Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Book Review: Shada

At the beginning of the month, I was shopping around for something on which to spend my monthly Audible credit, when my friend Jen suggested a Dr. Who book. So I looked in that section and Shada was their featured selection. Okay, that's kind of cool. I knew it was a Douglas Adams story, and I was always fond of both his Doctor Who and Hitchhiker's stuff.  Also, it was read by LALLA WARD.

Yes, this Lalla Ward

John Leeson voices K-9 in the story.

By staggering coincidence, the picture I use for K-9 also has Lalla Ward.

For me, celebrities as narrators for audio books are not necessarily a good thing. It's often no more than a gimmick. John Hodgman does a great job, but Tina Fey, to take a very surprising example, read her own words as if she were unfamiliar with them.

But I couldn't pass up Romana, the very best of the old school companions.

Sorry, Sarah Jane.

Shada is a bit of an odd duck. You probably know at least some of the story behind it if you're reading this post, but in the unlikely event that you're someone who reads everything I write simply because I write it and has never heard of Shada, here goes.

It was supposed to be the final episode for Season 17 of Doctor Who. (Season 17 was the one with City of Death, which I personally think was the finest serial of the original series) But there was a strike, and various other complications and filming was only partially completed. Some of the footage was cannibalized for Five Doctors and used to explain why the Fourth wasn't there. I had the vague awareness that there was some of version of Shada with Paul McGann, the 8th/US Telemovie Doctor, but it's not like I was going to go out of my way to seek that out.

I had read that Douglas Adams was unhappy with the script for Shada. I don't know how true this is, but the story I've heard is that he couldn't get permission to write the story he wanted, he kept pushing for it and finally, as they were running out of time, he dashed it out in four days.

I liked the novelization quite a bit. Gareth Roberts completed it and he has a pretty impressive Doctor Who pedigree himself. He wrote Doctor Who novels during the long period between Classic and New Who and also wrote or co-wrote a couple episodes of the new series.

Thought Roberts says he didn't deliberately set out to emulate Adams' writing style, if I didn't know better I would have thought that the prose was Adams' own. It has that jauntiness and turn of phrase peculiar to his style. (Or perhaps I'm just associating Adams with absurdist British sci-fi, since I know his work best, and Roberts is simply drawing on the same inspirations that moved Adams.)

Shada is such a Fourth Doctor story. Had there been time to polish the script and film it properly, I think it could have come to rival anything of that era. The Doctor and Romana are visiting Cambridge in the late 70s when they receive a distress call from an old friend of the Doctor's, Professor Chronotis.

The 1979 setting would have been contemporary had the story aired as intended, and now it kind of makes it a bit of a period piece. That's an aspect I really like about it. I don't think it would have had quite the same charm if we had gotten a Fourth Doctor story set in 2012. (It also enables neat tricks, like a character discovering a Bonnie Tyler Greatest Hits cassette the Doctor brought back from the 1990s)

My friend Jen and I are both old school Doctor Who fans from back in the day. (She's got this weird thing for Patrick Troughton, but that's not important right now. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that no conversation about Patrick Troughton is ever important. Hi, Jen! ) My friend Tim is only familiar with the new series, though we've talked about the old one to him and he's watched City of Death.

It's hard to recommend the old series after watching the new one. It had energy and charm and it seemed like anything could happen, but it also featured endless sequences of running down corridors, dodgy special effects, wooden acting and some serials were padded beyond belief. By the time you get to the good parts, it's sometimes hard to appreciate them, because you've been so numbed by the bad ones.

Gareth Robert's interpretation of Shada strikes me as an old school Who story told with the techniques of the new series. The best of both worlds.

At one point in the story Romana mentions other renegade Time Lords, Drax, The Master and the Rani, Morbius, The Corsair  and The Meddling Monk and the The Interfering Nun.  That list is awesome for several reasons. The first is that it references renegades they've recently encountered, like Morbius. The second is that it draws on material that has been written since the story was originally written, such as the characters of the Rani and the Corsair.  It's a small detail, but it makes it seem like those characters existed all along and didn't spring into existence ex nihilo the first time they were encountered on screen. The third is the Interfering Nun. That rules!  That's an Adams-esque character if I've ever heard one! It also emphasizes what I like about the old show. Moffat is on record as seeing the Doctor as someone without peer, but I think he's at his best when he has old friends and rivals of his caliber to play off of.

ha ha ha, Fuck Matt Smith

I also like the slow reveal of the plot. The pacing was very good. The audio book is over eleven hours long, and I looked at the time left, thinking I had only an hour or two remaining, but it turned out that were EIGHT hours left!  It reminds me of George Martin's early Ice & Fire books. They were long, but something happened every chapter. Same deal here.

To digress for a moment, I like the new television series okay. (It's seven years old now, so I guess it's no longer all that "new".) The direction in which they took it, with the Doctor as the last of the Time Lords, is not what I would have done, because I think it closes off the avenue to my favorite kind of stories. I like the Doctor, the fourth Doctor in particular, as a C-student made good, a member of an almost mystical society who couldn't reach his potential until he left it. He's tremendously smart and has loads of experiences, but he's not absolutely the most brilliant mind in all creation, which seemed to be increasingly the case in the new series as it progressed. 

I like the Fourth Doctor who makes stupid mistakes, who gets captured, who has to come up with plans on the spur of the moment that sometimes work and sometimes don't.

As I said, I listened to the audio version and I bookmarked certain segments that I especially liked.

At 4:42: When the annoying human says of his fellow human "...earthlings, I suppose you call us." Romana answers "Among other things." 
At 5:18: "A talking spaceship? Skagra must be pretty hard up for friends," the Doctor muttered, conveniently choosing to forget K-9.

At 7:20:  Dude rescued by the Doctor: "You're a good man" The Doctor: "No I'm not. I'm flippant, boastful and terribly disorganized!"

At 7:32: There was a whole long bit with the computer on the villain's ship. It was programmed to believe him infallible. The orders were given to destroy the Doctor. The Doctor survived, but managed to convince the ship that he must have been killed, since Skagra is infallible.  Later on, the self destruct is disarmed and the Doctor convinces the ship that it has been destroyed. It's silly, ridiculous spurious logic that would annoy me to no end if it had been coming from anyone but the Fourth Doctor. (Ward also does a great job with the voice of the ship.)

I don't like the Doctor as the smartest guy in the whole universe, but I am cool with him talking a ship based on Time Lord technology through the reconfiguration of its own circuitry in order to increase its performance so they can make it to their destination on time.

Later on, the ship suspects it might not really be dead:  "I've combed my databanks for legends of the afterlife..and I can't find a single one where things carry on after death rather suspiciously as they did before." "Don't you talk to me about life and death! Don't you realize this is a matter of life and death?!"

This leads in to the amusing exchange at 7:54: Romana: "You're alive!" The Doctor coughed " Well, there's been a certain amount of debate on that topic of late, but generally speaking, I think I'd agree with that statement."

8:23: Lalla Ward's reading of "Well, DUH!!" has to be hard to be believed.

It's tons of fun. It reminds what I loved about the old show.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! You make it sound like I think Patrick Troughton is sexy. To be clear, the only sexy Doctor is David Tennant. You know you love Patrick Troughton. I agree with your criticisms of the new show (the lack of other Time Lords/Gallifrey, the fact that he is now the smartest guy around/infallible).