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Review: 'Doctor Who: Shada'

Shada was an untransmitted tale of the original Doctor Who series. It was a six-part serial scheduled to be the final story of season seventeen. But with all location footage finished and one block of three studio sessions done, there was a strike at the BBC. While it did not last long, the damage to the production schedule of all shows produced there was unfixable, so certain dramas –one being Doctor Who– got scrapped, ending the season six weeks earlier than scheduled.

And then a legend is born. Whether Shada deserves that status is questionable for many, especially if you watch the version the BBC released in 1992. After years of trying to remount the production, eventually producer John Nathan Turner got Tom Baker to film a linking narrative between the filmed and what never got a chance to be filmed. But since it was story was written by the genius that was Douglas Adams, this unfinished story grew to mythical proportions. It became, in some ways, much like Charles Dickens unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

But for Douglas Adams, it became a problem. He refused to have his name on the video release, claiming that he somehow “unintentionally” authorized its release –“Whoever it was had forgotten that I wanted Shada sat on.” Yes, like all artists, he was not pleased with his own work. And anyone watching it now –or even then- could see why, as it has a lot of silly humor, bad puns and looks cheap (this was the height of BBC cutbacks that made the show look like crap in the production department).

But, for the most part, the story pretty much makes sense, and the plot is interesting, even ambitious for that time period, almost justifying the 6 episodes the serial would have been (which sometimes was a rarity back then).  And like most contracts with Doctor Who writers went then, the authors were given the option to novelize their stories or have someone else do them.  Adams, however, would not allow anyone else to write them (he has two other serials, The Pirate Planet and The City of Death, that remain unpublished as novel as well), plus he asked for a higher price than the publishers were willing to pay. But Adams liked the ideas presented so much here so he recycled them (including bits from City of Death) for his 1987 novel, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. And, it seemed for Douglas Adams that was that.

Anyways, the plot is about an ancient book 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.

So, despite the all other things, there had been some hope that Adams might consider finishing Shada as a novel, but his tragic early death in May of 2001 put that idea to bed completely. Then in 2011, Gareth Roberts –a frequent, humorous, and prolific writer of original Doctor Who novels of the 1990s as well as a writer for the revived version of series and The Sarah Jane Adventures– was given the chance by Adams estate to adapt Shada as novel.

Choosing Robert’s was inspired, as his breezy approach to both The Unicorn and the Wasp and The Lodger (two of the four modern Doctor Who stories he has penned) will testify to. And you can tell he took great pains to be respectful to the original script all while fleshing out the sometimes underwritten side characters, even as he attempts to follow Adams’ script as closely as possible.

Still, the story suffers. Which is not Robert’s fault by far, as it becomes clear even Douglas Adams –whose rise in popularity began then with the success of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and was busy working on that as well as Doctor Who– was losing interest in the show. He just did not have the time to fix some of the major plot holes the serial had. Plus, it is an imitation of a Douglas Adams novel (as much as Eoin Colfer’s sixth novel in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, And Another Thing is).

What made Adams successful was his ability to be satirical. He was humanist, making social commentary through humor; he was the slow-burning pessimist who looked at randomness of life, and how we could be destructive on one hand, and beautifully intelligent on the other. He was funny and that existential humor was what made him science fictions true pioneer of philosophical jokes.

With 33 years of Doctor Who lore behind him, Roberts does add more modern references to the novel, including the phrase “fixed points in time” and a mention of Neil Gaiman’s unseen Time Lord the Corsair. There is also a scene where Romana and the Doctor discuss other renegade Time Lords that includes an untold tale of the Doctor running up against the Interfering Nun.

In the end, Shada is a good novelization, but not a great one because Douglas Adams is not around. Any chance of seeing it as could have been originally, is long gone. So the serial is a rare dead end in Doctor Who lore and no matter if it is ever remounted again as an episode (In 2003, Paul McGann starred as the Eighth Doctor in a rewritten, partly animated audio version) it will always be the one story that got away.

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