Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Serial 108.5: Shada

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor), Paul McGann (8th Doctor)
Companions: Romana II, K-9

Written by: Douglas Adams, Gary Russell (audio adaptation), Gareth Roberts (novelization)
Directed by: Pennant Roberts (and Gary Russell)

Background & Significance: As of the day I'm posting this, there are 106 episodes missing from the Doctor Who archives. The number would be 108, but two were returned to the archives last December and the number decreased accordingly. Unfortunately, those missing episodes were the first recoveries in eight years and it's doubtful many more will ever be recovered. To travel in the other direction, Doctor Who is going to outlast all of us because it's infinitely malleable and so long as stories exist, Doctor Who has the potential to exist. I'll be sad if there's Doctor Who stories still coming out after I die, but if there aren't I'll probably more disappointed than I ever would be sad.

As fans, this leaves us with the notion that Doctor Who has created a need that will never truly be satisfied. There are points where you might burn out on Doctor Who, but you'll always come back because you will always want your experience to be as complete as possible to make up for the fact that there's one in ten episodes that you will never see, and because there's stories that will air long after you die that you'll never see because you're, well, dead. We're obsessed with the gaping hole left simply by being Doctor Who fans, by the infinite wealth and treasure trove we alone are privy to and the wasted opportunities strikes us as inherently wasteful, because why waste a good story?

Which brings us to "Shada".

"Shada" is the only Doctor Who story that can never truly be "complete". Unlike those stories missing from the archives, (which hypothetically could be returned despite its unlikelihood) "Shada" was completely written, partially produced, and never completed, which is entirely different.

The serial was intended to be the last big hurrah of the Graham Williams era. Williams himself was really done with the program by this point, and between Tom Baker's increasing irritability and not being able to get a budget near what he wanted it to be (it's never near what you want it to be, which is, inevitably, "infinity dollars" (or "infinity pounds" as this case might be)) he decided to go out on an story penned by his script editor, Douglas Adams, one that would be funny and delightful and rompy and basically everything Williams ever wanted his era to be. He even planned for it to have a good budget, having been recently slammed his first two seasons by failing to account for a big, six-part season finale, which is why "The Invasion of Time" and "The Armageddon Factor" are so insanely, unbelievably cheap-looking. So he pinched his pennies and made "The Nightmare of Eden" and "Horns of Nimon" (and even "Creature From the Pit") on an unusually small and tight budget.

It was all looking to go awesome. There would be Time Lord intrigue (which Williams always worked into his season finales) and Douglas Adams's own particular brand of humor and lots of money so he could go out on a proper note.

And then this labour dispute happened in December and they targeted Doctor Who because Doctor Who was a really good target that would get their point across. Williams fought to get the whole thing done in time and did good on the location work and made some progress on the studio time, but the labour dispute turned even more sour, the BBC postponed all recording dates in December, and because Christmas programs were way more important to the BBC than Doctor Who, Williams found it impossible to schedule the five recording dates he needed to finish the story and get the whole thing done before the story would actually make it to air.

So Williams's planned swansong never aired and "Horns of Nimon" became his legacy.

The part that stings most about this is that Williams had half a complete serial, and that's the part that I think gets in most people's heads about this. The whole story is a big ol' question mark that's gotten Doctor Who fans since it first didn't air. (And who can blame them? Just hearing the titular "Shada" is a Time Lord prison is enough to kick your brain into overdrive. I know it was a story I became particularly enraptured with when I first became aware of it. Hell, I still am and I'm not even a Douglas Adams fan) The fact that we'll never see it as it "should have" existed is the biggest kick in the teeth and the one that pushes Doctor Who fans from "intense curiosity" to "obsessive need."

How obsessive a need, you might ask? Well, plenty of people have attempted to get a faithful retelling of Shada up and running for years and years. Ian Levine did one in the early 80s with script inserts in place of scenes that weren't filmed (and apparently now has a cut of the film that he personally financed with animation to fill in the gaps that weren't filmed). Nathan-Turner worked after the show's cancellation to secure Tom Baker to provide linking narration to the existing clips to piece the whole thing together in a way that would make it make sense, getting a home video release in 1992, which remains the best he could do. Big Finish got permission from Douglas Adams's estate to produce an audio adaptation of Shada with animatics to visualize the story as best as possible. Because they couldn't get Tom Baker to reprise his role they asked then-incumbent Doctor Paul McGann to be The Doctor for the story and adapter Gary Russell wrote around it in such a way that it made sense. This was released in May of 2003.

Fast forward to this year: for the first time, Adams's Doctor Who story has been novelized by Gareth Roberts based on Douglas Adams's script and notes. It's the first time an Adams Doctor Who story has been novelized.

It's been an unsurprising obsession, but my question becomes "so how is it?" We have three different source texts to work with: Nathan-Turner's Tom Baker narrated home video release in 1992, Gary Russell's 8th Doctor Big Finish audio/animatic adaptation in 2003, and Gareth Roberts's novelization. I think it'd be a good idea to talk about all three of these and see which one works best, which one doesn't, and how do they all add up to the larger picture of the swansong Williams (and Adams) never got? Not only that, but how do these two Doctors' interpretations compare? It was written for Tom Baker, but how does Paul McGann do?  Was Douglas Adams really a great Doctor Who writer? Can we as a mass collective of Doctor Who fans ever move on?

Strap in, kids. This is gonna be a long one.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

Before I get going in any real capacity on this, I guess I should mention that I’m not a huge Douglas Adams fan. My first experience with him was in seventh grade when my language arts teacher handed me The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and told me to read it. I thought it was tremendously funny and clever but not so memorable that I remember large parts of it now (then again, that was a decade ago…). I know I liked it enough to go onto The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which I only barely managed to hold onto while I read it. It wasn’t nearly the accessible work as Hitchhiker’s was. But I remember I liked it enough to move onto Life, The Universe, and Everything, which I remember not understanding one iota and putting down having had a truly dreadful reading experience and two hundred pages that I quite literally didn’t understand at all. All I remember now is it being about cricket and our heroes having to go on some totemic quest to assemble the perfect cricket game (or some such nonsense) and the whole thing was so off-putting that I completely lost interest in the entire Hitchhiker’s franchise and wrote the whole thing off as “not for me.”

Granted, I haven’t gone back and looked into Life, The Universe, and Everything despite knowing now that it was an idea/proposal Adams originally had for his run on Doctor Who originally called “Doctor Who and the Krikketmen”. The BBC rejected the proposal and Adams, having a waste-not attitude about the thing just adapted it into his more successful Hitchhiker’s run. And good for him. It was something he clearly enjoyed even though it made no sense to me at the time (and I’ve heard from other Hitchhiker’s fans that that one comes off a bit naff), but that doesn’t mean it came out good. (And clearly I have some residual issues with that book that I still need to deal with because we’re gonna be at five hundred words before I even start talking about this part one, but there is a point, I promise) I should also mention that I’ve never gone back and re-read the original Hitchhiker’s Guide despite the fact that it’s a cornerstone for 20th Century British literature. Nor have I seen the movie despite it having a tremendously wonderful cast, although I did see a few minutes of it a few months ago because my roommate was watching it and I found it impossibly frenetic and scattershot (which is how I find I remember the novel so they got that right?)  Adams, it must be said, was never one to focus on structure. Me? I’m something of a structure nut. I love structure in just about everything.. Good construction is my bag.

So Adams? I’m not the guy’s biggest fan.

