Monday, May 23, 2016

Intro: Doctor Who: "Shada"

Douglas Noel Adams (1952-2001) was to science fiction what Monty Python was to Arthurian legend. The man had a rare knack for merging legitimately interesting ideas with gut-busting absurdity. The man's clever, irreverent take on the genre catapulted him to success, starting with his wildly successfully radio play, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which most people know better as a book, though a few people are familiar with the TV adaptation. And some poor souls know it best as a movie.

I am one of the few who dares to even speak of it.
But shortly before H2G2 really took off in its numerous spin-off forms, Adams found work on the Doctor Who staff. After writing “The Pirate Planet” for Doctor Who’s sixteenth season, he worked as the script editor of Season 17, which led to him substantially rewriting a little episode called "City of Death" into a classic. The man’s meteoric rise from Doctor Who writer to Doctor Who script editor would later be echoed by Steven Moffatt’s similar journey in the Revived Series. And much like Moffat’s own epic season finales, Adams was very keen on ending Season 17 with a bang. The best bang since the big one, if at all possible.

Season 17 did not end with a bang.

They had planned a season finale to remember for ages, but “Shada” wound up largely forgotten. Ironic, considering what actually happens to the titular “Shada” in the story itself, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

This week, in honor of the annual Douglas Adams tribute known as “Towel Day,” I’ll be looking at the only installment of Doctor Who that was never transmitted. But first, I'll answer the looming question: Why was it never transmitted?

Get your towel ready. We're going in.
“Shada” was to have been the end of an era. Not only was Douglas Adams leaving the show after one season to continue to work on more Hitchhiker’s, but this was to be the last project for the producer at the time, Graham Williams, as well.

From the very beginning, it was off to a rocky start. Adams made a concerted effort to get some fresh, new writing talent for Season 17. For the most part, this did not happen. Adams summed up the situation with Doctor Who scripts in general thusly.

Adams: “Hundreds of people who've never written before send in 'Dr. Who' scripts. They may have good ideas, but what they fail to realise is that writing for TV is incredibly complicated. They have no idea how difficult it is and what the financial commitment is.”

And the problems extended even to writers who had written for TV before.

Adams: “Hardly anyone we approach seems to have the remotest idea as to what 'Dr. Who' might conceivably be about.”

So Season 17 was running quite short thanks to all these sub-par scripts. With few options, Adams turned to former Doctor Who script editor Anthony Read for a script. After all, Read knew exactly what Doctor Who was about, and how to realize it onscreen. The resulting story, “The Horns of Nimon,” was pretty awful, but they approved it anyway because they had little other choice.

But with none of the incoming scripts meeting Doctor Who standards, Douglas Adams requested special permission to write the season finale himself. It was against policy for script editors to actually write scripts (which ties into the real reason “Shada” was never transmitted, but I’ll get to that), but with “City of Death” under his belt, the higher-ups quickly approved this quick fix to the season. So Adams outlined a story featuring an older, retired version of the Doctor. The story went that after deciding to live out his remaining days on Earth, the Doctor would find himself continually and reluctantly pulled back to deal with catastrophe after catastrophe, instead of the peaceful life he desired.

The Modern Sisyphus.
While both Douglas Adams and the Doctor’s then-current actor, Tom Baker, were really interested in this idea, it was quickly shot down by the producer for “mocking” the very concept of Doctor Who, what with it being about an ever-wandering do-gooder.

Douglas Adams was no stranger to having his scripts rejected, having had two separate ideas for a Doctor Who movie shot down previously, but he loved his script with the retired Doctor so much that he kept pitching it over and over. When it became clear that the script would never be approved, Adams was in a tight spot. He was starting to feel pretty darn burned out, since, alongside his script editor duties, he was working on the second Hitchhiker’s radio series and the now-famous book adaptation of the first series. Though he wanted to end his tenure on a high note, Adams was also more than a little keen to be done writing about an eccentric, curly-haired alien wanderer in odd clothes and his companion.

So he could continue to write about this eccentric, curly-haired alien wanderer in odd clothes and his companion.
With time running out, Adams quickly improvised a plot by drawing from a hot-button topic: Capital punishment. The UK had abandoned hanging in 1969, but in 1979, there was a group actively trying to bring it back. The movement never went anywhere, but it did manage to stir up some debates regarding the death penalty.

Since it was very clear that even the super-advanced alien Time Lords had outlaws (including the Doctor, technically), then they must have had some way of punishing major offenders. Douglas Adams surmised that the Time Lords would sidestep any moral issues by locking them in temporal stasis for the rest of time. No killing, but no need to waste resources to actively care for prisoners. Win-win, as far as the Time Lords were concerned. And from that, the idea for “Shada” was born. Only to end up dying.

The slow, painful death of Shada would not have happened under normal circumstances. But circumstances were certainly not normal during the November of 1979. It all came down to one thing: demarcation.

"We demand that demarcation may or may not be the problem!"

