much mileage is had from his narcissism and cruel good looks, perhaps a nod to Christopher Neame’s portrayal of the charismatic Johnny Alucard in late Hammer effort Dracula 1972 A.D. The vaguely hinted at relationship between Chris Parsons and Claire Keightley is turned into an awkward british love story, and becomes a strong thread, with Young Parsons coming across as a sort of younger, braver Arthur Dent figure. Claire’s first meeting with the Doctor as seen through her eyes is also a highlight, capturing the wonder of meeting a mad man in a box, even when you don’t know about the box.
Roberts also brings his own touches to the party, fun references to prog rock and student debauchery fit right in with the 70s university setting. He also sketches in a tragicomic backstory for the poor unfortunate who picks up Skagra in his car and gets more than he bargained for. The Tom-esque joke about upsetting Status Quo works well as part of the Doctor’s manic bicycle chase. However, I’m not so sure Four would own a Bonnie Tyler cassette. Eleven, maybe, but Four? Doubt it. Maybe Romana slipped it in his jacket pocket to mess with him.
It’s a shame Gareth’s take on City of Death won’t be out for another year, I could read it now. As a kid I used to zip through a Target novelisation at a rate of knots. Shada is nearly three times the length of a novelisation of its vintage, but flew by for me as an adult. It was hard to put down, partly due to the short, addictive chapters, and mostly due to it being, in my humble opinion, the best Douglas Adams book he never wrote, and the best realisation of a story that no longer need be elusive, just buy it. Go into a bookshop and say “Give me. The book.” Silver hat and cape optional.
Based on the scripts for the original television series by the legendary Douglas Adams, Shada retells a classic Doctor Who adventure that never made it to the screen. Shada is available now from all good bookshops and via the Amazon link below. A full-cast play starring Paul McGann is also available as is the story on DVD and an audio reading of this Gareth Roberts adaptation.