Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

1. Terry Jones (1997) Douglas Adams' Starship Titanic

I've always meant to read this. I've read, listened to or watched everything else Douglas Adams ever produced after all, and this was the last remaining item of his which I hadn't experienced. Except that obviously, it isn't actually by him, so the urge was never quite strong enough to make me actually hunt it down. But then when I saw it for £1 on a book-stall at the excellent Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space conference in the summer, it seemed silly to pass it up.

I'm not going to be terribly complimentary about it, unfortunately, and for that reason if nothing else it's probably best to say a bit about its authorship before I start criticising. Basically, it is the novelisation of a computer game, Starship Titanic, which Douglas Adams produced in the late '90s. Adams originally intended to write the novel as well as the game himself, but as deadlines loomed and he decided that his primary interest was the game, he passed the work of producing the novel on to Terry Jones. So Jones was working with a basic scenario set out by Adams, and presumably some briefing notes about the characters and what ought to happen to them - but the details were down to him. I've never played the game, because I didn't have a computer capable of running it when it came out, so I can't judge how close the relationship between the game and the novel is, and therefore which aspects of the novel might have come primarily from Adams, and which from Jones. So I'll mainly just refer to the author as Adams / Jones, except when I'm explicitly commenting on which of them might have contributed particular ideas.

I thought the book was going to be crashingly sexist for the first 60 pages or so. These are set on Blerontin, the planet from which the Starship Titanic is launched, so the setting is utterly alien, and Adams / Jones could have imagined it any way they wanted. As it happens, the Blerontinians are essentially humanoid (except that they have orange eyes), which is fine and still doesn't make it necessary to import all of humanity's failings into the novel. And yet, nonetheless, their society is gendered in exactly the same way as ours, and while all the people with status and agency (the Blerontinian equivalent of a President, a Journalist, the ship's designer) are male, women appear only on p. 21, where we meet "a young cub reporter with a cleavage" who is there solely to act as an object for the ship-designer's lust, and on p. 29, where we learn that part of the reason why the Starship Titanic is in fact a floating disaster rather than a great triumph is that it was built by the Amalgamated Unmarried Teenage Mothers' Construction Units. By which time I was gasping in horror and wondering whether this could be any worse if Adams / Jones had deliberately set out to parody the sexism embedded in SF by writing an over-the-top exaggerated version of it.

Thankfully, on page 62, the setting shifts to Earth, and we meet four humans, two of whom are women, and the beyond-parody sexism drops away with the introduction of the more veristic characters. There is still some weirdness, though, like a great deal of comment on how one character called Nettie is incredibly hot and wears midriff-revealing T-shirts and so on, which doesn't do anything at all to advance the plot or her characterisation. In fact, character-wise, Nettie is extremely strong, resourceful and quick-thinking, so maybe all the "and she's really hot too!" stuff is about creating a wish-fulfilment super-babe character? Also, there is a very bizarre love-triangle thing between the other female character, Lucy, the Blerontinian Journalist, and Lucy's previous boyfriend, Dan, which basically involves Lucy and the Journalist suddenly and unexplainedly jumping each others' bones in a way that has no emotional plausibility whatsoever, or (again) any plot relevance either. In all honesty, it just comes across as the writing of someone who doesn't really understand a) women or b) relationships between men and women in any terms other than stereotypes and sniggers. I know Adams was never that good at writing women himself (cf. Trillian), but I feel like this bears more resemblance to Jones' Pythonesque world of women as sexy secretaries or mad housewives. Either way, though, it was weird and annoying.

The actual novel, plot, ideas etc are basically OK for a light read, but nothing particularly exciting or inspiring. There is one reason, though, why a Doctor Who fan in particular might wish to read it, and that is for its distinct resemblance to the Kylie Christmas Special, Voyage of the Damned. It isn't simply that they are both retellings of the real-world Titanic story. In both, the ship's owners are attempting to perpetrate a massive insurance scheme fraud, and have deliberately sent the ship out with the express intention that it should crash. The details aren't quite identical, because in Voyage of the Damned the owner (Max Capricorn) is actually on the ship himself, hidden in a protective chamber, with the aim of surviving the crash and bankrupting his former company in the process, whereas in Starship Titanic it is simply a case of the company owner and his chief accountant realising that the project will ruin them, and deciding to cut construction costs, scuttle the ship and claim the insurance instead. But a lot of the individual elements are the same - obstructive robots, loss of oxygen, a difficult journey though a damaged ship, people falling into a central engine shaft, and the fact that the planet which the ship either nearly or really crashes onto is Earth.

Presumably, this is very much the sort of stuff which also features in the game, and thus comes originally from Douglas Adams. So it's rather nice to know that long after The Pirate Planet, City of Death and Shada, Adams was still shaping Doctor Who stories from beyond the grave (and indeed not for the last time, either). As for the game itself, I would still like to have a go at it one day (if it's even still compatible with today's computers), but have a rather long list of things which are a higher priority than it, and also suspect that I've gathered much of its contents from the book. If anyone has ever played it, do let me know if it's worth tracking down.

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Tags: books, books read 2013, doctor who, douglas adams, reviews, ten

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