Inside ‘The Pirate Planet’: Interview with James Goss

 “Tonight, Matthew, I’m Douglas Adams!” James Goss on novelising ‘The Pirate Planet’…

“We’ve inherited from all those tales of editors locking him in hotel rooms the idea that Douglas Adams was a slapdash author. ‘The Pirate Planet’ proves that he wasn’t – there is so much thought going into this…”

For an entire generation of young readers, the Doctor Who novelisations published by Target Books were a New Golden Age of Prosperity. At a time when repeats were scarce, and even when BBC began releasing the series on home video titles were released in trickles rather than a deluge, for many fans the Target novels were how young fans experienced Doctor Who first and best – these prose retellings proved the maxim ‘the pen is mightier than the BBC budget’ (I’m paraphrasing, obviously) to the letter, and in many cases where the writers took advantage of the format to expand whole scenes and fill-in backstory only hinted-at onscreen the Target novels were effectively the ‘directors’ cuts’ of their time.

Sadly, by the time the Target novel range drew to a close in the early ‘90s, there were four televised Doctor Who serials that remained outstanding – Eric Saward’s ’80s Dalek stories, and the ’70s stories The Pirate Planet and City of Death by Douglas Adams.

Many years later, BBC Books took steps to amend this Adams-shaped gap in the canon when they commissioned new series writer Gareth Roberts to adapt ‘lost’ story Shada, the 1979 serial that was abandoned midway through recording due to industrial action. By now, the Doctor Who fiction range was enjoying a renewed lease of life, with a fresh injection of talent from established novelists such as Michael Moorcock, Stephen Baxter, Naomi Alderman, Joanna Harris and Jenny Colgan, so it’s fitting that Who’s most famous literary luminary returned, apres vie, to the pantheon, lording it over such esteemed names. Capturing the essence of one of the twentieth century’s most legendary writers is an unenviable task, but Roberts pulled it off spectacularly, and ‘Shada’ was received to unanimous praise.

In 2015, ratings-busting, Parisian, timey-wimey, art-heist romp City of Death was the next Adams script to be bound between handsome hardback covers, this time with James Goss stepping into Douglas’ Size 13 brogues. In tackling Adams’ work, Goss’ credentials are impeccable – he met Adams when adapting ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’ for the stage, and as senior content producer for the BBC’s Doctor Who website, produced a full-cast adaptation of ‘Shada’ in collaboration with Big Finish Productions. Starburst pronounced ‘City of Death’ “a first-class job”.

This month, James Goss returns to bring Douglas Adams’ Doctor Who work to book (ouch) with a full-length novelisation of Douglas Adams’ Doctor Who debut, ‘The Pirate Planet’, the second serial of the 1978 season subtitled ‘The Key To Time’.

We Are Cult spoke to James Goss about returning to Saturday teatime 1978, on the eve of ‘The Pirate Planet’s launch party at the Royal Astronomical Society…

Your novelisation of ‘The Pirate Planet’ has just been published by BBC Books, but this isn’t your first brush with Douglas Adams. Back in the 90s you adapted Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency for the stage; can you tell us a little about that?

It was done as a school play, then my co-writer Arvind (who is now Executive Producer of the ‘Dirk Gently’ TV series) had it restaged at university. There were two productions – one starring Rory Kinnear, and Douglas couldn’t have been MORE supportive. He came along to both productions, and took the cast and crew out to dinner, and was endlessly polite and patient and encouraging. I remember he kindly agreed to give a short talk at the Oxford Union. They put him in the library – which holds about 100 people. We got there, and it was empty, and we all felt HORRIBLE. Imagine – Douglas Adams, Arvind and me, none of us looking each other in the eye in this ghastly, empty room.

Then someone turned up, coughed, and said, “Mr Adams, could you come this way?”

They led us to the debating chamber – so many people had turned up they’d moved it there, and it was PACKED. If you’ve ever wondered about Douglas’s genius, imagine watching a man who was expecting a cosy fireside Q&A with a few dozen graduates suddenly, effortlessly keeping a thousand people entertained for two hours.

He was just so nice. I remember sitting up in the rafters of one production and seeing this great, huge figure, crammed into a tiny seat, his legs stretching into next week, head back, roaring at his own jokes.

He was so encouraging of the play of Dirk – it’s been performed around the world ever since, and last year finally came out in a Samuel French edition. Yes, that’s as nice as it feels.

Whereas Gareth Roberts’ ‘Shada’ is a novelisation of a “lost” serial (despite its various iterations on VHS, audio drama and elements adapted for Adams’ Dirk Gently novels), is it valid to query what a prose adaptation of a serial that’s easily accessible on VHS and DVD can bring to the table?

