Douglas Adams and his mad year of Doctor Who
For one glorious, manic year the Hitchhiker's Guide author was head writer on Doctor Who. His legendary story Shada has just resurfaced - and now another of his unseen episodes has finally seen the light of day...
By James Goss
During the 1970s the Doctor Who production office was bombarded with story ideas from an aspiring young author. They were rejected, but fondly (one about a space ark of useless people fleeing a catastrophe was deemed too outlandish and too close to a recently-transmitted story – The Ark In Space). Eventually, in 1976, the young author was invited to a meeting. His name was Douglas Adams and his pilot for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had recently taken the BBC by storm.
As a result of that meeting, Adams was told to develop two ideas for Doctor Who. The idea for a Doctor Who film would be (sort of) forgotten for 40 years. The other was The Pirate Planet – an ambitious story full of mad, expensive ideas which ended up being realised by a cast shivering in a muddy field in Wales.
At this stage in his life, Adams had two problems. Firstly, as a struggling freelance writer he had become incapable of saying “No”. Secondly, after years of struggle, he suddenly found himself remarkably in demand. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had taken off in a big way. Adams was frantically busy writing it (curiously, it included a space ark full of useless people). He’d also taken on the job of script editing Doctor Who.
Adams was a surprising choice for script editor. The Pirate Planet hadn’t been an easy story to get into studio; due to inflation, the show’s budget was under heavy strain; frequent industrial action required lightning-fast rejigging; and Adams famously hated deadlines (a lot of Hitchhiker’s was written in the studio and handed to the cast. In later life, publishers would lock him in hotel rooms). In these difficult times, the show needed an experienced, reliable, dull set of hands.
Instead, it got a genius who somehow delivered a remarkable set of episodes (even if not all of them made it on air). In the year that he lasted (and what a year!) Adams lurched from one crisis to the next. “I’d always been a fan of Doctor Who and had wanted to write for it,” Adams said when taking on the job. “Now I find that I’m script editor. It is such a heavy workload. We are working on [creator] Terry Nation so that we can bring back the Daleks next season. He wants to write the script himself, and is very busy at the moment. We will have to wait and see….”
The season did indeed kick off with a Dalek story. However, Adams discovered that the Daleks’ creator Terry Nation was used to handing in a few sheets of ideas instead of a full script, normally on his way to an airport. So, Adams had to write most of a Dalek story very quickly. Destiny of the Daleks may look strange (a series of very battered Daleks fight Boney M in a quarry) but it’s full of Adams’s richly inventive ideas (in a Hitchhikers’ crossover, cerebral author Oolon Colluphid shows up).
When the next story suddenly found itself with money to film in Paris, the original author announced he was in the middle of a messy divorce. So, over a weekend, Adams and producer Graham Williams hammered out City of Death – for many people, the finest, funnest Doctor Who story ever made, in which the Doctor and Romana run around Paris having a lovely time and end up defacing the Mona Lisa.
While the next few scripts weren’t quite so problematic, it was impossible not to see Adams’s hand in them (much to his annoyance, authors started writing a pastiche of his style, which required careful unpicking). Worse, the subtle intellectual humour of the scripts was seized upon by the cast as an excuse to send the show up, and resulted in some strange results (a grim story about drug abuse ended up played for laughs, and another actor had so much fun with his death scene that he died in hysterics – sadly, there wasn’t time for another take).
Adams intended to close the season in style with Shada – a witty romp about time travelling Cambridge dons in which the Doctor delivers the definitive put down to a diabolical mastermind: “What's the point of owning the universe? As a piece of real estate it’s worthless as by definition there’s no-one to sell it to.” Sadly, his luck ran out and industrial action meant that Shada was never broadcast.
Adams left Doctor Who in 1979 – his year may not have been to everyone’s taste but it was impossible not to enjoy at least one of his episodes. He dashed off to write more Hitchhiker’s (for radio, for TV and for film), and went on to re-use a lot of his Doctor Who ideas.
Doctor Who meanwhile shook off Adams’s influence and decided to be much more po-faced, with mixed results. And as the years went by, it started to treat Adams as an ex it hadn’t appreciated at the time.
Shada has become one magical date with him that Doctor Who can’t resist trying to get right. Since being abandoned, the partially-finished Shada has been finished lots of times (confession: I worked on one attempt in 2003. You’ve probably had a go yourself). The latest version was recently released on DVD with the firm hope that it’ll put a stop to remakes of Shada once and for all. Pity Lalla Ward (Romana), who has been working on it since 1979 and can probably recite the script in her sleep.
There is one last, surprising swan song. When Adams left the show as script editor he was still involved in an attempt to make a Doctor Who film. The idea for The Krikkitmen had originated in that first Doctor Who meeting in 1976. In 1980 he was still working on it (with Tom Baker’s involvement in the script). Some elements of The Krikkitmen would (inevitably) be recycled in Adams’s Life, the Universe and Everything – but the original story is very different.
After Adams died in 2001, his papers were collected by his old Cambridge college. Among them are many different treatments, notes and ideas for The Krikkitmen. I’ve had the privilege of writing a novelisation based on this material, and, when it’s released this month [January 2018], Doctor Who’s longest awaited date with Douglas Adams will finally happen.