‘The Black Archive #10: Scream of The Shalka’ reviewed

❉ A victim of timing as much as of its own flaws, Scream of the Shalka remains a fascinating glimpse into an alternative vision for Doctor Who.

Scream of the Shalka is a rare beast within the Doctor Who canon; a story quickly forgotten and completely overshadowed by the news that the show was due to return to television. Rather than an exciting start to a new era, it was rendered obsolete before it even made it online as the centrepiece of BBC Online’s celebration of Doctor Who’s fortieth anniversary in 2003. It was something of a surprise therefore that this animated story was chosen as the subject for Obverse Books’ Black Archives series, which look in depth at Doctor Who, one story at a time.

Author Jon Arnold takes the story’s obsolete status as his starting point, looking on it, as he says, “ (not about) Doctor Who’s triumphant return. It’s the story of something equally interesting; a glimpse of what might have been.”  The book starts with a short but comprehensive look at how Scream of the Shalka came to be commissioned, building on the success of BBC Online’s webcasts like 2001’s Death Comes to Time and 2003’s recreation of Douglas Adams’ Shada.

Arnold takes the irresistible approach of comparing Scream of the Shalka to Russell T Davies’s Rose, which brought Doctor Who triumphantly back to the screen in 2005. Both served to reintroduce the show to the masses. Both approached this task in different ways, with RTD aiming for a more populist reintroduction than Paul Cornell did. The contrasts are made starkly throughout the book, especially so in Arnold’s character study of the Shalka Doctor (as played by Richard E Grant). The contrasts between Grant’s Doctor and Eccleston’s are made astutely, with comparisons between the Shalka Doctor’s highbrow interests in opera and classical music, as opposed to the more viewer friendly Heat reading Doctor in Rose. Arnold finds the Shalka Doctor has far more in common with the Doctors of the 1970s than those seen in the series post 2005. He concludes that this incarnation of the Doctor is one you’d have to think twice about wanting to travel with and it’s hard to disagree with that.

Equally interesting is his look at the character of Alison, the Doctor’s companion. Arnold draws the conclusion that in many ways she’s the bridge between the companions of the classic series and those of the new series. Again, Arnold compares and contrasts Alison with Rose, finding that although Alison’s character is progressive compared to what went before her, she’s not quite the central figure that Rose would be in 2005. The companion role is very much subservient to that of the Doctor in Scream of the Shalka, and as Arnold says, that shows this story is not is “not willing to push the show beyond a traditional model”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book comes in the appendices, where Arnold speculates how this side-step could fit into the established continuity of Doctor Who. Although this ninth Doctor was quickly rendered non-canonical by the Christopher Eccleston version, Arnold finds a variety of ways that this Doctor could be accepted. This includes imaginatively using Richard E Grant’s appearance as the Great Intelligence possessed Dr Simeon in the Matt Smith era as a model for the Doctor’s face. I won’t spoil how this might work for any potential readers, but it seemed convincing to this reader.

Even more interesting is the chapter looking at the potential future adventures for the Shalka Doctor. As it turned out there was only one further appearance of this incarnation, the online text story, The Feast of the Stone by Mark Wright and Cavan Scott, but there were several contenders for the second animated adventure.  The one ultimately commissioned and partially written was Blood of the Robots by horror writer Simon Clark. There is some interesting material from Clark on his experience of writing included and a full synopsis of the story, which gives a fascinating insight into what came close to being the second animated Doctor Who story.

The attention to detail and meticulous research is evident, with references thoroughly referenced throughout, but this does not mean this is a dry read. It’s a very enjoyable read which will hopefully inspire more fans to do what I’ve done and go back to take another look at this story and see what was and what could have been from one of the many ninth Doctors. This was my first dip into The Black Archives, but somehow I don’t think it’ll be my last.

❉ ‘The Black Archive #10: Scream of The Shalka’ by Jon Arnold is published by Obverse Books on 1 March 2017, RRP £6.99 

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