Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Bonus Releases II. Shada by Douglas Adams & adapted by Gary Russell (December 2003)

We open with President Romana surveying the wind-swept Gallifrey from her own private balcony, and she is shortly whisked away by the Eighth Doctor to Cambridge, 1979, thanks to a rather clever little prelude that establishes the events of Shada (1980) never happened as a result of Borusa’s meddling. Full credit to Gary Russell, who has adapted the original rather well, and whose love and knowledge of the show’s history works in his favour on this occasion. The Graham Williams Shada looks typically cheap & dated, and so this audio version capitalises on the expansiveness of our imagination to create a vast, rich, vivid set of locations and big, mad ideas – just the kind of thing Douglas Adams writes (the naff-looking spheres and Krargs, for instance, work a heck of a lot better on audio, and the music does too!). The new actors are for the most part pretty good; James Fox is a quirky Chronotis, and Andrew Sachs is suitably melodramatic as Skagra. The tone is spot-on for the late 70s, and dialogue is as rich and sharp as you’d expect from the great Douglas Adams, who died a couple of years before this version appeared.

I’ve always wanted a Doctor Who story set in Oxford or Cambridge, and Adams, as an alumnus of the latter, is perfectly suited to give us it. We’ve already established that the Doctor – and fortuitously, particularly Eight – is slightly aristocratic in his bearing, but also slightly rebellious, and so the Oxbridge undergrad world, part-stuffy, part-anarchic, rather suits him (see Jack Graham on an interesting comparison of the Time Lords of The Deadly Assassin with Britain’s Oxbridge elite). Adams’ gag that Chronotis has occupied the same rooms in St Cedd’s College for 300 years without anybody noticing is a typically spot-on barb at the great institutions’ inability to move with the times (there’s a wonderful moment when the entire room dematerialises and leaves a gaping void). As an aside, even if it’s implausible that the same porter is always on duty, the character of Wilkin was always a favourite of mine (I love his asides, particularly “as the years go by, the visitors get ruder than the students!” and, referring to the book Skagra hunts, “people shouldn’t write things if they don’t want people to read them…they’ll publish anything these days!”); I can’t be the first to call for the obligatory spin-off series, though I haven’t the foggiest what it would be like. Probably much like Inspector Morse.

This story seems to be very early in the Eighth Doctor’s timeline (or his audio one, at any rate; heaven knows how the novels fit in). It’s rather nice to think of him, alone, slightly at a loose end, before Charley emerges into his life, tracking down Romana and K9 and begging them to join him in satisfying his curiosity. He references Lord Byron and Mary Shelley again, which makes it the third time for this Doctor – that *must* be some kind of surreptitious story arc. To my surprise, Paul McGann works with Tom Baker’s lines really rather well; it helps that their two Doctors are not all that dissimilar. He suits mad-cap cycling through Cambridge exactly as you’d think he would, and in general it’s good to see him lighten up after the heaviness of recent stories (his reading aloud of the Gallifreyan book is particularly comic). Adams has a great ability to write the Doctor as a Shakespearian fool, as a very intelligent man who hides behind a bumbling, foolish façade, and it works well here. Lalla Ward excels as Romana, too, making her rapport work with McGann in subtly different ways to her rapport with Baker; she even gets a nice little character subplot, examining the nature of a President’s responsibility, nicely concluding with her decision to see the bigger picture and let Salyavin/Chronotis return to his post at Cambridge.

Like the best Douglas Adams stories, and like good Doctor Who six-parters, Shada is full of high-concept ideas and a fun blending of tones: the intriguing Time Lord book with its bizarre non-atomic structure and its literal key to locking up Time Lord criminals, Shada the Time Lord prison, Chronotis’ back-story as Salyavin, the mind-spheres, Cambridge life, the Krargs (a great creation – rudimentary lava creatures formed in vats, just add minds for best results), a colossal, invisible spaceship in the middle of a Cambridgeshire field… There are so many bits that are cleverer than most Doctor Who stories – Chronotis beating his hearts in Gallifreyan Morse code to warn Romana of the sphere, Skagra and Shada, for instance, and the superb blind-logic “dead men do not require oxygen” cliff-hanger.

