“Scream Of The Shalka” (Unfinished 2003 season, episodes 1-6. Originally broadcast Nov. 13-Dec. 18, 2003.)
One of the biggest surprises Doctor Who dropped on its fans in 2013 was the shocking revelation that the Ninth Doctor wasn’t the ninth—that an unnumbered regeneration of the Time Lord, existing between Paul McGann’s Eighth and Christopher Ecclestone’s Ninth, had been the one who had actually fought in the Time War that had left Gallifrey destroyed. What we’re looking at in “Scream Of The Shalka” is a little bit like that situation. Instead of a ninth version whose existence the Doctor had chosen to forget about from shame, “Shalka” features a Ninth Doctor whose existence was rendered irrelevant by the enormous success of a different version of the show, and now is basically a historical curiosity.
What a difference 10 years makes. For its 50th anniversary, Doctor Who gave us “The Day Of The Doctor,” a big-budget story that played worldwide not only on TV but in honest-to-Rassilon movie theaters. It answered some longstanding mysteries and celebrated the show’s long history—and particularly of the massive success of the relaunched TV series that debuted in 2005, turning an obscure, largely forgotten cult sci-fi show beloved by a small band of nostalgics and anoraks into a popular mainstream hit.
For its 40th anniversary, Doctor Who gave us “Scream Of The Shalka,” starring Richard E. Grant. An animated serial posted to the Internet over six weeks in 15-minute installments, “Shalka” was intended to rescue Doctor Who from the obscurity of 15 years off the air and officially relaunch it as an online series—a far cry from TV, but the best that seemed possible at the time. Compared to the the 2005 revival, its aim was much more modest: to bring the show back up to the level of an obscure, largely forgotten cult sci-fi show beloved by a small band of nostalgics and anoraks.
A little context: Doctor Who never completely disappeared after being cancelled in 1989. It survived in various forms and different media: Two different series of novels, the Big Finish audio dramas that are still around today, and a couple of doomed attempts to get back on television, most famously the half-American 1996 TV movie that brought in McGann as the Eight Doctor. The novels and audio dramas, whatever their merits, weren’t considered an official continuation of the 1963-1989 series—that card was being held by the BBC’s Worldwide division, which wanted to get a Doctor Who film in production. But while that was languishing in development, the Beeb’s online division was given the go-ahead to create a new, officially endorsed continuation of the show, I suppose partly because it wasn’t considered high-profile enough to get in a movie’s way. The writer here is Paul Cornell, who knew the territory well, having already penned several novels for the 1990s Doctor Who New Adventures series. (He’s best known now for some of the most acclaimed scripts of the current TV series, “Father’s Day” and the two-parter “Human Nature”/”The Family Of Blood,” both nominated for Hugo Awards.) “Shalka” was supposed to kick off a continuing series of webcast animations following the adventures of Grant’s Ninth Doctor.
What happened instead was something like a lone folksinger getting to a gig only to find that a 30-piece brass band had already set up onstage: Russell T. Davies’ pitch to create a live-action Doctor Who was greenlighted, killing this animated version in the cradle. The rest of the webcast stories were scrapped, and the only one actually produced was “Scream Of The Shalka.”
So part of the reason “Shalka” is less than fully satisfying is that it’s just the opening chapter of an unfinished longer story. The story’s most intriguing mysteries are all meant to be solved in future episodes, so they’re only teased at and not resolved. Clues are dropped about something that went horribly wrong in the Doctor’s recent past during which one of his companions was killed. He’s also being sent on his travels under some unknown agency’s direction, which rankles him. And strangest of all, he’s traveling with a robot version of the Master who can’t leave the TARDIS and now claims to be his “dearest companion.” The Doctor is also an unknown factor, to himself as well as the audience—possibly newly regenerated, he’s clearly traumatized by whatever happened to him. He’s nervous and unconfident, hostile to the idea of inviting someone new onto the TARDIS, and not entirely sure what he stands for anymore.
The main plot, though, is standard Doctor Who fare that shows Cornell hasn’t forgotten what the Doctor does: He foils an alien invasion of Earth with the help of the military and a few civilian friends. It’s reminiscent of something that might have starred Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, in fact, starting with a very 1971-style credits sequence. The TARDIS lands in an English village called Lannet where things are quiet—too quiet. The townsfolk are terrified of noise, and won’t talk about why. The Doctor meets a bartender named Alison who dreams of getting away from her boring life, and she gets her chance when the Doctor figures out what they’re afraid of are underground monsters whose sonic cries can melt rock and turn humans into their helpless slaves.
