Double Vision

I’ve now reached the end of Season 17 in my (classic) Doctor Who read-through, which brings me to what is possibly the greatest tragedy of televised Doctor Who (greater even than the cancellation of the series in the late 80s as it’s arguable that it was losing its way slightly by that time and that the enforced break was actually a very good thing), namely the story-that-never-was: Shada.

It’s not the story that’s a tragedy, but the fact that it was never completed or broadcast.  This is particularly sad since it was not only (I think) the final Doctor Who script penned by Douglas Adams and the final story of his tenure as script editor but would also have certainly been one of the two best stories of what was a decidedly patchy season (indeed, some would say they were the only good stories – I probably wouldn’t go quite that far but I am judging most of the season solely on the books and I suspect some of them may have gone a long way towards remedying deficiencies in the original TV version) and quite possibly one of the best Doctor Who stories ever.

Incidentally, the other more-or-less universally agreed highlight of the season was the story City of Death, which was also written, or at least co-written, by Douglas Adams (under the pseudonym of David Agnew, along with Graham Williams and David Fisher; you can read the details in the Wikipedia article if you really want to know).

Of course, there have been many Doctor Who story ideas that have never got any further than the script stage, if even that far.  As far as I’m aware, though, Shada is the only one that got fairly well through production (with all the location shooting and a fair chunk of the studio work done) before it was cancelled.  The reason that it got thus far and no further was a strike at the BBC as a result of some industrial dispute.  No other story was made in its place – instead, season 17 only contained 5 stories instead of the then-usual 6.

All was not lost, as they were able to use some footage from Shada a few years later in The Five Doctors (the 20th Anniversary Special story) so that the fourth doctor could appear even though Tom Baker refused to reprise his role (a decision, I gather, that he later came to regret).  The BBC also released a video in the early 1990s with the extant footage held together by linking audio material supplied by Tom Baker (who by then was more willing to participate).  A friend of mine, who was a keen collector of Doctor Who material in the VHS era, had (and quite possibly still has) a copy, which I watched many years ago.  As I recall, it was pretty good, which only served to emphasise what a pity it was that it was never completed and shown in its proper time.

There has subsequently been an audio version produced, which I think transposes it to a story for the 8th Doctor (Paul McGann).  I’ve not heard that one and I’m in no particular rush to do so, though if the opportunity arises I wouldn’t mind checking it out.

Interestingly, although most people who know and care about such things, reckon Shada to be a fine story, Douglas Adams himself was by all accounts less than happy with it and, in contrast to the rest of the cast and crew, quite relieved when production was halted.  Due to some dispute or other with the BBC (which may partly have been due to feelings of discontent with Shada), he refused to sign the documents that would allow his Doctor Who stories (i.e. Shada and City of Death, as well as The Pirate Planet from the previous season) to be novelised and hence they are among the small group of classic series Doctor Who serials never to appear in the official Target books novelisation series, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

As I also mentioned in that post (along with the relevant link), the gaps in the official series were filled in by a series of fan novelisations from the New Zealand Doctor Fan Club which are (as I write, at least) freely available online.  The one for Shada is written by Paul Scoones.

In the case of Shada, however, there is now a (presumably) officially approved novelisation that was written by Gareth Roberts (based on Adams’ scripts) and published by BBC Books a couple of years ago.

I have just finished reading both versions and the comparison is interesting.  The Scoones one is by far the shorter of the two, at roughly the same length and level of detail as one of the target novelisations, while the Roberts one is a bit of a door-stopper as a 400-page hardback (though its now available in paperbook and e-book formats too).  The latter, therefore, has much more liberty of space to go into details of the backstory and characterisations and, I think, does a very good job of fleshing the story out.  The other one, to be fair, is also a pretty good read and probably actually fits better into the flow of the series of novelisations (to say nothing of the bargain price), being – as far as I can tell – a fairly faithful adaptation of the story as it would have been televised.  Both authors manage to remain fairly true to the spirit of Douglas Adams and it’s not too difficult to imagine either book as having been written by him.

In fact, Adams did more-or-less write a novelisation of Shada, as he recycled quite a large amount of the plot (including the name of Professor Chronotis, one of the main protagonists, and St Cedd’s, his (fictional) Cambridge college) for his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which was published in 1987.  Obviously, all references to the Whoniverse are excised, and it ends up as quite a different beast but if you’ve read either one you can’t read the other without a strong sense of deja vu.