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Doctor Who: Shada (2003) (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.

Shada originally broadcast on the BBC website in 2003.

Doctor, a fool would realise that it was written in code!

Skagra, this thing is written in code!

– Skagra and the Doctor have some communication difficulties

Has a failed Doctor Who story every haunted the collective consciousness in the way that Shada does? There’s a wealth of adventures that were proposed and never produced, from the last Master story that never happened in The Final Game, through to the laundry list of unproduced adventures that would have made up Colin Baker’s second season if the show hadn’t been parked by the BBC. However, Shada is something different. So different, in fact, that it has been told quite a few times. In fact, it might be the only Doctor Who story I end up covering twice.

This was a webcast version, a very simply animated version of the tale produced for the BBC website, using an audio play adapted from Douglas Adams’ original script by Big Finish, the fan collective who produce a range of celebrated audio plays for the classic series. Starring Paul McGann, the Eighth Doctor who never really got a chance to develop the role in live action, it’s an interesting glimpse at what might have been.

Lost in time...

Lost in time…

Shada occupies a very special place in Doctor Who lore. Part of that is undoubtedly the fact that it exists in an ethereal state, trapped halfway between fully existing and being lost completely. If it never existed, we wouldn’t miss it. If it were lost, we’d come to terms with that. Instead, it just sits so tantalisingly close to being complete. We can almost taste the final six-part adventure as it might have aired if not for that pesky industrial action. And it tastes good, especially when you consider that the failure to film Shada meant that The Horns of Nimon were the final story produced by the team of Graham Williams and Douglas Adams.

Of course, Adams himself is another vital part of why the failure to fully film Shada remains so frustrating. Writers like Robert Holmes, Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks are rightly respected by fans of Doctor Who for their work on the programme. Occasionally writers like Bob Baker become known for their work outside the show. However, Douglas Adams is another entity entirely. He’s a science-fiction institution, an author who broke through into the mainstream and created one of the most iconic pieces of British science-fiction ever with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Adams is a genius, and he worked on Doctor Who!

A place in the Shada...

A place in the Shada…

However, to only have two filmed scripts from Adams – the fascinating Pirate Planet and the amazing City of Death – is also immensely frustrating. Doctor Who was this close to having a six-part season finalé from Adams, featuring a trip to Cambridge, a wealth of clever ideas, rogue Time Lords and a twist on the old universal domination cliché. It’s very hard to avoid getting excited about the idea, and even tougher to avoid a pang of disappointment that it never materialised.

So we have to make do with a number of glimpses of how it might have been. A reasonable amount of footage had been filmed by the production team before the industrial action made the story infeasible, so Graham Williams’ successor as producer – the infamous John Nathan Turner – released a VHS edition of the story with linking narration by Tom Baker. I might look at that edition separately, but it has its own fundamental problems.

Good dog...

Good dog…

The most obvious problem with that version of the story, of course, is that John Nathan Turner is producing it. Nathan Turner gets a lot of flack for his time running the show, but I’m generally quite sympathetic. There is something deeply ironic in having Nathan Turner revisit the Williams era, given how swiftly and decisively he moved the show away from that model when he took over immediately following the gap where this serial was meant to be. Then again, it’s not as if the show wouldn’t occasionally try to revisit the Williams and Adams era, with messes like Terror of the Vervoids.

Life’s little ironies aside, it’s quite clear that Nathan Turner doesn’t get Graham Williams’ take on the show. There’s no shame in that. After all, looking at some of Williams’ later stories, it’s clear that some directors and actors didn’t get it either. However, the result is occasionally surreal, like hearing a joke told by somebody who doesn’t realise why it is funny. So the linking narration from Tom Baker feels a little odd, disjointed and out of place.

Book him!

Book him!

In contrast, this version of Shada is complete and unabridged. All of Adams’ scripted scenes played out in “real time” in six half-hour episodes. Sure, there’s the occasional amendment that acknowledges this is an audio play rather than a piece of live action television, but this iteration of Shada can at least claim to offer a more comprehensive exploration of Douglas Adams’ script for the show. Which is, to be honest, pretty great. If the video adaptation showcases the incomplete production itself, this audio play invites the listener to appreciate the script as it was intended to be complete.

There are some problems, of course. The most obvious is Paul McGann. Tom Baker wasn’t working with Big Finish at the time this adaptation was produced, which is a shame. That meant the story had to be performed with another Doctor. Of the Doctors working at Big Finish, I can’t help but wonder why Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor was chosen to fill the Baker-shaped gap. I like Paul McGann, and there’s none of the subsequent iterations of the character who could dream of filling his shoes in Shada, but Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor is really the only version of the character who would feel less at home with the script.