Your mileage may vary.

Coming into this story and viewing both the BBCi webcast and the 1992 home video release, I’m struck by the different approaches they both take just to get into the story. The home video release (because of their use of Tom Baker to link the missing scenes of the story through narration) begins with some big narrations from him to introduce that the story was never completed and that we’re about to watch what they have. It should be noted, too, that John Nathan-Turner was mostly responsible for getting Tom Baker back to do the narration and Nathan-Turner’s colorful interpretation of history is all over the opening in which The Doctor walks through a museum of his/The Doctor’s old foes and monsters and when he comes across a Krarg it triggers his memory of Shada and he shares the story with us.

But before the Krarg there's Cybermen, Daleks, Davros, the giant Robot, an Ice Warrior, Yeti, a samurai warriors from Warriors’ Gate… and a fucking Vervoid. No Zygons, Sontarans, Wirrn, or Krynoids. Oh Nathan-Turner. Never fucking change.

The webcast is totally different. The webcast, which was adapted by the ever-continuity-obsessed Gary Russell. For the webcast, there’s a four minute intro that spends its time accounting for the fact that there’s Shada footage in “The Five Doctors,” and saying that the events of “The Five Doctors” and the time-stasis the 4th Doctor gets stuck in as a result of Borusa’s trying to pull him into the Games of Rassilon resulted in The Doctor and Romana leaving Cambridge before the story could even begin (specifically, they met Professor Chronotis) and now The Doctor, in his 8th incarnation, returns to Gallifrey, to Romana (who is President of the Time Lords in then-current Big Finish continuity) and K-9 to return to Cambridge and actually piece together the puzzle of what was supposed to happen. So really, they get to Shada because the 4th Doctor never got to.

Breath. Okay.

My biggest problem with this is that Russell assumes I care. I mean, just make the 8th Doctor grab Romana and K-9 for a holiday at Cambridge. All of these things do not require explaining. I don’t care. Let’s just do the Shada. You don’t need to justify the story’s existence right up front. I mean, it’s cute that you do and really the only people who are going to sit through this are Doctor Who fans because no one else is REALLY going to care. So I get that you needed to do it, but it cuts out swaths of the Adams script that were quite delightful. There’s something tranquil about The Doctor and Romana punting down that river that’s missing from the Russell adaptation (because it already happened, guys), and it really kinda hurts the thing.

And really, if you spend your time explaining why the 8th Doctor is in this story versus the 4th Doctor, the opening bit is going to be terribly problematic no matter what you do. So Russell cobbles his telling of the story before we’re even into it.

As a first episode, though, this is fine, I guess. It’s incredibly slow and doesn’t really have any desire to move very quickly and not a whole hell of a lot happens. You have The Doctor and Romana relaxing a bit before going to visit Professor Chronotis (which is as silly an Adams name if I ever heard one), whom The Doctor has been trying to visit for several incarnations at this point. And you have them hanging out with Chronotis and then searching for a book (The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, which is another totally Adamsian silliness) that was taken from the study by some chap named Chris just a few minutes before.

Watching the actually-filmed footage, though, I’m left struck by how much Graham Williams was never able to escape his era’s aesthetic. That’s not probably fair, I think. The white walled spaceship and goofy outfits are clearly something he’s interested in and watching it I’m instantly transported right into his late 70s Who aesthetic.

It’s also worth mentioning (again) that this is a story Williams knew would be his ending. This was his “Talons”. He fought to make this awesome, sacrificing the budgetary quality of other stories in this season for the sake of this one. And it’s interesting that Williams recognizes the quality of “City of Death” even while watching this. All of the location work positively screams “City of Death” in terms of its use of location filming. Cambridge is shot to show off Cambridge. And director Pennant Roberts is channeling his inner Michael Hayes, at least in terms of this episode.

The rest of this, though… Chronotis’s study is not a place I’m interested in spending a whole hell of a lot of time. But all of the scenes in this that aren’t locations take place in Chronotis’s study and it’s… It’s just a weird choice. First you have Chronotis making tea for Chris and then you have him making tea for The Doctor and it feels repetitive in the worst of ways. On top of everything, all of the scenes are completely lacking in any sort of drama and conflict. And fine. The Doctor, Romana, Chris, and Chronotis are not around to antagonize each other, but it feels impossibly sterile, especially given that Skagra is relegated to walking around menacingly and looking like one of the most absurd Doctor Who villains I’ve ever seen.

And for comparison, I’ll remind you that this aired just a week after this happened.

It’s interesting that they choose to go for vague menace rather than anything else here. There’s even a monster reveal at the end of the episode (our first look at a Krarg) and it’s really just around to go “oh no look at the evil scary monster that we haven’t seen do anything yet”. God. The most we see Skagra do is steal a weird sphere from a bunch of people who are sleeping. As far as scenes go I can’t imagine it’s well written (it’s silent, so it has that going for it) and it’s not exactly spectacularly well directed (people flopping around like fish; yay). But I’m already predisposed to not take him too seriously, especially because (and this is in every incarnation) he reviews footage from The Doctor’s previous adventures, specifically from Williams’s last few seasons.

This is striking because it’s clearly Williams telling everyone that we’re going out on a bang. It’s like how the first episode of “Planet of the Spiders” had a bunch of call backs to previous Pertwee adventures that were awesome. It’s a bringing-it-full-circle thing and Williams telling us that this Skagra guy (okay, he’s not called Skagra yet, but that’s his name. it’s coming) is going to be prepared when he goes up against The Doctor. He’s doing his research. He’s hitting the books. He’s making sure he’s going into this whole thing prepared. And good for him. Every other villain got their ass kicked because they were completely unprepared. But this guy. He’s totally real. Look at his outfit.

Ugh. I hate the outfit. When I first heard this story and they said “white suit” I was imagining something  totally Bond. Scaroth 2.0. No. This guy’s just ridiculous. And his name is Skagra. What is it with Douglas Adams and names that start with a “Sk-“ sound?

I feel like that’s going to be a theme. “What is it with Adams and…?” That sounds healthy. Onward!

Part 2:

Part of the reason I don’t gravitate towards Adams is because I’m not one for his style of humor, and because that’s a big selling point for him, that pretty much sinks him to me. Without his humor, Adams is nothing.

That’s not a slam. God knows I’m in the minority (again, Hitchhiker’s Guide is a cornerstone of 20th Century British literature) and Adams is one of those people who is actually objectively funny. He reminds me of Joss Whedon in the sense that Whedon’s work always manages to be funny from a very pure “laugh out loud” angle. The Avengers is a damn funny movie partially because the humor is so natural and simple. None of the jokes in that movie are narratively complex or insane wacky zany left turns (a la Anchorman, which is the funniest movie of the last decade as far as I’m concerned).

So I can look at a piece of Adams’s work and objectively say “yes. This is funny.” But it doesn’t make me laugh or strike me at my funny bone.

Take Professor Chronotis. Chronotis is a bumbling, absent-minded professor character. He can’t seem to get anything straight or keep it all together in his head and so just about every single line of his is designed to make you laugh because he’s such an unintentional goofball. He can’t remember the name of the guy who took the Most Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey book from his study (the guy’s name is Chris Parsons) and so starts at the top of the alphabet and goes letter by letter until he reaches the letter that reminds him of the fellow’s name. And no. The letter isn’t “C” or “P”, it’s “Y” (which Chronotis got to by skipping from “R” to “X” so he saved that bit of time; also lol?) for “Young Parsons”. Which is just absurd. And yes. Funny in its own way. But it didn’t make me laugh.

