"Shada" S17 / E21-26
- C+ Community Grade
“Shada” (season 17, episodes 21-26. Filmed in 1979; never aired.)
In 1979, Douglas Adams, then script editor for Doctor Who, wrote a story for the show in which the villain disastrously shatters into half a dozen fragments of himself that scatter throughout time. That was “City Of Death,” one of the best serials Doctor Who ever did. Later that year, he wrote another one. This time, the story itself exploded, shattered into half a dozen fragments of itself, and scattered throughout time. That was “Shada,” the great lost story of season 17, a half-filmed serial from Tom Baker’s second-to-last season as the Fourth Doctor. And for a long time, people wondered if it too wouldn’t have been one of the greats. But that was back when it was still lost.
It’s oddly appropriate that the last scene of “Shada” begins with the Doctor reading from Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, because despite the persistent efforts over the years to give it life again, “Shada” remains, in all its various and contradictory manifestations, just an old curiosity. It’s not awful, mind you. It’s not anywhere near the toxicity level of something like “The Twin Dilemma,” in which the stupidity is actually painful to watch. No, this is just a thinly written, overly formulaic story, with some clever ideas and a smattering of good Adamsian jokes and Bakerian Doctoring stretched out over a lot of boring filler. “Shada” would never have engendered so much interest if Douglas Adams’ name hadn’t been attached to it.
Still, even if it’s mediocre, it’s worth a look. If nothing else, “Shada” is interesting as a bit of complex pop-culture archaeology. There are at least seven versions of “Shada” floating around out there, ranging from complete adaptations to fragmentary scraps. There’s the original version partially filmed in 1979 by director Pennant Roberts and scrapped by an electricians’ strike. Later, a short clip from the first episode was used in 1983’s “The Five Doctors” after Tom Baker declined to appear in that anniversary show. In 1987, Adams cannibalized both “Shada” and “City Of Death” for the plot of his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, removing the stories from the Doctor Who universe entirely. In 1992, most of what Roberts had filmed in 1979 was assembled by producer John Nathan-Turner and released on home video, with a particularly eccentric Tom Baker narrating what would have happened in the missing scenes, and a new musical score by Keff McCullough. In 2003, Big Finish Productions adapted “Shada” as an audio drama in a reworked version starring Eighth Doctor Paul McGann in place of Baker. More recently, superfan Ian Levine produced a new, BBC-unauthorized Fourth Doctor version that filled out the 1979 recordings with animated scenes akin to the resurrections of “Planet Of Giants” and “The Invasion,” and with a different actor replacing Tom Baker in the missing scenes. And last year, Adams’ estate authorized a novelization by frequent Doctor Who scriptwriter Gareth Roberts. Each of these is different, none is definitive and most are deeply flawed beyond what they all share thanks to Adams’ original script. But they each have their good points and collectively point toward what the best possible version of the story would have been.
The only one of these I haven’t seen is Levine’s version, so although I suspect it improves on the 1992 reconstruction (it would almost have to), I’ll have to ignore it for our purposes here. Instead, I’ll be looking at the Nathan-Turner version and the Big Finish animation, both of which can be found on the newly released “Shada” DVD set. If you want to just sit down and try to enjoy “Shada” as a complete Doctor Who story, you’ll want either the Big Finish animated version or Roberts’ novel. If you want the maximum amount of Douglas Adams humor, go with Dirk Gently. But to appreciate “Shada” as originally conceived—a lighthearted, slightly screwball adventure in the same mode as “City Of Death” with Baker’s Doctor, his girlfriend Romana and his robot dog K9—then you have to watch what there is of the original footage.
The first problem, though, is that the 1992 edit is so incoherent and hard to follow thanks to Nathan-Turner’s poorly written linking narration that I wound up unable to get through it without a copy of Adams’ original script to refer back to. (Here’s one.) But the basic storyline is this: The Doctor and Romana go to Cambridge (Adams’ alma mater) to visit the Doctor’s old friend Professor Chronotis, a retired Time Lord who has been posing as a Cambridge don for 300 years. Chronotis is old and scatterbrained, but eventually remembers that he called the Doctor to ask him to help a book Chronotis stole from the Time Lords—The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, which is very old and may hold dangerous secrets. Chronotis doesn’t realize he’s accidentally lent the book to Chris, a grad student. And hot on the trail of the book is a monumentally vain alien named Skagra, who is armed with a mind-sucking sphere and lava-formed servants called Krargs. Skagra is also looking for the Time Lords’ secret prison planet, called Shada, and its most infamous prisoner, the criminal Time Lord Salyavin who has the power to place his mind in other peoples’ minds. Skagra wants this power for himself so that he can replace everyone in the universe with copies of himself. He’s vain, you remember.