Times have changed...

Times have changed…

It’s very clear that the dialogue was written by Adams for Tom Baker. You can almost hear it dubbed over McGann at points. Certainly, as I read over my notes, I could hear Baker’s delivery in my head. Shada is full of iconic Tom Baker witticisms. “Crackers?” Chronotis asks at one point. The Doctor responds, cheekily, “Oh, sometimes.” When Skarga tries to force him to read the book, the Doctor tries to weasel out of it. “I have a very boring reading voice. By the time I got to the bottom of the first page, you’d be asleep. Then I’d escape, and where would you be?”

This is nothing against McGann as an actor. Indeed, it’s fantastic that Big Finish have given him the chance to develop the Eighth Doctor as a character outside his one televised appearance. In fact, I am considering covering a season of McGann’s Doctor at some point later in the year. If anybody would like to recommend any highlights, let me know in the comments. McGann is pretty great. He has good comedic timing, that wonderfully aloof personality and a voice that is pretty much perfect for audio plays.

Putting the gang back together...

Putting the gang back together…

However, like any iteration of the character who is not Tom Baker, he faces the fundamental problem that he’s reading from a script that was never meant for him. Big Finish could probably have re-written some of the Doctor’s dialogue to better suit McGann, but then you’re in a catch-22 situation. The appeal of Shada is that it is a lost Douglas Adams script. If you change it too much, by re-writing the character of the Doctor, you lose that.

Another problem with this audio adaptation is something of a pet peeve that I have with fan productions – the desire to make it all make sense. The script has been edited and updated in places to take account of the continuity of the audio Doctor Who range. This includes, for example, making Romana the Lord President of Gallifrey and so on. Indeed, the audio play goes as far as to suggest that the use of footage from Shada in The Five Doctors explains why they have to do this all again – apparently they never got to finish the story the first time around.

Hot-headed...

Hot-headed…

All of which is fine, if a little clunky. However, it’s completely unnecessary, and it seems to suggest that Shada would somehow be worthless or illogical if it didn’t fit perfectly with every other piece of Doctor Who ever produced. It adds a level of convolution that is – quite simply – not necessary. There’s nothing wrong with acting out Douglas Adams’ script without having to account for footage Nathan Turner borrowed for The Five Doctors, or making lots of references to Romana’s status in the range of audio plays. It’s a Douglas Adams script, a holy grail of Doctor Who. It doesn’t lose legitimacy if it doesn’t square perfectly with everything else ever.

Indeed, this need to reference the new status quo presents its own problems. For example, the Doctor’s seguing from discussion of Romana as Lord President back to Douglas Adams’ original dialogue about Salyavin is less than smooth. The fact that Romana is Lord President raises all manner of ambiguities about Shada itself that weren’t dealt with in the original script, but the revised version won’t handle with the necessary depth for fear of veering too far from Adams’ story. Again, it’s a catch-22 situation, but this one would be easily avoided by simply allowing it to take place outside of continuity.

Universe-ity...

Universe-ity…

Those are the only real problems with this version of Shada. They are pretty fundamental, but they are also well worth looking past. There’s something truly exciting about seeing Douglas Adams’ script brought to life by such a talented cast. In fact, James Fox plays Professor Chronotis brilliantly and Andrew Sachs has a great deal of fun as the villainous Skagra. Lalla Ward is as fun as ever, although her performance loses something in animation, and the only real fault with Paul McGann is that he’s not Tom Baker. Which is hardly a capital offence.

Listening to this full and unabridged version, it’s immediately clear that Adams is one of the very writers in Doctor Who who can handle a six-parter. In fact, I’d argue that Shada may have been one of the very best six-parters that the show ever produced. In fact, the only contemporary of Adams who could pull off a six-part adventure that was as consistently entertaining was Robert Holmes, and Holmes will readily admit to cheating by structuring his six-parters as a two-parter and a four-parter.

I take my hat off to Big Finish for attempting this...

I take my hat off to Big Finish for attempting this…

Adams’ doesn’t resort to anything like that. He has is own method of telling a two-and-a-half hour story. He does a fantastic job structuring the story so that it gradually escalates in scale. It starts in Cambridge and things gradually get progressively weirder to the point where the characters are suddenly in a maximum security Time Lord prison. “Unauthorised entry is punishable by death. There is no authorised entry.”