God. Look at me. I sound like Romney. “I enjoy humor.”

What’s interesting is that I don’t… I don’t know how to take it. The tone of this story is not really defined. Adams writes it as a silly, comedic romp, but then goes and has Professor Chronotis killed at the hands of Skagra’s evil sphere in this episode. Going through the story all three times (why am I doing this?) it’s always struck me as a truly bizarre moment because I’m not sure which way we’re supposed to read the moment. I mean, it’s the death of a fairly significant character at the hands of the villain. So it’s an “oh shit” moment? But it’s REALLY early for this death to have any real impact (episode four or five is a better point, and regardless of how many words I’ve written so far, we’re only in episode two) and Adams plays the death with a moment of dark comedy that’s more comedy than dark. I mean, Chronotis goes out beating his hearts in Gallifreyan morse code to communicate to Romana his dying thoughts.

And then he dies. As far as deaths go, it’s the Adams equivalent of this.

I’m not convinced. I know that it’s supposed to be a song and dance until Chronotis returns (oops, spoiler, he’s coming back in a later part. You didn’t really think Adams was going to kill his biggest comic foil in the whole story, did you?) and I appreciate that Adams doesn’t jerk around the fact that Chronotis by episode two was already a tired subject, with nothing going for him beyond his bumbling and absent-mindedness. I’m still not sure how it’s played, though.

Part of that is the direction. The director’s job is to set the tone for a story and convey particular beats in a way that makes the whole thing hold together. But it’s almost like Roberts hasn’t the faintest idea how to make any of this work. The whole scene comes across as stilted and awkward, and bless Lalla Ward for doing her best to make the comic moment come through. Hell, bless Lalla Ward for making all the comedy that Adams wrote into the story work as well as it does. Her explanation for how to get the medical kit is silly and serious and Adams’s playing with the heightened reality of Time Lords among us is his best work in the story if you ask me. Poor Chris Parsons. The kid has absolutely no idea what’s going on and is barely able to keep up.

On The Doctor side we have him going out and looking for the book and returning, only to be confronted by Skagra and chased by a large silver sphere which is portentous of bad (obviously).

This leaves us with a “great” chase scene through the Cambridge area with The Doctor on a bike.

Now, this is a big moment for the story. It’s our first set piece! Yayyyy! And it also shows that this was a vast majority of the location shooting for the serial because, well, it musta been. There’s lots of great stuff in here (Roberts has two great POV shots: one of The Doctor getting chased and one of The Doctor looking back to see the sphere on approach) but it really comes off as… lackluster. I get what they’re trying to do here and a bike chase is wonderfully thrilling in theory, but the whole thing lacks a sense of energy for some reason. And when you’re being outdone by a webcast with tremendously shitty animation you know you’re doing something wrong.

Part of this is because there’s no real narrative. It’s clear that Adams wrote in the script “The Doctor is chased through Cambridge; he parks his bike on a pole on which there’s a sign that says “No Cycling”” etc. But it’s not really there to accomplish anything except Adams saying “I guess we need a chase here.”

And fine. That’s chases. That’s why we have them. To ramp us into something exciting and engaging. But it’s like Adams doesn’t even have an interest in making it anything more than as is. It’s clearly not what he’s interested in (humor is the watchword) and it’s only there to be obligatory. I’m not one for that mentality. Having things just to have them is a terrible idea because then you’re just creating noise. You’re just saying words without having any meaning to them. It’s like saying Superman Returns is a shitty movie because Superman didn’t throw a single punch. My god. Superman doesn’t need to throw a punch. It’s cool, but it doesn’t need to happen.

In Williams’s defense, the scene as written was to take place at night. Night shoots back in the Classic series were a real rarity and rarely done because of the price attached, but when you see night locations it's always impressive.

Unfortunately, like with the microcosm of Shada itself, Williams was unable to have night shoots and had the whole thing re-written to take place during the day. I’m sure the nightshoots would have helped, as Skagra and an empty, cobble-stoned Cambridge is much more Gothic and creepy during the night time, but I’m not sure how much it would have helped. It wouldn’t have hurt it, certainly, but I’m still not convinced there’s anything to save this particular chase sequence.

So, so far we have two parts in which very little has happened. If you find it funny it is, but there’s a real lack of energy all through it that isn’t helping the situation. I don’t know if that’s Adams holding back for the story moving forward (there are four parts to go, after all), but I will say that it’s not quite gotten the story off on the right foot. Yes, Skagra has the book, but that’s only bad because we’re told it’s bad. I’ve yet to see Skagra do something truly evil or “kick the dog” as it were, and that’s just left him as an extremely bland, poorly clothed villain. Everything in this so far was better done in “City of Death” and while it’s probably not fair for me to compare every single bit of this story to that one (because very little in the world of Doctor Who beats “City of Death”) it’s because the comparisons are so easy. It’s not a stretch to drop Julian Glover in as Skagra and pretend like that’s the real thing. Nor is it a stretch to think of Chris Parsons as Duggan but very, very bland and uninteresting. Duggan at least was funny. Chris is just… a guy.

Part 3:

So the webcast of this episode clocks in at just over twenty minutes (including credits) while the reconstruction clocks in at just over seventeen.

And it’s still boring.

Now there’s a lot to like here, or at least, a whole lot of potential. The stuff with The Doctor is actually a little bit fantastic. His confrontation with Skagra is entertaining enough (or at least, it is in the bits that have it; it is not in the reconstruction). But where it truly excels is in the conversation The Doctor has with the computer. It’s best in the novel, surely (mostly the computer is the best in the novel, but I’ll get to that in a minute), but Douglas Adams perfectly blends humor and stakes in the conversation in which The Doctor has to convince the computer that he’s dead from Skagra’s hand. That’s a conversation right in Tom Baker’s wheelhouse. And a great one at that.

I guess this is a good time to bring up the novelization by Gareth Roberts.

First off, at four hundred pages this novel is way too fucking long. Like the story, the novel feels completely dragged out and way too slow in places. I’m in favor of a story that gives the story pace and motion because there’s no real reason for this novelization to drag as much as it does. I listened to the audiobook (read by Lalla Ward) and the whole thing came out to eleven and a half hours total. Which (to cover a two and a half hour story) is rather ludicrous. I understand that Roberts wants to put texture and meat into the novelization, but there’s points where it just feels airy and slack and parts three and four and even a little of five are absolutely the most guilty of this.

What the book did, however, was take certain opportunities to flesh out things like the computer’s relationship with Skagra which is… well… it’s  damn funny, isn’t it?

See, in the novel, Roberts pushes the computer to be completely in love and totally infatuated with Skagra and everything about him. It’s a delightful commentary on the relationships creators imbue their creations with and Skagra (being impossibly egomaniacal) pushes that boundary to about as far as you can push it. This computer ADORES him and will stop at nothing to please the ever loving shit out of him. To compound to the humor, Skagra has absolutely no patience for his computer, which he finds insufferable and often in the way of expediency. It’s brilliant.

This fleshing out is wonderful, in particular the scene in which Skagra orders the computer to read The Worshipful And Ancient Law Of Gallifrey to him. The computer delays it as long as possible on technicalities and then starts reading “phonetically” (as in “Squiggle squiggle squiggle squiggle line wavy line").

