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September 18th, 2012

Shada [Sep. 18th, 2012|04:26 pm]
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur
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Longtime readers of this blog know what a huge fan I am of classic Doctor Who. I grew up watching it at a time when my local syndication channel only had the rights to air Tom Baker’s first four seasons, from “Robot” to “The Invasion of Time,” on a seemingly endless loop. (Later, by the mid-1980s, PBS would acquire the entire run of the show and I would finally get to see what came before “Robot” and after “The Invasion of Time,” the prospect of which often filled me with more excitement than the episodes themselves, especially if we’re talking about the early black-and-white years. Or the Colin Baker years. Or the Sylvester McCoy years. Okay, so basically I was only really into Tom Baker and Peter Davison, with a handful of Jon Pertwee serials, like “The Daemons” and “Day of the Daleks,” thrown in for good measure. In hindsight, something tells me this parenthetical aside will be utterly meaningless to quite a few of you!)

One thing I enjoy doing is blowing the minds of fans of the Doctor Who revival who aren’t familiar with the classic series by informing them that from 1979 to 1980, for the show’s 17th season, Douglas Adams was the script editor. The very same Douglas Adams who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels. His fingerprints are all over the episodes of that season in the form of his instantly recognizable sense of humor. Fans’ eyes go even wider when I tell them that Adams also wrote three serials for classic Who: 1978′s “The Pirate Planet” (the highlight of the “Key to Time” season-long arc), 1979′s “City of Death” (arguably the greatest Doctor Who serial of all time), and 1980′s “Shada,” legendary for being the only Doctor Who serial that never aired.

Hobbled by the 1980 BBC strike, “Shada” was supposed to be the six-episode crowning achievement that brought the 17th season to a close, an uneven season starring Tom Baker as the Doctor and Lalla Ward as his companion Romana, a Time Lady from his home world of Gallifrey and one of the best companions in the history of the program. Season 17 started off promisingly with “Destiny of the Daleks,” which saw the long-awaited return of Davros, the creator of the Daleks, and the aforementioned “City of Death” before plummeting into a triumvirate of downright awful episodes: “The Creature from the Pit,” “Nightmare of Eden,” and “The Horns of Nimon.” A lot was riding on “Shada” to bring the 17th season back up to snuff. Unfortunately, only about half of the scenes were shot before the serial was scrapped by the strike. “Shada” became the stuff of legend after that, whispered about at conventions by fans who dubiously claimed to have seen it and talked endlessly about how brilliant it was, until a dozen years after it was supposed to air the BBC released “Shada” on videocassette, with the filmed segments linked by Tom Baker’s narration. It was…not as good as everyone had hoped.

Still, it was classic Douglas Adams. Word play. Absurdist humor. Terrible puns. Not one, not two, but three different iterations of the teatime joke, “One lump or two? Would you also like sugar?” Before Adams’ untimely death in 2001, there had been a longstanding rumor that the only reason there was never a novelization of “Shada” the way there’d been for every other serial was because Adams wanted to write it himself. We waited, and we waited. He never wrote it. Or rather, he did, sort of, but he changed the plot — jettisoning everything except kindly old Professor Chronotis, his time machine (no longer called a TARDIS), and the St. Cedd’s university setting — and renamed it Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

Enter Gareth Roberts, a scriptwriter for the new Doctor Who (among others, he wrote “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” the one where the Doctor and Donna meet Agatha Christie, which is one of my favorites). Working from the most complete version of the “Shada” script, Roberts has written the delightful, if rather cumbersomely titled, Doctor Who: Shada: The Lost Adventure by Douglas Adams. More than a straightforward novelization, Roberts has done an admirable job of writing the novel as if it were penned by Douglas Adams himself, employing Adams’ same style of word play, caustic asides, and confused artificial intelligences. If you didn’t know better, you really would think you were reading a Douglas Adams novel. The result is charming, nostalgic, and, at nearly 400 pages, somewhat tedious. There’s a reason the Hitchhiker’s books are so short, and with numerous scenes here extended to unnecessary lengths so the characters can say “What?” a lot in order to set up a bad joke or pun, I started to remember why I outgrew Douglas Adams.

But those moments are few and far between. In all, Shada is a joy to read. It does suffer from the same padding that most classic Doctor Who serials longer than four parts do — in particular there’s a lot of running back and forth between Professor Chronotis’ chambers and the university chemistry lab for the first 150 pages or so, and the human grad student Clare gets sidelined something awful in the way that a lot of the female characters in classic Who do (though I think she’s actually given more to do here than in the original TV version) — but Roberts brings it all to life quite enjoyably. And to his credit, he does expand on the subplot of Clare and Chris, the other human grad student, so that there’s more to them than just asking what everything is. He even lets some of the more newly established mythology from the new Who play a small role here. (On the downside, in one scene he has Romana state explicitly that she and the Doctor are just friends, which I only didn’t like because I think the Doctor and Romana should be more than friends.)

Recommended more for fans of classic Doctor Who than fans of Douglas Adams who aren’t familiar with the TV show, or fans of the new Who who don’t know the classic series, Shada is a bit like dipping into your own childhood love of Doctor Who again. Warm, comfortable, and just a little bit embarrassing.

Originally published at Nicholas Kaufmann. You can comment here or there.

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