Friday, 27 April 2012
My 2002 Doctor Who audio Flip-Flop is on sale today for £5 only. Click here to buy it. (Other excellent Doctor Who audios by Jac Rayner, Nev Fountain, Joe Lidster and others are also available). As a preview-type "taster", here are the first two pages of the 'black' episode (Flip-Flop is a story told over two discs, one black, one white, which can be listened to in either order, neither one definitive.)
[OUTDOORS. WE ARE IN A BUSY CITY LATE AT NIGHT. THERE ARE DISTANT SIRENS, CREAKING BUILDINGS, CURFEW BELL, DIESEL TRAINS, STEAM VENTS, RUMBLING ENGINES AND FACTORIES. A HARSH, ICY WIND BLOWS. WE HEAR APPROACHING FEET CRUNCHING THROUGH SNOW AND SOMETHING SLITHERING. AN ALARM WAILS IN THE DISTANCE.]
R.MITCHELL: [VIA RADIO] Attention all Slithergee patrols. Two dissidents are at large and must be captured at once! They were last seen approaching Ghetto Delta-Delta. I repeat [UNDER FOLLOWING DIALOGUE] last seen approaching Ghetto Delta-Delta.
[FX: APPROACHING FEET AND SLITHERING HALT]
SLITHERGEE: That’s where we are, isn’t it? Guide - be my eyes for me, seek where I cannot...
R.POTTER: Yes, humble master. Ghetto Delta-Delta.
R.MITCHELL: [VIA RADIO] The dissidents are a human female, twenty plus, and a human male, forty plus, called... ‘Mel’ and ‘The Doctor’.
[FX: RADIO CUTS OFF]
SLITHERGEE: So, they’ve decided to scurry amongst their own, have they? They think their trail will be lost amongst the squalor! But I will sniff them out!
[FX: NEARBY, A FAMILIAR ‘WHEEZING AND GROANING’ SOUND]
SLITHERGEE: Hold still - what’s that?
R.POTTER: It appears to be something appearing...
[FX: THE TARDIS LANDS WITH A CRUMP.]
SLITHERGEE: I scent something strange and peculiarness. We shall investigate! Lead me to it, sight-guide Potter, lead me!
R.POTTER: Yes, humble master.
[FX: THE PATROL MOVES AWAY THROUGH THE SNOW]
CUT IMMEDIATELY TO:
[INSIDE THE TARDIS. THE ENGINES ARE GRUMBLING AND SHUDDERING. VARIOUS WARNING SOUNDS. BUTTONS ARE BEING PRESSED RAPIDLY.]
MEL: [SHOUTING] Doctor! What’s happening!
[FX: THE DIN ABRUPTLY STOPS HALF WAY THROUGH ‘HAPPENING’.]
DOCTOR: Just some... turbulence in the vortex, Mel.
MEL: I thought the ship was going to shake itself to pieces! And us with it!
DOCTOR: I grant you the landing may have been a little on the bumpy side...
MEL: Bumpy? I’m not included to use rude words, Doctor, but if I was I’d use several to describe how “bumpy” that landing was.
DOCTOR: We’ve arrived slap-bang [PAUSES AT POOR CHOICE OF WORDS] on target. The Earth colony on the planet Puxatornee in the year three thousand and ninety. December the twenty-fourth.
[FX: SCANNER HUMS ON.]
MEL: So what are we doing here - and why did we leave the Space Yacht Pinto in such a hurry?
DOCTOR: It’s quite simple. This is the only planet in the galaxy where you can find Leptonite crystals.
DOCTOR: Quarks are highly allergic to Leptonite, Mel. It makes them go berserk and explode.
MEL: Oh, I see. So we get the crystals, nip back to the Pinto, and quell the Quarks?
DOCTOR: Hopefully violence won’t be necessary. But yes.
MEL: [SCEPTICAL] You’re sure this is the right place? It’s all... slums and workhouses.
DOCTOR: It’s very odd. The last time I visited here it was brimming with prosperity.
MEL: When was that?