Honestly, these texture bits add to the novel, but scenes often go on for long it’s hard to keep my attention. It’s sad to see padding on top of padding. At least the computer scene is saying something humorous about what I was talking about earlier and gets to a central relationship important (Skagra treats the computer poorly and that will come back to bite him later). It’s a relationship almost completely missing from the TV version (they didn’t have a chance to shoot much of any of Skagra’s ship aside from the prison cell) and the audio version skimps out on because all that’s important is the computer show up later to asphyxiate The Doctor.

Sure, there’s other good things. I suppose the invisible spaceship is enjoyable. But that’s about it.

No, the problem that hits this story and hits it hard is its structure.

Here we are in episode three and what do we know? Not much. We have The Doctor and Romana and Chris on Skagra’s spaceship, but we still don’t really know what his point or goal is. All we know is that he needs this book. But he can’t read it so he tries to steal The Doctor’s mind and when that doesn’t work (or does it, it’s not exactly clear in the storytelling) he steals Romana and doesn’t seem to want to drain her brain. All he wants is to take her to the TARDIS. Chris/Romana/K-9 spend the back half of this episode essentially benched in the cell on Skagra’s ship.

Oh and there’s that whole thing with Claire where she goes to Chronotis’s study, finds he’s not there, leaves, talks to someone about how Chronotis is missing, and then comes back only to discover that Chronotis’s study IS A TARDIS WHAAAAAT…..

Okay. Yes. That’s kind of nitpicky in terms of Doctor Who. This sorta padding happens all the time, but does she really need to go out and come back? That just seems excessive and paddy where you clearly don’t need it to be. And why? Is there really so much not going on that we have to get this? Prevailing wisdom tells me “yes” and that’s… that’s unfortunate. Adams is sitting on SO MUCH story here. What is Shada? Who is Salyavin? Why are they important? What’s Skagra’s plan? Like… these are things we could be dealing with but instead we’re getting the runaround?

It just seems a waste and needlessly self-indulgent. I get that you have a six part story, but at least come up with something that will fill the six parts. At least with the previous six episode finales you had a structure that MADE SENSE. In “The Invasion of Time” you had a four part story about a takeover of Gallifrey and then a two part “story” that was just a Sontaran runaround. That structure was a structure they borrowed from Robert Holmes, which he had recommended after it worked with "Seeds of Doom” and “Talons”. And you know, it worked for them. Fast forward to “The Armageddon  Factor”, which (and I can’t believe I’m defending this, but this is about the only thing defendable in it) had an interesting or at least thought-out structure, in which The Doctor and Romana spend the first two episodes on Atrios and then spends the next two episodes on Zeos and then spends the last two episodes on The Shadow’s ship (which just looks like another planet… so… Planet C?).

And that’s a good structure. I mean, it’s a fucking rubbish story (and I mean RUBBISH), but it at least has a decent structure through which it goes about its business.

What’s the structure of this story? There… there isn’t one. The first episode was a whole lot of nothing and the second episode had Skagra taking out Chronotis and then going after The Doctor. In episode three they sit on a spaceship. And that’s a structure I SUPPOSE. They spend different episodes sitting around waiting for something to happen. But that’s not why I watch a story called “SHADA”, especially not if I know going in that “Shada” is a fucking Time Lord prison.

I mean… Jesus. At least “The Time Monster” features the appearance of the eponymous at the end of its first fucking episode. This has… NOTHING. The first episode ended with the reveal of a Krarg and we’ve had them do NOTHING for two episodes. I mean, have we even seen one yet? I’m sorry. Come on. That’s the ultimate in pathetic. That’s putting pieces on the board that you’re not even using. And for what? For nothing. Why even bother having them around if you’re not going to use them? Remember the Claws of Axos? They fucking used the Axons fucking CONSTANTLY. And now? Now what. You make Krargs. You make Krarg suits. You spend (probably) a pretty penny on making them. And now you don’t even use them? Are you kidding me? And so what? So we can watch Romana and Chris and K-9 hang out in a cell deciding how they’ll get out?

I’m sorry, it’s rubbish and this is rubbish.

Ooops. I mean. Spoilers?

Part 4:

Watching this story reinterpreted across a couple of different media, I think I’ve decided (once and for all) that Doctor Who (and especially the Classic Series) works best on television.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. For one thing, I long ago “swore off” Doctor Who novels and instead of going in a reading direction I skewed into audio drama because I really wanted to hear various actors’ voices as I experienced a particular story. A given Doctor is intrinsically linked to the actor who played him. And besides, the audio format is single-handedly responsible for whatever popularity Colin Baker and Paul McGann might have as Doctors. And let’s face it: god dammit those two crush on audio. Audios are paced like the show and movies, which I find are more my speed in general. Novels can (and this is no indictment on novels, I love novels) at times drag because they’re not necessarily in a rush to stick to an allotted time. Audio, I think, is about the closest thing we can get to the television series.  And that explains my attraction to it.

Doctor Who in novelized form? Not my favorite thing.

Now, in Roberts’ novelization, there’s a lot of effort put into explaining how Skagra goes about figuring out how turning the pages of the book gets the TARDIS to bring him to Shada. This is the strength of the novel: more time to explore aspects that are glossed over in the television story because (again) there’s not enough time. (Then again, this was positively sauntery for the first three episodes, so…) I’m still not solid on the science of this whole situation, though. How is it this book has the ability to control a TARDIS by turning the pages? And why is it turning the last page will bring the TARDIS to Shada? Why Shada? Why not have different pages do different things? I get that it’s a law book. But maybe one page should bring you to court or something. I dunno. It’s a fairly large narrative leap that I just can’t quite get to.

This is noticeably weaker in the audio/webcast. The audio production was produced under the assumption that there wouldn’t be any visual impetus to explain the visual of what’s happening and the challenge of the audio is to paint the picture without someone saying “Doctor! I just turned the doorknob and the door opened! Let’s go inside.” The only thing worse than expository dialogue is visually expository dialogue. I mean, that’s the ultimate in “remember when” (“Hey, brother! Remember that time we hunted down Jesus and broke bread with him? Yeah you do. You vomited you were so happy”) except instead of reminding a character of a past they clearly already remember, you’re telling them what they’re seeing as they’re seeing it. It’s why “Oh no! He jumped of the building!” is dumb dialogue. In a movie? No shit! We can see it.

So the webcast is significantly cobbled whenever it comes to explaining a visual element and it has to be done extremely gracefully lest you have characters telling each other what they both see.

Where audioplays succeed in spades are in dialogue. I mean, that’s why you go to plays. That’s how plays happen. Plays are nonstop, constant, barrage dialogue. The primary mode of communicating information is to explain it through dialogue. So when you have dialogue-centric stories you get something specifically suited to an aural medium. And Shada really lends itself remarkably well to audio. Adams’s comedy is almost always dialogue driven. It’s when you get into the visual description of, say, explaining that when Skagra turns the page the TARDIS’s control console moves up and down like it’s in flight or about to be in flight.

Let’s recap: novelizations are internal and good for exploring thoughts, unspoken behaviors, and internalization. Audio is best suited for dialogue and talking.

Which leaves us with film, or in this case television, which, actually, is a visual medium.

