Doctor Who: Adapting Douglas Adams

"Shada", a "lost" Doctor Who story by Douglas Adams, has been adapted into a book. SFX talks to the man responsible, new series writer Gareth Roberts

It’s certainly the one that came the closest to being beamed into our living rooms. Written for Tom Baker’s Doctor and Time Lady companion Romana (Lalla Ward) during the year when the creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was Who ’s script editor (1979), it commenced filming, but then fell foul of industrial action at the BBC, and was never completed.

In the years since there have been several takes on it: a VHS release which edited together the footage which was shot; a webcast version for Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor; a couple of unofficial fan novelisations. Adams also cannibalised some elements of the script for his 1987 novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency .

Now new series writer Gareth Roberts (who scripted “The Unicorn And The Wasp” and “The Lodger”, amongst others) has gone back to the original scripts, slaving over an official adaptation for BBC Books, due for release on 15 March (read our review here ). Here’s what Gareth had to say when SFX spoke to him about the tricky business of adapting Adams.

SFX: So, “Shada”’s come round again…
Gareth Roberts: “'Again? Do we have to have it again?!' Oh, you’ve not had it properly before! I think us jaded old fans think 'We all know this!' Actually we don’t, we really don’t. There’s no-one more old and jaded than me, and as I sat down and unravelled it, I was going ‘ Ohhh... right.’ I thought I knew the story. I thought I knew the way it all worked, and what was going on, and who was who and everything. But when you sit inside a story you see it so completely differently.”

So how have you approached adapting Adams’s story?

“Well, basically what I wanted to do was use my brain to connect with what he wanted. Douglas himself expressed dissatisfaction with “Shada” and said he sighed a sigh of relief when the strike happened. He wrote the story very quickly, because [ Doctor Who producer] Graham Williams wouldn’t let him write ‘The Doctor Retires’. He wanted to do ‘The Doctor Retires’, and he held out through the whole of that season. Graham Williams was going, ‘No you won’t, I’m not letting you’, and he went, ‘Well, we’ll wait and see!’ Douglas’s plan was that Graham Williams would just go, ‘Oh we’ve got no time, there’s nobody else – go and write ‘The Doctor Retires’ then, Douglas’. Then with about four days left he just went, ‘No, you’re not doing it, I’m not letting that go out’, so Douglas went and wrote ‘Shada’ – and he was going at one hell of a lick.”

What material have you had to work from?

“I’ve had the latest scripts there were – and those were not the ones that were in the box with the video. The ones that are in the video box are early camera scripts, or something like that – they’re certainly pre-rehearsal – and there’s tons and tons of stuff that was changed – usually for the better, sometimes not. Tom and Lalla were very naughty with the final scene: they actually cut the big explanation of the whole thing! But I haven’t done that, don’t worry!

“There was even a new scene, which I had no idea existed before and I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere before, and it’s handwritten. I’m not sure if it’s [director] Pennant Roberts or if it was Douglas dictating to Pennant Roberts down the phone or something, but there’s a lovely new scene. I’m giving a special no-prize away to anyone who spots it, because I’ve added so many new scenes myself, and I want to see if anyone can guess which is the one new totally Douglas scene!”

When you say you’ve tried to connect with what Douglas wanted, how can you do that, exactly?

“Ah well, this is gonna sound very arrogant, but as a writer, darling , as a television writer, often when things end strangely or are odd on television, whereas before I took up this job I just used to sit there going, ‘That’s odd!’ now I go, ‘Oh my god, they cut that didn’t they?’ or, ‘Oh my god, they meant to go there , or they meant to do that , but they ran out of time’. There are several instances in ‘Shada’ where things are leading somewhere and they don’t get there, purely, I think, because Douglas was just so pushed for time. Also, what we always forget is that Douglas had become a millionaire in about two weeks, just a few weeks before this.”

Did he make that much money out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy , then?

“He made a ton of money, suddenly, during the making of season 17. The other problem was that he was writing the second series of Hitchhiker’s , the second book, the second radio series, the TV pilot and everything all at the same time, and I think there’s an old interview where he basically just completely slags off all the other writers on Doctor Who that year going, ‘Y’know, I just had to rewrite it!’ So he was under a hell of a lot of pressure.”

Presumably this book is a far cry from the Doctor Who novelisations published by Target which people like Terrance Dicks used to knock out in the ‘70s!

“Well yeah, I could have taken the script and done 148 pages – which was his standard for a six-parter – and just rattled through it. But no, it is considerably heftier than that. It’s 400 pages, you know! It’s not so much a Terrance novelisation. It’s much more a novel, in the sense that it’s very much from people’s viewpoints. It’s [puts on American accent] an emotional journey !”