There is also, interestingly, a return to the notion established by Robert Holmes in The Deadly Assassin that the Time Lords are really just a hyper-advanced version of Oxford and Cambridge society. As Holmes confessed:

People ask whether I based the Time Lords on religious grounds, rather like the Vatican, but I saw it more as scholastic. I mean you have your colleges of learning with Deans and all that. I decided that from what we knew of the Time Lords, they were august and remote people who were only concerned with keeping the structure of time in place.

It’s fascinating, considering that Williams had mangled Time Lord society so badly in The Invasion of Time, that Shada should wind up capturing the spirit of The Deadly Assassin so very well.

Taking it as read...

Taking it as read…

In fact, it is revealed that the villain Skagra owes his roots to an academic dispute, making another effective thematic connection. When Romana wonders how Skagra could know so much about the Time Lords, the Doctor reveals that Skagra came from Dronid. “There was a schism in the College Cardinels,” he explains. “The Rival President set up shop in Dronid. They forced him to come back in the end by ignoring him.” That’s a wonderful piece of Time Lord mythology, and arguably far more interesting than anything established in The Five Doctors or The Arc of Inifinity.

Literally setting the story in Cambridge helps cement the ties, and there’s some rather wonderful character beats here that I like to think would have been further developed had the episode actually made it to air. The Doctor finds himself calling in on another renegade Time Lord named Chronotis, who is posing as a Professor at Cambridge. It’s a nice touch, suggesting that Chronotis has retired from touring the universe, effectively promoted from Doctor to Professor so that he might retire to a peaceful existence in surroundings that aren’t too far from Gallifrey itself.

Worlds apart...

Worlds apart…

It’s a nice way of exploring a potential future for the Doctor, suggesting that we’re simply following the character in what amounts to a mid-life crisis, roaring through space and time in a Ferrari of time travel. Another point of comparison is raised concerning the feared Time Lord criminal Salyavin, who was something of a childhood hero to the Doctor. It’s heavily implied that his crimes were nothing more severe than anything that the Doctor has ever done.

“I wonder if the stories of Salyavin were exaggerated,” Romana wonders at the end of the adventure. “More than likely,” the Doctor muses. “The Time Lords over-react to everything. Look at the way they treat me. I expect that in one day a few hundred years from now someone would meet me and say, is that really the Doctor? How strange. He seemed such a nice old man.” It’s a clever way of looking at the Doctor from an unconventional angle, and his relationship with Time Lord society, especially notable since Gallifrey itself doesn’t actually exist.

(Cam)bridging the gap...

(Cam)bridging the gap…

However, Adams captures the spirit of the Time Lords from The Deadly Assassin in more than the mere academic setting. It’s suggested – once again – that Time Lord culture has stagnated. Trying to justify his theft of old Time Lord relics, Chronotis explains, “There’s no one interested in ancient history on Gallifrey any longer, and I thought that certain things would be safer with me.” There’s a sense that the Time Lords – who are conspicuously absent from a story about Time Lords – are decaying and eroding as a culture.

And, like The Deadly Assassin, there’s a sense that there’s something deeply wrong at the root of Time Lord culture. We discover a Time Lord prison that would feel like a rather pointed political metaphor had the show been written in the past decade. “This is where your precious Time Lords used to put the prisoners they simply wanted to forget about,” Skagra tells Romana on reaching Shada. “Apparently they wanted to forget fairly thoroughly.” Rows upon rows upon rows of prisoners kept comatose, in a seemingly automated facility that won’t admit visitors. It’s terrifying.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

However, despite its ties to The Deadly Assassin, it is very clearly a Douglas Adams script from the Graham Williams era. This is both good and bad. Shada represents one of the longer trips to Earth during Williams’ time as producer of the show, and the series seems to acknowledge that it has drifted out of touch with the “real world.” At one point, Chris laments being a human character trapped in this era of Doctor Who. “Just because we come from Earth doesn’t give everyone the right to be patronising towards us,” he complains.

Of course, setting the story in Cambridge as a metaphor for Gallifrey gives the whole thing an ethereal atmosphere. There is something decidedly unreal about the university culture in Oxford and Cambridge, the atmosphere that Attenborough perfectly captured in Shadowlands. There is an almost magical quality to those places, a sense that the outside world can’t bleed in, and Shada manages to find a setting that is simultaneously very human, while also being a little bit alien.

I must Profess a fondness for it...