Shada itself is a shadowy bit of Time Lord history, and an indication of its darker sides; an effective parallel of the Guantanamo-type prisons we all choose to forget about (“Evidently you forget very thoroughly on Gallifrey”). It occurred to me while listening to this that Moffat plundered this idea for the Dalek Asylum in Asylum of the Daleks, and no wonder – a vast prison planet inhabited by perverse minds is a terrific idea. The mind-spheres make for quite a nasty concept, too: it’s clear that Adams revered the mind more than most, and so the removal thereof is the ultimate horror for him (the wizened old Caldera being a particular kind of nightmarish). What City of Death did for our assumptions about art, Shada does for intellectual posturing – takes predominant trends therein and exacerbates them up to ludicrous, hyperbolic proportions (in this case, Skagra’s solipsistic belief that the universe can be best refashioned after his own mind; he perfectly represents closed-mindedness in contrast to the Doctor’s “open mind”, of infamous teaspoon fame). Of course the entire thing boils down to what is in effect a battle of wits between the Doctor and Skagra, and Skagra’s eventual fate is quite literally intellectual humiliation at the Doctor’s hands, right down to his own computer esteeming his rival. While Shada is of course a fun romp, it reminded me of what Ian McEwan once said about the 9/11 bombers – “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality. The hijackers used fanatical certainty, misplaced religious faith, and dehumanising hatred to purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy. Among their crimes was a failure of the imagination.” Skagra is this approach taken to its conclusion; he has no concept of others, no understanding of alternative viewpoints, and laughable though he may be, the logical result of such a failure of imagination is utter evil. Of course it is the Doctor – he who will always personify Adams’ mad old imagination – who saves the day.

There’s a great elegance to the balance of Skagra on one hand and Salyavin on the other, with their completely diametrically opposed psychic powers. Together they make an effective pairing to revolve around the figure of the Doctor: three great academic minds of immense standing. Of course, this being an Adams script, he is not really the Doctor’s equal – indeed, the story is notable for its merciless sending-up of the villain: though Andrew Sachs is as game as Julian Glover in City of Death and the Captain in The Pirate Planet, one can never take any of the three entirely seriously – Skagra’s lunatic rants are daft and the “Salyavin is released!” moment is pure bathos.

The story is also marvellously structured – witness Chronotis’ surprise return in Part Four after a little absence, and his increased role thereafter; a lovely bit of misdirection even if it’s never terribly difficult to guess. Salyavin, the “hot-headed brilliant young man with a rather peculiar talent” is quite obviously being compared with our hero; he is a great subversion of traditional criminals, simply wanting to live out his days in peace. The sweet final scene between the Doctor and Romana looks at how he seems much more pleasant than the old myths – and, as the Doctor points out, “the Time Lords overreact to everything. Look at the way they treat me. I expect that one day a few hundred years from now someone will probably meet me and say, Is that really the Doctor? How strange, he seems such a nice old man!” Chronotis is simultaneously the retired Time Lord of the distant future and the mythical adventurer of the ancient past.

It’s witty, it’s intelligent, it’s expansive and bursting with great ideas – and now it’s been well-updated by Gary Russell, complete with superb performances, music and sound design: Shada is fun, inspiring and humane, forgiving a criminal who wants to make amends and serving up a comeuppance to the failure of imagination: it’s a marvellous triumph and a joy in every respect. Gary Russell, thank you for a great tribute to a great writer. And rest in peace Douglas Adams, you madman with a pen, you.

***

Ah, Shada: the Love’s Labour’s Won of Doctor Who, Douglas Adams’ very own Mystery of Edwin Drood, the story worked on by the highest number of creative figures and yet the least completed. Always finished anew, yet always unfinished, both finalised definitively and left to float in the ether for someone else to take the reins. Rather like the show itself in that respect.

I have (a while ago now) seen the 90s VHS version of Shada with Baker’s linking narration, although I don’t remember being terribly impressed – it consisted mostly of some iffy filming and some excruciatingly bad music from Keff McCulloch, even if the dialogue itself was pretty good. I haven’t yet read the Shada novelisation by Gareth Roberts, though I keep meaning to (and I am familiar with the rather terrific opening: “At the age of five, Skagra ecided emphatically that God did not exist. This revelation tends to make most people in the universe who have it react in one of two ways — with relief or with despair. Only Skagra responded to it by thinking, wait a second. That means there's a situation vacant”.). On top of that there’s also sorts of other versions – a fan novelisation, for one thing. But Shada itself exists perpetually in unmade limbo, as though Borusa’s intervention in The Five Doctors sent the story permanently into some kind of No-Space, or as though, as the Eighth Doctor transitions from the epic of Zagreus past countless alternate universes into a new timeline in Scherzo, flashes of adventures that never were, or that half were, or that were once and somehow recurred again, flickered around him – including one somehow involving an old man with curly white hair and a vast smile, genially relating the tale of the adventure he once had to camera, in a museum, looking for all the world like some kind of…curator…

Other things:

