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Audio Book Review


Doctor Who


Authors: Douglas Adams and Gareth Roberts
Read by: Lalla Ward
RRP: £19.36, US $24.95
ISBN: 978 1 4458 6763 2
Available 15 March 2012

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. Now, though, 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. 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...

I must say, for a lost story Shada has been remarkably prevalent over the years. Famously only half-finished due to strike action at the BBC in 1979, Douglas Adams’s six-part serial has since seen the light of day as a (long since deleted) VHS release of the recorded material, with linking narration and a script book; a webcast/audio adaptation by BBCi and Big Finish Productions, starring Paul McGann; and a couple of unofficial fan novelisations. Now at last there’s an official novelisation by Gareth Roberts, which has been released both in print and as an unabridged audio book, the latter of which is read by Lalla Ward.

This version is a lot longer than any novelisations of Tom Baker stories penned during the classic series’ run, amounting to 400 pages in print, or ten CDs on audio. Roberts adds a lot of detail to flesh out the story that Adams originally dashed off in a tremendous rush, beginning with an analysis of the villain Skagra that sets him apart as a true sociopath: his realisation that God does not exist - which means that there’s a situation vacant - is at once humorous and horrifying. Collating material from various drafts of the scripts (including versions that post-date the script book from the VHS release) and the recorded material, the novelist extrapolates character details such as the fact that Chris Parsons is in love with Clare Keightley, and applies narrative Polyfilla to numerous plot holes. Sometimes you can tell which embellishments are Roberts’s (references to new series elements such as the Corsair, fixed points in time, and the joy of running obviously are) but often the work is seamless.

If, like me, you’ve read Roberts’s brilliant Season 17 pastiches for the Missing Adventures range back in the 1990s, the best of which is The English Way of Death, then you’ll know that he loves this era of Doctor Who and the writing of Douglas Adams in particular. You might therefore be surprised, as I was, to find that this book is not as comedic as those earlier works. Thinking about it, though, Shada is the most serious of Adams’s Who serials, in which the usually flippant Fourth Doctor gets decidedly vengeful (“Well, Mr Skagra, or whatever it is you call yourself, you’ve killed a Time Lord and a very good friend of mine. It’s time you and I had a little chat!”), and Adams always believed that Doctor Who should be played straight - certainly more so than some actors played it. In the midst of this, some of Roberts’s own humorous additions, such as a joke about Status Quo, are rather jarring. In overall tone, the novelisation is akin to Adams’s later prose, from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish onwards.

Lalla Ward brings great enthusiasm and a variety of voices to her reading of the book, performing the story for the third time (she was also in the Big Finish version as an older Romana). Her Fourth Doctor isn’t really an impersonation of Tom Baker, but it allows you to imagine Baker’s delivery of the lines - including new ones such as “Been there, seen it, done it, wrote most of that... caused that!” To be honest, the whole affair is somewhat over-long at eleven and a half hours, but the production is enlivened by sound effects, from scrunching gravel to the inhuman babble of Skagra’s sphere, and the voice K-9, which is provided by John Leeson.

It’s difficult to choose a definitive version of Shada, if such a thing is even possible. For me, the VHS release remains the closest approximation of what we might have actually seen on TV had the production gone ahead, though the mixed media approach is awkward and the unrecorded scenes obviously don’t come across so well. The Paul McGann webcast/audio is probably the most approachable version, being performed drama, but it stars the wrong Doctor. Being complete, featuring the correct Doctor, and being even more polished than Adams’s own scripts, I think this novelisation might just have the edge.

Go on, Gareth - novelise City of Death next!


Richard McGinlay

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