Doctor Who complete reviews: Shada
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Douglas Adams' (mostly) lost Doctor Who story may have been a masterpiece or an also-ran, for what scant evidence we have left...
"Shada. Shaaadaaahhh. Shaaaaaahhhhdaaaaahhhh....."
So remembers Big Tom about a story called, um Shada. But what's this I hear you cry? A Doctor Who review that never made it to screen?
Well, it was planned and part made to go to screen, to be transmitted between January and February 1980. An ambitious script by Douglas "Friend Of Lalla Ward" Adams started to go before the cameras in October 1979. The cast and crew went down to Cambridge for hi-jinks at the university, punting on the Cam, riding bicycles and tripping over red carpets. The story even got a studio session in early November 1979, during which a number of significant scenes got recorded.
And then the axe fell. Doctor Who had been lucky with the BBC strikes in the last two years. The Invasion Of Time had been affected by studio strikes, but remedied the problem by filming on location. The Armageddon Factor got affected too, but was still completed. Sadly for Shada though, it was third time unlucky as all further studio sessions got scrapped, leaving behind a weeping cast and the promise of what could have been.
At least though, it is possible to enjoy a truncated version of Shada, if you either fork out several pounds on Amazon or get lucky (as I did) in a local second hand shop that just happened to have the video sitting snugly on a shelf. The 1992 video version finally gave a tantalising glimpse of what the fuss was about, thanks to Tom Baker booming out links in a museum of old Doctor Who monsters and the surviving footage. For completists, there was also a complete set of original scripts in a concise blue book.
The problem though is that it's difficult to get a reading on how good Shada actually is. At least with the missing episode stories, there's some sort of clue in the forms of telesnaps and soundtracks. But with Shada, there's nothing except the imaginiation to try and piece it all together.
Which is a shame, since the script by Adams is actually quite good. It's ambitious and boasts some interesting concepts including a talking spaceship, a powerful book and a baddie who doesn't want to take over the universe but make the universe become him. How's that for arrogance? On top of this, diehard Who aficionados can revel in the mythology of Salyavin, the childhood hero of The Doctor, the all-important book stolen from the Panopticon, not to mention a gaggle of old foes at the climax. 1979 Who wasn't all that bothered about continuity with the past, so it's too bad that Shada never made it to the light of day, since it has both interesting new ideas and nods to the past.
"I'm still trying to work out this obsession with tea in Britain. Even if the world was about to explode in a sea of volcanic lava, I'd bet that millions would want a cup of bloody tea first"
That said, there's still loads of iffy puns and way too many references to tea. I'm still trying to work out this obsession with tea in Britain. Even if the world was about to explode in a sea of volcanic lava, I'd bet that millions would want a cup of bloody tea first. All the fusion of water, milk and brown grit does is to make your bladder feel like it's doing the Can Can. But sure enough, Chronotis is pottering about offering tea to anyone that pays him a visit. In actual fact, it seems like practically every scene in Shada has at least one reference to a cuppa.
Which highlights the problem with the Shada that we've got. All of the really good stuff never got made, while the rather inconsequential padding about tea, crackers and muffins got filmed. We want to see The Doctor doing battle with Skagra, whether it's on the genius' talking ship or on Shada itself. As it is, all that stuff is left to the imagination, while we're left wondering about what could have happened.
Character-wise, the biggest casualty of Shada is Skagra. He barely features in the studio scenes, apart from his confrontation with Chronotis and his sobbing hysteria at the end when he's trapped for eternity on his own ship. According to the script, he's a strong contender for the biggest egotist in the universe, yup even more than Simon Cowell and his monotone bragging. Get this, he plans to make the universe become him - which is a terrifying prospect, given his dress sense. He struts about for the most part looking like his Auntie Pauline, in a poncy white affair that comprises a flowing cape, broad brimmed hat and an additional granny's travel bag (which houses his deadly mind-sucking sphere of doom). Even when he's changed into everyday cords, he still looks a bit out of place - to my bad eyesight he looks like Neil Stuke (the second Matt from Game On) impersonating Klaus Maria Brandauer from c.1983 in the unofficial Bond film Never Say Never Again.