“Dark and mysterious; Gallifrey at its most typical. What do the Time Lords have against pastels?”
“You intended to visit Professor Chronotis, Master, an associate of yours, resides at St. Cedd’s College, Cambridge, Earth, Sol 3, Mutter Spiral, the Milky Way…”/“Yes, thank you, K9, we don’t need his postcode.”/“CB1…”/“Thank you, K9.” – If that’s Gary Russell, colour me impressed; that really sounds like Adams.
The story establishes that The Leisure Hive takes place immediately after the end of Shada (1980).
“Back to Cambridge. 1979…” That sounds incredibly like the cold open of a new series episode.
“I don’t think they’re ever going to be quite right in the head again.” Shiver.
“One lump or two?”/“Two, please.”/“Sugar?”
“St Cedd’s College, Cambridge. Founded in the year something or other by someone who’s name I’ve forgotten, in the honour of someone whose name escapes me completely.”/“St Cedd?”/“You know I think it probably was. You should be an historian.”
“Delighted. I’ve heard so much about you… well, not yet, but I’m sure I will have done. When Time Lords get to my age we tend to get our tenses muddled up.”
“The Ford Prefect Society” – Nice one, Gary!
“Thank you. You will now cease breathing.”
Cool little audio references to The Fires of Vulcan, The Marian Conspiracy and Phantasmagoria in Part One.
“I’ve got a memory like a…oh what is it? What have I got a memory like? What’s that thing you strain race with?” (then, after much questioning on an important topic): “A sieve!”
“One of the main complaints about the Type 40 was that the kitchens were always an intolerable distance from the control room.”
“Yes, I know it’s One Way, but does it really matter which way?”
“Did you just see what I just didn’t see?”/“No?”/“Neither did I.”
“If I built something that clever, I’d want people to see it!” – Nice little line; Chris is such a postgrad. In fact, there’s a few good jokes about clever-clever students here – see also, “You’ve got a lot to unlearn,” the Doctor’s response to Chris’ familiarity with quantum theory, Schoenberg, and Einstein.
“Are you standing comfortably? Then I’ll sit down.”
“Oh, blast it!”/“Affirmative, Mistress.” (K9 fires a laser at the wall)
“Insufficient data.” (K9 is a superb punch-line in Adams’ hands)
“I’ve been nearly too clever by three-quarters.”/“You never seem to do anything by halves.” (Repeated later as Skagra is “too clever by seven-eighths”).
“You are still alive, officially.”/“Oh, that’s reassuring.”
“Let’s work out what we don’t know. We don’t know where Skagra has taken Romana, we don’t know why he wants the book, we don’t know what he’s going to do.”/“That’s enough don’t knows to win an election.”
Skagra: “the stars, spinning uselessly through the void. And around them trillions of people, spinning uselessly through their lives…”
Douglas Adams is the king of technobabble, isn’t he?
I love Hannah Gordon’s sultry work as Ship. “For a dead man, Doctor, you are extremely ingenious.” And, better still, “He has done the most extraordinary things to my circuitry.”
“Mind control is the most horrible thing. Any physical threat you can fight, but once someone has control of your mind, you’ve lost everything.”
“What on Earth is it?”/“What’s Earth got to do with it?”
“I was – I am – I will be – Professor Chronotis. Oh dear, we Time Lords have never been able to come up with a satisfactory form of grammar to cover these situations.”
“I am a computer. I do not have ideas.”
The Doctor and Skagra have excellent banter: “Who could possibly want to take over the universe?”/ “Exactly, this is what I keep trying to tell people! It’s a troublesome place, difficult to administer, and as a piece of real estate it’s worthless because there’d be nobody to sell it to.”
“The universe shall not, as you so crudely put it, be mine – the universe shall be me.”/“Have you discussed this with anybody?”
“K9, how I’ve missed having you around to tell me the patently obvious!”
“Clare!”/“Chris!”/“Clare!”/“Doctor!”/“Professor!”/“Cup of tea?”
Some nice references to other Time Lords: Rungar (war crimes) and Sabjatric (mass murder) – it’s always good when a story enhances its mythos and leaves you with a sense of many, many more stories to tell than merely the one it has told.
“I’m not answerable for the Time Lords.”/“But you are, Madame President.” (This fits in nicely with Romana’s dilemma in Neverland).
“Stolen a room?...In my experience, people don’t usually steal rooms very much. They may steal from rooms, but steal the rooms themselves? Very rarely. In fact I think ‘never’ is probably the word I’m looking for here, sir. I mean, where’s the advantage in it? Not much of a black market in rooms, is there? Wouldn’t get much for it!”
A lovely bit of farce with the disappearance and return of the room just in time for the constable’s appearance (“routine inquiry, sir, this room appears to have been stolen”). Adams knows exactly how to do this kind of thing.
“Stealing policeman’s helmets” (a Wodehouse reference, surely?)
“There was a schism in the College of Cardinals and the rival President set up shop on Dronid” – that’s basically the history of Oxford and Cambridge.

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