Gareth Roberts’s adaptation of Douglas Adams’s scripts for the incomplete (at least on television) Doctor Who story Shada.
Apparently when the script turned up at AudioGo it was substantially longer than expected. They’d thought it would fit into the dual jewel case they use for all their Target novelisations but here it sits on ten cds, with a duration of eleven hours and thirty minutes. That’s very long. Far longer than the two to three hours of television Shada would have been had it been completed, and certainly longer than the version knocked together by Big Finish a few years ago with the Eighth Doctor stepping into the Fourth Doctor’s shoes, Tom Baker unavailable at the time. I don’t know how long the recent fan reconstruction with the bits of animation is, but not eleven and half hours.
Which makes it an intimidating listen and wanting to savour each of its ten discs and seventy-six chapters, I’ve let it replace the usual sounds of the world across various bus trips, walks to work and lunch breaks over the past month, reader Lalla Ward’s elegant voice (with John Leeson as K9) an ever present companion as fares went up, weather's changed for better and worse and I’ve tucked into yoghurts and apples and the odd packet of Smokey Bacon crisps. It's provided some much needed suspension of disbelief training at a time when reality has been ever present, that nagging sensation that life actually isn’t a dream.
If there’s such a thing as a master opinion on the experience (rather like a master shot or a grand narrative), it’s that, like a good meal or a glorious summer, I’ve not wanted it to end. But as with slices of pizza or the pages of a desk calendar, I’ve counted down each of those ten discs until today when the tenth arrived with the inevitably of an empty plate or the middle of September. Knowing that it’s always best to confront these things rather simply let them slip by, I gave that final disc my fullest attention, sitting on our back balcony tucking into jellybeans and watching the audience for the visiting Easter circus in the park leave this afternoon’s show.
For all its duration, Shada’s story is relatively simple to describe. On a visit to Cambridge, the Fourth Doctor, Romana and K9 find that their friend Professor Chronotis has inadvertently “borrowed” the Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey from the their collective home planet, a book powerful enough to be of interest to intergalactic criminal genius Skagra who visits Earth to steal the volume and utilise it in his plan to take over the universe, or something like that, the something like that having all the important vagueness which appears on the back of the cd box and presumably the paper version so it’s probably unfair to include specifics here.
Suffice to say that Roberts takes full advantage of the textual real estate open to him having ignored the old Target novelisation restriction of a hundred and forty odd pages to produce something which isn’t just a adaptation of a bunch of scripts, but a celebration, of Douglas Adams, of Doctor Who and of Shada's own tortured history. Like the best of those old novelisations, victims are given entire poignant back stories, the relationships between major characters are extemporised and the overall story allowed to breath and actually make better sense than it ever has.
That Lalla Ward’s the reader also makes perfect sense. This is her fourth performance of a version of this material and she’s magnificent, us all become time tots being read a bedtime story by Auntie Romanadvoratrelundar. Rising to the challenge of conjuring this diverse set of characters, she turns in valid performances for all of them, from the slow delivery of scatterbrained Chronotis to the Dent-like naivety of Chris Parsons. Her rendering of Scagra’s sentient ship is a tour-de-force of matronly sexuality and even her Tom offers some notion of one of most recognisable voices in entertainment history. A bit.
She’s aided by some intelligent sound design that evolves across the story to put her voice in the crowded streets of Cambridge, in the console room of the TARDIS on the echoey environs of various spaceships. Some of the sound effects aren’t quite right, especially K9’s laser, but the weezing groaning sound of the blue box is present and still has the power to transport our imaginations, especially on audio. In places, crowds of voices are created by having Lalla’s voice in duplicate and triplicate. Much is gained from being able to listen to this story.
But something is lost. A paper copy of Shada will still be essential. Gareth Roberts’s afterword from the book isn’t included. Just as the Hitchhikers books allow us to notice the poetry of the guide entries, because of the sheer amount of text only perhaps on paper can we properly relish the delights of Scagra’s back story, Clare’s passion for Chris and the undergraduate humour that propels the narrative forward. None of which should draw away from the achievement of this audio book, which more than justifies its extended length. Just be sure to savour it.
Doctor Who: Shada: The Lost Adventure byDouglas Adams is adapted by Gareth Robert and read by Lalla Ward with John Leeson and is available now from AudioGo. Review copy supplied.