Reviewed: Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen

Here is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say on the subject of James Goss:

Throughout its long and occasionally wobbly history, the world of Doctor Who has been tackled by a large number of writers. Some explore it with wonder, treating everything they touch with great reverence, like an Elvis addict exploring the secrets of Graceland. Others rather dangerously decide to put their own stamp on things, which usually earns the wrath of the fans, who swiftly accuse these good-for-nothing idiots of not treating their property with the diligence and respect it deserves. Still others, seeing how the fans treat the nice people who only want to give people more of what they want, are content merely to poke the franchise with a sharp stick and then run hell for leather in the opposite direction. But one of the most interesting, most enduring, and frequently discussed of all these men and women is producer, writer, and oboe collector, James Goss – archivist, imagineer, and wearer of many hats, at least one of which is beige.

In 2020, Goss

***PREDESTINATION ERROR****
****FILES CORRUPTED****
*****NO FURTHER TEXT AVAILABLE AT THIS TIME*****

There’s an amusing bit in the afterword for Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen that explains how it came to be. “On my first ever visit to the [Douglas Adams] archive,” Goss explains, “[Mandy] Marvin had put the box on one side for me, as a treat, kind of like an academic’s afternoon tea. I opened it, more out of politeness and general enthusiasm than anything else. I expected I knew what was in The Krikketmen folder. I was wrong.

“On the journey home, I got an email from a colleague at BBC Books. ‘How was the archive? Did you find a forgotten Douglas Adams script?’ she joked.

“‘Uh. Yes,’ I replied.”

You can’t keep a good man down, it seems. Not content with adapting both City of Death and The Pirate Planet into two full-length, largely successful novels, Doctor Who producer and writer James Goss has now taken it upon himself to do the same thing with a story that was never actually finished. The tale of The Krikkitmen is as old as the hills, (no, not them thar hills with the gold; the even older ones, the ones near the forest that may be hiding a few Barrow-wights). Adams pitched it to the BBC, one thing led to another – or rather didn’t – and eventually he turned it into the third book in the ever-expanding Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy trilogy. Fast forward to the present and, hot on the heels of his other dabblings with Adams’ work, Goss has taken this treatment and fleshed it out into a 350-page narrative, replete with time travel, logical paradoxes, and a certain robot dog.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a pointless vanity project – but it’s also grossly unfair. Because this is a very funny and very cleverly written book that feels far more like authentic Adams – or, at least, the flavour of Adams, rather than an imitation of his style – than many imitators have been able to manage, including (not to mention any names) Eoin Colfer. Working in Goss’s favour is his decision to replace the generic – and tantalisingly unidentifiable – ‘Jane’ of the original treatment with Lalla Ward’s Romana, even going so far as to write an alternative opening chapter starring Sarah Jane that serves as a canny demonstration of why she would have been a bad fit. Instead, we’re straight into familiar territory, with ontological paradoxes, arguments about the best way to fly the TARDIS, and killer robots armed with lethal cricket bats.

Assuming you’ve read Life, the Universe and Everything you’ll know the setup: the aforementioned robots invade a cricket ground to steal what turns out to be a vital piece of galactic history. We discover that many years ago a formerly peaceful planet surrounded by an impenetrable dust cloud found its horizons infinitely expanded when a spaceship unexpectedly crashed on the surface: having become suddenly aware that the universe was big and vast and teeming with life, the inhabitants’ reaction was one of shock, disbelief, and then blind hatred, and they immediately set about purging all other life from the galaxy. The resulting war concluded with Krikkit’s isolation from the rest of the universe and the imprisonment of the sentient robots that its people had constructed to do their bidding. Which was fine, until the robots got out.

That’s where the story begins, and it’s told in the form of an interactive walkthrough deep in the heart of the Matrix, with Adams-esque PowerPoint slides illuminating the skyline (it is a source of some amusement that Romana manages to change the font). But what begins as a simple quest – think The Key To Time, without all the monsters – swiftly becomes far more complicated, not to mention uproariously funny. The gags fly as thick as treacle and quicker than a right-arm fast at Lord’s; there are too many to pick, but nothing is sacred, with particular contempt held in reserve for bureaucrats and estate agents. There are knowing references to Who stories old and new, and even one or two celebrity cameos, but through it all shines the razor sharp characterisation of the Fourth Doctor and his highly competent sidekick, not to mention a dog that’s too clever by half.

