Doctor Who: Shada by Gareth Roberts and Douglas Adams – Reviewed by Amanda Cales
First, let me preface this review by saying that I am a diehard Doctor Who fan. I have watched every episode, seen and loved every Doctor, and spent weeks listening to over 90 Big Finish audio plays. I’m also pretty damned fond of Douglas Adams, both his own work and his work on the television series during the 4th Doctor’s reign. I do not say all of this to brag or boast, but simply to provide an accurate backdrop of the knowledge I went into this book with. Since my opinion on SHADA seems to differ dramatically from most people’s, if my review causes any argument or discussion, I want that discussion to be about what I’ve said here, not whether or not I know my Doctor Who, or the fact that maybe I just didn’t “get” something about the series. I get it, trust me. I just didn’t like it.
At first, I was greatly excited to read a Doctor Who novel, especially one based on Shada. I’d heard about Shada before, of course. I’d salivated over the previews provided for the Big Finish adaptation in 2003. I’d read all about the lost script and the weighty burden of carrying on Douglas Adam’s legacy. To have a book with this much-lauded title in my hands was thrilling. Unfortunately, this thrill was quickly lost as I began reading and discovered that SHADA is, essentially, a pale, half-hearted copy of HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY with Doctor Who bits stuck onto it.
I am sure that Gareth Roberts tried his best. It is obvious that he has great love and respect for Douglas Adams. His pages are littered with the kind of language Adams would use, and even includes a rather heavy handed, groan-inspiring reference to HITCHHIKER’S in the last chapter. But I am also sure that Roberts got so lost in trying to be faithful to the Adams name that he forgot to actually write a decent book. SHADA is littered with annoyances, ones that only grow and become worse the more time you spend with the book.
First and foremost is the host of characters in the book, which Roberts switches between with an almost manic intensity. There were many points throughout SHADA when you would literally switch between two or three characters on the same page. Not only was this highly annoying and made it difficult to keep up with or care what was going on with any specific character—after all, they were only going to be there for a few paragraphs, why bother getting invested—but it speaks to me of a weak writing style that relies on confusing or postponing the reader’s satisfaction instead of an actually strong narrative.
Secondly, there was far too much conflict. What? Too much conflict in a book? Nonsense, you say! Before SHADA, I would have agreed with you. Sadly, it isn’t impossible, in fact Roberts seems to thrive on it. Every single problem that arises in this book lasts about as long as the character POVs do, and then is thwarted just as quickly. Every time you think that something is going to be resolved or taken care of, in comes another character or situation to mess it all up.
By the end of the book, things are such a tangled mess and there are so many people to keep up with, that my head began to hurt. I literally cheered when I put this book down, because then I could go back to reading stories where the entire plot didn’t revolve around some idiot stumbling in at the last second and mucking things up for everyone else who had, up until that point, worked quite hard to put everything right. There was no satisfaction to be had from any of the conflicts or issues being resolved because a new one would just spring up in its place instantly. It was the most frustrating thing I’ve ever read.
Granted, this constant barrage of mini-conflicts was often the way of the old television series, but this is 2012, not the 70’s. Things have changed, and to be honest, a lot of the writing for the old series is awful by today’s standards. To look back on it fondly (and ignoring the bad bits for the sake of The Doctor) is one thing. To emulate it is another, and once again spoke to me of a very weak writing style.
While on the subject of weak writing styles, another irritating thing about this book is the fact that Roberts felt the need to repeat everything. I swear I have read the sentences “a thin, indistinct babble of human voices” and “he seemed like such a nice old man” so many times that they will be emblazoned into my brain matter for all time. He does this to try and make it sound like Adams is the writer, since there is a lot of this type of humorous repetition in books like HITCHHIKER’S, but he goes overboard with it to the point where it’s utterly annoying and actually caused me to speed read through certain sections because, well, I knew what he was going to say anyway. Why bother reading it?
Along these same lines, there are absolutely no surprises in SHADA. The plot “twists” that do happen, you can see coming from a mile away, and when they finally hit all they’re there for is to cause yet another annoying conflict where someone (usually a woman) gets kidnapped or something is about to blow up. I knew exactly how this book was going to end almost from the beginning, which made getting through all 416 pages of it quite a slog, let me tell you. I understand Roberts was trying to be faithful to the source material, and a lot of the 4th Doctor’s adventures were exactly as predictable as this. Everything and everybody turns out fine by the end. But Roberts makes absolutely no attempt at all to even try and make it seem like things might not turn out that way—in fact, he actually foreshadows the happy ending several times throughout the book! Again, he provides me no reason to keep reading, and so many reasons to put SHADA down and walk away. (And, as it turned out, I was exactly right about how everything ended and the bad guy was defeated, missing only a few minor points. Snore.)
