Thursday, 23 August 2012

‘Doctor Who: Shada’ – Douglas Adams & Gareth Roberts (BBC Books)

Given the number of ‘Doctor Who’ books and TV series that I still haven’t got round to looking at, I’d always thought that it would be a waste of time worrying about ‘Shada’, the lost series that was delayed by strike action and never made it onto the screen afterwards. I’m talking about the original here by the way, not the animated feature or audio book that came along years after. There have been attempts to recreate ‘Shada’ then but this book looked like the definitive version and that’s where I jumped on board.  Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor was the one I came across first and I’ve been enjoying catching up with him on DVD (more on that another time, maybe). It was no surprise then that I’d be after a little more.

I actually read ‘Shada’ on the train to Plymouth, a few weeks ago, and it has taken me a while to get my thoughts together for this review. ‘Shada’ stayed in my head the whole time though and that really says it all.

I absolutely had to copy and paste the blurb this time. The usual time constraints apply once more but I also think that everyone should read the first paragraph (taken straight from the book); it still makes me chuckle.

At the age of five, Skagra decided emphatically that God did not exist. This revelation tends to make most people in the universe who have it react in one of two ways – with relief or with despair. Only Skagra responded to it by thinking, ‘Wait a second. That means there’s a situation vacant.’

The Doctor's old friend and fellow Time Lord Professor Chronotis has retired to Cambridge University - where nobody will notice if he lives for centuries. But now he needs help from the Doctor, Romana and K-9. When he left Gallifrey he took with him a few little souvenirs - most of them are harmless. But one of them is extremely dangerous.

The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey isn't a book for Time Tots. It is one of the Artefacts, dating from the dark days of Rassilon. It must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. And the sinister Skagra most definitely has the wrong hands. He wants the book. He wants to discover the truth behind Shada. And he wants the Doctor's mind...

This incarnation of ‘Shada’ is the only one I’ve ever come across. I’ve never read the script, listened to the audio book or seen the animated feature. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have no idea how well the book holds up to Douglas Adams’ original vision of the story; I’m not even sure that’s a comparison that needs to be made. I’m taking the book on its own merits and there are loads of them. ‘Shada’ is nothing less than a thoroughly entertaining read and I’m really glad that I took the plunge and gave it a go.

'Shada' is a number of things that all seem to be haphazardly thrown together yet all somehow seem to fit together perfectly. The end result is a book that never fails to surprise you, both in the plot itself and the way that it constantly switches from one form of narrative to another.

'Shada' is, above all else, very much a Douglas Adams novel (Roberts very wisely lets this remain at the fore of the book) with all the wry and observant humour that this entails. If this isn't your thing then you might not want to bother picking 'Shada' up at all. Having overdosed on 'Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy', at a very early age, I initially approached 'Shada' with some caution but shouldn't have worried, I couldn't help but chuckle along (especially at the development of Skagra’s ship as a character in its own right). It's the same brand of humour but the different setting saved things this time round.

Having said all that, 'Shada' is also very much a 'Doctor Who' novel and this comes with its own set of problems. You may not know the details, until you've read them, but if you're familiar with 'Doctor Who' in any way then you already know how it has to end. There's only one way it can end. Luckily for us, 'Shada' is all about the journey to that conclusion; the stakes are high (although when are they not?) and there are plenty of little details and twists to keep things very fresh and moving along at a decent rate. And that's where the rest of what 'Shada' is comes into play.

'Shada' is a book that is low on action (when it does happen though, you really get your money's worth) but very high on incident. The number of times that the Doctor and Skagra miss each other in the street (or Skagra just misses the book that he is after) has to be seen to be believed but is never overdone. It's an approach that will have you laughing and gasping in equal measure. The way it all fits together at the end is superbly done although I'm not too sure about Skagra's ultimate fate. This felt just a little too meta-fictional for my tastes...

Perhaps most importantly for the reader though, 'Shada' is a book all about its characters; not just what they must deal with but who they actually are. I can see this approach really appealing to fans and newcomers alike as the relationship between the Doctor and Romana is explored in depth and has some new light shed on it. There’s even a romantic sub-plot, between two minor characters, that should appeal to fans of the current TV show.

‘Shada’ basically has it all and a couple of (very) minor niggles do not detract from what is a very gripping and entertaining read indeed. I’m really glad I gave ‘Shada’ a go, I shouldn’t have waited so long before I did.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

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