On at least one occasion, the late Douglas Adams insisted that Shada — the six part serial he wrote in 1979 to complete Doctor Who’s 17th season, which was cancelled part way through production thanks to strike action — was only thought of so highly by the show’s fans because it had never been completed.
However, given the success of 21st century Doctor Who, plus the clear intention of Adams’s estate to monetise his literary legacy — for example, sanctioning an official sixth HitchHiker novel (Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing) as well as BBC Four’s Dirk Gently series — it’s hardly surprising that the green light would eventually be given to publish an adaptation of Shada.
The only question then was which writer would get the gig. It’s unclear how many writers were considered by BBC Books, but I’d like to think that they knew there was only one serious contender.
Gareth Roberts ticks all the boxes; not only is he a talented writer, who happens to be a fan of the show, but he’s also well-versed in current Doctor Who lore — having written episodes for both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. Then there’s the fact that, early in his career, he wrote a couple of original Doctor Who novels which very successfully recreated on the page the characters, ambiance and sense of humour of the show’s 17th season — the run of stories, script-edited by Douglas Adams, that should have ended with Shada. If anyone could wrestle Adams’s work into a shape recognisable to today’s audience, surely it was Gareth Roberts?
From the result, it would seem it was. This is the successful result of a genuine — albeit somewhat disconnected in time — writing partnership.
Shada comes with many of Adams’s recognisable tropes — the initial focus on a strange, alien book; the somewhat curmudgeonly, forever befuddled young male in the form of postgraduate student Chris Parsons; the emotionally unbalanced computer, to name but three — and there is also, beneath all the jokes, that sense of despondency and loneliness you can find in all Adams’ work.
Yet Roberts is far from absent; he’s ready and willing to reshape the material in order to bring out the best of what an undoubtedly caffeine-rich Adams had furiously typed beneath that ever-looming production deadline. In the process, Roberts puts flesh on the bones of even the briefest of originally one-dimensional supporting characters, while his nuanced, lean prose ensures that this is a brisk, engaging read that wears its intelligence lightly.
To be honest, even in this form, Shada is not the greatest Doctor Who story ever told — thanks to Roberts, it just turns out to be one of good ones. Had he lived to see it, I’d like to think that even Douglas Adams might have reluctantly come to realise that was the case.