Friday, 25 October 2013

Doctor Who: Shada, reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Doctor Who: Shada by Douglas Adams (BBC DVD, 2013). A thirty-third anniversary celebration or a subdued twenty-first? Tricky stuff, time travel…

Season 17 (1979/1980) of Doctor Who was script-edited by Douglas Adams, and was to have concluded with Adams’s six-part serial Shada. When two studio recording blocks (five days) were lost to industrial action, production on Shada was cancelled. Adams’s last work on Doctor Who went unfinished (gone but not forgotten; Adams subsequently incorporated Professor Chronotis and the Cambridge setting into Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). Thirty-three years on, the recorded footage for Shada has been released on DVD, along with an extra DVD of special features. Firstly, to these:

“Taken Out of Time” (25 mins) purports to examine why Shada was never completed. It does so, however, in rather a lazy way (drum roll: there were strikes), as if the people at 2|entertain were quite happy just to punt idly along the River Cam, rather than diving in and splashing around in search of real answers. Didn’t the rising popularity of Hitchhiker’s give the BBC more incentive to remount the production? Did Douglas Adams’s apparent dissatisfaction with the script play any part? Given incoming producer John Nathan-Turner’s enthusiasm for the story, coupled with a dearth of scripts and a short turnaround before the next season, would it not have been possible (nay, advisable) to rework Shada in place of either The Leisure Hive or Meglos, both of which had problematic geneses? These questions are not asked, let alone investigated.

“Now and Then” (13 mins) is a recurring special feature on Doctor Who DVDs. Unfortunately, its mandate is to catch up not with the people involved in production, but rather the locations – an exercise that seems particularly banal in this instance where the setting is same-as-it-ever-was Cambridge.

“Strike! Strike! Strike!” (28 mins) sets out to detail the history of BBC strike action with regard to its effect on Doctor Who throughout the years. The topic of industrial action per se seems unlikely to be of any great interest to most viewers, and the Doctor Who angle is only superficially touched upon. The result: an overlong yet facile documentary.

“Being a Girl” (30 mins) takes a feminist-orientated look at the way in which women have contributed (both off- but primarily on camera) throughout Doctor Who’s history from 1963 to present day. Though easily the most engaging of the special features, “Being a Girl” falls down on two fronts: firstly, in interviewing nobody from within the programme itself (although the outside interviewees come off well); secondly, in selecting material with a view to fitting the argument – not to dwell too much on agendas, but if nothing else the cursory treatment of Romanas I and II (particularly as an extra on a DVD in which Romana features) seems indefensible.

“Photo Gallery” (5 mins) is, as the title suggests, a slideshow of pictures from the production of Shada. Lalla Ward fans will be happy, although DVD is not, of course, the most accessible medium in which to display photographs.

“Shada: Animated Version” (feature length) is a flash-viewer presentation of the BBCi webcast of 2003, wherein a new set of actors – with the exception of Lalla Ward as Romana, and John Leeson (who previously and subsequently but not during the original production had provided the voice of K9) – play out in full the six episodes of Shada. Because Tom Baker declined to take part, the script was tweaked so that Paul McGann could participate as the Eighth Doctor. The plot conceit rather cleverly takes the 1980 non-broadcast of Shada into account, suggesting that this adventure was itself cut short and limited to the Doctor’s and Romana’s leisurely afternoon punt… the one piece of Shada to see transmission (as part of The Five Doctors in 1983). Which is all well and good within the context of the original Shada’s being unavailable (as appeared to be the case once the VHS release – see below – was discontinued in 1996). It does, though, rather go against the feature release on which DVD it is now included! And even if we discount continuity the animated Shada continues to vex with its presence. Its so-called “animation” is primitive at best – more like panning a camera across the face of a comic book – and like attempts to bring Asterix or Tintin to life, shows that limited movement can prove far inferior to the artistic poignancy of a genuine still frame. Paul McGann’s performance – when not sounding like a slightly more responsible cross between Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox; unsurprising, given Adams’s propensity for crosspollination – leaves one lamenting that he made only one televised appearance as the Doctor. (Indeed, it will be this paucity, rather than age or lack of sprightliness, that ultimately precludes him, we must assume, from appearing in the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary special.) But McGann, Ward and Leeson aside, i-Shada had only one redeeming feature at time of webcast: that by following Douglas Adams’s scripts in full it afforded the viewer (or listener, at any rate) the means by which at last to take in what is a wonderfully involved and complicated story. As of 2011, however, there has been available (though not included on the current DVD) a version of Shada put together on spec by Doctor Who fan Ian Levine, featuring the original footage linked together by animations and newly recorded voice work from much of the original cast. It seems a very strange choice by 2|entertain commissioning editor Dan Hall not to have included Levine’s version as a DVD bonus… or possibly in place of the main feature. (Cue the letdown…)