“There is talk that when the paperback comes out we might try and do a limited edition which will fit seamlessly between The Horns Of Nimon and The Leisure Hive on your shelf of Target books. This is what I've been pushing for because I know what fans are like – I know what I’m like – so hopefully that will materialise in the not-too-distant future.”

To keep reading this interview, click on "next" (below right)

Read our review of Doctor Who: Shada .

So what kind of work have you had to do to “fix” the story?

“Well, I didn’t particularly like the previous attempts at the retelling of it or the finishing of it, probably for the same reasons that Douglas didn’t like it: he didn’t feel it was finished when he handed it in. So my attitude has been to finish it but to ‘finish it off’, if you know what I mean – to say, ‘It is done. This is it.’

“On TV you can get away with a lot. In my last Doctor Who , ‘Closing Time’, right, the plot is explained by the Doctor in about six and a half seconds, and that’s all it needs. Often the thing you find when we’re going through drafts and drafts of Doctor Who is that you simplify the plot down and down and down. ‘Shada’ actually has a very complex plot with a lot of holes in it, holes which could have been fascinating lacunae had they been on television, but in a book you just cannot get away with it. People are putting all their attention into following it, and a plothole stands out like a man waving a flag. So there are certain points where I said “But what the hell… what?! ’, even as a writer, because I thought, ‘No-one's ever noticed that before – that person does the most illogical possible thing and it’s there just for plot convenience’. And I've got to change that because it won’t wash in a book.

“To give you an example… it’s what Steven Moffat calls Bond plotting, because it happens particularly in the old Bond films. If we the audience know something, then Bond knows it too; even if Bond wasn’t there in the scenes where it was discussed, he just knows, and we never question it. You can just about get away with that in television now – I've done it a couple of times, but it’s a bit dodgy because it’s a lot more noticeable now…

SPOILER ALERT The next paragraph contains a spoiler for “Shada”, so scroll down to the next paragraph if you want to avoid it!

“At the end of part five of ‘Shada’, Romana sees Professor Chronotis again and doesn’t react at all to the fact that he’s not dead, because we know that he’s not dead from three episodes before. When we’re telling Doctor Who stories nowadays that kind of thing would be a big moment, and it helps you get into the story.

“Also, it’s a question of changing times. With old Doctor Who people don’t tend to react emotionally to things very much – or in the same way as they do now. Douglas was a bit ahead of the game with that with his Doctor Who scripts, they’re very modern – they’re the most modern of the old scripts, I think. If you take something like ‘The Pirate Planet’ you could pick it up and do it now, in a way. But certainly I wanted to bring a lot of heart into it, to make it an emotional story as well as a very funny one.

“There’s so much more scope in a novel nowadays to bring out the relationships and the fun and the characters and the interactions and all that stuff. It’s really clear in the first two scripts of ‘Shada’ that Chris and Claire [two Cambridge postgrads] are meant to be a kind of a love story – there’s something in their relationship that’s typical ‘Will they, won’t they?’, but then they both sort of disappear as characters after that.

“In those days the plot was the really important thing, so when a character had fulfilled their function… I call it the Nicholas Parsons Syndrome, because even in that last year of old Doctor Who , Nicholas Parsons [playing a character called Reverend Wainwright] had been almost the focal point of ‘The Curse Of Fenric’. Then he gets trodden into the mud and nobody mentions him again – it’s as if they all know! No-one says, ‘Whatever happened to Reverend Wainwright?’ – he’s literally stamped into the mud the moment his story usefulness is over, and then it’s like nobody cares or knows or bothers. That’s the kind of difference you had between then and now.”

So is it a Douglas Adams book or a Doctor Who book?

“Well, I think the balance was always about 50/50, really. I mean, Douglas very much loved Doctor Who . He was never ashamed of it; he would talk about it to anyone at the drop of a hat, even though he was miles away doing billions of other things. If you’re a Douglas Adams fan you’ll be up to speed with the Doctor Who stuff very quickly.

“I also wanted to – as far as I am able, humbly – put it in the Adams canon, to make it worthy of being alongside those books. I’ve kind of tried to follow his path. As a writer he grew and developed over the years, as a novelist, from being a script writer and I think some of his best stuff was when he was a scriptwriter and some of his best stuff was when he was a novelist. I mean, the Hitchhiker’s book with Fenchurch in it [ So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish. ], that’s an amazing book, that’s beautiful, but it’s nothing like the first Hitchhiker’s book, which is very much a Terrance Dicks-style novelisation, in a way. So, y’know, it’s been an attempt to jam those things together.”

