I don’t often read novels set in my favourite television or cinematic universe any more. I have fond memories of when I was much younger, and I had the time and freedom to virtually camp out in the library, of borrowing whatever Star Trek novels they happened to have available that day. After I became more comfortable with original SF and fantasy, I started to shy away from media tie-in novels. As I grew up and started to follow those television series with more interest, I found it difficult to enjoy the books, because I couldn’t visualize the actors from the show doing and saying what the characters in the books did and said. And for me, the actors are an integral part of realizing those characters. It’s the same reason I’ve eschewed the Buffy, Angel, and Firefly spin-off comics.
In the case of Doctor Who: Shada, I bought this for my roommate’s birthday, knowing she would enjoy it. This is a curious novel, because it is technically a novelization, but owing to industrial action and other production issues, the script itself never finished shooting. So this novel is all we really have of a story that was originally created for television. It’s set in the era of the Fourth Doctor, as portrayed by Tom Baker, with Romana II and K-9 still gallivanting around the galaxy, ostensibly on the run from the Time Lords and the Black Guardian. I’ve seen a few stories from the Tom Baker era, and maybe this unfamiliarity with the characters helped me get over my apprehension of tie-in books. It also helps that Shada was originally written by Douglas Adams, one of my favourite authors. And until I get to watch the Doctor Who stories he wrote, this is the closest I get to seeing Adams’ Doctor Who.
Shada is unmistakably Adamsian in its humour and plotting. Gareth Roberts has done a fantastic job assembling a cogent story from a script, preserving the flavour of Adams’ humour while expanding the plot and characters into something approaching a novel. The Doctor and Romana arrive on Earth in the early 1980s in response to a distress call from a fellow Time Lord, the ancient and befuddled Professor Chronotis (groan at the name), who has retired to Earth and been living at Cambridge University for the past few centuries. Chronotis took a book with him from Gallifrey, a powerful book that could be very dangerous in the wrong hands—which, apparently, is what will happen if the Doctor and Romana don’t act fast. But the book has already found its way into the possession of a young physics graduate student, who is unaware of its alien origins or the fact that a megalomaniacal villain is on his way to steal the book at any cost.
As the plot unfolds, Roberts jumps from character to character, sometimes following the Doctor, Romana, Chris Parsons, etc. Much like in the show, it soon becomes apparent that the Doctor always seems to be teetering between not having a plan and having an incredibly brilliant, complicated plan that will most likely go horribly wrong. It seems like he himself is continuously surprised by his ability to get into (and out of) trouble. The Fourth Doctor is definitely the right Doctor for Douglas Adams, because Tom Baker’s mad, scarf-toting Doctor sounds like something straight out of Hitchhiker’s. They were made for each other, as this story showcases.
Shada also provides some interesting tidbits and insight into Time Lord history and society that might not always be apparent from the TV show. Romana, as another Time Lord, is a very interesting companion and a departure from the Doctor’s previous, human companions. In Shada, it sometimes seems like there are Time Lords running around all over the place. But it was nice to see the Doctor, Romana, and Professor Chronotis discussing and arguing about Gallifreyan history and its relevance to their particular problem. As a fan who came to the show through new Who, and hence as someone who hasn’t spent much time on Gallifrey, I really enjoyed this aspect of the book.
The story itself is lovely. The villain is not so much over-the-top as he is capable to the point of absurdity. In fact, aside from his delusions of God-like grandeur, I’d argue Skagra doesn’t truly tip over the brink of insanity until he tangles with the Doctor. It’s not until the Doctor starts undermining Skagra’s vision by taunting him about getting “that mad gleam in your eye” that Skagra finds his atavistic desires to crush the Doctor too strong to resist. That the Doctor proves rather difficult to kill only exacerbates this problem, eventually pushing Skagra over the edge from cool customer to James Bond–like supervillain.
If you like Doctor Who and have some familiarity with the older show, I’d recommend this without reservation. It is, essentially, a “lost”, unmade episode from the Tom Baker era. If you like the show but haven’t seen the Fourth Doctor, haven’t met Romana or K-9 or learned much about the wider world of the Time Lords, then I’d be more hesitant to point you in the direction of Shada. You might like it, but there is also much in here that would be confusing to the newcomer.
I’m not going to be rushing out to buy more Doctor Who novelizations or even original stories; I’ll stick with my DVDs for now. As far as tie-in novels go, though, Shada is an example of how to do it right. Roberts does justice to Adams’ particular brand of storytelling genius, and both of them do a fine job of delivering yet another exciting adventure with the Doctor.