Shada (as presented in the 2013 DVD) is nothing more than the version that John Nathan-Turner eventually cobbled together for VHS release in 1992 – the same video, in fact, that Douglas Adams is said to have authorised only by accident while signing a stack of forms handed to him by Ed Victor. Same score. Same effects. Same linking material by Tom Baker. The picture has been cleaned up a bit but there is, in short, nothing new here – not even an audio commentary such as traditionally accompanies Doctor Who on DVD. Consequently, the overall package will be something of a disappointment to those fans whose interest in Doctor Who and Douglas Adams is sufficient that they know the story already and have tracked down Shada on VHS. As for everyone else… well yes, the 2013 (re-) release will bring to the TV screen a true rarity indeed: a Doctor Who story of which they as yet have no fond memories. And furthermore, it’s Douglas Adams, dating from his most prolific, most imaginative period of writing. Which begs just one question… is it any good?

Although only one block of studio recording was completed, all of Shada’s location filming was carried out and provides the production with a beautiful grounding. The first half of Shada is set in and around Cambridge (where Adams himself had studied not so long beforehand). Into these pleasant surrounds step the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward), who have been summoned by the Doctor’s old friend, Professor Chronotis (Denis Carey) – a retired Time Lord who has been residing for three centuries as Regius Professor of Chronology at Cambridge University. Chronotis has brought a book with him from Gallifrey; in truth a very dangerous artefact that he’s absent-mindedly allowed postgraduate student Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill) to borrow. Stomping through Cambridge in pursuit of this book is the villainous and Liberace-dressed Skagra (Christopher Neame), who intends to unlock the Time Lords’ mysteriously forgotten prison planet (Shada), steal the powers of the fabled villain Salayavin and use them, in conjunction with Skagra’s own mind sphere, to become (not merely take over) the entire universe…

According to Adams, the script for Shada was written in a tearing great hurry once it became clear that producer Graham Williams wasn’t going to let him run with either of the stories he really wanted to make (The Doctor Retires and Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, the latter of which then became Adams’s third Hitchhiker’s novel Life, the Universe and Everything) – and like much of what Adams came up with once actually chained to an impending deadline, the result was quite extraordinary. Shada is zany, yes, but its sleepless, almost delirious flights of fancy stay true to Doctor Who’s ethos. The wit is sharp (and beautifully delivered by Baker, Ward and Carey), but always in counterpoint to the seriousness of the threat that Skagra poses; in short: black coffee humour, which nobody did better than Adams. Daniel Hill provides an excellent “straight” foil to the craziness around him. The action sequences on location are executed with panache. Even the special effects (Skagra’s mind sphere and a typically Adamsish invisible spaceship) appear to stand up. Truly, it would seem, a classic lost in the making. Although—

Well, there’s a tendency to romanticise such things, isn’t there? Shada was, in essence, a first draft, and while it was no doubt a spectacularly good first draft, there is still much about the script that has quietly benefited from not being put before the camera and subjected to great scrutiny. (By all accounts it took Gareth Roberts a good deal of work to sort it all out for his 2012 novelisation.) Victoria Burgoyne’s character (Claire) is half-baked. Skagra’s menace sinks in the middle episodes and then fails to rise. And whereas the Cambridge scenes work marvellously, enough of the studio filming survives to suggest that the non-Cambridge material, if allowed to manifest, would have suffered from the same shortcomings as Adams’s previous non-Earthbound story, The Pirate Planet; that is, wildly unrealistic expectations of the visual medium in general and Doctor Who’s budget in particular. The ideas that served Adams so well in print and on radio tended to scupper him when translated to screen, and as the material runs dry and Tom Baker tries more and more frantically to talk the viewer through Shada’s second half, one cannot help but wonder whether the production may, in fact, have been pulled away from the water just in time to prevent it from falling in and floundering helplessly.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Director Pennant Roberts shows some nice touches, and might well have learnt a thing or two since the disappointments of The Pirate Planet. Incidental music by Doctor Who stalwart Dudley Simpson would also have helped (rather than Keff McCulloch’s somewhat incongruous score, which graces the VHS/DVD release). Ultimately, of course, it’s just not possible to say. Welcome though it is, and much though it does provide the “tantalising glimpse” promised by the DVD case, the 2013 release of Shada remains unsatisfying. Did the 1979 BBC strikes spare the audience from another botched effort like The Pirate Planet? Or did it rob them of something more in keeping with Adams’s City of Death? Ian Levine’s version may someday provide us with a better idea, but for now, as it was twenty-one years ago when the patched-up Shada first came out on VHS, we still don’t know.

When he unwittingly authorised Shada’s emancipation on video, a chagrined Adams donated his royalties to Comic Relief. Anyone watching Shada in 2013 should consider purchasing not only the DVD but also a Red Nose Day proboscis to wear while doing so.

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