One of the first lessons of screenwriting is to focus on visuals in a movie. It’s why silent film is still an art. You have an economy of storytelling, a shortcut if you will. If you can burn it into celluloid you can convey WAY more information than you could in dialogue. It’s that whole “picture is worth a thousand words” thing. But it’s something that TV has always struggled with. Going back to sitcoms like I Love Lucy in the early days of television, TV has always been more dialogue focused than film could be. Part of that is because of the massive crunch television is always under. They have to produce a remarkable amount of content in a remarkably small amount of time. Things are changing now and the visual aspect of television is evolving now that the technology is catching up, but it’s catching up slowly. (But to see what I mean, look at any episode of Breaking Bad. That show has a visual style unlike any other show I’ve ever seen.)

But what does this have to do with "Shada"?

Comparing this as a transmedia story makes me realize  how much Classic Who has a “we’re doing it anyway” attitude.

This episode features quite a bit of time spent in the Think Tank. It’s with this episode that The Doctor arrives back at Skagra’s base of operations, Romana and Skagra having arrived there at the beginning of the episode. It’s here that the Krargs are created and here that Skagra started his nefarious plot to do whatever it is he wants to do now (we still kinda don’t know). And it’s a key base of operations. Excepting the prelude to the McGann (in which The Doctor visits Romana and recruits her on “Shada 2.0”) every single telling of “Shada” opens at the Think Tank.

And I’ll be honest, in the novelization it’s not exactly clear. Actually, it is clear, but the focus is not on the Think Tank, it’s on Skagra. The novelization’s split into POV chapters, with each chapter following a different character Game of Thrones style so we get to know all the elements of the story without it feeling overwhelming. And the novelization spends a lot of time digging into Skagra and what he’s doing in the middle of the Think Tank (and it’s called the Think Tank). Now, I don’t think the Think Tank was particularly well described. And that’s not Roberts’s fault. Not really. It’s hard to describe something that’s got columns and is creating spheres and has people strapped to chairs in a circle back to back. Probably best to focus on Skagra and what he sees as he topples the Think Tank.

In the audio/webcast, Russell pairs Skagra with Professor Caldera, a neurologist. Through this, he gets mileage out of dialogue that explains what is happening at any given moment. Forget about explaining what the Think Tank actually LOOKS like. No. That’s a LITTLE beyond the audio, especially for characters who live and work there. It’s like explaining to a co-worker what your work looks like. Just doesn’t work. But the webcast has the added benefit of an animatic/location that it can show you. And the animation always goes for scope and detail. The Think Tank is a ring of cryogenic tubes into which the scientists sit and share their thoughts. It’s honestly more than a little Matrix-inspired (2003 is not far off from “The Matrix”). And yeah. It’s fine. But I don’t expect anything less from a medium in which the only limit is in how much you’ll pay your artist to draw.

But god dammit. Doctor Who just belongs on TV. Cuz you just gotta see it in real life. Often to believe it.

Before going on, I must mention the order in which I “experienced” this story to do this blog.

To prepare, I listened to the novelization in its entirety to get a feel for the story and to get a feel for all the characters and motivations and the plot beats of the story. The novelization is best at these. And why wouldn’t it be? That’s its bread and butter. Now for this I’m watching each part in succession and then writing up these parts individually (so I watch part one and then write it up and then watch part two and write that up and so on and so forth; it’s how I watch every blog). But because this is “Shada” and there’s two source materials I’m pulling from, I’m watching BOTH the webcast AND the reconstruction one right after the other. In other words: For each part I watch the webcast version of the part and then the reconstruction version of the part AND THEN I blog here.

So by the time I get to the “actual source material” I’ve got a guess at what it looks like. The joy is in seeing it actually brought to life “for real” and in a medium that’s fundamental to Doctor Who.

And you know what? Nothing can ever prepare you for Doctor Who. I’m sorry. It can’t. People can tell me that Classic Doctor Who is cheap, but I had no fucking clue until I put on “The Daleks” and watched it for the first time. That was an eye opening experience, as was every other story after that. Watching “The Visitation” for the first time, it made me think of old PBS shows but in a Doctor Who context, and that’s something that’s stuck with me for a long, long time. And god. I love Classic Who for all its cheap sets and shitty monsters and low-rent effects. It’s about my favorite thing.

And the last sixteen hundred words were all setup for the following puncline: The Think Tank is the reason I fucking watch Doctor Who. Because in the ACTUAL SHOW, the Think Tank is about the size of my living room (small) with a console in the middle and six chairs in which people sit. And plug in their brains using headphones. And the whole thing really looks like an INSANELY cheap version of the cryogenic chamber on the Nostromo in Alien. I mean, the whole room is white washed and the outfits are white and that’s what it’s like. No really. That’s fucking it. And when they get their brains sucked by Skagra it’s them jiggling a bit. No CGI electricity. No anything.

THIS IS WHY DOCTOR WHO IS MY FAVORITE SHOW. Because god dammit. They do not have a budget for The Think Tank. They do not. But god dammit, they just build four fucking walls and fucking go for it and it’s the greatest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.

That was episode one! Here in this episode? It’s the gift that keeps on fucking giving. I mean. Jesus. The Doctor and Chris stumble into the Think Tank room to find it all dilapidated and rusted. They look around the room, and enter cautiously. The Doctor twiddles a knob, checking it out. The main central column is empty. Fine. It’s empty. In the first episode we saw the brain-dead scientists stumbling out of their chairs and falling down dead. But they’re not here. Fine. Skagra or some Krargs cleaned up the bodies.


This is the shit that you cannot make up. There’s a bunch of ZZ Top-hobo looking scientists in the room with The Doctor and The Doctor didn’t notice because the story told him he couldn’t despite the fact that practically? My god. How the fuck do you not notice them? It’s fucking madness. And it’s why I love Doctor Who. Only Doctor Who can get away with this complete madness because its budget doesn’t allow them not to.

In the webcast? The Doctor meets a weak Professor Caldera, who’s an alien (NOT AN OLD WHITE DUDE WHO HAS A WHITE BEARD; I call bullshit). And honestly? That is in no way the same. Not by a long shot.

This is why “Shada” leaves a hole in us all. It’s why recons will never do us Doctor Who fans justice. Our imaginations are stacked with practicality and unlimited by budget. But Doctor Who’s charm has always (ALWAYS) been the fact that its budget has been ludicrously small for what it’s attempting to do its entire five decade run. Because of that budget and the show’s consistent goal of “working with what they have” and “the show must go on” Doctor Who can get away with it because we know this is the best they can do. Roberts and Russell would look like fucking amateurs. And they would get slammed as shitty storytellers who defy logic.

Sometimes, though, logic be damned. Sometimes I just wanna see silent old dudes posturing like huddled statues just a whip-pan from where our heroes are AND OUR HEROES DON’T KNOW ABOUT IT. Sometimes, god dammit, “real life” is better than anything you could possibly imagine.

Part 5:

And now I can make the comparison I’ve been long waiting to make.

This is really just Graham Williams’s “Time Monster”, except "The Time Monster" isn’t quite as deceptive as this is.

Titles are powerful and tremendously integral to a story. There was a time where I thought about separating out a story from the title and seeing how that affects the storytelling and the truth of the matter is a title establishes an expectation or a tone before the story even begins. “Brain of Morbius” refers to body horror, an evil nefarious dude named “Morbius”, and the way in which the two are intertwined. “The Time Monster” tells us that there’s some form of monster, possibly related to time in some way. What “The Time Monster” does not refer to is Atlantis, which, as far as I’m concerned is the central setting for the majority of the story. Unfortunately, the structure of ‘The Time Monster” is awful and Atlantis is the primary locale for the last two episodes, which is way too late to save a story that is (ostensibly) about Atlantis. I mean, that’s the key selling point, isn’t it?