Scrapping the “Shalka” series in favor of an actual TV show surely seemed like a no-brainer decision at the time. And history has only vindicated it further. Almost all the things that “Scream Of The Shalka” does right in re-establishing Doctor Who are things that Russell T. Davies would do better in his first season as showrunner. But in any case, it’s interesting to see how the two projects are similar, particularly in the way each has a mysterious recent disaster haunting the Doctor and forming a buffer between the Classic era and the new stories, and the way both place such emphasis on the emotional connection between the Doctor and his companion. And both skip over the stumbling block that tripped up the TV movie by starting out with an unknown, new Doctor, and not getting caught up in tangles of past continuity by showing how the Eighth Doctor regenerated into this version. So the “Shalka” webcast and the TV series shared many of the same challenges in reintroducing Doctor Who, and reimagining it for modern expectations. The key difference between them, I think, is who they thought they were reintroducing it to.
Davies' TV series was written to bring in new audiences that didn’t necessarily know anything about Doctor Who, and so the first episode, “Rose,” spent a lot of effort in laying out the basic elements of the show for newbies—time travel, the TARDIS, the eccentric Doctor, all that. But “Shalka” was written with the same mindset as the novels and the audio dramas Cornell had experience with: As a cult series which would appeal largely—and probably only—to people who were already heavily invested Doctor Who fans. And so the mysteries it sets up are all things that would only matter to someone who already knew the parties involved. Not “who is the Doctor,” but “what happened to the Doctor?” Cornell’s approach was to assume that everyone watching already knew what Doctor Who was all about. That may be why it often feels like Doctor Who fan fiction instead of the real thing.
It’s not helped by a serious problem at the heart of the whole thing: Richard E. Grant, who admitted at the time that he wasn’t all that interested in science fiction and knew nothing about Doctor Who going in. So the non-newbie-friendly approach found its first casualty in the lead actor. Grant entered proper Doctor Who canon in 2013 as the new face of the Great Intelligence, but I don’t think he knew what to make of the Doctor in 2003, and didn’t particularly want to be there. He gives a performance that is so perfunctory you can almost see him cashing his paycheck and washing his hands of the whole thing. Grant plays every line either as a straightforward declaration, or, if he’s talking to soldiers, with overt hostility. And if you don’t have your Doctor on board with your Doctor Who, then you’re in serious trouble.
I do sympathize with Grant’s difficulty in knowing what to make of the character, though, because really, who is the Doctor anyway? There have been so many of him. But it wasn’t just the Doctor’s tangled history that stumped Grant, I think—the specific character that Cornell created for the Ninth Doctor is flighty and self-contradictory, constantly shifting his moods and sometimes turning oddly whimsical right in the middle of an otherwise furious rant about serious moral issues. The character is written as a rambling, foolish-seeming oddball with flashes of high moral dudgeon. The list of people who can pull that off and make it look effortless starts with Tom Baker and gets very narrow from there. And I doubt even Baker could have made this line work: “I seem to attract the military. They’re either arresting me, making strong sweet tea, or killing my friends.” The tonal shift there makes my eyes hurt.
Cornell takes a risky approach to this Doctor’s characterization, drawing on some of the worst qualities of previous incarnations to sketch out his personality. This Doctor has the Third’s hypocritical disdain for the military, loudly declaring his moral objections to violence except, of course, when he needs help from soldiers or when he commits the acts of violence himself. And he’s got the Sixth Doctor’s abrasive arrogance as a cover for a massive inferiority complex and, to some extent, actual incompetence. (Blowing up Alison’s house was remarkably ineffectual, after all.) Of course he was surely not meant to be permanently so abrasive; the Doctor we meet here starts out broken precisely so that we can see how he heals himself later on in future, never-produced episodes. Certainly he rediscovers some of his courage and humility in “Scream Of The Shalka” itself. But again I sympathize with Grant: How would anyone approach such a weird mess of a character? Grant’s flat performance eliminates the potential for humor in a lot of his lines, but it’s not clear that they would have been all that funny anyway. There are any number of great moments, witty lines, and intriguing ideas in Cornell’s script. But they’re just moments, little pieces of things that work amid a lot that doesn’t, like raisins baked into otherwise-stale bread.
