So long...And thanks for all the scripts

In his biography in the original publication of "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy", Douglas Adams notes that at various times he had worked as a hospital porter, barn builder, chicken shed cleaner, bodyguard, radio producer and script editor of "Doctor Who". The excellent "South Bank Show" on Adams in 1992 manages to avoid mentioning his work for everyone's favourite Saturday tea-time science fiction show, despite including some discussion of his time working as a bodyguard. So it is clear that Douglas Adams did not see DOCTOR WHO as a major part of his life and his career, despite what many fans might like to believe.

However, if DOCTOR WHO had little effect on Douglas N Adams, the reverse cannot be said to be true.

DOCTOR WHO fans are keen to divide the series into easily digestible eras, either by lead actor, decade or producer. However, the impact of the script editor on the content and style of the show has seldom been subject to the same sort of rigorous categorisation. Which is a bit strange, since it is the script editor who is generally chiefly responsible for a show's style and content. And nowhere is this more clear than in Season 17.

We all know that when Graham Williams was appointed as producer of the show he was instructed to remove the gothic horror that had been perceived to be the defining concern of his predecessor. Williams observed that this would leave a void, which he aimed to fill with humour. However, whilst stories such as The Sun Makers, The Ribos Operation and The Androids of Tara had flirted with the concept of DOCTOR WHO as a comedy, it was Douglas Adams who wined and dined it before a passionate night of ecstasy and a post-coital cigarette.

It clearly all started in The Pirate Planet. The basic ingredients were much as many other stories - an oppressed population is ruled by a nasty villain who the Doctor overthrows with the help of a local resistance group. It hardly sounds promising, especially given the struggle of the show in the late 70s to achieve credible production values within its budgetary constraints. However, the story is saved by a wit and a desire to play with the expectations and form of science fiction that we now see as the trademarks of Adams but which must have been startling at the time.

And then we come to Season 17 itself. Fortunately, the season for which Douglas Adams acted as script editor had been enjoying an enhanced reputation even before the death of its creator - long gone are the times when DWM told us that it was the silly pointless era before nice Mr Nathan-Turner came along and gave us proper science fiction again. Indeed, Season 17 may not provide the most though provoking and well crafted stories in the history of DOCTOR WHO - but it is one of the most entertaining sequence of episodes.

"Whilst earlier stories had flirted with the concept of DOCTOR WHO as a comedy, it was Douglas Adams who wined and dined it before a passionate night of ecstasy and a post-coital cigarette."

The centrepiece of the season is of course City of Death. There has been much said and written about these four episodes which I don't particularly need to add to, other than by saying that it's really quite good.

There are other stories of the season which are officially credited to other writers but clearly have the fingerprints of Adams all over them - Destiny of the Daleks and The Creature from the Pit in particular. Adams had no qualms about making jokes about any part of the show's format or heritage, much to the dismay of the continuity obsessed fan-boy trying to work out why Romana wasted four regenerations on a whim but to the amusement of the rest of us. Humour is everywhere. And it is particular fortunate that Adams found himself with an enthusiastic partner in crime in the form of Tom Baker. And unlike the show's mid-80s attempt to replace violence with comedy, Adams managed to produce comedy DOCTOR WHO that was actually funny.

And that brings us to Shada. Given Adams reputation as a novelist for struggling to finish a novel within any deadline it is somewhat ironic that he was the writer behind the only uncompleted DOCTOR WHO story. It is difficult to pass judgement on the story from the footage that was shot. However, the material that was completed does include more classic Adams lines and characters. Chief amongst these is of course Professor Chronotis, who Adams must have particularly liked since he subsequently gave him his own novel.

The death of Douglas Adams at such a young age is clearly a tragic loss. But I'm sure I'm not alone in wondering what that means for the chances of getting novelisations of his stories. Adams didn't want to do it himself, particularly due to the pay being several zeroes shorter than his normal advances. Of course, a novelisation is probably redundant in the multi-media world that we now inhabit. And if we really want to read City of Death and Shada we can at least read "Dirk Gentley's Holistic Detective Agency", which scores over any potential novelisation of the original stories through having an Electric Monk in it. Douglas Adams's contribution to DOCTOR WHO is something that we can now watch whenever we want. And it represents an era of DOCTOR WHO that always makes for entertainment, even 20 years later. And there's no better tribute to Douglas N Adams than that.

Originally published in KKLAK! Issue 6 - September 2001.

This is an article by Matthew Newton. Visit his Homepage.
Copyright © MJ Newton 2001. All rights reserved.