But I can’t blame Letts and Sloman for that. I can’t. Those are my own expectations. I want Atlantis. They’re clearly interested in Kronos. Still doesn’t change the fact that Atlantis is shorted the real estate it shoulda been given.

“Shada” can make no such claim. It’s in the title: “Shada”. This is a story about “Shada” and what it’s about. And yes, we find out that “Shada” is integral to the story, but it’s hardly given the play it should be given. The first four parts of this story (that’s two-thirds, for those who are mathematically disinclined) feature Skagra’s unending attempts to get to Shada. It’s the ticking time bomb that propels the story forward. And yet, it’s false stakes. We’re going to Shada. Why the hell wouldn’t we? It’s like doing a movie called Chinatown and not going to Chinatown. Again, that was originally the idea. The plan was to NOT go to Chinatown, But at a certain point it was decided that that was too much of a betrayal/deception. And so we get the wonderful, climactic scene at the end in which Jack Gittes returns to Chinatown to devastating consequeces.

So we have to go to “Shada”. And why wouldn't we? It’s fucking Time Lord Alcatraz. THAT’S BRILLIANT. Let's go!

But I have to ask: why the fuck wait until the fifth episode to get us there? It makes no sense.

Of course it doesn’t. This is the strongest episode of the story so far and by far. You can almost feel the wheel spinning that Adams himself was bored with slip away and the script/story kick into high gear as it becomes funny and silly in the way Adams always is, but even more than that the revelations come hard and fast. Adams is finally able to reveal the two major plot points he’s been sitting on for the whole story: what is Skagra’s plan and who is Salyavin?

Skagra’s plan is actually funny and clever. He can steal minds from bodies, but can’t place minds INTO bodies. Salyavin can place his mind into bodies, but can’t remove minds. So Skagra wants to combine both so he can steal minds, replace them with his brain, and BECOME THE UNIVERSE.

As far as maniacal plans go, it’s a pretty fucking crazy one, even by Doctor Who standards. But hey, it’s a season finale so let’s go big. Why not? It is the Williams mantra. And so we have a giant galaxy/universe spanning runaround in which Skagra is hunting for this forgotten Time Lord prison in order to release this dangerous Time Lord criminal who has the potential to completely obliterate your brain at a whim or turn you into a slave person or whatever. That’s honestly a good premise and there’s a lot to do there, I think.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that Adams is not writing for the same effect that I would probably go for. In fact, I’m fairly certain that it’s not the best, most dramatic way to convey the story. In fact, what’s most interesting about this part is the way in which the different adaptations convey the information.

For one thing, I’ll point out that the video reconstruction is completely eviscerated for this episode. Because there was no filming completed at all on Skagra’s carrier ship or Shada itself, the bulk of this episode is entirely narrated, the only extraneous material as exists being the stuff in Chronotis’s study. And that’s unfortunate, because again this is the best part of the story so far and it’s the one that’s suffered the most so far. But what’s here is exciting. Watching Chronotis invade Claire’s mind (because he’s Salyavin whaaaaaaaat; also he’s not really dead I mean whaaaaaat!) is a uniquely exciting moment because it about gives away the game that he’s actually Chronotis and reveals a badass turn for Chronotis as he moves from bumbling idiot to kinda badass Time Lord.

The reveal that Chronotis is Salyavin is a big one. It’s a hell of a surprise and a great last twist to the story, but Adams doesn’t play it that way. In both the webcast and the reconstruction, the revelation occurs because Chronotis is running around Shada with The Doctor trying to stop Skagra from reaching Salyavin’s cell and releasing what is assuredly an unholy evil upon the universe. They fail and Skagra opens the cell with The Doctor and Chronotis and Romana present. But they find the cell empty! Oh no! And Skagra shouts “What! How is this possible!” and then Chronotis says something to the effect of “Well did you think I wanted to stay cooped up in there all my eternity?” and suddenly we get the reveal that Chronotis is actually Salyavin.

What’s significant is that Adams does not treat this like an “oh shit” moment. It’s a quiet one and one that Skagra pounces on immediately. He spheres Chronotis’s head! Oh no! He has Salyavin’s brain!

The webcast and the reconstruction diverge here. In Russell’s webcast/audio Salyavin’s cell is the only one opened and Skagra uses his power to place brains and thoughts into the mindless Krargs. The Krargs approach. Music sting. Cliffhanger. In the reconstruction, we’re told that Skagra steals Salyavin’s brain and The Doctor orders K-9 to blast Skagra’s sphere with his laser. The sphere shatters, reforms into smaller spheres, and then starts planting brains into whoever’s available. In this case it’s some released Shada prisoners (Adams at least has the sense to release Time Lord prisoners) and the recently arrived Clare and Chris. So now The Doctor and Romana and K-9 are up against a whole mass of people and Skagra. An army that includes our human pseudo-companions and Time Lord prisoners. It’s a good cliffhanger.

So what we have is Russell more interested in a monster-based ending while Adams seems to go for a more character one. Fine fine. It’s the same.

But the novelization plays it completely different.

See, the novelization ends with an insane cross-cut a la the new series. It ends with Chris figuring out that Chronotis is Salyavin (based on what Clare tells him) and racing to warn The Doctor that the tables have been turned. It ends with Skagra having an empty cell (which actually wasn’t empty; Salyavin left a note reading “F*** you” only it was written in Gallifrey and apparently much more offensive because any translation would lose the strength of the original language; phenomenal joke by Roberts) and no prospects as to where Salyavin might be. He looks all over for him, but then you have Chris coming in and screaming that Chronotis is actually Salyavin and that he’s been under our nose the entire time.

What Roberts also does all through the novel is shroud Salyavin in mystery and sinisterism. We’re not privy to who Salyavin is or what he’s truly capable of or even what he actually did.

This works in the story’s favor. So much danger comes from the unknown and whatever our brain actually comes up with that when we find out that Chronotis is Salyavin we get… well… Usual Suspects-ted. It’s a hell of a twist if played properly and it’s almost as if Adams doesn’t believe in his twist as much as he does because he knows Salyavin’s true nature. And I’ll spoil that here: Salyavin is just a loveable scamp who enjoys messing with people. There’s nothing nefarious about him (more on this later). And so in the Adams versions of the story (and Russell wanting to be as true as possible to Adams’s source material leaves the revelation as is) the reveal is the innocuous “Of course I escaped moment”, which completely robs the Salyavin reveal of its power (going for a more comedic beat but coming out wrong).

No. The novelization gets it right. Leaving me on that moment, on the moment in which Chris screams “He’s Salyavin!” in an almost “it’s people moment” leaves us on the moment of “we’re trapped in a room with a psychopath and he’s been with us the whole time.” It’s the ultimate in reveals because now anything could happen. Skagra and Salyavin could fight it out right in front of us or now The Doctor has to stop both of them or we have a Time Lord felon on the loose and we have to get him back. The possibilities of the cliffhanger are endless. I mean, Jesus. We’ve brought Salyavin into Time Lord Alcatraz. Who knows what the fuck he could possibly do next. All I know is it won’t be good news. We’re trapped in a prison with a psychopath. Someone help.