Baker, as was often the case, is by far the most entertaining thing about his version of “Shada,” even when he goes too wildly over-the-top in his narration. (“SHAAAAADAAAAA!!!!”) It’s safe to say that without his manic googly-eyed presence, the story loses an essential amount of pure fun—hammy and Shatnerian though he can be in his worst moments, you don’t get Baker’s wild comic unpredictability without that risk. He needed, I think, a director who could tell him when to tone it down, and it’s notable that his self-indulgent overemoting only happens in the narrated bits. In fact, the reconstruction makes the original material seem worse than it actually would have been, which is partly due to the perfunctory linking material, which often fails to carry across essential information about any given scene’s basic plot and mood. McCullough’s grating, cheap-sounding score doesn’t help, ruining several jokes by drowning the dialogue in heavy-handed synths.
Having said that, there’s no reason to think the 1979 strike didn’t kill a story that wasn’t already pretty weak. To start with, the script was a hasty, half-hearted concept from the beginning, according to Adams himself. In M.J. Simpson’s Adams biography Hitchhiker, Adams says of this era that “Doctor Who at that point was quite literally driving me mad. I had far more work to do on the scripts than I expected, and it was hurting my radio stuff, which put a lot of pressure on me.” He wasn’t kidding: Adams’ tenure on Doctor Who coincided with him writing the second Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy radio series, the first Hitch-Hikers book, and the pilot script for the Hitch-Hikers TV series. By the end, he was feeling frustrated at both Doctor Who and the BBC for their institutional resistance to change, and burned out by his workload. “Shada” was clearly doomed from the beginning: Adams’ original idea was completely different, involving the Doctor getting sick of fighting evil and deciding to retire, and was rejected by his boss, producer Graham Williams, on the grounds that it was too silly and undermined the series as a whole. But Adams kept pitching it anyway, and three days before a script was due, finally realized Williams wasn’t going to blink. So he came up with “Shada” as “a last-minute panic thing to do. Didn’t particularly like it. I thought it was rather thin—at most a mediocre four parter stretched out over six parts.” He also claimed he only gave his permission for the 1992 reconstruction because of a paperwork mistake.
Still, I think Adams could have made “Shada” work on paper if he’d given himself more time (or at least had better luck with inspiration, considering that he wrote “City Of Death” under similar deadline pressure). What he wound up with was sadly formulaic, just another installation of the much-used “Doctor foils plot of megalomaniacal evil genius” plot that rested on cliches instead of subverting them as Adams did in his best work. And it’s at least two episodes too long, stretched out by chase scenes and other filler that obscures how inconsequential the story really is at its heart. Adam’s “Shada” pitch to Graham Williams had another layer to it revolving around the ethics of capital punishment as seen through the story of Salyavin/Chronotis. But nothing of this made it to screen, and may not even have made it past Adams’ early drafts. And although Chronotis is a terrific character, charmingly daft and incorrigible enough that even the eccentric Doctor lectures him about his recklessness, the other guest stars are awfully thin—neither Chris nor Claire serve any real purpose than to allow the Doctor, Romana, or Chronotis to tell them the plot.
Skagra is something of a cipher too. He seems to be a Think Tank scientist at first, but we learn later that he was not merely part of Think Tank but its founder, and that he didn’t corrupt its mission so much as his mission was actually Think Tank’s real purpose all along. But in that case, who is he? We’re invited to think that he might be Salyavin, but of course that’s not true—Chronotis is Salyavin. But in that case, like I said, who is he? And Adams either forgot to tell us, or forgot that Skagra needed a back story and stuck one into the last few moments of the show (in a detail left unfilmed in 1979 and unnarrated in 1992): Skagra comes from a planet that was ruled by the Time Lords, and apparently grew up to both resent them and want their powers for himself. (Chronotis’ back story as Salyavin is also a cipher, really: We never find out exactly what he was imprisoned for, or whether he was truly guilty. All we know is that his crimes involved the use of his powers of mental domination, and that Chronotis thinks that Salyavin’s crimes were blown out of proportion. But then, Chronotis is biased, isn’t he?)
Adams’ script problems trip up all of the later versions of “Shada” too, but the 1979 version has a few big flaws all its own that Adams’ isn’t to blame for. One, I’m sorry to say, is Lalla Ward as the usually terrific Romana. Here, she leans on all the most cloying and elfin aspects of her character, declaiming her lines as if she’s playing to an audience of elementary-school students. And perhaps Christopher Neame, who played Skagra, was saving his best performances for scenes that went unfilmed—several crucial Skagra moments never got past rehearsals—but based on what did make it to the cameras, he’s one of the least charismatic villains Baker’s Doctor ever faced. Given a character whose overriding personality characteristic is a vanity that literally threatens to balloon up and expand across the universe, he plays Skagra mostly with a blank glower. It’s particularly bad since Skagra’s colossal vanity is the engine that drives the story. And the ironic gulf between the vanity and Skagra’s true personal qualities also drive several of the best jokes in the story, like the fact that he wrecks the effect of his invisible spaceship with a red carpet on the entryway, and the ludicrous silver-pimp-David Bowie outfit he blithely struts around Cambridge in. (Though it’s too bad someone didn’t realize that the Doctor’s insult, “I’m not mad about your tailor,” should have been delivered when he was wearing that outfit and not the Earth street clothes he steals later.)
