Friday, May 27, 2016

Review: Doctor Who: "Shada"

"Shada," "Shada," "Shada."

Why, "Shada"? Why have you put me in this predicament?

I love Douglas Adams. I first read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in, like, third grade. The man is one of my biggest inspirations.

And yet... "Shada" is pretty terrible. While many of the episode's problems are caused by the incompleteness, a few of them are caused by the script itself. But let's tackle the problems with the 1992 VHS reconstruction before getting into the narrative problems

Reconstruction Problems
The biggest problem with “Shada” as it was released has nothing to do with the script, but everything to do with how it was stitched together and brought to life from the corpses of what was actually filmed. To be fair, there wasn’t much that could be done for “Shada” in 1992. Doctor Who was canceled at that point. The actors were older, and had largely moved on to other things. And there wasn't exactly much money in the budget to do much more than have Tom explain the missing scenes inside of an already-existing Doctor Who exhibit.

But they should have found another way. Tom’s narration skips over all the interesting concepts, funny lines, and basically everything that would have made “Shada” worth watching in the first place. For a 1992 cheap-and-cheerful VHS release, this is largely forgivable.

However.

The DVD version I used for this Recap/Review was released in 2013, when Doctor Who’s popularity was at the highest in years. Surely, they could have called Tom Baker back to deliver a better narration, or added some kind of visual accompaniment, or something.

I get that 2013 was a bit of a busy year, being the 50th anniversary and all, but then again, nothing was stopping them from taking their time to release a better version in 2014. Although, even in 2013, there was only so much George Lucas-ing they could have done to put a Band-Aid over the fact that they never filmed all the scenes. So while the reconstruction quality is very frustrating, they could only do so much.

Still, even some storyboards with Tom talking over them would have been nice. Better to see a crude rendering of a visual spectacle than to be told about a visual spectacle.

This represents five hours of work.
You're telling me that the BBC couldn't hire a guy to make something a bit cruder to illustrate the action?
In the end, though, “Shada” is kind of impossible to fairly judge as a finished episode, since all the good bits are missing. But what I can do is take a look at the script to see what we might have gotten.

The Script
I'm very sorry to say this, but “Shada” was never going to be spectacular, and I know that might rub a lot of people the wrong way, since Douglas Adams was a brilliant, brilliant man. But the main reason that “Shada” is seen as a lost masterpiece is simply because it’s lost. And it’s not the only Doctor Who episode to have to deal with that.

“Shada” might be the only untransmitted episode, but there are a buttload of "Missing Episodes," thanks to the BBC's now-discontinued practice of erasing the master tapes in the days before reruns became a real thing.

Generally speaking, without the actual episodes to watch anymore, people assume that the general public's original opinion of any missing episode is... well, correct. When in actuality, general conceptions of these missing episodes are based on the opinions of only a few individuals who had enough clout to get their opinions out there. When copies of missing episodes are found, public opinion on them tends to change.

"The Tomb of the Cybermen" went from being a lost masterpiece to a very much found slow, plodding mess while "The Enemy of the World" went from being seen as a forgettable adventure to being considered an ahead-of-its-time romp with surprisingly-good special effects.

The general opinion on "Shada" is that we were robbed of a classic Douglas Adams tale. This is an opinion primarily held by people who have never seen it. But when you actually look at this release, it becomes clear that "Shada" was never going to be anything particularly special, despite Adams's best efforts. It's slow to start, full of padding, and too much of the action is predicated around waiting for something or somehow being unable to continue. And tea.

Lots and lots of tea.
And despite some funny lines and cool visuals outlined in the script, the unfilmed portions were not going to make up for that.

And this isn't just my opinion; Douglas Adams himself never particularly cared for “Shada.” Which makes a lot of sense, since he wrote it as a last-minute replacement for a different script he really really liked. The 1992 release was only accidentally approved when he signed off on it without knowing what he was signing off on. By the time he realized what he had done, it was too late. So he donated all of his royalties to charity because he wanted nothing more to do with “Shada.”

After watching this serial, I went back and read a copy of the script… and I have to agree with the author. It’s not his best work. And that was generally well understood by the people working on it. It was a slowly-paced four-part story stretched out into six parts. Graeme McDonald, the BBC Head of Series and Serials at the time, called it “goodish,” but said that it was far too short. He suggested an out-of character romantic subplot between Romana and Chris Parsons, but the solution they hit upon to lengthen the story was to let the actors go off script and ad-lib jokes.