Goss may have got the Doctor / Romana dynamic down pat, but jokes aside this is a very different beast to late 1970s Doctor Who. It feels like a large-scale Hollywood film precisely because that is how Adams originally depicted it. Gone is the small scale, three-location vibe we became accustomed to, with its gloomy command centres and jokes about quarries (actually there is one joke about a quarry, but Goss saves that for the appendix). This is a full-blown odyssey across multiple galaxies, worlds and time periods, unhampered by the financial constraints of the BBC’s production department and fettered only by the limitless budget of the imagination. The TARDIS materialises on a new and exciting planet for the sake of a single chapter, before promptly fading out again. It then reappears thousands of years earlier. This is not a story in which the randomiser picks a particular planet that just happens to be in need of assistance: it is, for the most part, a precisely-defined journey where every stop is deliberate and every location important. (It helps, of course, that Romana is doing the lion’s share of the driving.)

It’s a whirlwind tour of the cosmos, but it does take some getting used to. You sometimes wish the Doctor would stop for a moment and smell the roses. On the other hand, this has none of the vacuous filler that bogged the otherwise enjoyable Shada, or the unnecessary characterisation in City of Death (in which John Cleese’s character is given his own sub-plot). This is partly because Goss is entirely unshackled from the reins: we have nothing to compare it to except Adams’ original novel, which is best done after the fact. While we’re on that subject, it’s advisable not to read The Krikkitmen if you’ve read Life, The Universe and Everything fairly recently, largely because you’ll experience a strong sense of what the French call ‘already seen’.

That’s not to say it isn’t worth reading. It’s just a question of too much too soon: like going to McDonalds for lunch and Burger King in the evening (I’m sure people do that, and I suspect most of them are in Arkansas). The Krikkitmen serves up what is ostensibly the main plot of LTUAE – killer robots from a pathologically xenophobic world – and then drops in the Time Lords to see how they’d handle it differently. The story also sticks very closely to Adams’ original treatment, with one big exception that we won’t reveal here. The 30-page document is reprinted at the end of the book, purely so you can see what Goss has changed. In many cases, he’s borrowed descriptive narrative directly – there’s no point reinventing the wheel – but the result, at least in those first few pages, is a little disconcerting. Am I reading Adams? Goss? Does it matter?

It probably doesn’t: this is, if you like, a parallel universe story, rather like the Big Finish version of Shada. The story dumps the Doctor and Romana into the same cricket pavilion once visited by Arthur and Ford (there is, much later in the book, an amusing sofa reference) and allows them to react accordingly: the same scenario played out with teeth, curls, and scarves instead of a dressing gown. It’s ironic, given that (casting changes aside) what we’re effectively seeing is The Krikkitmen as originally intended – the problem is, it’s now all but impossible to divorce the story from its place within the Hitchhiker’s series, particularly as the cricket themes marry so well with the quintessential embodiment of Englishness that is Arthur Dent. Certainly it explains why LTUAE is more of a story, as opposed to a collection of ideas with a loose narrative: it was originally written as one.

If the whole thing ends with rather less fire than one might anticipate for what is a universe-threatening tale, that’s probably not a bad thing. It feels authentic and comfortable, like an old pair of gloves. There was a real danger that a creation like this – through no fault of its own, and purely because of the years of baggage hanging around it – may become an awkward hybrid that is neither one thing nor another. Instead, it is a Doctor Who tale, but one that happens to feature the same worlds and villains as were featured in one of Adams’ other works. It makes no attempt to combine the two universes, content as it is to simply retell the story with a different set of characters, allowing those characters to drive the narrative. The result is fast-paced, silly, and always a joy to read. It shouldn’t work, but it does: it is a square peg shoved neatly and impossibly into a round hole. A square peg that looks, now that you come to mention it, rather like a TARDIS, shoved into a spherical opening that vaguely resembles a cricket ball.

Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen is available now from all good bookshops, and probably a few of the rubbish ones.