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

Douglas Adams’s “Shada” is the most infamous of all the “lost” Doctor Who stories which, for one reason or another, never made it to our TV screens.

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.