DOCTOR: It was the year the Proxima Centuari All-Blacks did the double... three thousand and twelve.
Monday, 2 April 2012
The story begins back in 1979, when work on Doctor Who’s seventeenth season ran into trouble. About a third of the way through the studio recordings for Shada, that season’s final story, a strike at the BBC meant that production on the story had to be postponed. The actors were literally locked out of the studios, despite having spent two weeks rehearsing the material to be recorded. By the time the strike ended, the BBC had built up a backlog of Christmas shows to be recorded, and so prioritised those over completing the unfinished Shada.
And unfinished it remained, despite various attempts by the show’s new producer, John Nathan-Turner. Although budgets were allocated, it proved impossible to get the story’s cast back together. Which was a pity, because what had been filmed of Shada – particularly all the location sequences – was very, very good. Largely because of a very, very talented young writer called Douglas Adams.
Since 1979, numerous attempts to finish Shada have been made; it was released on video with Tom Baker narrating the missing sections; Big Finish produced an audio version with an even more impressive cast than the original BBC production; and now the script has been novelised by the consistently awesome Doctor Who writer Gareth Roberts. And unlike the video and the audio versions, he’s had access to the ‘rehearsal scripts’, the final, heavily-rewritten (by cast, director and script editor) version of the story.
The resulting book is absolutely terrific. Gareth hasn’t tried to imitate Adams’ writing style but he has perfectly emulated his approach, his intelligence and his sense of humour. Where lesser writers may have delivered a bad Adams pastiche of footnotes and puns, Gareth has done exactly what Adams would’ve done if he’d ever got around to novelising the script himself. He’s taken it all incredibly seriously, he’s spared no effort in trying to make it all make sense, and he’s added a wealth of original ideas and jokes along the way. It’s still recognisably the same story, but with an additional polish, an unlimited budget, and with the room to explain and expand upon all the background details.
As an example of Gareth’s painstaking attention to detail, there’s a scene quite early on where the Doctor jokily tells Romana that she should be an historian. Now, in an early draft of the script, Romana replied with, ‘I should be a nursemaid’, while when the scene was actually filmed, she replied with ‘I am a historian’. So what has Gareth done?
‘I am a historian,’ [Romana] said proudly, keeping to herself the thought that really, considering her relationship with the Doctor, she sometimes wondered if she should be nursemaid.
I can’t imagine any other writer bothering to find a way of reconciling two different drafts of the same scene. Similarly, at the other end of the story, the Doctor and Romana have a brief but necessary discussion about Skagra’s origins. Except, in the rehearsal scripts, this discussion was cut. Gareth has followed this latter version of this scene – but has taken the trouble to place the cut dialogue elsewhere in the story, in a more logical place.
Gareth also does a sterling job tightening up the story’s plot logic. I particularly enjoyed the explanation of how Skagra knows all about the Time Lords. My one concern, though, is that it may create the false impression that the original script was illogical and full of holes, as so much time is devoted to drawing attention to minor plot issues and solving them. I don’t regard Shada as any more or less logically flawed than any other Doctor Who story; and in a couple of cases I found the additional rationalisations to be unnecessary. For example, Gareth has put a lot of thought into explaining why Skagra chooses to go to his command station in the TARDIS rather than in his own ship, when, for me, it was pretty obvious that the reason was because the TARDIS would simply get him there quicker. Similarly, I’m not sure that all the explanations of why the Doctor doesn’t call the Time Lords for help rang true; the Doctor never calls the Time Lords for help, he doesn’t need to have a specific reason.
A flaw with the original script is that the third, fourth and fifth episodes are pretty thin of material and tend to drag; inevitably the book also has this problem, as Gareth adds lots of amusing business along the way but is restricted in terms of progressing the plot. So after a sequence in the original script written as padding, where the Doctor reprograms the Ship to go faster, Gareth adds another sequence where the Ship has been set to explode. Which unfortunately doesn’t quite make sense in terms of the characters’ motivations, and simply creates more needless complications.