You’ve obviously tried to get inside Douglas Adams's head to work out what his intentions might have been. Does that carry into the style you’ve written the book in?

“Oh god, no. One thing I was always very pleased with many, many years ago when I wrote my Fourth Doctor, Romana and K-9 stories for Virgin Books was that hardly anyone ever said, ‘Oh, it’s like Douglas Adams’, because Hitchhiker’s kind of writing wasn’t really at the forefront of my mind when I wrote them. And it wasn’t really in the forefront of my mind when I wrote this.

“The thing is that Douglas took Doctor Who very, very seriously – he obviously didn’t take Hitchhiker’s seriously in quite the same way. His attitude, as he said in many interviews, was that you can make something as silly and weird and funny as possible, and then you realise it’s actually happening, and that makes it more frightening. That was his thesis, and that’s something I think we’ve pulled off in modern Doctor Who on several occasions.

To keep reading this interview, click on "next" (below right)

Read our review of Doctor Who: Shada .

“I think in those days everything was much more undisciplined in the studio; there was no central person dictating the tone. I think if Douglas had been able to sit down and say to everyone at the beginning of the season, ‘Y’know, Lady Adrasta’s plan [in “The Creature From The Pit”] is terrifying, when it comes down to it we’re taking this seriously’, in the way that Russell or Steven have over some of the more bizarre stories that they’ve overseen, then it would have been a very different thing. I think it works very well in 'City Of Death', with the Countess and all that stuff when she discovers what her husband really is – all that stuff’s played absolutely right.

“Sometimes we have readthroughs for modern Doctor Who and somebody will think [puts on a silly voice] ‘I’m in Doctor Who , you know!’. I could tell you a few tales of people that have given remarkable Doctor Who performances on the readthrough – but not on screen, because by the time they’re on screen they’re tamed. I don’t think the taming happened in those days, sadly, and I think Douglas really wanted the taming to happen.”

That 1979 season of Who is widely regarded by many fans as rather silly, and Douglas does get a lot of the blame for that.

“But I think there’s a lot less of it than people say. There are moments in the rehearsal scripts I've got where Tom will change something and it’ll be brilliant, and there are other moments where he’ll change something and I’ll go, ‘No, we’re not having that!’. There were some really bad jokes in the rehearsal scripts where I went ‘No!’ But there are other things, brilliant things that he’d worked out. There’s a scene where the Doctor bursts into a room, doesn’t see what he expects to find, then goes out and bursts back in again the same way, and I’ve kept that, just because I thought it was a wonderful moment.”

So how much of the book is what Douglas wrote and how much is yours?

“Well I haven’t taken anything out. What I’ve done is expanded on what was there. I just added more, and tried to widen the scale of it, so that Shada, when we discover what it is, is quite an impressive thing. [Who fan] Ian Levine has done a marvellous job on the thing [editing together the footage that was shot]. That helped me enormously to get the rhythm of the story, and the hideous nature of some of the sets that were never actually seen. My, god… I mean, the final battle is fought out in the tiniest part of TC3 [a studio at Television Centre], so I’ve changed all that. I strongly hope it now has that epic feel.

“One of the things I was really thinking about, in a weird way, was Harry Potter, and the amount of background detail that JK Rowling puts into those books, because there’s so much Time Lord stuff in this. I’ve never done that before; I’ve always shied away from it, because I always thought it was not where I would go with Doctor Who – it’s not my bag, really. But in this case I couldn’t swerve it, and it was actually quite good fun in a way.

"So I sat down and really forced myself to learn everything about the Time Lords, and worked out exactly when things would have happened and exactly what kind of people they were. And actually, when you watch the TV versions of those stories… I think a lot of Time Lord folklore has got stuck in our minds from Terrance Dicks’s books. When you watch ‘The Deadly Assassin’ on TV it’s clearly a ruling class of Time Lords and a city full of plebs, there’s no doubt about that. But still, take any fan that would considerable themselves learned and knowledgeable about Doctor Who and ask them what’s it like on Gallifrey and they’ll say, ‘Oh, there’s this big tower…’, but actually there’s a whole city that Runcible is broadcasting to – there are clearly not that many Time Lords and a hell of a lot of Gallifreyans. So that was interesting.”

Do you feel like you understand Douglas Adams as a writer better now than you did before?

