Doctor Who: Shada (2017)

To date, I haven’t covered television shows or episodes of television shows, although I have at times covered TV movies, mini-series and BBC “series”.

However, whatever else you may say about Shada, it is not merely another episode of Doctor Who.  Instead, it is more like the Lost Dutchman mine of the Who universe.

After all, we are talking about a Tom Baker episode that was abandoned and left unfinished almost forty years ago.  And, what’s more, a six-parter.

Heck, it was even written by Douglas Adams.

For those of us who were fans of Doctor Who when it first showed here in the United States, this was the one episode we all wanted to see.  But due to a strike at the BBC — and the arrival of the new showrunner, John Nathan Turner, the last two-thirds of the shooting were left unfinished.  It didn’t fit into JNT’s plans, there were changes to the cast, and despite a half-hearted attempt to finish it as a Special, it was allowed to molder on the BBC’s shelves.

In the Nineties, as the Beeb filled the video store shelves with Who episodes, the sheer demand for the episode persuaded them to release a cobbled-together version with linking narration from Tom Baker.  It gave some idea what the episode might have looked like, but little more than that, particularly as the filmed segments didn’t include anything that actually took place on Shada, prison planet of the Time Lords.  Later, Big Finish Productions created a somewhat altered radio drama version, with Paul McGann as the Doctor (although Lalla Ward returned as the second incarnation of Romana, who has somehow ended up as President of the Time Lords).  And there was even a fan film attempt at finishing it, Doctor Who and the Shada Man.

Now, with the BBC making animated fill-ins for lost episodes, we finally get the definitive version of Shada, completed with animated sequences created by the team that did The Power of the Daleks.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t happy with the job they’d done on The Power of the Daleks:  there were moments when it mostly worked, but it fell down rather badly on the action scenes, and their Daleks seems to lack something (particularly when you compared them to the surviving clips).  I would far rather have seen them turn the project over to Paul “Otaking” Johnson, who created the outrageous (and magnificent) Doctor Who Anime.  For that matter, I really thought that the decidedly 2-D Flash animation of The Scream of the Shalka was superior to most of the Beeb’s attempts at 3-D animation.  It is one thing to have the ability to move 3-D objects around in dimensional space, and to set up virtual camera angles and lighting, but it is a lot harder to actually make it looks interesting.

That being said, on the whole, I thought the animation was far better than that of The Power of the Daleks.  Until, that is, the ending, where the action simply wasn’t clear enough.

And there was a lot of action.

In particular, I would point out that the curious creation and dissolution of the Krarg’s as needed was not as clear as it should be, particularly as this proves important at the end.

I’m not sure Shada would ever have been a great episode.  But it does have a number of fairly clever ideas, and a typically genial and laid back performance from Tom Baker.  He seems to be on form here with the help of a fairly complex plot, some mildly fourth wall commentary on trying to take over the universe, and one of the more outrageous villain plans in Who History.   All in all, it’s a lot of fun.

However, neither Tom nor Lalla still sounds like they did back in 1979.  I’ve heard Tom still sounding more or less like himself not that long ago although, listening to radio and television, we often forget that what we’re hearing might be fairly old.  They say that an actor’s voice is the last thing to go.  At age Eighty-three, Tom can be forgiven if his voice no longer has the power, range or flexibility it had.

After I saw this, I had to go back and skim through my old VHS copy from the Nineties and found that there is very little difference between the two, except for a few odd details.  There is one short clip of K-9 battling a Krarg which looks original but did not appear in the Nineties compilation.  They might have shot it for this version, as both the original Krarg suit and the original K-9 both still exist in a museum — although I am a tad bit skeptical that anyone would allow them to be used, or that they’d hold up even for a minimal shot like this.

The biggest surprise is that the short coda to the episode appears to have been the exact same scene described in Tom’s narration for the original VHS version.  It appears to be exactly what Douglas Adams wrote in 1979, even if it has been given a few new shades of meaning.

.For a long time now, once the Beeb started using animation to replace lost footage and episodes (with, I believe The Reign of Terror their first effort) I’ve been hoping that they would decide to finally finish Shada while Tom and Lalla were still around.  I am happy that they finally did it and am reasonably pleased with the results.  Yes, it would have been better had that strike never taken place and the original episode had been finished as planned, but that didn’t happen.  Instead, this is about the best we could have hoped for, and they did quite well.

Although it would have been better if they’d hired Paul “Otaking” Johnson.

Oh well.  You can’t have everything.

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