So I’ll ask you what you think: which works best? A possessed Chris, Clare, and Time Lord incarcerates closing in on The Doctor and Romana and K-9 with Chronotis out for the count? Or the same thing but with Krargs instead? Or the Salyavin reveal? What’s the most effective? What's the one that sets us up best for the "oh shit how is it going to end?" and gets you most excited and screaming at the TV to see how it ends?

My point exactly.

Part 6:

I’ll start with this: part five was easily the strongest of the bunch.

That’s not a slight on the final part. It’s fine. Assuming the whole thing doesn’t fall into complete shambles we’re in a good place. Greater stories have certainly fallen farther, and it’s not like Douglas Adams didn’t save a number of awesome things for the final battle. There’s an inter-vortex cross-TARDIS spacewalk (vortexwalk?). There’s The Doctor wearing a tremendously silly helmet with which to combat Skagra and wrestle control of the Krargs. There’s Skagra’s spaceship turning against him as she now worships The Doctor in some weird Bond girlesque twist. And of course there’s the final laugh Salyavin gets as he baffles a police officer when The Doctor’s TARDIS disappears from his study right in front of them.

None of this is necessarily bad, but it’s workman-like where it should be nonstop rollick. This is the moment at which everything is going crazy and all hell seems to be breaking loose.

But it’s not… it's not what it could be. I don’t know if it’s the way Adams presents various aspects of the climax. Clare’s dumb “oh I’ll grab the pencil you were trying to grab for me and as a result letting go of the crucial piece I was supposed to keep holding onto so The Doctor won’t die” is another Adams humor moment and it’s interesting that he uses it to completely raise the stakes of the thing. Again, though, it’s abominably stupid and poorly acted as presented in the reconstruction. Unlike the entirety of my discussion of part four, this is where Classic Who fails in its presentation and the “grab the pencil” moment is excised from both the webcast and the novelization because it just doesn’t work. Russell and Roberts just allow the Professor’s study to lose the forcefield naturally, because it was heading in that direction anyways.

There’s more than that though. No one really figures out how to make The Doctor’s arrival before Skagra work and we’re left with an awkward blocking moment as the Krargs go for the Professor’s study door TARDIS not realizing that The Doctor is actually behind them in his own TARDIS. And there’s no real reason for this. The idea is The Doctor cobbles together a helmet that allows him to wrest control of the Krargs from Skagra (because a ghost copy of his mind is in Skagra’s sphere), but as a solution to the story I must admit it’s a bit lackluster. Hell, the whole ending is rather lackluster and not befitting a six part story. Now, I know that’s hard to pay off. You’re trying to come up with a satisfying solution to a two hour problem, but I can’t… I just don’t think it’s anything special or satisfying.

It’s neither simple nor elegant. It’s a solution Adams wrote for himself back in episode three.

To add insult to injury, there’s the fact that (as stated previously) Salyavin is something of a nonentity. That much was clear in Adams’s revelation in the original script, but the novelization pushes deeper into the Salyavin/Chronotis characterization to reveal that Chronotis is just a loveable scamp who was just interested in having a good time. Roberts takes the opportunity to really flesh out the Salyavin situation and turns Salyavin into a massive misunderstanding/miscommunication about the corruption of the Time Lords and how The Time Lords feared his power and goes into tremendous detail about the plight of Salyavin.

In theory I’m not opposed to this. Unfortunately, it means that everyone is taken care of about thirty pages before the end of the book and nothing happens except a whole lot of explaining after the climax.

None of this holds, though. Adams purportedly came up with a Time Lord Prison as a way of exploring how Time Lords treat their prisoners and deal with capital punishment. And yet none of that is actually thoroughly explored. Salyavin is little more than a MacGuffin and all the slandering about the Time Lord douchiness is relegated to a series of expository speeches after everything is said and done. Yes, the Time Lords were dicks to Salyavin (who really was nothing but a glorified Class Clown) but that’s… that’s not much of a statement is it? Time Lords are dicks? We knew that already. If we saw "The Deadly Assassin" we CLEARLY knew that. And Adams’s script is so mired in Gallifreyan continuity (not as much as it could be, but you kinda need a functioning knowledge of everything to make it work out in your head) that it ends up spending more time explaining that than doing anything else.

As a result, the story falls flat because it’s not about much of anything. As far as “just being around to have a good time” I can’t say it’s anywhere near the greatest of times. Sure the ending has moments, but wouldn’t it be much more interesting to see The Doctor going up against hundreds and hundreds of Skagra-influenced Time Lord ex-convicts? That’s so much more interesting to me than seeing an endless parade of Krarg monsters. Even the plotline of Chris and Clare (which in the novelization is given tons of space to breathe) doesn’t come across nearly as well as it ought to. Are they supposed to be into each other? Sure, they don’t share scenes in the reconstruction until the second to last episode and Chris IS taken over by Skagra and Clare DOES show some concern at this, but it’s washed under in favor of… what? Too much story?

Right. Too much story. Which is why it took five episodes to get to Shada.

Final Thoughts?: So like I insinuated at the start of this massive bohemoth of a blog, "Shada" is not a story I'm particularly fond of. I went in the first time anticipating greatness and after this excursion ordeal of a thing I walk away with the realization that it's outstandingly mediocre.

And really that's just because this is a massive waste of poorly considered concepts. The eponymous Time Lord Prison doesn't appear until the fifth episode and becomes incidental to the plot thereafter. It's massively padded and poorly structured. To add insult to injury, it's really about as good as the other two Williams six-parters.

So it doesn't work, especially not as Adams envisions it. Skagra is a bad villain and Scaroth was clearly a better baddie. No. Bad writing is bad writing. A bad story is a bad story and no matter how many times and ways you dress it up or expound and try to fix it, it'll still come up rubbish unless you chuck the whole thing out and start over again with the basic concepts. And once you do that, what's the point? Then the story ceases to be "Shada" and begins to be something else. No. Skagra is a rubbish villain, the Krargs are hardly great monsters of Doctor Who (The Nimon are better, honestly; so much you could do with the Nimon), and the runaround of this is not what it should or could be.

But god. I experienced it three different ways. Is there one that worked best?

Honestly, now that it's over and I have time to reflect, the more I realize how insanely let-downish the actual reconstruction truly is. Sure, there's great moments (and moments of pure transcendnce: i.e. anything with the Think Tank) but it's so butchered and chopped it's robbed of all its power. Almost every scene that isn't a location is set in Professor Chronotis's study, so we're never privy to what Pennant Roberts would have done with Skagra's various ships or Shada itself. Likewise, Roberts's direction is hardly mindblowing or excellent and with as storied a career of Doctor Who as his that's hardly surprising. The guy was handed progressively weaker and weaker stories until he landed in the bottom of the Mighty 200. He hardly ever did anything interesting with them. And they're just... there. I mean, the story is damaged goods and it's hardly salvaged by Roberts's direction.

So the reconstruction is out. But I can't in good faith recommend the Big Finish version either. Honestly, if you're even going to go with this story don't even bother with the webcast. The animation is insanely bad (as I'm sure you've noticed). The audio adaptation is clearly superior and gives you even more scenes between the characters. No, it's not perfect, but where it really shines is Paul McGann, who I'm delighted to talk about again here. McGann on audio has easily skyrocketed him to one of my favorite Doctors of all time ever and it's always a delight to hear his voice. I used to think this was a bad vehicle for him and while it's certainly not ideal it's hardly the travesty I thought it was. No. He's good here. He does his best with the Tom Baker lines, and while they're clearly not writing for his Doctor he does a servicable job at bringing the 8th Doctor to life in the story despite the fact that he's clearly 4th Doctor. And it's been quite some time since I listened to him so getting this was a wonderful treat that has me unbelievably excited for his forthcoming Doctor Who stories from Big Finish. If you're going to listen to it for any reason, listen for him. McGann as a Doctor is impossibly vanilla. There's no frills or baubles on his interpretation. He really just *is* The Doctor without any numerical adjective. He's a genius, and he's always a delight to experience.

