Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka (2003)

“You left the umbrella stand in the Zeppelin hanger again”

This is the greatest might-have-been in Doctor Who History…

It comes with a strange bit of history, though:  the original show had been cancelled in 1989, with an ill-fated half-American attempt to revive it in 1996.  But a lot of people still wanted more Who.

Somehow, in 2001, The BBC’s new online presence, BBCi, got permission to revive the Doctor for a series of webcasts.  The first of these Death Comes to Time was a bit of an oddity — a fan-ish attempt to finish Sylvester McCoy’s story arc and bring it to a better end than it did in the Fox TV movie.  It and two other BBCi productions that followed (which included Colin Baker in a Cyberman story and an attempt to finish Shada with Paul McGann, both produced by Big Finish) were really audio dramas, although they did come with what is laughingly described as “animation”:  basically still images with a few cuts and a little bit of motion to link them.  

And then they decided to do something radically different.

They would reboot the series, as a weekly, flash-animated Web series.

What’s more, they would do so, not with one of the previous Doctors, but with a brand new Doctor, to be played by noted British actor Richard E. Grant.

Apparently, there had been some talk about Grant playing the Doctor for years, perhaps in a movie version, and he’d played an outrageous version in The Curse of Fatal Death parody.  However, this time it was official, and BBCi declared that he would be the Ninth Doctor.

BBCi hired Cosgrove Hall, an animation studio who had just done an animated webcast for them called The Ghosts of Albion, to create a fully animated Doctor Who.  The animation is simple, and somewhat limited, but it has a very strong sense of design and a bold use of color.  Their take on the new Doctor was one of their strongest visual flourishes, with his pale, thin face with heavy shadows under the eyes, extravagant black and white hair style, and a very Victorian great coat reminiscent of that worn by John Pertwee.

This is a very damaged version of The Doctor, as damaged as Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor.  We never learn what has happened, but he is tired of trying to save people.  Unfortunately, someone (probably the Time Lords, although this is never said) has sent him to a destination he didn’t chose, to a small, sleepy town in England, and he knows it is because whoever sent him wants him to intervene.

The show also includes a far more radical re-envisioning of The Master (played by Derek Jacobi), who is now The Doctor’s traveling companion, thanks to something even more dreadful than what happened to The Doctor.  His version here is reminiscent of Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley’s versions, and it would have been far more interesting if he’d got the chance to play this version on TV when he reprised the role a few years later (as it was, he never got the chance to play the real Master for more than a few minutes!). Also in the cast were a new companion played by Sophie Okenedo (who would later show up on TV), and a gruff army Major who may have been intended as Lethbridge Stuart’s replacement.

While Russell T. Davies declared that he thought Grant’s performance was terrible,  I find instead that his Doctor is a fascinating and complex portrayal, one which requires Grant to start in as one of the most irascible Doctor’s ever — angry, sarcastic, and very unwilling to get involved again — and yet manage to soften him up and bring back the old Doctor before the end of the series.  He would have made a very interesting, if somewhat dark, Doctor, and it seems a shame that he only ever got the one adventure.

This is one of my favorite Who episodes, thanks in part to its audacity in giving us a new Doctor, but also because of its rather interesting creatures, and their shocking secret.  It has one of the all-time greatest Cliffhangers, a lot of imagination, and, in its limited way it looks great.

Unfortunately, after this was in production, but before it went live in 2004, the first news of the reboot Who TV series was released, and Davies officially declared Eccleston would be the Ninth Doctor three months after its release, making Grant some sort of alternate Doctor.  

And that was the end of the (other) Ninth Doctor.

Even after the announcement of the TV reboot, BBCi had intended to make more stories involving Grant’s Doctor.  They’d already commissioned a sequel story, “The Blood of the Robots” but it got cancelled even though Simon Clark had finished the story outline and most of the script.  Apparently the Big Finish story “Immortal Beloved” was once meant for Grant, as well.  

Davies actions seem more than a little strange to me as his reboot never acknowledged the original show in its first season, and there was a lot of debate over whether the show was an actual continuation of the old show.  It wasn’t until David Tennant’s run that Davies started tying the story into the past, primarily with the reappearance of Sarah Jane Smith.

However, Davies actions were enough that BBCi dropped its plans for a Shalka DVD.  And one of the great Who episodes dropped into obscurity, where only brave explorers of the BBC’s Who pages were likely to uncover it.

And yet…

The BBC finally relented and released a DVD in 2013.  It seems unlikely that more adventures will follow, but the Beeb has been busy making Who animations, and both Grant and Sophie Okenedo are still around.  They even have a story and script.

You never know.

(The BBC website still offers this story in Webisode format, although it hasn’t been updated in a long time and doesn’t work well.  However, when the Flash Player opens, click on “full screen” and it should work.  It may also be necessary to play each episode in chapters)

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