“In some ways. I think Douglas Adams writing to order for the BBC in 25-minute instalments with this many sets and that many actors is very different from Douglas Adams the radio writer, or Douglas Adams the novelist. The stage directions are peppered through with things like, ‘As many explosions as we can manage’ or, ‘K-9 comes out at what passes for full speed’. I'm sure he would have loved the ability to write Doctor Who on a bigger scale like we can do now. So it’s fun seeing his imagination in a more tightly controlled environment. But at the same time it limits him, because the great thing about Hitchhiker’s and most of Douglas’s other stuff is it’s a series of digressions. It’s not about the plot, it digresses all over the place; he starts in one place and finishes another, has another idea and moves over there – it has a fluid quality. With Doctor Who you just can’t do that, and he was well aware of that, and never tried that.

“I can understand how similar his attitude to Doctor Who was to people like Russell and Steven; it’s ‘Let’s go wild’ and then… Y’know, a Slitheen sitting on a bog in a Cardiff toilet shouldn’t have the power that it has: it’s a silly idea. But sometimes the silly idea can be the really effective one, and it can take you in a different direction. Douglas absolutely loved Doctor Who and knew exactly how to do it, that’s really the thing I’ve taken away – that he was very, very good at what you can and can’t do and how far and how fast you can push it.

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Read our review of Doctor Who: Shada .

“Another thing that really struck me was the way that Douglas’s Doctor, the way he talks, is so much like the Doctors of now, since Christopher Eccleston’s time.”

He doesn’t talk like an Edwardian gentleman, you mean?

“No, and I don’t think the Doctor every really did; that’s a kind of assumption and a myth that we’ve had. I mean, there are moments with Jon Pertwee and Colin Baker. But certainly, with the Doctor in ‘Shada’, I was reading through the dialogue going, ‘Y’know, this is Matt Smith, this is Chris Eccleston, this is David Tennant’. There’s no incredible pomposity – there’s none of that. He just sounds so modern, and sounds like a person rather than a character. Again, that was interesting, to see how far Douglas was ahead of the game.”

You wrote three Doctor Who books featuring the Fourth Doctor and Romana, so you obviously really like that partnership. Why do you think it works so well?

“I just like the banter and everything. The weird thing is sometimes I sort of elaborated on it. Sometimes I’ve seen those episodes again and gone, ‘Oh my god, they’re not like my characters at all!’. I've just pushed it a bit further, and I think that’s what I’ve done in this as well – there has to be more oomph between them.

“I think what I like about it is the voice of book learning and youth, which is Romana, learning from this man whose academic qualifications are terrible but who’s lived a hell of a lot of life. And all the while you’ve got K-9 not understanding, being sarky, doing all the things that K-9 does around them. I just really like that. I found them very reassuring when I was a kid. I found Tom and Leela quite scary and cold – which I now understand might be for other reasons!

“But I liked the idea of the Doctor having a very competent, knowledgeable person who at the same time was an acolyte, was a novice, someone growing up and learning from him. The classic thing people often say about Romana is, ‘Oh, she was the Doctor’s equal’. No, she was never intended to be the Doctor’s equal, she was intended to be someone that thought she was clever and then gradually learnt that she wasn’t and that there was a whole new, different way of looking at life, and eventually she does sort of become him. So that’s the kind of thing I like about it. Also they’re just fun to write for, the way they speak.”

Two other Doctor Who stories that Douglas wrote – “The Pirate Planet” and “City Of Death” – have never been novelised. Would you like to have a crack at those next?

“Well, the other stories are more complete, in all kinds of ways – they’re more complete as scripts, let alone completely finished TV shows. But I would like to. I don’t know what the situation is. I guess we’ll see how this one goes.

“I need a bit of a break, though. This is the first prose I've written in years, and it was… I recently saw that Terrance Dicks wrote that [ Who script editor] Robert Holmes used to say that writing prose was like digging trenches, and it bloody is! My brain works in much more of a television way. I can write dialogue, I can just do it, and once you’ve sorted out the structure of a TV thing that’s all you have to do. I think it’s a rarer skill to be able to write for TV, but for me writing prose is like heavy spade work! As soon as I went back to television I was just skipping gaily in a gingham skirt saying, ‘I will never complain about this again!’”

Ian Berriman

Doctor Who: Shada is released by BBC Books on 15 March 2012.

Read our review of Doctor Who: Shada .

Read our latest Doctor Who DVD reviews .

Check out our Doctor Who picture puzzle , featuring 65 story titles!

Deputy Editor, SFX

Ian Berriman has been working for SFX – the world's leading sci-fi, fantasy and horror magazine – since March 2002. He also writes for Total Film, Electronic Sound and Retro Pop; other publications he's contributed to include Horrorville, When Saturday Comes and What DVD. A life-long Doctor Who fan, he's also a supporter of Hull City, and live-tweets along to BBC Four's Top Of The Pops repeats from his @TOTPFacts account.