Shada – a lost classic? I don’t think so.
What!? A Doctor Who story written by Douglas Adams. Starring Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor at the height of his powers. Co-starring Lalla Ward as Time Lady companion Romana. Alongside adorable robot-dog K•9. A six-part season finale set in the hallowed halls of Cambridge and outer space, which would have been the first full story aired in the 1980s…?
Only it wasn’t to be. A calamity occurred in late 1979 that even the Time Lord couldn’t overcome. Industrial action at the BBC halted Shada halfway into production. All the location filming was in the can, as well as one of three studio sessions at BBC Television Centre. But nothing more would be shot.
As the news leaked out at the time, I wasn’t exactly devastated. This era of Doctor Who did not thrill me. Recently I found one of my earliest reviews, where, with great hauteur even at the age of 15, I wrote off Season 17 as “shoddy”. Cash-strapped, cheap-looking, a triumph of frivolity over compelling drama, the programme was buckling under the weight of Douglas Adams’s and Tom Baker’s propensity for silliness. (I’m one of the few who does not love City of Death from earlier that season.)
Shada was shelled out in a “last-minute panic” by Adams (above), then also toiling as Doctor Who’s script editor. The cast have always raved about the project, but I suspect Adams’s reputation might have been tarnished had Shada gone out. He admitted in Doctor Who Magazine: “I didn’t particularly like it. It was rather thin – at most a mediocre four-parter stretched over six parts. So when it was cancelled halfway through production, I thought, ‘Phew!’ – because it wasn’t very good, and now at least I’m spared anybody seeing it.” He wasn’t being modest. Douglas Adams, who died shockingly young at 49 in 2001, was given to frankness and had a keen critical eye.
There are pockets of magic to enjoy, but in truth Shada is a sprawling but far-from-epic serial. Skagra, one of Who’s campest baddies, in a floaty silver cape and floppy white hat, flounces around Cambridge with a brain-draining sphere in his handbag.
The Doctor and Romana visit doddery Professor Chronotis, a Time Lord who’s had rooms at St Cedd’s College for many decades. (A milieu adapted by Steven Moffat for Peter Capaldi’s last series.)
The humour (repetitive blather about tea and sugar) falls flat. The “action” is captured in various states of lethargy by Pennant Roberts, one of that period’s many pedestrian directors.
Shada… I have never mourned its loss. But that’s me. Most Doctor Who fans are nothing if not completists. They want their Shada! Numerous attempts have been made to finish Shada in the 37 years since its cancellation. As early as 1980, incoming producer John Nathan-Turner suggested a remount for inclusion in Season 18. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward were still on contract and in charge of the Tardis. This was the optimum time but even JN-T didn’t succeed.
Then the aficionados stepped in to have a bash. In the early 80s I attended a DWAS convention where they screened an edition of Shada. It was the first time most of us had seen the surviving footage. The lengthy missing tracts were replaced with a scrolling, typed narrative. Top marks for effort but it was tragically soporific.
In 1992, Nathan-Turner had another stab at it, this time for a BBC Video release. He enlisted a grey but jovial Tom Baker (below) to act as storyteller and sprinkle his charisma over the missing passages. Shada still couldn’t quite spring to life.
In 2003, the fan producers at Big Finish transformed Shada into an audio play, revised – efficiently but bizarrely – for Paul McGann’s Doctor and Lalla Ward’s Romana. It was also available as a rudimentary animation on the BBC website (below).
Then about six years ago, überfan Ian Levine spent a fortune making his own Shada as a passion project. He is the Completist’s Completist. He cut the 1979 footage together with impressive new animation (below), and rehired almost all the surviving cast to voice their parts, including again Lalla Ward.
Tom Baker wasn’t involved so a decent soundy-likey was found to voice the fourth Doctor. It was the most proficient version up to that point. But to Levine’s intense chagrin and owing to what sounds like a clash of personalities, he couldn’t persuade BBC Worldwide to release it as an official product.
I have given all these versions a try across the decades. Valiant efforts all. And all have made me nod off.
Now, in 2017, BBC Worldwide have produced yet another version – harnessing the talented team who last year animated The Power of the Daleks (Patrick Troughton’s debut story as the second Doctor). And perhaps this is the boldest edition so far.
The surviving film and video from 1979 have been digitally remastered. Brand-new model work and visual effects have been shot, in keeping with the look of the period. Mark Ayres has recorded a delightful new score with five musicians, honouring the music that Dudley Simpson was writing for the series in the late 70s.
I’m not big on animation – it’s a turn-off – but they seem to have done a reasonable job of plugging the gaps. I can’t say the style of animation is appreciably better than Ian Levine’s version. The likenesses of the principals were certainly sharper in his Shada. But that version sadly wasn’t widely available.
Crucially, fans can now have their “complete” viewing experience with the voices of both original stars of the show. Lalla Ward is reprising her role for the fourth time. She must know her dialogue by heart, having first learnt it several regenerations ago. (She has since married and divorced Tom Baker; married and become “amicably separated” from Richard Dawkins.)
The USP is that Worldwide have stumped up the fee for Baker to reprise his role. Now 83, he’s still engaging, that fruity timbre barely diminished by the passage of time. And, perhaps most thrilling for fans, there’s a wonderful final scene with the ancient Baker back in his 1979 togs and Tardis.
For all this, much appreciated effort, I still find Shada rather plodding. For my money, if you really want to immerse yourself in Shada and enjoy its leisurely pace, track down the BBC Books novel from 2012, adapted by new series writer Gareth Roberts. Revel in his wordplay in homage to Douglas Adams and construct the pictures in your own mind.
This article was originally published on 24 November 2017
Doctor Who: Shada airs on BBC America on Thursday 19 July at 8/7c