Skagra does at least feature in one of my favourite scenes of the story, and the one that displays his arrogance the most. It's the one where he struts past the college porter Wilkin and starts barking "YOU!" at him, while staring off into the distance like a Lord expecting to be served in a greasy cafe. Skagra has no time for the little people of this universe, and so feels compelled to treat them like a bit of shit on his rather effeminate looking boots. From the little evidence there is though, Christopher Neame is rather good as the egocentric tyrant - just too bad that we don't really get to see him sink his teeth into the role. And Neame never really has much luck with looking normal in British sci-fi: He'd end up looking just as camp in the 1981 Blake's 7 episode called 'Traitor', in which he struts around with a Village People-style eyepatch.
At least we get to know some of the other characters a bit better. There's Chris Parsons and his glamourous sidekick Clare Keightley. It's possible that Chris fancies Clare, even if he's about a foot shorter than the doe-eyed glamazon. Daniel Hill makes a reasonable job of the rather pompous student, and makes for a similar sort of sub-companion as Duggan. Interestingly he's just as inept as the detective, despite possessing more brain cells. Clare, on the other hand, seems to have all the brains of a day-old weasel, forever looking slightly gormless and more significantly, making a meal of the simple task of holding down a lever. Quite how Clare got into university is a mystery.
But then it seems that this is no ordinary university, given that one of their professors is an ancient Time Lord with a classroom that happens to be a TARDIS. Denis Carey's performance is great though, full of absent-minded appeal and steely determination when required. It's a shame that we don't get to see him face off properly against Skagra when he's revealed to be Salyavin, but overall, Carey steals the show.
"Shada is a curiosity. The 1992 version just about works, as long as you plug your imagination in"
So what else have we got of note? Well, there's the evocative location filming which is a very classy deal indeed. Loads of great set-pieces, including the oft-seen punt (which was to be used in The Five Doctors), The Doctor and Co. discovering Skagra's invisible spaceships, and of course, the lengthy chase sequence in part two. The location filming shows off everything it possibly can about Cambridge, including the river Cam, the university and the streets. Heck, there's even a choir of pudding bowl poshos massacring Chattanooga Choo Choo (one of the tune-free warblers looks suspiciously like Adric). Altogether, the filming is the most striking element of Shada, and gives the impression that the Autumn season is actually quite nice to experience.
It's just about easy to follow Shada, and overall the 1992 version does the best that it can. It helps that Tom Baker's links really sell the story and make it come alive. But it's telling that the actual contents of parts four to six seem shorter than the opening and closing titles (yes, they wanted to make the end result look as authentic as possible). Matters aren't helped by the rather odd score from Keff McCulloch, which while good in places (he's gone for the electric keyboard sounds of Dudley Simpson) is distinctively jarring in others. There's the Sugar Twang of Terror - maybe Keff thought that grouchy business tycoon Alan Sugar was about to make an entrance. And then there's other cues in which he seems to be inexplicably channelling the Stereo MCs. Elsewhere, the effects aren't too bad, although a couple of rather obvious CSO cutouts do creep in from time to time - which visually are on a par with the lumbering Krargs, who needless to say are not among the top ranks of Doctor Who monsters.
Shada is a curiosity. The 1992 version just about works, as long as you plug your imagination in. Whether or not we'll get some sort of DVD version is anyone's guess - as long as they don't include the inferior audio remake with Paul McGann sounding like he's wandered into the wrong recording studio by mistake. Overall though, the story - despite its occasionally self-indulgent humour - is a strong one, containing some typical Douglas Adams ideas and ambitious plot twists. If only it had made it to the screen intact.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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