On the other hand, I did appreciate the ‘temporal orbit’ rationalisation of Chronotis’ resurrection and could hug Gareth for making it clear that when Chronotis’ rooms vanish from Cambridge they leave behind a large hole in the side of the building rather than a shimmering blue haze.
Practically all of Gareth’s additions to the story are welcome. I loved all the stuff about people in Cambridge reacting to Skagra’s outlandish clothes sense. I loved the deeper characterisations of Chris and Claire in particular. Being a curmudgeon, I wasn’t totally convinced by the scene where Skagra tries to persuade the Ship to read the Worshipful book aloud; it felt a bit too much like a deliberate Adams pastiche (it’s basically the same gag as Deep Thought being reluctant to give the answer to life, the universe and everything.) I daresay it will turn out that this is the scene that was actually hand-written by Adams.
Gareth has also greatly expanded upon the story’s original climax; what was written by Adams as essentially an argument between the Doctor and the villain in a corridor is now a huge, action-packed set-piece. That said, I did miss some aspects of Adams’ script that were lost, such as the Doctor creating a ‘small piece of timelessness and spacelessness, here behind the sofa’ and the business with Clare using a pencil to hold down an overheating lever; what was quite an involved and funny sequence in Adams’ script is thrown away in a couple of pages, and the Doctor’s plan now involves extruding the TARDIS’s force field, like in The Horns Of Nimon, which is a bit dull. On the other hand, though, I thought Gareth’s way out of the episode five cliff-hanger was a vast improvement and vastly more inventive than the perfunctory solution in the original script.
However, all anyone is going to care about is what score I give the book out of ten, and obviously I’m going to give it ten. Which, bearing in mind that the original script was very much a seven, is considerable praise. Bearing that in mind, two criticisms.
Firstly, being an obsessive about these things, I remove the dust jacket of any book before reading it, because otherwise within about fifteen seconds it will be a crumpled, crinkled and creased mess. So I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of geek irritation that the book’s title isn’t on its spine. It’s just Doctor Who, Douglas Adams and Gareth Roberts, and if, as seems likely as well as being extremely desirable, Gareth novelises Adams’ other two Doctor Who scripts, it’s an odd oversight. Albeit a mind-bogglingly trivial one.
Secondly, and more seriously, there is no acknowledgement within the book that the original script of Shada was co-written by the show's then-producer Graham Williams. Gareth outlines how Shada came to be written in the novel’s afterword but neglects to mention Williams’ large contribution to the script. Interviewed in 1985, Williams was pretty clear that ‘Douglas and I wrote Shada in six days’ and that Adams only received a single credit because Williams was leaving and so ‘it wasn’t quite so important to me as it was to him to get a credit.’ I realise that a story co-written by Douglas Adams isn’t quite as alluring a proposition as a story written by him singlehandedly, but it is disappointing that Adams is given sole credit for a story that he didn't solely write.
In the afterward, Gareth gives Adams the credit for Shada’s well-structured plot, for ‘laying the groundwork’ and having ‘though long and hard about all of this’. To be honest, I don’t think you can give Adams either the credit or the blame for Shada’s plotline, as it seems obvious to me that it was largely the work of Graham Williams. It is, after all, based around Time Lord mythology, one of Williams’ favourite tropes. And certainly at the time Shada was written, Adams couldn’t plot to save his life; The Pirate Planet is wonderfully messy but lacks a climax; City Of Death is better-structured but largely because of having Williams’ as a co-writer (before becoming a producer, Williams was a very experienced script editor) and the fact that it was based on a David Fisher outline; and part of the appeal of Hitch-Hiker’s is that it is so unstructured and random. Adams could certainly talk the talk about dramatic structure, but there’s very little evidence of him putting it into practice until the Dirk Gently books (and even then, intricately-plotted as they were, they both have blink-and-you’ll-miss-it anti-climaxes.)
But that’s just a quibble, and a quibble about attribution, not about the adaptation itself, which is beautifully written, heart-warmingly joyous and hilariously funny. I recommend it wholeheartedly and cannot imagine anyone, anywhere, myself included, doing a better job, or honouring Adam’s memory with a more glorious tribute.