Shada [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But lately I decided to spend both some of my birthday and Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. Although in this case, I actually got the story from the library!

(Daily Doctor Who #288)

Shada

Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor.
Companions: Lalla Ward as Romana II and David Brierley as the voice of K9
Written by Douglas Adams.  Directed by Pennant Roberts. Lead animator and animation supervisor–AnneMarie Walsh.

Format & Original Airdate:  Originally planned for 6 episodes, each about 25 minutes long–episodes 21-26 of Season 17. However, production was halted mid-way because of industrial action, and so the story was only completed via animation many years in 2017. It aired as one extended special in July 2017.

Shada is a funny animal in the world of Doctor Who–a truly “lost” story in that it was never completed. Because of this, it is ironically one of the stories one can experience in the broadest range of “official” ways. A couple of scenes were used in the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors in lieu of Tom Baker’s full participation. Then it was released on video in 1992, with linking on-camera narration recorded by Baker, semi-in-character as the Fourth Doctor. Then in 2003, an animated webcast version was released, with newly-recorded audio starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, alongside Lalla Ward and John Leeson as K9. And then, finally in 2017, the current version–the most definitive version we are likely to have–featuring the original cast.

Spoilers Ahead!

Back in the days when I was first getting into Doctor Who, Shada had developed a bit of a reputation as a lost classic of the series. It was written by famed author Douglas Adams, it dealt with Gallifreyan history, it featured a bunch of fun-sounding location footage in Cambridge, and the sequence that we all saw in The Five Doctors looked really good.

However, when you see all the footage together in context, it doesn’t really gel very well. The story is meandering and the humor seems awkward and forced. And none of the characters are particularly compelling, especially either of the main human guest stars, Chris Parsons or Clare Keightley. There is real potential with Proessor Chronotis and the revelation that he is really a notorious Gallifreyan criminal, but it’s sadly underdeveloped idea and we never really get a sense of who the guy is, why he was a criminal, what he wants out of life now, or anything. The sequence with the Doctor and Romana punting that was used in The Five Doctors turns out to be the best part of the story. The fact that it is all edited together in an “omnibus” format doesn’t help things either–basically, Doctor Who has never been made better by editing out the cliffhangers.

Maybe Shada would have been better if it had actually been completed in the original day, but it’s hard to imagine. Instead it feels like it would have been another underwhelming entry in what was overall a disappointing season (City of Death notwithstanding).

Having said all that, I’m still glad that I could watch it as basically a complete story, and the care that went into producing this version, even so far as using the original cast (where they were available), or editing around them (where they were not). Such is our devotion to Doctor Who, right? If even the worst missing episode is suddenly returned to us, we’re super-excited to scrutinize it.

On the positive side it is still fun to see the Doctor riding his bike all through Cambridge, and he and Lalla Ward do have nice chemistry together, including with Denis Carey’s Chronotis. The idea of a Time Lord hiding himself as a university professor for several generations (with his rooms being his disguised TARDIS) is extremely clever, and the notions of a Time Lord prison-planet or a book that time is moving upon backwards are all intriguing. It’s just a shame they weren’t all put together in a more tightly plotted adventure with stronger character work. Maybe it’s better in the webcast version? Who knows.

And there is an odd surprise at the very end of the presentation. In the last scene the story returns to the TARDIS, with the Doctor working under the console while Romana is in the next room, while they are chatting to each other. Conspicuously, neither character is visible, and though this is presented in live-action and not animation, it is immediately apparent that this is not original footage, but rather something filmed for this new version.

Suddenly, there is a bang in the TARDIS controls and the Doctor stands up…and we see it’s Tom Baker himself, in all his glorious 80+ years. He delivers his last line (” I expect at some time in the future, about two hundred years time, someone will meet me and say, is that really the Doctor? He seemed such a nice old man”) and then laughs directly to the camera.

It doesn’t really make sense from a story point of view (although, maybe whatever happened to the TARDIS at that moment temporarily aged the Doctor), but it’s a nice treat.

3 thoughts on “Shada [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. All three of producer Graham Williams’ seasons for Doctor Who ends with Tom Baker smiling in the final shot. This new Shada version honours that quite wonderfully.

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