And finally, we have the characters. I will give Roberts credit for utterly and completely nailing The 4th Doctor’s character perfectly. The only thing that was missing was him offering someone a jelly baby. He also did a fairly good job with Romana, although I repeatedly got the impression he’d grown up with a crush on her because he is constantly describing how beautifully aloof and poised she is. (I often found myself rolling my eyes and saying “OK, I get it! Shut up already!”) Anyone who’s seen Lalla Ward as Romana already knows this. Anyone who hasn’t isn’t going to care and probably got it after the first few lines. K-9 was also well done but offering someone credit for correctly writing the character of a robotic dog seems a bit insulting.
Unfortunately, this is where the list of good characters ends, and the extremely frustrating main character comes in. Chris Parsons. Oh, how I hated Chris Parsons. He is your typical bumbling fool of a scientist, who doesn’t understand anything but his machines and his work. Naturally, of course, he’s madly in love with a woman, but he doesn’t understand her either. In fact, he barely understands how to say her name, or even say “hello” to her. Oh, how sick I am of this character. I’m sorry, but women are not that frightening. Neither are men. We’ve all been shy or tongue-tied a time or two, but most of us can at least carry on a semi-decent conversation and do not mistake every single move the opposite sex makes as some sort of vicious attack or symbol of undying hatred. Not to mention, it again speaks of extremely lazy writing to rely on this dead-horse of a trope. The shy scientist who can’t talk to women? Oh, please. And I would even have accepted this if Roberts had given Chris any other redeeming qualities. But he doesn’t. Oh no. In fact, he uses Chris’s stupidity to cause multiple conflicts that would have been easily resolved by him keeping is idiotic gob shut, and that to me is unforgivable. To make a character stupid on purpose just to pad out your plot? Please excuse me while I fetch my torch and pitchfork.
Furthermore, the romance between Chris and his object of affection, Clare, (yes, this book is full of names which look similar, I don’t know if this was Roberts trying to be like Adams or Roberts just being a git) doesn’t exist. There is no reason presented why either of them should love each other. The one scene in which Clare is thinking fondly of Chris basically consists of her loving him because he’s useless. I suppose men being useless can be adorable from time to time, but to base an entire relationship on it? To fall madly, head-over-heels in love with someone for it? Um…no. Especially not when Clare is a highly intelligent, successful young scientist herself with a bright future and career ahead of her. Why would she want to burden herself with this tongue-tied idiot? Roberts never tells us. He never gives us any reason for this relationship existing other than the fact that it just does. Because that’s how it works in real life, right? Women fall in love with men they fell sorry for all the time! And then they get married and have fat babies and live happily ever after. Forget the torches and pitchforks, I’m going to go grab a bag to vomit into.
So yes, that was SHADA. If it hadn’t been for promising to write this review, I would have stopped reading about a quarter of the way through and never gone back. The sad part? I wouldn’t have missed a damned thing. I give Roberts credit for trying, and for faithfully copying the voice of a great author. I do not give him credit for being a creative person, a good writer, or even someone who knows what a good story looks like. Go read some more books, Mr. Roberts. Maybe listen to some good writing podcasts. Then come back and show me if you’ve improved at all. Until then…SHADA gets two stars out of five. I am so glad that’s over with.
Amanda “Queen of the Wiki” Cales was born on August 2nd, 1988, and is currently a resident of Knoxville, Tennessee. Sometimes known as Mandaray or Gwenna, Amanda lives with a couple of people who insist they are genetically related to her. She doesn’t believe them, since she is clearly made entirely of Awesome. Amanda has been an aspiring writer since the tender age of 8, and while writing her own stories has been a bit of a hit and miss journey, writing snarky and occasionally insightful blog posts has become one of her favorite hobbies. She started NOTE TO SELF some years ago as a way to keep her thoughts together, and things sort of blossomed from there. Recently Amanda has vowed to get back on the writing horse (which is about as uncomfortable for her as it sounds) and put to rest some of the plethora of stories she’s had running around in her head over the past 24 years. She plans on publishing sample chapters of these books on her blog some day soon, so stay tuned. She is also a former co-host of the Dead Robots’ Society podcast, and they miss her dearly every episode.