Thirty-eight years after it should have first aired, Douglas Adams’ last Doctor Who story, “Shada,” is finally complete. Was it worth a nearly four-decade wait? It’s hard to say. Because without that legacy of mystery to propel it, “Shada” would never really have become more than the sum of its otherwise rather average parts.
The thing is – and I’m sure there’ll be some classic Doctor Who purists who are ready to raise their sonic pitchforks in anger at what I’m about to say – “Shada” is… fine? It’s fine.
Among the Adams oeuvre, it’s probably only barely above “The Pirate Planet,” but nowhere near the wonderful “City of Death,” a masterpiece “Shada” desperately wants to emulate but can never quite match. It, like “City of Death,” starts strongly, with gorgeous, sweeping location shots of Cambridge, and Tom Baker and Lalla Ward soaking in the charming sites. But there’s little of the sprightly pace and energy, or the exoticism, of the Paris location filming from “City” in “Shada,” which is mostly made wonderful by the sheer fun Baker and Ward are having as they punt down the River Cam. The banter is as delightful as “City of Death,” for sure – it’s still a Douglas Adams script – but the enjoyment in these scenes is more for the fact it’s clear Baker and Ward are having a wonderful time, rather than the scenes themselves.
And unlike “City,” “Shada” starts slow and gets slower. The Doctor and Romana find themselves wrapped up — alongside Cambridge University professors Chris “Young Parsons” Parsons (Daniel Hill) and Claire Keightley (Victoria Burgoyne) — in an adventure where bumbling retired Time Lord Professor Chronotis (the since-departed Denis Carey) has “accidentally” purloined a dangerous, ancient Gallifreyan book from the Time Lord archives when he left for Cambridge. Said book is now sought by the villainous Skagra (Christopher Neame), a genius who wants to free a psychic Time Lord criminal from the titular prison planetoid of Shada to control the universe as one singular hive mind. In reality, however, he does little more than flounce around in a dazzlingly cheap lamé suit/cape combo and occasionally hold a grey ball.
The first half of the serial is a total slog because of its pacing, as a series of missed connections over Chronotis’ book lead to the wider cast bumping into each other and introducing themselves over the course of three episodes, but never actually really doing anything of note. It doesn’t help that, if we continue the “City of Death” comparisons, Skagra is no Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth when it comes to top-tier Doctor Who villainy. Skagra’s encounters with the Doctor have but a fraction of the charm and wit of the Doctor’s parleys with Scaroth in “City,” and it doesn’t help that the primary “monstrous” threat of the first half of the serial comes in the form of the aforementioned grey ball, a dodgily green-screened floating device that bonks people on the head and absorbs their brain waves. There’s a truly, astonishingly awful cliffhanger in episode two — when the sphere attempts to menace Tom Baker, unconvincingly partially “trapped” under a chain fence — that might be one of the all-time “so bad it’s hilarious” Doctor Who cliffhangers, and it’s honestly about as threatening as the sphere ever gets.
When the second half of the serial leaves Cambridge behind and heads into space, it gets marginally better – that the sphere’s villainous presence is mostly replaced by Skagra’s crystalline minions, the Krargs, helps with this, as does the fact things actually begin to happen. But even then, the threat is built primarily around ancient Time Lord mumbo jumbo, something the show had rightfully mostly stopped leaning on by 1979. And some half-hearted attempts at a discourse around the ethics of the Time Lord’s penitentiary methods – a theme then-outgoing Who producer Graham Williams wanted to tackle – fall totally flat when the Doctor’s stance is… pretty much to ignore that freezing criminals of your own and other races, dumping them on a planetoid in suspended animation, and then forgetting about said planetoid, is bad, and to leave it to the Time Lords to sort out.
It’s in the second half we really get to see what’s new with this latest remastering of “Shada” (which has been turned into webcasts, and radio plays, and even a book in the decades since its scrapping). It’s primarily made up of new animation, used to recreate scenes from Adams’ script that were never filmed when strike action saw the initial production on “Shada” cancelled 38 years ago. Although the cartoony aesthetic definitely blends well with the retro-vibe of the filmed material interspersed around it, the animation – done by the same team that resurrected the lost serial “The Power of the Daleks” last year — primarily benefits from bringing a sense of dynamism that scenes shot in 1979 on a shoestring BBC budget probably wouldn’t have otherwise. K-9 fighting off giant Krargs in this animation wouldn’t even be up there with the action of a modern Doctor Who episode, but these scenes are much more vibrant and exciting in their new animated form.
But these scenes also elevate the otherwise average source material simply through a level of loving reverence. Returning actors lending their voices to each character – including Tom Baker, who famously turned down involvements in previous attempts to bring Shada to life — with a conviction that works so well you barely notice that there’s nearly four decades between performances. There is a love for the material in this process, from the acting to the animation, that does the impossible: It makes “Shada” so much better than it rightfully ever should have been, and gets caught up in its own mythos to the point that you are too. You ignore the fact that, outside of one good twist near the end, Skagra’s plan kinda sucks, or that the doohickey everyone spent the first half of the story running after just sort of vanishes the minute the plot picks up from its glacial pace, among a litany of other plot holes that threaten to pull the whole thing apart in the climax. There’s such love and care on display, built upon years and years of waiting for this story to finally be told in full, that “Shada” becomes so much stronger than the sum of its decent-at-best parts. You can’t help but admire the charm of it all.
It is almost impossible to to review “Shada” separate from its status as this fabled, incomplete tale. And not only because seeing it as director Pennant Roberts would have intended it to be seen all those years ago is impossible – sure, we now have all of the footage shot and interspersed among the new animated sequences, but it’s still required someone else’s interpretation of characters and scenes to fill the gaps. But from the nod-and-wink of the opening BBC narration apologising that the serial is airing “a little later than originally billed,” to the final, heartwarming scene that puts Adams’ original dialogue into a new, lovely context (I won’t spoil it here, but a cursory Google search will find plenty of articles spoiling it for you if you’re curious), there is a certain level of knowing indulgence that raises this version of “Shada” beyond the many attempts that have come before it.
Removing the serial from the context of its release, to judge it as a standalone Doctor Who story, would rob it of the great heart that’s gone into this remaster – heart it perhaps would never have quite had if strike action hadn’t, well, struck. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and there’s rarely a more perfect example of that in Doctor Who than “Shada.”
“Shada” is available digitally now, with a DVD/Blu-Ray release coming in January.