Written by: James Goss
Based on a Story by: Douglas Adams
Read by: Dan Starkey
Runtime: 9hrs 44mins
Originally Released January 2018
Avilable from Amazon UK
In terms of Adams’ canon, there’s an inescapable sense of desperately sieving the dirt and rocks at the bottom of the well for any last drops of murky fluid that can reasonably be called ‘water’.
Shada was an epic hole in Doctor Who’s history filled with Gareth Roberts’ meticulous research and skilfully Adamsesque writing. It allowed us a best guess of what Adams might have done with all the time in the world. And The Pirate Planet was one of the last remaining un-novelized 20th century Doctor Who stories. Both were a bit of a holy grail. They offered up the chance to explore all the gags and insights Adams had scribbled into the margins in his typical ‘up to the last minute’ style. The Krikktmen was a story loosely sketched out, then rejected, then worked on some more, and then rejected again.
Its pedigree as a story deemed not worth making first or even second times around immediately makes it that little bit less of a glittering prize. Even in terms of Krikkitmen’s original afterlife as Life, the Universe and Everything (aka most people’s least favourite Hitchhiker’s novel), makes for a less auspicious start. The existence of Life, the Universe and Everything creates a unique problem for Goss in his adaptation too. Shada was a script brimming full of ideas and characters, and Adams cherry picked a couple for recycling in the otherwise original Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. But Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen and the third Hitchhiker’s novel as essentially the same plot, with the same villains, and most of the same gags, only with different characters as our heroes. It makes it less of an exercise is trying to spot the bits Adams would later recycle and more trying to spot the bits he didn’t.
Prior to this adaptor James Goss has shown himself one of the most talented and prolific authors of Doctor Who books and audios, with a keen ear for the style and tone of any piece. Here he tries to address the unique nature of the project by adding on a couple of extra layers to the plot, but not wholly successfully. Adams’ concept was always a villainous, universe shuddering plan that didn’t make any sense. There’s a villainous xenophobic race whose motivation and end goal don’t really make any sense, exposed as a front for motivations and goals that make less sense. In Goss’ version, then exposed as yet another front for even more nonsensical motivations and goals.And as for their methods -- the whole scheme is a basically a two million year plot to press a button, where simply walking up to it and pressing it in the first place would have done as well.
As part of the rearrangement of the furniture there are journeys to more planets than I recall in the original, and new elements of Adamseque parody and these sometimes fall flat or are tonally misplaced. The elongated quest takes the Doctor, Romana and K9, for instance, to a planet where people are addicted to being terminally offended by everything. They complain about rescue ships being agents of ‘the patriarchy’ and the Doctor winds up vilified for telling a woman she’d be prettier if she smiled more. It's an attempt at the type of skewering of social orthodoxy Adams did so well, but lands well wide of the target.
Possibly the greatest misstep is making this an adventure for the Fourth Doctor, Roman and K9 at all, rather than the originally intended Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane. It immediately makes it a less interesting proposition and increases the sense of being the poor relation to the other Adams adaptations. The notion of what an ‘Adamsesque’ Doctor/Romana/K9 adventure looks like has been codified and established across dozens of TV episodes, novels and audios and the writer and the team seem to go together perfectly. But that just makes it seem all the more exciting to explore the road not taken. How would Adams have written Sarah Jane’s character? What roads would the humour have gone down? It’s a shame to miss the chance to find out.
But how does this fare as an audiobook? Narration duties are taken on by Dan Starkey – most famous to TV viewers as Strax and several other Sontaran characters since 2008. There are no Sontarans on offer here, but he still marshals all the forces at his command in an effort that could only be called heroic. Adams’ prose has always featured an odd contradiction whereby it reads like it was designed to be spoken aloud, but when spoken aloud it sounds like it really needs to be seen written down. Goss’ text magnifies that effect even more. Starkey navigates the river of footnotes, parentheses, diversions, and sudden intrusions from text books with the skill of a white-water kayaker throwing himself off 150ft falls for fun.
He also deserves nothing short of a standing ovation for taking a book with literally dozens of characters and making them all distinct, recognizable, and memorable. Many of them appear for only a scene or two or – worse from the narrator and listener’s point of view – are introduced in one scene and then pop up again four or five hours later in the listening experience but must be immediately recognized and remembered. At points he seems to be channelling the entire League of Gentlemen through one set of vocal cords. There are moments you could swear you listening to Reese Shearsmith’s angry old lady arguing with Mark Gatiss’ uncertainly plodding autocrat. Other bits of Starkey’s mental casting are inspired, liked Hactar the evil (in principle) supercomputer sounding like nothing so much as a somewhat bored Welsh shopkeeper.
His Tom Baker is remarkable but takes a little getting used to. In essence, Starkey perfectly captures Baker’s louche, slightly ironic mode of delivery and tone of voice and then sticks with it. If his Fourth Doctor has a flaw is it that it doesn’t swoop around the full range of emotion and unpredictable acting choices Baker revelled in. But if this Doctor sails through the tale being ironically amused at everything, it’s no terrible thing. And with Baker’s voice being so rich and distinctive, being able to replicate it so well in any of its modes is worthy of great praise.
Overall then, Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen is worth checking out more as a historical footnote than as an original work. Strangely enough, more so to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans than to Doctor Who fans. But it is worth checking out, especially in audio form, if only for Dan Starkey’s contribution.