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Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Scream of the Shalka originally streamed in 2003.

Doctor Who survived its cancellation across a variety of media. There were unofficial videos starring Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. There were audio plays. There were mountains of books. The BBC even came up with the clever idea of offering on-line content, with a series of illustrated audio plays, including the Seventh Doctor story Death Comes to Time and the Sixth Doctor adventure Real Time, as well as an adaptation of the aborted Douglas Adams serial Shada. Most of these were little more than powerpoints with sound playing over them. However, for the show’s fortieth anniversary, the BBC came up with an altogether more ambitious idea – a brand new fully animated adventure starring a new Doctor and promising a wave of new adventures, striving boldly forward into the new century.

The Doctor is in…

You can hear the serial, free, here.

Writer Paul Cornell had already cut his teeth on a series of impressive Doctor Who novels by the time he drafted this new adventure, including the sensational Human Nature, a story he’d adapt to great effect for the live-action television series. Cornell’s clever little script manages to be, like its lead character, “two things at once.”

It’s a nostalgic homage to the classic serialised adventures, in particular evoking the Third Doctor. It’s also a bit of a step forward, and would feel right at home with the new series. In particular, while Russell T. Davies has been critical of Richard E. Grant’s performance, his version of the Ninth Doctor shares an uncanny similarity with Cornell’s. And all this while being a solidly entertaining little adventure in its own right.

We are Shalka, hear us scream!

We are Shalka, hear us scream!

Cornell knows his Doctor Who. There’s no denying that. He seems to have meticulously studied the show, and noted every ingredient, flavour and amount, in the hope of brewing up a mixture that will immediately bring to mind a show that had been cancelled more than ten years earlier.

Like most of the great Doctor Who writers (including Davies and Moffat), Cornell has his own clear idea of who the Doctor is, and what his defining attributes are. Davies presented him as “the Time Lord Victorious” or “the Lonely God”, a figure who was almost a deity. Moffat writes the character as something of a modern magical fairytale – a goblin or trickster.

The residents are petrified…

Cornell, in contrast, seems to see the humanity beating at the very heart of the Time Lord, and he also sees the hint of shame that the character feels about it. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others, but it’s always there. Why else does the character seem so insecure as to rhyme off his knowledge to human companions in such a dismissive fashion, if not to assert his superiority (if only to himself)? Why does he hang around Earth and yet refuse to settle down (“I’m a homeless person myself,” he insists, “it’s the first thing I am”), other as a defiant attempt to resist the kinship he feels with mankind?

Richard E. Grant plays the character with a very detached air. I really like it. I can’t help but feel that the performance might have seemed so much better had it been captured in live action – Grant’s Doctor is cynical and borderline depressive, and so it’s logical that it lacks energy. I wonder how Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor might have sounded, if you isolated his vocal performance from his physical presence. In many ways, the two different iterations of the Ninth Doctor feel like kin.

Constant companions...

Constant companions…

They are both versions of the character running from what they deem an unforgivable sin – Eccleston’s Doctor killed his entire race, while Grant’s Doctor made a grave choice involving a companion. What’s interesting is that Steven Moffat has gone on record stating that Cornell and Grant’s version of the character is really too dark to ever exist on television:

I don’t think that’s something that we could sell to a mainstream audience, a Doctor who loathes himself. A bitter, sad Doctor. You’re not going to get the audience for that. You want to think, this man is having the best life ever. This is not a piece of art-house cinema. You get glimpses of the great sadness and the loneliness, [but] that’s just the occasional colour.

Cornell has, in retrospect, conceded the point a little. However, I’m not convinced that this melancholy Doctor is too far from Christopher Eccleston’s interpretation of the character. That said, you could argue that both Moffat and Cornell are correct, and the show only really took off again with David Tennant’s wonderfully alien cartoon character, but I think there is something to the character that rubbed off on the other Ninth Doctor.

He changed the desktop theme…

When it looks like the female companion might have been lost, the Doctor observes, “I got her killed again. It’s not the first time.” It’s telling that, in the character’s desperation, he’s surrounded himself with the perfect foil. If ever you needed proof that the character had some serious self-doubt to deal with, the fact that he’d taken his arch-enemy’s consciousness and trusted it to act as a check on his own actions should be proof enough. The Master seems to exist to temper the Doctor’s humanity, offering a very cold and a very Timelord perspective. “On this point, your programming of my electronic brain is quite specific: we leave the girl behind.”

I think that Cornell’s Master-Doctor relationship is perhaps the most wonderful aspect of what is – despite some very clever and entertaining writing – a superbly conventional tale. I am honestly deeply disappointed that (a.) the new series has yet to incorporate that rather brilliant dynamic, and (b.) Derek Jacobi only got to play the Master again for the briefest of time in Utopia. I know you’d need a human companion to balance it out, but the pairing of the psychotic and amoral would-be conqueror with the well-intentioned galactic bohemian works perfectly. I am very disappointed that we’ve never seen a season with the Master as an actual companion. (Even though we’ve had a year where he appeared in every single story.)

Master of his own ship?

Cornell even seems to foreshadow the new series’ self-aware camp in his portrayal of the couple’s relationship, which really seems like an old married couple, from an embarrassing voice mail message (“we really should change that message,” the Master sighs) through to the constant bickering (“you left the umbrella stand in the zepplin hangar again,” the Doctor moans). There’s something very sly and very telling in the Master’s exasperation at the way the Doctor seems to just pick up companions.