So, long story short, would “Shada” have been good if it had actually been made?

Probably.

Though it suffered from a few problems, I think it would have been at least quite memorable. There are a few parts which would really stick in your mind if you saw them, like the Doctor swimming through the time vortex, or the horde of Shada prisoners attacking. Certainly, “Shada” would have been better than “The Horns of Nimon.” Though it wouldn't hold a candle to "City of Death."

But every cloud has a silver lining….

Plot Recycling
Douglas Adams has a history of recycling his Doctor Who plots. For example, one of his rejected Doctor Who film ideas began with the TARDIS materializing at Lord's Cricket Ground during a game between England and Australia. Suddenly, a spaceship that looks like a cricket pavilion appears. Eleven robots in cricketing gear emerge, kill some people with cricket bats, take a trophy known as the Ashes, and disappear. The planet Krikkit is continuing an ancient war, which survives in the racial memory of the British, who turned it into a game. The Ashes are part of an ancient key to release the armada of Krikkit from stasis.

Sound familiar? Because it ended up as the plot of the third Hitchhiker’s book, Life, the Universe, and Everything. And the idea of an ancient time prison with an innocuous key was recycled into “Shada.”

Eventually, the character of Professor Chronotis and his time machine found their way into Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, along with a few plot elements from “City of Death.” So at the very least, one of the best aspects of “Shada” ended up in in something that was not only better, but actually finished. Though it’s a bit odd to watch “Shada” and get the nagging feeling that you’ve seen that joke with the lumpy tea before….

Review
Plot

At its core, the story has quite a bit of potential. Skagra’s evil plan to make everybody in the universe an extension of himself is a unique twist on taking over the cosmos, and Shada itself is an interesting concept. Unfortunately, it never quite comes together. Even if filming had been completed, there’s not enough story for six 25-minute parts, and long stretches of time are padded with jokes and tea. Shada itself is almost an afterthought that only becomes marginally important because that’s where Salyavin is. And then in the end, he’s not even there.

According to my sources, Professor Chronotis was originally going to stay dead, but I’m not sure when his death would have originally been. If it would have been in Part 2, then Salyavin probably started off as a separate character. And if it was at the end… well, then it wouldn’t really make sense, since the Doctor would have been able to save all of Skagra’s victims except for Chronotis.

One of the biggest problems with the story is that our heroes barely seem involved with the plot for long stretches. Looking for books, having tea, biking around, never quite catching up to Skagra, who sort of saunters around and effortlessly gets what he wants until the very end.

Another problem is that some ideas, like the implication that Chronotis keeping his mind out of the sphere by struggling, don’t come across and look like plot holes instead. Though some of those problems are with the reconstruction itself.

Still, all the potential is there in the script. I think it was one substantial rewrite away from becoming a classic, but the haste with which it was commissioned and scripted prevented that.

Themes
For being a story about examining capital punishment, there sure is a lack of examining capital punishment. The closest we get is the suggestion that Salyavin’s “crimes” were blown out of proportion, though we never do learn exactly what those crimes were. Ostensibly, he could project his mind into other minds, but we have no evidence if he ever did. My theory is that he psychically shared his knowledge with people, but they were forever cursed with the urge to make tea from then on. After all, that’s what happened to Clare, isn’t it?

But what actually does work is how this story treats Time Lord society as a whole. Time Lord society is a tough thing for Doctor Who to portray. Before the Time Lords even got a name, they were occasionally mentioned, but never seen, giving them an air of mystery. And when they first appeared, it was as if the gods themselves entered the story to inflict their divine will. The Doctor basically feared their very presence, and they were able to sentence the Doctor to unwilling regeneration before breaking his TARDIS and stranding him on Earth.

Then they started sending him on missions. Then they rewarded him for defeating a renegade Time Lord by restoring his ability to use his TARDIS. Then the Doctor became the Time Lord President.

The mystique was gone. We knew too much about them, and the Doctor had run circles around them before becoming their leader. The Revived Series got around the Time Lords' mystique decay by wiping them out in a Time War before the first episode even started. Douglas Adams chose a different, subtler tactic: Stagnation.

