“Shada” is something of an enigma in the Doctor Who canon. The final story of the much-maligned season 17, production was suspended due to an industrial strike at the BBC with just over half the story filmed. And while there were several attempts to get it remounted, “Shada” never saw the light of day again and was “lost.”
For years, the only snippets we got were those in “The Five Doctors” to cover Tom Baker’s absence.
Since that time, “Shada” has become one of the more re-told and released stories in the classic Who canon. We had the VHS release of the completed bits with linking narration (in character as the Doctor, I might add) by Tom Baker. We had the animated web version with Paul McGann as the Doctor and then an audio version by Big Finish (also featuring McGann as Doctor). There was an adaptation of the original scripts in printed form a couple of years back and an accompanying audiobook release, as well. (This is to say nothing of a certain fan’s creating his own animated version)
So, it can be easy as a Doctor Who fan to have a bit of fatigue when it comes to this particular “lost” story. I often wonder if the script weren’t by Douglas Adams if it really would have garnered as much attention as it has over the years. (Indeed, Adams wasn’t one to let a good story idea go and used parts of “Shada” in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency).
Finally, following the success of the animated version of “Power of the Daleks,” the next story to be completed was announced as “Shada.” This new version would be a hybrid of the live-action bits married with animation for those parts not filmed. The voice work for the animated bits would be provided by the original (if possible) actors in order to complete the story. And, finally, as last, we’d have a definitive version of “Shada.”
Well, at least that’s the theory.
After months of wondering why the U.S. DVD release of the newly completed “Shada” had been delayed, I finally got my answer. It was so American fans could be treated to the story on BBC America.
And so it was that I was finally able to view the completed “Shada” in all its glory.
And come away with the impression that while it’s good, it’s not necessarily the lost classic that Doctor Who lore would have you believe. It’s a six-part story that spends a lot of time running about — and while it’s not down the usual corridors that the series is so famous for, there is some running about Cambridge that fulfills pretty much the same purpose.
I don’t necessarily think the team that completed the story did it many favors by making this version an omnibus version instead of episodic as it was originally written. Classic Who built each episode toward a cliffhanger and while you can cut out the opening and closing titles and run the episodes in a movie version, it doesn’t necessarily work all as well. (The original VHS line started out with omnibus versions for the first dozen or so releases and then switched over to the episode format after fan outcry).
“Shada” is a story that feels like it’s trying too hard to be clever — and not always succeeding. The idea of a book that contains the secret knowledge of a Time Lord prison as well as a study that doubles as a TARDIS seems like fun on paper, but it begins to wear thin by the third episode. As I said before, there is a lot of running about, chasing the book and various parties back and forth across not only Cambridge but the entirety of time and space. It’s also interesting that many of the animated bits probably succeed more because they’re animated. In particular, a battle between K9 and the monsters of the week probably looks better animated than anything the serial could have achieved on the original budget. (And there are a few samples of it the live action version to underscore this).
I will admit the story works a lot better in the animated sections because the actors have recorded lines to be animated. Unlike the other animated Who episodes, where the animation is made to match original production stills and the original soundtracks, the pacing of these works better. As much as I enjoyed “Power of the Daleks” in its restored form, part of me still wonders how many liberties the animators were taking with certain aspects of it and how much of Patrick Troughton’s performance we were missing because you simply can’t animate everything he was doing.
I’d say this is a step-up from the VHS (and later DVD) version with the linking narration by Baker. And it’s probably as close as we will ever get to a definitive version of “Shada” on our screens. And I can’t fault the team for a nice moment at the end with the current version of Tom Baker filming a scene in the TARDIS interior. It feels like an Easter egg meant to tie into his cameo as the Great Curator in “The Day of the Doctor” and it’s every bit as marvelous as you’d hope.
And now that we’ve finished “Shada,” I find myself wondering what will get the animated treatment next. Will the team behind it go full first Doctor and give us something from that era or could we possibly go the Dalek route again and finally see “Evil of the Daleks” completed?