Day 267 – September 24th 2021
When I was putting together this marathon I spent a little while deciding what to do with Shada. I know it’s quite popular, because of its status as ‘the lost one’, but I’m firmly of the opinion that it doesn’t count. It was intended to close Season Seventeen, but then industrial action put a halt on the production and that was the end of that. It’s been completed since (about fifteen different times…) but it’s never going to be the full story it was intended to be, only ever a bit of a curiosity. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that I was going to skip this one and move directly from The Horns of Nimon to The Leisure Hive, as viewers would have in 1980.
But I was determined to have this marathon run every day of the year, with the TV Movie on New Years’ Eve, and I was one day short of making that happen, so Shada made it onto the list anyway.
A couple of weeks ago a friend asked what I was going to do with this one and I said that I was going to watch the version on BritBox and that I was actually looking forward to it now, as I’d never actually watched the Tom Baker version of Shada before, only having done the Paul McGann one about a decade ago during a marathon of his audio adventures. It was at this point that my friend pointed out that I’d done Shada in 2014 for my last marathon, one episode a day, via a fan-made animation. I’ve absolutely no memory of having done that, but he’s right! A very quick check of my old list (super quick so I wouldn’t see the scores I gave) confirmed that yes, I’d watched Shada before. There’s a lot of talk in this story of people forgetting things, so that seems surprisingly fitting…
The version of this story on BritBox is the most recent attempt to round out the story, mixing the material recorded in 1979 with new animation and effects shots from 2017. I was a bit weary going in, having not been overly keen on the animated episodes when I tried them for Fury From the Deep earlier in the year, but actually I think it works better here. There’s an especially nice transition when we first switch between the two formats, as the camera pans up from Tom Baker and Lalla Ward punting down the river before panning back down onto Chris Parsons (already introduced in the live action material) cycling down a street. It helps to ease you into the hybrid approach, and is a clever directorial choice.
That first animated sequence is also a perfect example of my biggest issue with the format, though. Presumably due to budget limitations you only ever have characters important to the story appearing in the animated sequences, and that means the streets of Cambridge are curiously empty as Parsons cycles along them. It looks a little strange — almost unfinished — and that’s a shame. It stands out especially when you see material actually shot on location in Cambridge which is filled with everyday people going about their lives while Doctor Who runs about having an adventure.
I think that’s the strongest part of Shada for me — the location footage showing Cambridge at the end of the 1970s. As with the Paris material in City of Death, there’s something really lovely about seeing our heroes in such an ordinary setting. There’s plenty of opportunities to enjoy this side of things, with several chases (both on foot and bicycle) around the city early on in the story. In some ways this feels a bit like a younger sibling to City of Death, and I think it’s almost certainly been written in response to seeing how well that story came out.
Sadly it’s not as polished as that earlier adventure, and I think it serves to really show off how well that one came together as a perfect storm. The humour in this one is very much drawn from the same well, but for whatever reason it’s just not landing for me as well as it did there. I don’t know if that’s the cast, the direction, or a combination of elements.
The biggest difference between the two stories is that in City there’s not a moment wasted. Even lingering shots of the characters wandering around felt important, or were at least interesting to look at. Every beat in that story is perfectly crafted and hits the mark. By contrast this whole story feels like it needs some tightening up, and I can’t help but assume that it’s down to the editing that was done in 2017. There’s several instances where a shot lingers that bit too long at the end, and it drags the pacing of things right down.
There’s also a number of dialogue-free sequences early on where we watch Parsons study the book at the centre of all the drama. They’re important to the plot, of course, but they feel so incredibly tedious, watching an animated character walk back and forth around a laboratory moving a book from one spot to another. Checking the script after the fact I’m impressed by just how closely they’ve followed the descriptions, but I wonder if there’s such a thing as being too eager to replicate what’s on the page?
The complete feature-length edit runs to almost two and a half hours, and I feel like they could have very easily edited it down to a tight two-hour production. I suppose it’s fitting in a way — Shada was the last Doctor Who story produced as a six parter, and they’ve had a long history of dragging a bit.
I’ll confess that my attention wandered at points during the story, though I wonder if that’s also a casualty of this being presented as one big story, rather than episodically. I’m used to watching about 50 minutes of Doctor Who per day, so this was a bit of a shake up to the system. That said, I think there’s places where the story could stand to make itself a bit clearer. For starters, there’s far too many elements in here which begin with the letter ‘S’. There’s Shada, obviously, but there’s also two villains with ‘S’ names — Salyavin and Skagra. That one of those characters also turns out to be another character from the story only added to the list of things to keep track of.
I also think my attention wandered as the story went on because the further you watch the more the balance shifts from recorded material to animation. Most of the back-half of the story is completely new, and as much as I thought it was well done (The TARDIS Control Room looks much nicer in animated form than it has on screen in this era, for example) it doesn’t interest me half as much as the ‘real’ material does.
It also has to be said that Tom Baker’s newly recorded dialogue for the animation sounds a bit… off. I mean it’s only natural, it was produced almost 40 years after the rest of the story. but I think he sounds so different — and the performance is so different — that it distracts to see these two elements rubbing alongside each other.
I’ll stick a spoiler warning at the start of this paragraph because I think my favourite part of this entire attempt to ‘complete’ the story is the final scene, in which Baker appears — in person, and back in costume — in newly-recorded material. Of course the performance is different here, too, but there’s something so magical about seeing him there in person which helps you to overcome all of that. Plus it makes me hoot to think that it ever happened, given how reluctant Baker was to return to the role for so long. It also means that all of Williams’ seasons of Doctor Who end with Baker grinning at the camera — there’s something rather lovely about that.
Overall, Shada is an interesting curiosity, and I think the way it was completed for release in 2017 is probably the ‘definitive’ version of the story. I can’t say I’m overly keen on the whole thing, though, and I won’t be rushing to watch the story again any time soon. It feels like a fitting end for the Williams era — being just a bit average — and if I were to give it a score it would be a 4/10.
As I mentioned yesterday, I won’t be including Shada on my big list of all the stories in order at the end of the year and — controversially, perhaps — I don’t think I’d put it on the Blu-ray release of Season Seventeen either. It’s nice that we can finally sit down to watch it after all this time, but I don’t think it can ever hope to feel like a ‘real’ Doctor Who story.