Between this and the Big Finish animated version, the latter is more consistently entertaining and a general improvement, though in a lower-wattage, more self-serious way. One not-unimportant fix is simply that it follows the original script much more closely, and tells the whole story in its entirety, albeit with an almost entirely new cast that plays things with a much different tone. In this version, Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor steps in to the lead role, with Ward the only returnee as an older Romana (who’s now the leader of the Time Lords, a big step away from where she left the series in “Warriors’ Gate”). The explanation cleverly draws on the clip of “Shada” that was used in “The Five Doctors” to justify the substitution—“Shada” was never finished, in Doctor Who’s internal continuity, because of the time disruption in “Five Doctors,” so McGann has now come to finish things up a little late. Plot-wise, everything rolls out exactly the way it would have in 1979. If the animation is pretty low-budget and crude, it also means that the set design and effects are closer to the intended effect than what Pennant Roberts could have pulled off in live-action. The lava-monster Krargs are much more impressive here, for certain.
Another positive: This is a much nicer way to watch McGann’s Eighth Doctor than the forgettable 1996 TV movie. His presence here helps drive the biggest change from the 1979 version, altering the overall mood to something less tongue-in-cheek and more self-serious. McGann’s Doctor is much milder and less outlandish than Baker’s, for both good and bad. On the positive, McGann gives a much more stable performance, free of Baker’s tendency toward gasbaggery. The story is allowed to unfold without Baker’s ego getting in the way, which was a problem that hit its height in season 17. On the negative side, McGann gives a much more, well, stable performance, not only missing the electric spark of Baker’s devil-may-care approach but deliberately avoiding a comic approach to many of his lines—which were, after all, written by a comedian with the intent that they be funny. For example, take the Doctor’s aside to Chris after they find Skagra’s invisible spaceship: “Watch that cow pat.” When Baker says this, it undercuts the grandness of their discovery and highlights the absurdity of where they really are: In front of an awe-inspiring example of alien high-tech, sure, but also in a cow pasture surrounded by manure. And it’s funny. When McGann says the same line, none of this comes across—it’s just a friendly warning to avoid stepping in it.
The lack of comedy is a mixed blessing; certainly, a lot of the intended comedy in the other version fell flat, and cutting the cameo by the Cambridge men’s glee club deserves some kind of a medal. As does cutting the scene where the Doctor gives Romana some kind of a medal. But what sense does it really make to downplay the humor in a Douglas Adams story, even a weak one? “Shada” is too thin for it not to be treated lightly and comedically. There isn’t enough there otherwise.
• Is it me, or does Daniel Hill, who plays Chris Parsons opposite Tom Baker, look uncannily like Steven Moffatt?
• The “Shada” DVD set—three discs!—includes a plethora of extras including the documentary “More Than 30 Years In The TARDIS.” I just wish it also included Adams’ full “Shada” script.
• And some news: I’m taking a temporary break from covering Doctor Who, returning later this spring. I will miss it and am planning on returning as soon as possible, but this is good news—it’s freelancer’s paternity leave. I’m going to be a dad. Twice over, in fact. By next week, two little girls and their recovering mother will be demanding most of my attention for a couple of months. Here’s hoping that the experience is more like “An Unearthly Child” than “The Twin Dilemma.” In my place in the 10 a.m. Sunday slot until my return will be Alasdair Wilkins writing about Farscape.
• A reader asked me on Twitter last week how to navigate through my previous Doctor Who reviews, which is a little more tricky than other TV Club coverage since we’re not traveling in strict chronological order. So in case anyone else would find it helpful: The easiest way to find a specific story is to go to the main Doctor Who Classic page here and scroll down to the dropdown menu that says “season.” To read in the order I wrote them, start on season 1’s “An Unearthly Child.” At the bottom of that review but before the comments, there's a link to the next one I wrote, “Tomb Of The Cybermen,” and so on.
• Upcoming schedule: When I come back, we’ll start off with the story that kicked the Fourth Doctor era off in earnest, “The Ark In Space,” and then the recently restored First Doctor historical “The Reign Of Terror.” After that it’s probably long past time to tackle something from each of the two seasons I haven’t written about so far—season four, Patrick Troughton’s first year as the Second Doctor, and season 23, Colin Baker’s last year as the Sixth, the infamous “Trial Of A Time Lord” arc. Each one is problematic; most of the Troughton stuff is missing or incomplete and so will need the same kind of archaeological approach that I just did on “Shada,” and “Trial” has a well-earned reputation as the absolute low point of Doctor Who as a TV series. Sounds like fun! I look forward to you all joining me then.