I can only imagine the look of disdain on Grant’s face when he first looked at the script and realized he would be blowing up some giant space slugs by singing lines from “Cabaret” at them. I imagine him setting the script down, staring into space for a moment, thinking about the time he nailed Hamlet’s “quintessence of dust” soliloquoy at the end of the cult-classic Withnail & I. I imagine him looking back down at his Doctor Who script and giving a slight shudder.
Speaking of Withnail & I: Perhaps ironically, Paul McGann was cast as the TV movie’s Eighth Doctor partly because he was the other lead in Withnail & I, which I’ve always thought was a little strange considering he plays the less eccentric and Doctoresque of the two title characters. (Not that it was a bad choice; McGann is perhaps the only good thing in the TV movie, and he certainly thrived in the Eighth Doctor audios.) “Scream Of The Shalka” brings in Withnail as the Doctor instead, which at least in concept is a much more solid idea. Withnail, brought to life superbly by Grant, is a dissolute, defiantly eccentric actor whose flip exterior masks a well of genuine sorrow, and who’s brilliant at his calling but utterly unable to fit in with the world around him. He’s a comic creation on par with Basil Fawlty, with whom he shares a sneering disdain for other’s foibles matched only by his own deep-set personality problems. A Doctor similar to Withnail could work really well, both as a frighteningly intense dramatic anti-hero and a fun satiric takedown of the same. I think that’s what they were hoping for when they cast Grant. I hope there will be something of that in Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor when he takes over during the Christmas special.
To end this on a more positive note, here’s a couple of things in “Scream Of The Shalka” that worked really well: First, the Shalka’s creepy ability to create an army of unwilling human slaves by taking over their bodies but leaving their minds free leads to the story’s most effective sequence, in which a mob goes on a rampage of killing and destruction while shouting desperately for someone to stop them. (The guard with the Scottish accent who gets in their way? That’s future Tenth Doctor David Tennant, then an unknown actor and fan of the show, who talked his way into a small role.)
And, of course, the single best part of the proceedings here is Derek Jacobi as the Master. Whatever the Doctor did to the Master during the unexplained past disaster, it’s left him reduced to the status of an android, his evil tendencies countermanded by programming, and unable to leave the confines of the TARDIS—becoming Alfred to the Doctor’s Batman instead of his Joker. Perhaps as a consequence of this, he’s embraced the friendly side of his love/hate relationship with the Doctor in a way that suggests there might be even deeper feelings there, at least on the Master’s side. Jacobi is easily the best part of this whole thing. It’s not a very big role, but he steals every scene. (You can say the same about the other time he got to play the character, against the Tenth Doctor in “Utopia.”) Besides Jim Norton as the Brigadier stand-in Major Kennett, he’s the only one in the cast who knows how to deliver Cornell’s jokes, and at the same time he also provides the only real moments of more serious emotion as well, confiding the Doctor’s secret pain to Alison because he knows the Doctor can’t. It’s a small but crucial scene, and far more compelling than the interminable question of whether the dull Alison will leave her even duller boyfriend to travel with the Doctor. Here’s a proposal: Can we get John Hurt and Derek Jacobi back for a proper Doctor vs. Master standoff?
• Great lines: Kennett dryly sticks a shiv in the Doctor’s arrogance: “We put the civilian death toll at 637. Our job is put ourselves in the way of that. While you get to be superior and eccentric.”
• “Scream Of The Shalka” was released on DVD in September with a wealth of extra features, but if you’re into the whole vanilla thing you can also still watch the original webcast at http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/classic/webcasts/shalka/.
• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central):
• Jan. 11: The First Doctor meets the Cybermen—and becomes the Second Doctor—in “The Tenth Planet.”
• Jan. 25: The Fourth Doctor and Leela finds something nasty in a lighthouse in season 15’s “The Horror Of Fang Rock.”
• Future reviews: I’m leaning towards alternating the four serials of season 23’s “Trial Of A Time Lord” with other material from other seasons. “Trial” is probably best approached as a single story, but four Sixth Doctor stories in a row is quite a bit. In any case, that will start with “The Mysterious Planet.” And later, when it’s out on DVD, the upcoming restoration of Patrick Troughton's "The Moonbase."