“Shada” sees the Doctor bringing Romana to then-present-day Earth, 1979, to visit Professor Chronotis (I see what you’ve done there), a Time Lord of advanced age who retired from Gallifrey and has lived a quiet academic life at St. Cedd’s College in Cambridge for the past 300 odd years. Also seeking Chronotis is a “scientist” of some menacing kind called Skagra who, armed with a floating semi-sentient sphere, intends to steal the Professor’s mind and a book entitled “The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey.” Unbeknownst to Skagra, and for that matter the Doctor, the book was accidentally loaned out one Young Christopher Parsons who’s been trying to run laboratory test on it to impress a fellow scientist, Clare Keightley. Eventually, Skagra succeeds in obtaining the book, incapacitating the Doctor, and after partaking in some light murder, he then kidnaps Romana and hijacks the TARDIS.
The book turns out to be the key to finding Shada, an ancient lost prison planet of the Time Lords. Skagra’s intent is to use his mind-sucking sphere on one of the inmates, Salyavin, whose unique mental powers he can exploit to project his own mind into every sentient creature in the universe. Did I say “light spoilers?” I meant to.
If you’re looking for the canon of time, which is wibbly-wobbly to begin with, this takes place after “Nimron,” but due to fourth Doctor and Romana being scooped out of time in The Five Doctors, their would-be actions in 1979 Cambridge were undone and therefore becomes a closed timelike curve. How’s that for your time-y wimey?
Roberts keeps the exposition clean and low-key, whatever tweaks he makes to the actual dialog is to help make sense of the plot, not to mention throw us faithful Whovian’s a wink or two regarding Doctor’s beyond the Fourth. He gives some back story and much needed drive to Skagra that is lacking in many early series Baddies. Roberts also makes use of Chris and Clare, giving them more importance and an arc where the show left them to be extra hands towards the end. It very much feels like Robert’s is writing “Shada” while reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide at the same time because he imitates Adams’ wit and trademark humor without missing a beat.
Not only that, he captures Doctor Who so well. He does a great service to honoring the series up to that time without sacrificing its integrity . He could have steamrolled the history of the show, and the time period, in favor of telling a story in the vein of the new series Doctors, but he doesn’t do that. There is a respect in the way he handles the scenes. I honestly felt as though I could hear Tom Baker’s voice in the story.
Now, If it sounds like I’m praising Gareth Roberts a bit more than dear Douglas Adams (I know, I know), it’s because the man has earned it! I sat through and watched a copy of the 1992 VHS, as well as the Flash animated version of the audio play, and I will say the book is an improvement.
Adams doesn’t do too bad for himself here, either. I am sure that, had this serial been shot in full, it might have gone down to be more loved than “The City of Death,” which he also wrote. I know that’s a bold statement, dear reader, but read it and tell me if I could be wrong. It has Chronotis, a very Adams’ character, and the Doctor delivering some great and memorable lines. All in the Adams’ way, of course. The plot, though rushed towards the end, is very solid. Adams did a great job here and I wished we had gotten more out of him for the Doctor.
Cons to the book are few. I can tell you now that there are some minor spelling variations. If you’re hoping to quote the book along with the VHS version you’ll find some lines have upped and changed on you. Sometimes the dialog in the filmed version was better in my opinionated ears. And the third act does see a detraction from the Adams voice Gareth was using, but that comes from having to rework some scenes for the plot and plot holes. Also, here and there the voice of the Doctor changes from the toothy foolhardy grin of the Fourth to his newer, smoother, faster speaking incarnations, which is a bit on the distracting side.
All in all, this is a call to both old Whovians to new Whovians: this is a story not to be missed. It has everything a purist wants in a story and is sure to keep you tied up until the new episodes begin to air. I’d even recommend it for fans of Douglas Adams who might not even be fans of the show because of the trademark dialog and humor found within. I’d also recommend it as a good gateway for fans of the Doctor and of Adams who’ve yet to make the jump into older Doctor Who episodes. This book is definitely worth the hard cover and multiple reads.
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