It’s easy to forget that Douglas Adams only ever wrote one completed Doctor Who serial under his own name. As script editor, the late sci-fi/comedy legend’s influence is felt throughout season 17. As ‘David Agnew’, a pseudonym Adams shared with Graham Williams and David Fisher, he brought us ‘City of Death’, which remains the show’s highest-rated story in terms of viewers. But ‘The Pirate Planet’ was Adams’s only solo credit in the show’s history.
Though it didn’t get the novelisation treatment back then, BBC Books has been working to bring Douglas Adams’s TV stories back to the page. In 2012, Gareth Roberts penned ‘Shada’ based on Adams’ eponymous serial which was cancelled mid-production due to strike action. Last year, James Goss gave us a froody adaptation of ‘City of Death’.
Next month, Goss takes on Douglas Adams once more as his ‘The Pirate Planet’ adaptation hits the shelves. We’ll have a review up as soon as we can, but in the meantime we at Blogtor Who caught up with the hoopy frood to see how it went.
BW: Douglas Adams is as much known for his novels as his scripts. Did you feel any pressure to emulate his distinctive prose style?
JG: The only answer to that is that you have to try your best, but it’s really a difficult challenge. He wrote beautifully balanced, constructed sentences with casual ease. To try and replicate that style requires a lot of thought, and therefore cannot be casual, so looks forced. However, a cheat’s guide (for a hungover ghost writer) is that he is partial to the word “rather”. And the word partial. Also sentences that deconstruct the previous sentence.
BW: One of the most memorable things about ‘The Pirate Planet’ was Bruce Purchase’s subtle turn as The Pirate Captain. How did you find trying to capture his larger-than-life performance in text?
JG: Exhausting. I had pages of extra Captain dialogue that we found that I ended up not using because there was so much of it and it was all so very loud. It became hard to read what he was saying on the page because it all looked so very SHOUTY SHOUTY SHOUTY SHOUT SHOUT! Which made it hard to find all those quiet little moments when the Captain is trying to tell you, with surprising gentleness, that he may not in fact be the villain.
BW: How did your experience adapting ‘City of Death’ affect how you approached this project?
JG: I was relieved that ‘City of Death’ had gone down so well. It was also a really fun time, and so I was genuinely looking forward to working on The Pirate Planet.
BW: In the ‘City of Death’ novelisation, you expanded on Scarlioni’s character and even invented a backstory for John Cleese’s fleeting cameo. Did you find as many things to expand on in this story?
JG: I really didn’t have to find things – there were so many new scenes and ideas from the first draft and Douglas’s notes that it was a question of trying to fit it all in. There are a few scenes that I had to guess from Douglas’s notes – and ideally people are having so much fun reading it that they stop trying to spot it.
BW: With ‘The Pirate Planet’ coming early in the Key to Time arc, was it difficult to keep that element of the plot without having to explain the entire previous serial?
JG: I’ve sort of explained the story so far, and made sure that – for people who haven’t read the other five books – there’s a decent idea of what is coming, and that the Doctor and Romana’s progress is being nudged along by The Guardian. Also, there’s a chapter on why a quest for the various bits of something is a ludicrous idea. If the segments of the Key to Time had to be done today, it’d probably just be the Black and White Guardians outbidding each other on eBay.
BW: Are there any other classic-era stories you’d like to get your hands on?
JG: Naughtily, I’d love to do ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ because it’s horrible and funny. But I’d also be very partial to doing ‘The Armageddon Factor’ as it’s the final story in the Key To Time, and I’ve gradually become aware of Douglas’s hand in shaping the story.
BW: What is the biggest challenge adapting a TV serial for a novel?
JG: That’s a mean question to ask a Doctor Who fan. I’m lucky to have grown up reading the novels. That magic holiday when I found both ‘The Monster of Peladon’ and ‘The Visitation’ and read both thirteen times and my life changed forever. We’re Doctor Who fans, we instinctively feel we know how to do it. Then you sit down to try and do it, and it turns out to be Hard Work.
The really annoying thing is when you’re working on a scene and you get excited by the next one, which means you should be enjoying what you’re doing and instead you’re all sulky child wanting to skip ahead.
BW: How did writing for Mary Tamm’s version of Romana differ from the last time you wrote the character?
JG: In ‘City Of Death’ Romana is on top of her game. She’s having great fun roaring around eternity. The Pirate Planet is her second adventure – she’s still trying to impress everyone with her A-Level results, can’t help mentioning her tutor, and has trouble getting on with the Doctor. She’s also a wicked leg-puller – there’s a scene early on which involves a chicken.
BW: As a writer, is it a help or a creative hindrance putting together a story that’s already had most of the plot and dialogue set out?
JG: It’s lovely. I’m working on another original book at the moment and it’s chewy. I have to work out why someone walks into a room, what they say to each other, what happens, and why they leave it. It’s exhausting. It’s so much easier when Douglas Adams has done all the work for you.
BW: Who’s your number one pick for the next Doctor? (And you can’t say Richard E. Grant)
JG: I think Mel and Sue on a timeshare basis.