In the Recap, I made fun of Chronotis's statement that the Time Lords don't have much of an interest in history, but that statement is at the heart of the Time Lords' portrayal. After reaching the pinnacle of civilization, the Time Lords have two choices: Stagnation or decay. When you can’t go up anymore, those are your two options. The idea that Time Lords are so full of themselves that they don’t even care about time anymore is a very intriguing notion, and one that pops back up during “The Trial of a Time Lord” as well as “The End of Time” in the Revived series

But while the Time Lords’ method of locking away criminals and forgetting them really should tie into this, it never successfully does.

Characters
Doctor (Tom Baker)
The Fourth Doctor is his usual mercurial self, and moreso than usual. Douglas Adams had been trying to inject more humor into the scripts as it was, but when you add the fact that Tom’s ad-libbing was never more encouraged then in this episode… Well, Tom has a tendency to go too far over the top when given absolute free rein. And he occasionally dips into that well here as he mugs for the camera a few times. And God only knows what he would have added to his lines if the other scenes were filmed.

But there’s a reason they would let Tom improvise, and that’s because the man is an amazing performer. When he manages to hit the right note, his performance is utterly brilliant. For example, “Watch that cow pat.” A simple addition to a scene in a field, but one that manages to capture the absurdity of there being an evil plot headquartered in a pasture. Is it any wonder both the book and audio remakes of “Shada” include this ad-lib?

Unfortunately, for every ad-lib like that, you get a groaner like the “B?B?” “C?” joke. In the end, it’s practically a sin that the Doctor’s interactions with Skagra and his ship were never recorded. I mean, just take a look at some of this material.

-----
DOCTOR: (slightly laughing.) I know what you want to do, you old sly-boots. You want to take over the Universe, don't you? I've met your sort before. Any moment a mad gleam will come into your eye and you'll start shouting, 'The universe will be mine!'

(SKAGRA looks at him quizzically. He is clearly devoid of any mad gleam and is not going to shout.)

SKAGRA: How naive Doctor, how pathetically limited your vision is.
DOCTOR: (shouting) Limited!
SKAGRA: (laughs) 'Take over the Universe'. How childish. Who could possibly want to take over the Universe?
DOCTOR: Exactly! That's what I keep on trying to tell people. It's a troublesome place, difficult to administer, and as a piece of real estate it's worthless because by definition there'd be no one to sell it to.
-----

Such a shame.

Romana (Lalla Ward)
Lalla’s legendary chemistry with Tom Baker is on full display, even though she’s a little too… upbeat in this, for lack of a better way to put it. I don’t know why, but she seems to be playing a lot of her lines to the cheap seats, particularly punchlines. Whether she was attempting to match Tom’s intensity or if she was just trying too hard to sell the script, I have no idea. But Romana’s definitely had more impressive outings. Heck, even “The Horns of Nimon” was a more impressive outing for her, if only because she actually did things while she was held prisoner in that one.

Professor Chronotis (Denis Carey)
Essentially, Adams took his vision of a retired Doctor and tweaked it a bit to end up with Professor Chronotis. The character as written is little more than a tea-obsessed absent-minded professor, but Carey imbues the character with a gentle warmth that makes his past as Salyavin a fairly shocking twist, even if it was heavily foreshadowed. When first mentioned, Salyavin doesn’t seem like the kind of person to politely offer tea.

That seems more like it.
Chris "Bristol" Parsons (Daniel Hill)
The guy is simply boring. In the original script, Douglas Adams had made him into a 1960’s throwback as a sort of self-insertion. But this was eventually thrown out in editing simply because it really didn’t add anything to the character and made the show look like they were unable to understand the young people of the late-seventies/early-eighties. And he really doesn’t do much of note after setting the plot in motion by grabbing the wrong book. Sure, he has the odd heroic moment or funny line, but it’s rather obvious that his primary function is to give the Doctor somebody to talk to while separated from Romana.

Clare Keightley (Victoria Burgoyne)
Clare, on the other hand, seems to be the other remnant from the “Retired Doctor” script, alongside Professor Chronotis himself. Think about her basic story. After discovering that strange things are afoot, she comes across the TARDIS of an eccentric Time Lord and gets caught up in an adventure.

