Doctor Who (Classic): S17E06* “Shada”

Season 17
Directed by Pennant Roberts (1979) and Charles Norton (2017)
Written by Douglas Adams

It’s been a while since I last checked in with Doctor Who and it will be a little bit longer before regular coverage returns I’m sorry to say as I have another lengthy project to finish first.  It’s also a vast departure for the series as not only am I heading into the vast unknown for myself in terms of watching a serial for the first time as part of the coverage, but we are also skipping way out of order.  From Season 6 and the Second Doctor to Season 17 and the Fourth Doctor.  With that being said, my apologies up front if I miss more than usual in the intricacies of The Doctor, his relationship with his companion, or the format of the show at that point, but let’s consider this a fun experiment.

I say Season 17, but in actuality, today’s serial never aired on television as part of that season.  “Shada” was intended to be that season’s closing, but it was killed by a strike at the BBC (involving the children’s show Play School) that left it incomplete.  Part of the serial was used in The Five Doctors and it was later recreated in approximate form with linking narration by Tom Baker (the Fourth Doctor), but last year, the BBC finally created an animated restoration of the project (there was an unofficial one completed in 2011) as it had done before with the more traditionally lost episodes and bringing back the original cast to record new audio for it.  While I tried to get a hold of it when it went on sale last year, they delayed its American release, presumably for this showing on BBC America.  The story is also notable because it was written by script editor Douglas Adams who is best known for his work on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently.  He would also write Season 16’s “The Pirate Planet” and heavily rewrote the acclaimed “City of Death”, but “Shada” has held a certain mystique for its “lost” status.

The show threw me for a loop as it opened on a cold open.  The cold open is standard practice on NuWho, but in the classic era it was rare and hadn’t yet come up in my coverage (Season 7’s “The Ambassadors of Death” was the first use of one).  It features a bunch of people seizing up around a sphere, a sphere which a scarred man departs the Foundation for the Study of Advanced Sciences leaves under quarantine.  The sphere is a psychoactive extractive and steals part of their mind.  The episode proper continues in modern day Cambridge with an old professor (Denis Carey) who has come into possession of the TARDIS and a strange book.  Turns out the professor is a Time Lord as well.  He has sent for The Doctor and his companion Romana II (Lalla Ward) over a rare and powerful Gallifreyan book and some screaming, screaming that we hear separately emanating from the sphere.

There’s been a clear upgrade in quality in special effects (obviously) in the intervening decade, but they have lost none of the low budget charm.  Probably most shocking is how professional the Earth set scenes look and sound.  It looks like a real television show!  The first animation starts up 11 minutes in and it is much more dynamic that the typical Doctor Who fare.  It maintains the same visual style, but the lighting, shadows, smoothness of animation, and complexity have all been markedly improved.  It’s not something I’ve ever thought was necessary, I’m just grateful I don’t have to watch those damn slide shows, but it sure does improve the experience.  The series is remarkably intact though and the audio while noticeably coming from older actors, still sounds good.  There’s even a fun little surprise at the end of the episode.

With the scarred man searching for the book, the professor is killed (as he was apparently on his last regeneration) by the sphere but before he dies, he warns of Skagra (the flamboyantly dressed and scarred man played by Christopher Neame) and Shada and The Doctor vows revenge for his friend.  Not that it matters as the professor is saved in secret by a paradox thanks to the random bumbling of a person in Cambridge.  Skagra wishes to unite all knowledge in the universe into his mind and wishes to use the book to find the mysterious Gallifreyan prison of Shada and the prisoner of Salyavin within who is the key to all his plans (using his ability to gift people knowledge with his glowy eye).  Little does he know, that Salyavin is actually the professor.

As a villain he might be much more effective as a four episode one, but man does Skagra get tiring and his speechifying repetitive.  His Krarg servants looked straight out of something from the show a decade ago though watching K-9 continually laser a giant plated monster in the crotch is a joy to behold.  The most fun to be had is in The Doctor, as Four proves here to be in cleverer than the First or Second Doctors.  He still has that madness to him, and the way that he logics his way around an AI is the highlight of the episode.  He’s a humorous Doctor full of plenty of quipping to others and I really like the chemistry he has with Romana.   She seems to be if not on even footing with him, at least close and not afraid to call The Doctor out.  She’s a compelling character of her own accord and the show doesn’t slow down at all when it focuses on her and not him.

In general, there’s a lighter, looser feel to the show and I think it works well.  I can’t say I’d want to watch more episodes out of order as this was a bit of an awkward feeling experience and I do miss seeing the changes and being able to comment on the gradual development, but it was a fun experiment.  That’s not to say it was an especially good serial.  Baker and Ward are a treat but it’s also repetitive and tedious especially in the second half.  I’d love to see what they do with better material sometime in the far future when I actually get to their run.

Grade: C+

Stray Observations
– The serial was also remade by Big Finish as an audiobook starring the Eighth Doctor instead of the Fourth
– This is the last use of Delia Derbyshire arrangement of the theme which had been in use since 1967.
– It’s also the end of Graham Williams’s time as producer, Adams’s time as script editor, David Brierley’s replacement stint as voice of K9, the Fourth Doctor’s distinctive scarf, and the second version of the TARDIS.
– This would be the final six-part serial of the show’s run and barring a The Trial of a Time Lord (which was still divided into smaller segments) and the show would not exceed four episodes going forward.  I’ve made it clear in the past that I found the move to six-episode standard a poor one for the show that just filled it with padding.  Maybe they worked it out more in the interim how to better use those extra two episodes (aside from this serial), but I am certainly not going to bemoan their loss going forward (or rather I wouldn’t be if I wasn’t going to be heading back in time next).
– People complaining about how overpowering Murray Gold’s music is have clearly never seen a serial from this era if this one is anything to go by.
– There’s a flurry of clips from previous episodes at one point that for me instead acts as a preview for the future
– The Doctor is depicted speaking in Gallifreyan which is certainly new for me
– This Week in Cliffhangers: The Doctor as played by a modern-day Tom Baker shows up tinkering on the TARDIS with K-9 “I expected sometime in the future in about 200 years’ time, someone will meet me and say ‘Is that really the Doctor? He seemed such a nice old man'” before laughing like a madman.  It’s delightful

Next Up: “The Mind Robber” in due time