“A young woman… again?” the Master goads. “Yes,” the Doctor sheepishly concedes, “again.” It helps that Jacobi seems to have as much fun playing the Master as Cornell does writing him, like his interrupted attempt to hypnotise the latest TARDIS guest. “I am the Master and you… will come to like me once you get to know me.”

A downward spiral...

A downward spiral…

Beyond the sense of fun and self-awareness, there are other similarities to the revived series that would appear only two years after this on-line special. It’s hard to listen to the Queen of the Shalka and her ridiculously over-the-top pantomime (“die! doctor! die!”) without thinking of any of the intentionally large-ham villains that Russell T. Davies was so fond of writing – the Queen of the Racnoss from The Christmas Invasion comes to mind.

There’s just something about the way that the role of the Queen of the Shalka is executed that seems more in line with the new series, rather than the classic adventures. Part of it is undoubtedly Diana Quick’s performance, but I think it’s also the fact that the script seems a bit more aware of how far things are going over-the-top. It’s a little more calculated than the sort of unrestrained scenery-chewing we’d come to love in the older adventures.

An underground movement…

However, Cornell’s adventure also evokes the Third Doctor. The character is foiling an invasion of Earth, which seemed to be a speciality of that iteration. In particular, the Doctor’s suggestion that the Shalka could peacefully coexist under the planet seems to call to mind adventures like Doctor Who and the Silurians, while the Doctor’s reliance on the military (and willingness to work for them in return for support and assistance) calls to mind the troubled dynamic between the Third Doctor (who was stranded on Earth) with UNIT.

More than that, though, there’s also the quid pro quo relationship that seems to exist with the Timelords. I know that other iterations of the character had it, but the Third Doctor seemed especially prone to being dispatched like a Timelord Black Ops agent. As the Doctor explains, “They keep putting me in places where terrible things are going to happen.”

The Master's logic is a bit more mechanical here...

The Master’s logic is a bit more mechanical here…

Again, I think that this is the root of the similarity between Cornell’s take and the eventual revived series. Cornell seems heavily influenced by the Third Doctor – this is a version of the character who is clearly being coerced by his people and seems to operate under their thumb, and who is openly cantankerous towards humans. The new show would derive a similar influence from Pertwee’s take on the character – this time it was a grumpy old man who had made Earth his second home.

Both Scream of the Shalka and Rose are very clearly inspired by Pertwee’s time in the lead role, and can be read as an attempt to modernise aspects of it. It makes sense. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that Pertwee’s first year is one of the best seasons of science-fiction that the BBC ever produced, and it also came at a point when Doctor Who needed to be radically updated and overhauled. It’s a nice touchstone to have.

To the N(in)th degree...

To the N(in)th degree…

That said, the appeal of Cornell’s story is perhaps a lot more basic than that. It’s not new or bold, and it’s very much a well-constructed Doctor Who homage, as an anniversary story should be. All the core ingredients are there, including a wonderful companion in Alison, brought to life by Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo. She’s a character sick of waiting, and with the same thirst for action and adventure as the Doctor.

“Everyone’s waiting for it to change, but nobody will do anything,” she insists. The Doctor tries to mask his approval, but he knows there’s something remarkable about her, “You’re scared, but less than these two are.” The Doctor sees his humanity reflected back in her curiosity and thirst for knowledge and adventure. It helps that the character is pathetically lonely, to the point of almost recruiting an old lady just because she happens to be there, “You’re the first human I’ve seen on the street tonight, and I was hoping for some assistance.”

I think we might take him for Granted…

The story itself maintains that wonderful eccentric Britishness of the classic television show, with a bunch of cranky aliens essentially constructing a town that would win some sort of village of the year award. The use of fear and subconscious control to build a perfect community is a wonderfully clever metaphor that works ridiculously well, with an alien invasion focused on matters as quaint as a local curfew and controlling noise pollution. “You seem like a nice young man,” an old lady warns the lead character, “You should stay off the grass.” You can tell something’s wrong because everything’s perfect. And the citizens continue to claim, “Everything here is normal.”

Scream of the Shalka isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s a nice little relic that sits between the classic serials and the more modern adventures. It’s also a rather wonderful homage to the long-running show, written by a writer who knows his material inside and out. It isn’t bold or brilliant, but it’s entertaining and intriguing. There was never a chance for Cornell’s universe to develop, with the relaunch of the series announced shortly after it was released, and that’s a bit of a shame.

It's a scream...

It’s a scream…

It had some interesting mysteries to unravel, but also a fascinating central dynamic. I really think that the Master is long due an upgrade (temporary, of course) to “companion” status. On the other hand, the serial did prove that animated Doctor Who was viable, with the team at Cosgrove Hill going on to reanimate some of the “lost” episodes for The Invasion.

(Indeed, The Invasion was apparently only animated because funds had already been allocated for second Richard E. Grant adventure that had to be scrapped when the Doctor’s return to television was confirmed. So, at the very least, Scream of the Shalka is due a massive thanks from fans of the classic television show.)

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2 Responses

  1. Good review. I’ve always had a soft spot for Shalka and look forward to revisiting it when they put the DVD out. Hopefully with some kind of featurette that discusses what Cornell’s plan was for future adventures, because it seemed like he had Ideas.

    Quick note: Cosgrove Hall didn’t do The Reign of Terror. You can tell in part because the animation is bloody awful.

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