"I... I was quoting The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
Out of all the times to chime in with a Hitchhiker’s quote, you chose that one?

Get out.
"Right-o, squire."
Demarcation is simply the task of figuring out which crew is in charge of what job. Ideally, proper demarcation protects the rights of workers by ensuring that each job is done by the proper person or crew. Anything that had to be done would be done by the proper people, who would then be paid fairly for their time and effort.

For example, you couldn’t just tell the scenery crew to handle some props, because that would set a dangerous precedent. Unscrupulous producers might decide to free up some money in the budget by hiring one crew to do the job of another crew, taking much-needed work from the proper crew.

So in theory, proper demarcation would fairly enforce the right to work. In practice, there are anecdotes of scenery-shifters walking out on a production because the director moved a chair.

Demarcation issues were a continual point of contention behind-the-scenes at the BBC. They were so ubiquitous that such issues inspired Douglas Adams to write about a couple of philosophers complaining that electronically computing the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything would put them out of a job.

"We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!"
Yes, you're very smart, shut up.

By the 1970's, the unions were going on strike every Fall thanks to demarcation issues. Eventually, the producers would end up planning around it, though the Doctor Who finales for 1977 and 1978 suffered a bit because of the annual strike halting production. And 1979’s “Shada” would get it the worst of all.

The cause of the repeated strikes was a simple clock from the kids' show Play School.

Behold. The clock that killed "Shada."
As I understand it, in every episode, the hands on the clock would be in a different position in order to teach kids how to read a clock. Pretty straightforward stuff.


Because it wasn't actually used to tell the time, its hands and cogs were powered by an electric motor.

Still, pretty straightforward, right?

Wrong. That, readers, was the very problem.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland really likes specificity, which can be seen in its full name, as well as governmental titles like "Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, and Skills."

So when it came to this gigantic clock... well, what was it? It certainly wasn't an actual clock.

Is it a prop? Well, sure. It fits the definition of "object used in a theatrical production."

Is it an effect? Well, arguably, yes, the motorized movement of the hands could count as an effect.

Is it scenery? Well, it is just a clock on the wall, at the end of the day.

You see the problem? Three different crews had equally valid arguments that the clock's operation and maintenance fell under their jurisdiction.

With strikes every Fall or so, the question wasn't if there was going to be a strike, but rather when. And the unions knew that disrupting Doctor Who would get them noticed. “Shada” was the third series finale to have been affected by the then-annual walk-out, and it was hit considerably harder than “The Invasion of Time” or “The Armageddon Factor.” I mean, those were at least completed and broadcast.

“Shada” wasn't a casualty; it was a victim.

On November 19th, 1979, Shada's production was officially shut down, meaning that the season would end with "The Horns of Nimon," which was an awful turd that got no polishing so they could work on “Shada” instead. Everyone hoped that production would resume after the strike, but the studio doors were found locked the next morning, thanks to prolonged striking. Recording was officially abandoned, and options were weighed from there. They ended up preparing the third round (or "block") of shooting, after abandoning the second one that the strike disrupted, but in the end, even with the strike over with, there was no way to get “Shada” prepared for Season 17. But they were looking into the option of airing it as part of the next season.

But every cloud has a silver lining. The abandonment of “Shada” meant that Tom Baker had free time to make an appearance at the first ever American Doctor Who convention.

I believe this is an accurate artist’s rendition.
Unfortunately for the future of “Shada,” the new producer coming in, John Nathan-Turner, wanted to alter the show's aesthetic. But he was still open to finishing the episode as it was meant to be finished, albeit as a shorter installment to focus more on new episodes. As such, he trimmed down the script a bit to turn it into two episodes instead of six, but it was decided that £27,520 was a bit too much too sink into the episode.

It was traditional for Doctor Who episodes to be novelized, but Douglas Adams never got around to it.

Adams: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.”

So "Shada" went almost completely unseen and largely unknown until the 1992 VHS release. I say "almost completely unseen" because clips from it were inserted in the anniversary episode "The Five Doctors" when Tom Baker decided not to participate.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the unofficial animated reconstruction of the unfilmed portions by big-name Doctor Who fan Ian Levine which utilizes soundalikes to fill in the gaps. While I applaud Mr. Levine's enthusiasm and effort, his reconstruction is, as I've said, an unofficial fan project. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I’ll be looking at the release that is, to date, the only official attempt to salvage the 1979 footage. And unlike Mr. Levine’s reconstruction, it uses more, shall we say, creative methods to replace what was never filmed.

So tomorrow, the NewtCave will begin looking at the last hurrah of Douglas Adams on Doctor Who, featuring a few elements that might be a little familiar to fans of his work beyond Hitchhiker's.

Coming up in Part 1! Mind melds, punting problems, and tea.


  1. What's wrong with the Hitch-Hickers Guide movie? I always liked it.

    1. I do too, though I will admit that I still think it's the weak link in the chain. I'll take the book or radio versions any day.