I must Profess a fondness for it…

Indeed, Shada seems to embrace the idea of fantasy, and even features a nice moment where Wilkin defends the absurdity of Doctor Who to a cynical police constable. As Wilkin attempts to explain that a room has been stolen from the university, leaving nothing but “a blue haze” in its place, the constable is sarcastic and dismissive in the face of the patently absurd. And he hasn’t even seen the dodgy special effects yet. “It’s also very easy to be sarcastic,” Wilkin counters, and it seems like Douglas Adams is getting a little bit romantic about Doctor Who. It is very easy to be cynical, but then you’d miss out on all the magic.

There’s also something that is a staple of the Graham Williams’ season finalés, and what feels a little bit like meta-commentary about Tom Baker – just another aspect of the production harmed by the fact that this was never realised as a Tom Baker story. The villain Skagra has a novel twist on the classic “become all-powerful and conquer the universe” scheme. However, the Doctor turns the idea around, and ends up using his will to dominate Skagra – implicitly using the same sort of power Skagra would have used to conquer the universe.

He had a short run...

He had a short run…

This feels a bit like a mandated Williams’ finalé plot beat, as the Doctor is given unlimited amounts of power… only to use them for good. For example, The Invasion of Time opens with the Doctor posing as a power-mad dictator on Gallifrey. Similarly, the end of The Armageddon Factor sees the Doctor is given the unlimited power of the Key to Time. Similarly, the Doctor is shown to wield ultimate power, but is not corrupted by it. I can’t help but think that this must be a bit of meta-commentary on Tom Baker’s infamously rapidly-expanding ego. So the image of Paul McGann wearing a device that could give him ultimate power isn’t quite as effective.

Still, Shada is pretty great. However, even if it had been produced, I can’t help but imagine that City of Death would still be the definitive Graham Williams and Douglas Adams story. Shada has all manner of clever science-fiction high concepts and wonderful character moments, but City of Death has all those and a more accessible plot and a better baddie. It’s hard to imagine any version of Shada being a better piece of Doctor Who than City of Death.

The ball's in his court...

The ball’s in his court…

Of course, Shada has some wonderful moments. The Doctor exploits “blind logic” to trick the computer into thinking that he is dead. If he is dead, he can’t be a threat to Skagra. So there’s no reason for the computer to help him. Naturally, the Doctor is “entirely too clever by three-quarters”, as this logical hook backfires spectacularly. “I am programmed to conserve resources,” the computer informs him. “Since there are no live beings in this area, I have shut down the oxygen supply. Dead men do not require oxygen.”

There are other wonderful ideas here. I especially like the notion that Professor Chronotis holds on to a TARDIS and uses it as his office. It’s an idea that I could easily see Steven Moffat using, and it makes for a pretty spectacular twist. Similarly, I love the idea of a book that is “the key with which the Time Lords imprisoned their most feared criminals.” However, despite these hooks, Shada ultimately has nothing as effective as the Mona Lisa scam from City of Death.

Putting it all together...

Putting it all together…

Similarly, Skagra is an effective bad guy, but he’s nothing on Scaroth. Part of that is the fact that Julian Glover is one of the best actors ever to appear in Doctor Who, but there’s also a level of ingenuity about his schemes that Skagra just can’t match. “I know what you want to do,” the Doctor remarks at one point. “I’ve met your sort before. You want to take over the universe.” While Skagra dismisses this as “childish”, it really turns out he just has a novel twist on this. He wants to become the universe.

It’s a nice hook, but he’s really just the typical Doctor Who megalomaniac, written with Douglas Adams’ wit. That’s enough to put him ahead of the majority of Doctor Who villains, but it’s not enough to make him a truly compelling and interesting villain. He’s really just a plot device so that Adams can play with the other characters and explore a bit more Time Lord mythologies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it just doesn’t give Shada the edge over City of Death.

I can't (w)Eight...

I can’t (w)Eight…

Still, not measuring up to City of Death is a minor sin. No matter which way you cut it, the production of Shada would probably have given Graham Williams’ two well-loved and classic episodes, rather than just one. And there’s no way that this could ever be a bad thing. Would a successful version of Shada reversed the consensus opinion on the Graham Williams era? I’m not sure. But it would have been a great story.

As it stands, this is probably the best way to enjoy Douglas Adams’ smart script. It’s not without problems, but every version of Shada is going to suffer by virtue of trying to fill a gap that – by its nature – can’t ever be completely filled in a satisfactory manner.

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