Doctor Who: Forty Years Of ‘Shada’

❉  How do the different versions of the famously uncompleted TV serial compare? Don Klees takes a punt.

For a series whose onscreen convictions include the notion that “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!,” Doctor Who prompts an astonishing degree of discussion about the what-ifs, especially from its behind-the-scenes history. Analysis of stories never produced and forensic examination of the actors who nearly got cast in the ones that did get made continue to generate sufficient material to fill multiple books. Starting in the 1980s, some of those books attempted to articulate what those unmade stories might have been like in the form of novelizations of the scripts or – in the case of The Masters of Luxor – the scripts themselves. More recently, Big Finish Productions’ Lost Stories range of audio dramas has succeeded in making many of these roads-not-taken feel somewhat more concrete.

Whatever the medium, though, even the most skillful evocation of a given period of Doctor Who is very different than a television production would have been, making them just indicators of what the stories could have been rather than a definitive version. Even among televised Doctor Who, home video has blurred the lines of what constitutes definitive, with several “Special Edition” releases that rework the original stories, usually incorporating new or previously un-broadcast material. Parallel to this, animated reconstructions of episodes missing from the BBC’s archives hint at what the past offered but inevitably live somewhere between history and homage.

Nothing from Doctor Who’s six-decade history embodies this concept more than the legendary unfinished story Shada, written by the even more legendary Douglas Adams, who was also the series Script Editor at the time. Commissioned as the final serial of the series’ seventeenth season, Shada would have premiered 40 years ago this month. The BBC strike that left its production half-finished led to numerous efforts to finish the story in some fashion. Between novelizations, a home video release of the existing footage with Tom Baker summarizing the missing scenes, two animated reconstructions of the un-filmed scenes and a semi-animated webcast audio-drama featuring a completely different Doctor, over a half-dozen known iterations currently exist. While these attempts vary in quality, the effort that went into then is undeniable.

Whether Shada actually merited so many distinct versions is a separate question. Not unlike The Tomb of the Cybermen, whose status as a classic remains rooted in the years spent missing from the BBC Archives, Shada’s reputation rests more on the drama surrounding the production’s cancellation than the onscreen narrative. It’s a celebration of what the story could have been, presumed to be brilliant because it was the work of a genius. That is, of course, a different thing than a work of genius, and no one understood this better than the genius who wrote the script and later said of it, “I just don’t think it’s up to much.”

Even allowing for the truism that great artists tend to be their own worst critics, it’s hard to dismiss Adams’ assessment outright. The completed material is often clever and charming, however, a good deal of it feels self-indulgent, displaying the worst tendencies of its era. In the late-70s, the series often felt more like “The Tom Baker Show” than Doctor Who. Baker’s mercurial personality made even many substandard scripts entertaining, but it wasn’t a sustainable path for Doctor Who, which should be informed by its star’s personality rather than dominated by it.

By that measure, the most satisfying dramatized edition remains the BBC webcast edition produced to celebrate Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary. At the time, it felt like the closest fans would get to both seeing Paul McGann onscreen again as the Doctor and a completed production of Shada. Though the Flash-animation work isn’t terribly dynamic – even by 2003 standards – McGann’s vocal performance provides enough spark to make the story feel consequential but never overwhelms it. If this production sacrifices some of the original script’s freewheeling energy, it allows Adams’ inventive ideas to come through more clearly.

Gareth Roberts’ 2012 novelization walks a similar line. Starting with the opening paragraph, describing the villain Skagra’s mindset when he decides God doesn’t exist, the book pays homage Adams’ writing style and attitude while going to great pains to emphasize how it fits into Doctor Who at large. To some extent both qualities were to be expected, but the latter seems ill-suited to the source material.

For all the dialogue about Time Lord lore and plans for the original production to feature flashbacks to previous stories and brief appearances by a Dalek and Cyberman, Shada still feels more like a standalone story than part of a larger saga. Backstory about the quest for the Key to Time and references to more recent additions to canon such as temporal orbit and the Carrionites feel surplus to requirements. The end result is enjoyable and clearly informed by great affection for Douglas Adams and his work but also feels like product is a way that feels at odds with its inspiration.

Of all the iterations of Shada, the 2017 animated version generated the most fanfare due the return of Tom Baker to record the missing dialogue with the majority of the original cast. Baker’s presence in particular gives it an air of definitiveness the other editions can’t match. Despite alternating between live-action and animation, it actually feels fairly cohesive, thanks in large part to the incidental music, composed by Mark Ayres in the style of the late Dudley Simpson. Behind-the-scenes discussions of Doctor Who tend to focus on Producers and Script Editors, but Simpson, who served as the show’s primary composer in the 1970s, contributed as much to the aesthetics of that era as anyone. Having a score that matched his approach was a much better fit than Keff McCulloch’s music from the 1992 home-video release.

Nevertheless, that version ultimately feels truest in spirit to what Shada would have been like in the parallel universe where the completed first episode premiered on the 19th of January in 1980. Considering Douglas Adams’ well-documented feelings about the release, which reputedly led to the author donating his royalties to Comic Relief rather than benefit from material he deemed unworthy, this might constitute heresy in some circles. Nevertheless, Baker’s on-camera linking material makes this release just as much “The Tom Baker Show” as his late ’70s appearances as the Doctor. For better it worse, it’s an honest document of both Shada’s flaws and its potential, which is what any Doctor Who story should reveal when viewed with 40 years of hindsight.


❉ ‘Shada’ in media: Big Finish full cast audio drama | BBC Books novel | DVD (Doctor Who: The Legacy Collection) | Blu-Ray available to order from www.amazon.co.uk.

 Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture,  Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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