Gareth Roberts: Shada
- Gareth Roberts
Charles Dickens has The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. Bruce Lee has Game Of Death. And for Doctor Who and Douglas Adams, the great unfinished story is Shada. A six-part serial scripted by the Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy author while he was screenplay editor for the venerable science-fiction TV series in 1980, Shada was meant to be the grand finale of Doctor Who’s 17th season, but strikes at the BBC halted filming halfway through, and scuttled the story. Since then, it’s grown to mythological proportions in its own absence, with a reputation as a tantalizingly incomplete fragment of unfulfilled potential.
Like a ghost, Shada has refused to stay quietly dead, popping up in fragmentary or much-reworked versions over the years. Most famously, clips of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward in character as the time-traveling Fourth Doctor and his companion Romana were used in the 1983 anniversary special “The Five Doctors,” and in 1992, Baker provided linking narration when the surviving footage was released on video. In 2003, Paul McGann starred as the Eighth Doctor in a rewritten, partly animated audio version.
Adams himself cannibalized Shada for his 1987 novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, after which he washed his hands of it, saying the episode was “not that great” and refusing to put his name on the video release, which he claimed had been authorized by mistake. (“Whoever it was had forgotten that I wanted Shada sat on.”) His sudden death in 2001 sunk any lingering hope that he might eventually write a proper novel version, and it became, instead, unique among Doctor Who’s sizable array of missing adventures, as the only one from a writer of Douglas’ caliber not at least available as a novelization.
Now Shada is back in another regeneration, as a novel authorized by Adams’ estate and penned by Gareth Roberts, a frequent writer for the current TV series. It’s a respectful, even loving adaptation of the original scripts, and Roberts takes pains to try to recreate the spirit of the Adams era of Doctor Who, when it was often something like a cosmic screwball comedy. And other than fleshing out the underwritten side characters, he sticks very closely to Adams’ plot, which—ironically enough—revolves around a lost book.
This one is an ancient tome holding the location of the Time Lords’ secret prison, Shada. It’s desired by Skagra, a megalomaniacal alien who wants to break into the prison to steal the powers of its most infamous internee, a renegade Gallifreyan named Salyavin, and thus conquer the universe. The book is in the possession of the Doctor’s old friend Professor Chronotis, who has retired from Time Lord life and taken up at Cambridge University, where he’s been able to blend in as a doddering, absent-minded don for hundreds of years. Interrupting a visit from the Doctor, Skagra steals not only the book, but the professor’s mind, leaving him for dead, and heads for Shada with the Doctor in hot pursuit, along with Romana, his robot dog K9, and Chris and Claire, a pair of young grad students who haven’t fully figured out their relationship.
There’s a lot to like about Roberts’ version of the story, particularly for fervent Doctor Who fans. Roberts’ breezy approach in his own scripts, including “The Lodger” and “The Unicorn And The Wasp,” make him a logical choice to tackle this particular mountain. He clearly knows and loves the series, and fills the book with winking references and in-jokes, like name-checking one of the Doctor’s old Time Lord foes, The Meddling Monk, then suggesting there’s a still-untold adventure where he meets “the Interfering Nun.” (There’s even a sly nod to Adams’ brief connection with Monty Python’s Flying Circus.) Most importantly, Roberts captures the bantering, cheerful relationship between the eccentric Doctor, upbeat Romana, and loyal K9 as fans will remember it from the TV series.
But no matter how faithful Roberts is, his Shada suffers from two unfixable problems: First, Adams was right about its quality. Shada is a slight, hastily conceived, overlong story assembled while Adams was preoccupied with the sudden success of Hitch-Hikers’ Guide, and losing interest in Doctor Who. Second, this is not a Douglas Adams novel, but a mere imitation. Though Roberts’ approach is well-intentioned and reverent, and he successfully recreates Adams’ sense of whimsical, glib casualness, this is still a superficial copy. What made Adams a great satirist, one of the best of his generation, went deeper than his quips. Lurking under them was a sharp-eyed pessimist’s insight into human nature, and often a slow-burning anger at the randomness and destructiveness of life, the universe, and everything—and that gave his writing weight. At his best, Adams’ humor was not only funny, but as existential and philosophical as Waiting For Godot. Roberts doesn’t come anywhere close to that level of literary craft, and his Shada suffers from the same mawkishness and cheap sentimentality that too often creep into his TV scripts. Worse, it’s lighthearted without ever being particularly funny. Roberts’ ability to land a joke is markedly worse than Adams’, with a tendency toward maddening repetition of the same idea a dozen times.
In the end, Shada is something of a cul-de-sac in the canons of both Doctor Who and Douglas Adams, and any chance to bring it to life as originally envisioned is long gone. Only someone with a time machine might be able to save it, and unfortunately, the best guy for that job is fictional.