It’s a very good question. There’s that standard completist Doctor Who fan answer of “There is a gap in my shelf, and it must be filled” but that’s just not good enough – especially as the book is such a different size that it’s going to look odd next to all those Target novels (unless you pop out and get the German edition, which, let me tell you, fits a treat).

Perhaps, it’s a chance to get back a chunk of our childhood we didn’t get. Maybe there’s an argument that there are masses of fans of the new series of Doctor Who who haven’t seen much of the classic series but might read a novel if it’s based on something by Douglas Adams.

I remembered when I was a teenager I practically evangelised Doctor Who – I just wanted other people to love it. And there’s maybe a little of that in there being a book of City of Death or The Pirate Planet. Hoping against hope that people who wouldn’t ordinarily read a Doctor Who book will pick this up and have a good time reading it.

Maybe, above all, it’s the belief that the stories are so good that they’d make cracking novels.

How was ‘City of Death’ received critically? Did you receive favourable feedback?

I WAS SO RELIEVED. I was just getting started on it when it was announced that I’d be doing it, and a fan site ran a piece ranting about why I’d been picked and surely there was someone a bit better to do it. I didn’t even go looking for it – they @ed me in on Twitter, which was jolly kind.

Oddly enough, it was the most helpful thing anyone could have done, as I glanced at it and relaxed immediately. I realised that whatever I did would be wrong, so I could just get on and have fun. Also there was a certain feeling of “I’ll show them”.

The site’s editor recently sent me a friend request. So I guess I did!

Lawks, though, social media’s an odd place.

But yes, in answer to your question, the feedback was just lovely and incredibly relaxing. It’s such an important story for so many Doctor Who fans, and you don’t want to be the person who broke it. It’d place you somewhere on the list with the person who wiped The Daleks Master Plan.

With the BBCi ‘Shada’, ‘City of Death’ and now ‘The Pirate Planet’, you’ve worked closely with the Douglas Adams estate; what have they been like to work with, have they always been encouraging?

They’ve always been supportive. Weird to think I’ve sort of had a relationship with them since the 90s – but yes. With ‘City Of Death’, Douglas’s agent sent me the LOVELIEST emails, saying she’d read it on a beach and enjoyed it thoroughly – which was the perfect thing to say. It wasn’t designed to be a perfect pastiche or an academic work, but an entertaining read.

With your adaptation ‘The Pirate Planet’, you’ve expanded upon the televised script by referring to production documents regarding the ‘Key to Time’ story arc and an early treatment of the story. What was your working method in terms of faithfully adapting the storyline while also incorporating those extra-textual documents?

It involved a lot of sheets of paper. Boringly, I never shifted from the photocopies I got from the archive – I could have scanned and OCR’d them, but there was something “proper” about going to my local pub, ordering breakfast (they do an omelette and unlimited coffee and a lot of wonderfully baffled tourists), and spreading the various versions out across the table and then working out where I was going to go that day.

Spreading it all out physically was often the best way to make sense of it all – spotting which lines went where, or tracing where a dead-end was, or trying to make sense of the many, many many versions of episode four.

Sometimes it was maddeningly slow, as you’d be flitting between drafts, or you’d get caught up watching the television episode again and spotting that Tom Baker does something marvellous that doesn’t fit in with any of the scripts and working out if there was a way to fit it in.

Really, it was just a lovely way to spend each day – but it did have a curious feeling hanging over it of “What would Douglas Adams have made of it all?” Still not sure I can answer that. The idea of someone going through your papers to try and work out what you meant one summer in your twenties?

While you were working from all those other sources, did you gain any fresh or valuable insights into Douglas Adams’ writing methods?

We’ve inherited (from the famous story of the composition of City Of Death and all those tales of editors locking him in hotel rooms) the idea that Douglas Adams was a slapdash author. ‘The Pirate Planet’ proves that he wasn’t – there is so much thought going into this… right down to diagrams and charts and notes from meetings and even doodles made during meetings. Imagine if the BBC hadn’t listened to the Doctor Who team and had just junked the script – what a waste.

Did you come across any interesting insights about the show’s progress at this time; I’m thinking mainly here about Douglas’ notes for the Key to Time arc?

What intrigues me are all the notes about what the Key To Time could be – it almost feels like Adams was invited to a meeting where they said “Well, what do you think it could be?”. I mean, that can’t have happened, can it?

What was the most satisfying aspect of writing ‘The Pirate Planet’?

Thinking – I’m writing a Target novelisation. And it’s one where the TARDIS arrives and the doors open and it’s the Fourth Doctor and Romana and K-9 and they’re speaking Douglas Adams!


❉ ‘Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet’ by Douglas Adams and James Goss is out now from BBC Books, RRP £16.99 and is available from Amazon and other retail outlets. It is also available as an unabridged audiobook, read by Jon Culshaw.

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