Doctor Who: Shada

"Did you just see what I didn't see?"

The greatest Doctor Who story never made? Let's delve in and find out.

I'll start off with a little history lesson for those unfamiliar with the turbulent saga that is 'Shada'. Written by Douglas Adams as the final story of season 17, 'Shada' was meant to be his farewell to the series. He and producer Graham Williams had both decided to call it a day and wanted to go out in grand style. Originally, Adams had a very different story in mind which involved the Doctor retiring from adventuring. Williams was against the idea and told Adams to come up with something else, but Adams stood his ground, hoping that time constraints would force Williams to relent. They didn't and he was forced to quickly knock out 'Shada' instead.

'Shada' went before the cameras in October of 1979, but after location filming in Cambridge (Adams' hometown) and the first of three planned studio sessions were completed, the production shut down when the BBC was hit by strike action. By the time the strike came to an end studio space was being prioritised for Christmas programming leaving the story in limbo. Adams and Williams left the series with the serial still unfinished and despite attempts by incoming producer John Nathan-Turner to complete the story, all work on 'Shada' was eventually abandoned.

Since then 'Shada' has gone through almost as many different iterations as Adams' most famous work, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Nathan-Turner staged a reconstruction in 1992 with Tom Baker providing linking material to cover the missing scenes. In 2003, Big Finish Productions produced a audio remake of the story with Paul McGann stepping into the role of the Doctor when Baker refused to return. And in 2012, Gareth Roberts wrote a novelisation of the story based on Adam's shooting script.

He'd reached the Red Wedding. 
Now the BBC have produced a new reconstruction of the story using animation to fill in the missing scenes and with voice work from the original cast, including the normally hesitant Tom Baker. This new version of 'Shada' is the closest we are ever likely to get to a complete visual version of the story. So now we can finally try and answer the question that has plagued fans for generations: is 'Shada' actually any good?

Mmmm, probably not.

My main worry going into this story was that it would be a very disorientating viewing experience. The BBC has used animation before to replace lost episodes, but this is an entirely different experience since no episode of 'Shada' was ever completed. As a result, this is a story that is constantly flipping back between live action and animation. But as it turns out, the reconstruction is actually one of the strongest parts of 'Shada'. After a few scenes I quickly got used to the story's back and forth nature, and the animation, while hardly Oscar worthy, compliments the live action scenes quite well. I was also surprised by how none of the actors, save for Tom Baker, sound any different than they did nearly 40 years ago. Baker also appears in a short lived action scene at the very end which proves that he can still play the Doctor now, even at the age of 83.

But while the reconstruction of 'Shada' is pretty much top notch, the story it's reconstructing leaves a lot to be desired. As I already mentioned Adams wrote the whole thing in a rush and, oh boy, does it show. Even he thought it wasn't that good and all but disowned it. The plot is so thin it's anorexic while the whole thing moves along with the speed and energy of a procrastinating sloth who has just sprained his ankle. Adams' trademark wit is present and correct so 'Shada' is funnier than most Doctor Who stories, but maybe not quite as funny as it likes to think it is. Some jokes don't land as well as others and many go on for longer than they really should.

It's difficult to judge the production since so little of it was completed, but what we do see doesn't look all that encouraging. Everything looks so very, very cheap, especially Skagra's molten minions, the Krargs, one of the many embarrassing monsters this era produced. The stuff shot in Cambridge looks terrific, though, and makes you wish more Doctor Who stories were shot in the more scenic parts of the country. There's really only so much you can do in Cardiff.

The Doctor and Romana are in top form (Adams really knew how to write these two, even in subpar stories like this). I was disappointed that Romana was once again taken prisoner by the bad guy, although I do love how she always reacts to it with mild irritation, like this is just some minor inconvenience she has to put up with. Unfortunately, the story's other characters are as thinly sketched out as the plot. Denis Carey's dithering old man act quickly grows tiresome after about two or three scenes. Daniel Hill is an acceptable, if bland, substitute companion as Chris 'Bristol' Parsons, who is really there just to act as a straight man for Tom Baker. Still, at least he gets to see the sights, which is more than can be said for Victoria Burgoyne's Clare, who is stuck doing nothing in Chronotis' rooms for the bulk of the story.

'Shada' also suffers from having a rather lightweight villain in Christopher Neame's Skagra. Even by Doctor Who's occasionally low standards, Skagra is a very one note adversary, lacking anything that resembles clear motivation. Everyone is constantly wondering who he is, where he's from and why he is doing this, but no answers are ever given, except handily at the very end. Neame also isn't really given much to do with the role besides sneer, which he does ever so well. But what Skagra may lack in character and motivation he more than makes up for in style. No Doctor Who villain before or since has been as fabulously dressed as this bitch.

Notes and Quotes

--Clips from this story were used in 'The Five Doctors' when Tom Baker refused to reprise his role as the Fourth Doctor.

--Adams reused elements of this story for Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

--The St John's Choristers got their cameo during the chase scene after their secretary ran into Tom Baker and the director at a local pub.

--Ian Levine, self proclaimed super fan and all round knob, funded his own unofficial project to complete the story using animation in 2010. He even manged to get many of the original actors to take part, with the exception of Tom Baker. Levine has been more than vocal about his anger that the BBC didn't use his version.

--Steven Moffat was obviously so enamoured with the idea of a Time Lord teaching at the same university for hundreds of years and no one noticing that he reused it for the Twelfth Doctor in season 10.

--Why is that carpet there?

--One of the cars during the animated scenes has the licence plate J WHIT 13.

The Doctor: "When I was on the river I heard the strange babble of inhuman voices, didn't you, Romana?"
Professor Chronotis: "Oh, probably undergraduates talking to each other, I expect. I'm trying to have it banned."

Skagra: "'Take over the Universe'. How childish. Who could possibly want to take over the Universe?"
The Doctor: "Exactly! That's what I keep on trying to tell people. It's a troublesome place, difficult to administer, and as a piece of real estate it's worthless because by definition there'd be no one to sell it to."

Professor Chronotis: "A? A? No, it doesn't begin with 'A' B? B, B... "
Doctor and Romana: "C?"

Romana: "I told you you got the time wrong."
The Doctor: "You're always saying that!"
Romana: "And you're always getting the time wrong."

The Doctor: "Well, Mr. Skagra, or whatever it is you call yourself, you killed a Time Lord, a very old friend of mine. It's time you and I had a little chat!"

Skagra: "Shada."
Romana: "It looks horrid."

Two and a half out of four lumps of whatever it is Professor Chronotis puts in his tea.
Mark Greig is just a poor boy, he need no sympathy, because he's easy come, easy go, little high, little low  More Mark Greig

1 comment:

Tim said...

Nice review, Mark.

I agree Shada was always overrated. If not for it's weird origin story it would have long been confined to the annals of mediocre DW adventures.

The ideas reused for Dirk Gently work much better in that story too, I think.