See also: Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright, Polly, Zoe Heriot, Sarah Jane Smith, Tegan Jovanka, Peri Brown, Rose Tyler, et cetera.

Clare basically gets a bare-bones companion origin story, minus any sort of actual background on the character. As such, she’s pretty much just as bland and non-descript as Parsons is, though her interactions with Chronotis build him up as a more mysterious figure than he initially seemed. Shame about her personality. Or lack thereof.

Skagra (Christopher Neame)
What wasted opportunity. Skagra is little more than a personality with no backstory, if that makes sense. The idea of a cold, calculating maniac who actually figures out an effective and relatively simple way to take over the universe is an interesting idea, but why is he doing this? Even in the original script, this is all the clarification we got.

----
ROMANA: How did Skagra manage to find out so much about the Time Lords? Where was he from? 
K-9: My metabolic analysis reveals that he was from the planet Dronid.
DOCTOR: Ah, There's your answer. Remember your history. There was a schism in the College of Cardinals. The rival President set up shop on Dronid. They forced him to come back by totally ignoring him.
-----

…Okay?

The eventual book adaptation retcons Skagra into a bit of a poseur who projects this front of being an emotionless genius because… well, basically, he thinks it’s cool. And he blames the Time Lords for subjugating his planet… which happened well before he was born, and Dronid had been doing very well for itself for quite sometime, meaning that Skagra’s hatred of the Time Lords would be akin to America still being upset at Great Britain over the War of 1812.

But as it is, Skagra is… well, how can I fairly judge Skagra in the finished product? He’s barely in the finished product.

He's got style, though.
Wilkin (Gerald Campion)
I love how he just takes everything in stride until a room actually disappears. The doctor tends to baffle people, but Wilkin is always one step ahead.

Tom Baker (Tom Baker)
This isn’t the last time Tom Baker would play somebody at home in museums. This was released long before “The Day of the Doctor,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Curator was partially meant as a nod to “Shada.”

One could speculate for a long time….
Music
It works until you actually listen to it. Keff McCulloch, a frequent composer for Doctor Who in the 80’s, is trying really hard to sound like the 70’s, but he tries a bit too hard to up the drama when a subtler, more atmospheric touch is needed with the music.

Visuals
Par for the course, from what I can tell. Some of the effects look better than others, the invisibility is hit and miss, but I think the model work is pretty solid for the time. Even though some model effects shots were done in ’92 with production photos. Shada itself is pretty disappointing, though.

Crystal poop isn’t the most majestic or impressive design for a space prison.

Though it wouldn't be the last time the Doctor was in the UK with an invisible spaceship….
Monster of the Week: Krargs
The Krargs (originally “Kraagas” as an anagram of “Skagra”) are Skagra’s henchmonsters generated from what’s referred to as “crystallized coal." Which I think is known as “diamonds.”

I don't think diamonds do that, though.
They fulfill the monster quota for the episode and provide a physical threat, but they’re pretty bland. Especially since you rarely see them in action in this. You could put robots, plant monsters, or brainwashed pigmen in their place, and you wouldn’t have to change anything other than the method of Skagra’s defeat.

One of the good bits that was never filmed would have been the creation of a Krarg from a glass skeleton, and a prop was even made. Still, that would have been a cool visual and little else, like the Krargs themselves.

Final Verdict: N/A
...What am I supposed to say? I can't fairly judge the episode as released because the shoddy reconstruction drags down the story, and when you discount the reconstructed portions, you're still missing the really cool parts that were never filmed. So what am I judging, the script? Do I judge the visuals based on how cool they look in my head? Obviously not.

In the end, if you want to experience a Douglas Adams classic, then read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. It was crafted from the best parts of both “Shada” and “City of Death,” and I highly recommend reading it at least twice in a row. It’s definitely one of those books where the beginning makes sense after you read the end.

But if you want to experience “Shada” in a nearly-completed form, then I’d recommend trying either the Big Finish audio version starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, or the novelization by Gareth Roberts. Neither is perfect, but there sadly will never be a perfect version of “Shada.”

Next time... well, I'm not sure. This was my first look at the Classic Series and I could go anywhere from here, backwards or forwards in time. Like the Doctor, really. Whenever that may be, see you then!

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