But now I'm on this side of it, I really have to hand it to the novelization. I mean... yes. It's a drag. A total drag. It's way too long, but then again, so is this story. The story he's telling is rubbish. But again! Damaged goods! Despite the story's failings Roberts does an excellent job dealing with all of Adams's work and turning in a truly Adams story. I mean, that's not exactly a surprise (he did write one of the funniest Doctor Who stories I've ever heard in my life) but he really infuses life into what is otherwise a completely lifeless story and does add enough flair that it makes the story at the very least bearable. Yes. It goes on too long, but so does the real story. At least there's plenty of moments of enjoyment throughout (and the "F*** you" bit still has me laughing) and it's not slavish to what it's doing. Hell, Roberts even infuses it with modern concepts like the pseudo-Companions having lives and not just being "present" as they are in the original text. It's full of throwbacks and throwforwards and is referential in ways that Doctor Who fans will, I'm sure, find remarkably enjoyable.

I think the saddest thing for me, though is that Graham Williams wasn't permitted to go out on his own terms. As I spoke about above, Williams pretty much knew going in that this story was intended to be his opus for good or ill. Of course, that didn't pan out and his swan song (as we said) became "The Horns of Nimon", a story Williams himself wasn't super hot on (but went with because he didn't really have any other options). "Nimon" (as you might remember) is not the best of stories. In fact, it's almost universally reviled, and really it is a real showcase for the Williams era. It was shaky sets, poor effects, ham/rubbish acting, tremendously silly, and FANTASTIC monsters (let down by a poor realization that, to be fair, was probably the best they could have done under the circumstances). Me? I'm a fan of "Nimon" and like it for what it is. It's delightfully camp and a delight of a time if you don't take it seriously at all. But what's remarkable is that it's such a showcase of the era. As I said back when I reviewed it (or if I didn't say it, a thought I've had since), Williams could have gone out on two possibilities: "The Horns of Nimon" (which was cheap but ultimately rather good) or "Shada" for which Williams was saving his pennies and relying on Douglas Adams (which, if you ask most people, is a grand slam dunk). And Williams was right to bank on this. It's the smarter move.

Now that I've gone through it, it really makes me think about how Adams wasn't quite the fit for Doctor Who people expect him to be. The prevailing notion when people find out Douglas Adams was the script editor/Steven Moffat of Doctor Who is inevitably always "Damn!" or "What!" or "Wow!" and while that's not unfounded (again, Hitchhiker's), it must be said that Adams's time on Doctor Who was remarkably lackluster. "Destiny of the Daleks" was utter, utter rubbish. "Creature From the Pit" could have used a re-write or... something because that story jumps the fucking rails quite a bit, doesn't it. "Nightmare of Eden" is fine and well and good but it's really just  "the perfectly average Williams story". "Horns of Nimon" has its problems, but most of them are director, not script. The script is mostly fine.

The crowning jewel of the Adams run on Doctor Who (or even the Williams era really) is "City of Death". And why not? It's a phenomenally well-done story and easily one of the best Doctor Who's of all time. And yes, it's probably true that Adams did an intense rewrite over a weekend to make it as drop dead funny as it is, but (and I gotta throw all credit to Rob Shearman for this) the unsung hero of "City of Death" is Graham Williams. And why wouldn't it be? Shearman's argument (which he sketches out here) that the credit given to Adams (while deserved) is often overstated. "Shada" is a terribly structured mess and while "The Pirate Planet" is more than watchable, it's far from perfect or elegant in its structure. So why was he suddenly able to pull out "City of Death" (which is beautifully structured) where he previously wasn't?

The answer was Williams. And Shearman's argument (that "Invasion of Time" is terrible but remarkably well structured) speaks to Williams' contributions in "City of Death" (which is acknowledged as co-written by Williams and Adams from an idea from Williams' stalwart David Fisher) more than it speaks to Adams'.

So "City of Death" is the Williams era jewel, standing miles ahead of just about anything else Williams produced. He sought to reclaim the glory with "Shada" by doing much the same thing (Skagra is obviously Scaroth but which a much more generic plan) but with the elegance and cleverness replaced with bombast and throwing things at the wall and Adams on overdrive. "Shada" as a result is a total mess and probably wouldn't have been nearly the blaze of glory Williams wanted it to be. Even the stuff we can see looks terribly cheap with the Think Tank taking the cake for "most generic Williams set ever". I mean, for god's sake the computer room on Zeos in "The Armageddon Factor" looks better.

I'll say, it wouldn't have been a triumph. A greatest hits? That's probably closer. A fitting swan song to Williams's problematic run on the show. It's big on monsters and big space travel and a little Time Lord continuity and The Doctor and Romana running around being mad and finally something that's actually terribly funny, or at least, something that goes first and foremost for comedy. But it still looks tremendously cheap. It still is nowhere near the caliber of those that came before him (Hinchcliffe/Holmes). It's just bombastic 70s sci-fi Doctor Who story with a rubbish plot and a rubbish execution. Watchable yes, but hardly more than that. Had it been produced we'd be talking about it as the "yeah, that's the story that Williams went out on" and "yeah, it was his 'Talons': everything he ever did brought to a messy head" and that would be the end of it.

But it wasn't produced. And that's what saves about it. Hell, it's the best thing that could have ever happened to it.

Williams gets the last laugh. He's long dead, sure, but the truth of the matter is we put "Shada" on a pedestal because there'll always be the question. I can conjecture that it wouldn't have been a triumph, but the fact that we'll never know means we'll never stop talking about it. The Lindbergh baby will always have power because it will never go solved. Same with Amelia Earhart and the Zodiac Killer. Hell, this is easily the longest entry I've written on this blog (and probably will ever write) and it's not even that good.

But it engenders conversation. It's a talked about story. It's nowhere near "City of Death" in terms of quality, but it's still the one that Williams story people fetishize and talk about even though the story was supposed to air over thirty years ago. The "what if" will haunt us Doctor Who fans for so long as we're around because the most unfairly maligned Doctor Who producer of all time, one of the greatest British writers of the 20th Century, and the most popular Doctor of the Classic series left so much unsaid in a story that is to this day loaded with tons and tons of potential.

Essentially? "Shada" itself, rubbish, unproduced, unfortunate "Shada" might not have been a win on any sort of paper, but god dammit did it end up turning into a hell of a win for Williams.

And for that I give him applause.

Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Historical?! Scotland! A weird lad named Jamie! Lots of dressup and funny accents! And a whole lot of fighting! Next week I'll be back with a much shorter look at "The Highlanders!" Coming Next Tuesday!

1 comment:

  1. Shada (the Book) was the first book in my adult life that I read, put down, picked up and read again. Maybe just because I'm a fast reader, but I didn't find it slow. I imagined it to a Hinchcliff/Holmes style set (Pyramids of Mars and Deadly Assasin), and it was marvellous. (P.S. also not an Adams fan)