Douglas Adams, the lauded author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, spent a year as Script-Editor of Doctor Who during Tom Baker’s peerless reign as the Time Lord. Together they changed the programme, Adams penning The Pirate Planet, the iconic City of Death and the “lost” six part serial Shada, adding elements of humour, surrealism and absurdity into the narrative that exist to this day.
Here, Douglas Adams gives some of his own thoughts and anecdotes on his time with the show.
On getting the job:
“I sent in my (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) pilot episode to the then script editor of Doctor Who, Robert Holmes, who said ‘Yes, yes, we like this. Come round and see us’. So we discussed ideas for a bit, and I eventually got commissioned to write four Doctor Who episodes.”
On The Pirate Planet:
“So once it looked like I had a finished script I thought, where else can I generate some work? I sent the Hitchhiker’s script to the then Doctor Who script editor, Bob Holmes, who thought it was interesting and said, `Come in and see me’. This was just as Bob, who’d been script editor there for a long time, was on the verge of leaving and handing over to Tony Reed. So I met the two of them and Graham Williams, the producer, and talked about ideas. The one I came up with that they thought was promising was The Pirate Planet, so I went away and did a bit of work on it, and they thought it was promising but there was something wrong. So I did more reworking and took it back, and they still thought it was promising but needed more work, and this was going on for weeks”
“The original concept of The Pirate Planet was just the basic concept of a hollow planet. Graham was interested in space pirates, so we just married the two ideas together. The original storyline was of a planet being mind by the Time Lords. The inhabitants of the planet were a rowdy lot and the Time Lords had erected a giant statue, the inside of which was in fact a giant machine for absorbing all the aggression from the people. When they had all the ore that they needed, they sent a Time Lord to disconnect the machine, but he got trapped in the works and absorbed all the aggression. None of the other Time Lords had bothered to find out where he had got to, so he decided to take revenge on them by letting the mining equipment completely hollow out the planet, then making it jump to surround Gallifrey.”
On becoming Script-Editor during Season 17:
“When I became script editor for season seventeen, I was told ‘We want you, Douglas, because of the specific things you’ll be able to bring to the programme’, which I was systematically not allowed to do. This season of Doctor Who will look just like any other season, and I feel very disappointed about that. It’s too big a thing for any one person to change – it’s like a big raft in the middle of a lake, and you’re trying to move it by swimming.”
“I discovered that other writers assumed that getting the storyline together was the script editor’s job. So all that year I was continually working out storylines with writers, helping others with scripts, doing substantial rewrites on other scripts and putting yet other scripts into production. All simultaneously. It was a nightmare year – for the four months that I was in control it was terrific: having all these storylines in your head simultaneously. But as soon as you stop actually coping, then it becomes a nightmare. At that time, I was writing the book, script-editing the next series of Doctor Who, there were the stage productions of Hitchhiker’s going on and the records were being made. I was writing the second series of Hitchhiker’s and I was very close to blowing a fuse at the time. I was also doing some radio production with John Lloyd. The work overload was absolutely phenomenal.”
On City of Death:
“An interesting thing actually happened during the making of City of Death, because although I’d written it to be in Paris I was the only member of the team who didn’t get to go to Paris! So I was rather upset about this, I was sitting in my office at the BBC feeling a little miffed, because everyone else was gallivanting off in Paris and I was by myself, and this wild Scottish ex-hippie came into the office and said ‘Where is everybody?’, and I said ‘They’re in Paris’, he said ‘Well I need to talk to the producer’, I said ‘Why’s that?’, he said ‘I’m directing the next show, the Dalek story, and there are some problems I want to talk about’. This was Ken Grieve, who is one of the world’s most stupendous and marvellous piss artists, and I said ‘Well you can’t talk to them, they’re in Paris’, he said ‘And you’re here all by yourself?’, I said rather bitterly ‘Yes’, he said ‘Why don’t we go to Paris?’, I said ‘Don’t be stupid’….”
“So we got our passports, went down to the airport, jumped on a plane, got into Paris, arrived at the hotel we knew they were staying in. They were all looking tired after a long day’s shooting, other than Tom, and we said ‘Hey, bet you’re pleased to see us’, of course they weren’t. We said ‘Let’s go out and have fun’, but they’d had a long day, they said ‘You go out and have fun’. At that point, Ken and I sort of looked at each other, and gradually the realisation dawned on us that if we’d really planned this trip at all, well (a) we wouldn’t have made it, and (b) we’d have brought someone prettier than the other one…”
“But we thought we’d better make the best of a bad job, and went off into the night, found a nice restaurant, had a nice meal, drank quite a lot of wine, went to a bar and stayed there drinking until the bar closed. We found another bar, stayed until that one closed, then we went to another bar, sat there and drank for a while until it closed and they threw us out. So now it was pretty late at night, we were in the Montmartre district and we couldn’t find another bar that was open at this point, so Ken said ‘Look, I do know for sure one bar that’s definitely open, do you want to go?’, I said ‘Yes, where is it?’, he said ‘West Berlin’. We phone the airport, unfortunately there were no imminent flight to West Berlin. Eventually we discovered another bar that was open, and we get going until about 5am, when it became apparent to me that Ken was quite drunk at this point, because whenever I managed to find him, which was quite tricky because he was about three feet away, he was doing things and saying things that I couldn’t understand…”
“We called a cab, arrived at the airport, I got out of the cab, Ken fell out, cut his face open rather badly, by the eye, and we had to take him to the doctor at the airport, who stitched him up. We got him on the airplane, and British Caledonian were wonderfully sympathetic. We arrived back at Television Centre at 9am, feeling a little worse the wear, and Ken was further gone than anyone I’ve ever seen before, and he discovered he had to go to the basement and watch six episodes of Genesis of the Daleks, which he wasn’t quite certain if he could face but he went off to do it bravely. I spent the morning in the office, I didn’t go home, and I went to the bar at lunchtime and I knew somebody would be there and somebody said ‘How are you, do anything interesting last night?’, and I said ‘Oh, it was one of those nights, 4am you start wondering how you’re going to get back to England’”
“Once you get beyond a certain point it becomes more expensive to remount the thing than it is to do the whole production again from the word go. That’s because when you are casting, you’re doing it from who’s available – when you remount, you have to cast the people you’ve already got, and this becomes terribly difficult.”
“As for Shada – no, I don’t particularly want to see that [novelised]. I think that it’s not such a great story, and has only gained the notoriety it has got because no one’s seen it. If it had been finished and broadcast, it would have never have aroused so much interest.”
On His legacy and Critics of the Era:
“In the things I wrote for Doctor Who, there were absurd things that happened in it, and funny things. But I feel that Doctor Who is essentially a drama show, and only secondarily amusing. My aim was to create apparently bizarre situations and then pursue the logic so much that it became real. So on the one hand, someone behaves in an interesting, and apparently outrageous way, and you think at first that it’s funny. Then you realise that they mean it, and that, at least to my mind, begins to make it more gripping and terrifying.
“The trouble is that as soon as you produce scripts with some humour in them, there is a temptation on the part of the people making the show to say, `This is a funny bit. Let’s pull out the stops, have fun, and be silly.’ One always knows as soon as someone says that that they are going to spoil it. So those episodes of Doctor Who weren’t best served by that way of doing the shows. I can understand people saying, `They weren’t taking it seriously’, but in writing it I was taking it terribly seriously. It’s just that the way you make something work is to do it for real. . . I hate the expression `tongue-in cheek’; that means `It’s not really funny, but we aren’t going to do it properly’.”