Unfinished Masterpiece?

Review of Shada (Unaired)

DVD Release Date: 08 Jan 13
Original Air Date: Slated for the end of Season 17, Jan-Feb 1980
Doctor/Companion: Four, Romana II
Stars: Tom Baker, Lalla Ward
Preceding Story: The Horns of Nimon (Four, Romana II)
Succeeding Story: The Leisure Hive (Four, Romana II)

Here we go. There's just about nothing better for starting an argument among Long-Term Fans than bringing up the question of the quality (or canonicity) of the "lost classic" Shada. Written by the now-legendary Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker's Guide fame and sadly interrupted and eventually scrapped due to a labor strike, Shada has gained legendary status among fans. Many seem to believe it would have become one of the best stories of all time, had it actually been completed.

In 1992 the BBC released the existing footage with "linking material" - that is, descriptive narration of the missing bits - by Tom Baker (who, weirdly to me, does it all in first person as the Doctor while dressed in a natty suit), and Shada finally saw the light of day. (It is that version, though remastered for DVD, that is on this disk.) More than a decade later in 2003, it was reworked as an Eighth Doctor adventure and presented as both a webcast (also included here, for access on a PC or Mac) and a Big Finish audio adventure. After another decade, the novelization - written by Gareth Roberts, but based on Adams' scripts - was released just last year.

So is this serial, "the one that got away" so to speak, all it's cracked up to be? In my opinion, the answer is a firm "it depends."

I first saw Shada when I was trying to get a better feel for Eight. I'd seen The Movie, but didn't want to shell out for a bunch of Big Finish product I'd no way to know whether I'd like, so when I ran across the webcast, I was thrilled. Here I could kill two birds with one stone: more Eight, and see this unfinished story I'd heard so much about. Mostly, I found it a little confusing - whether because I was unfamiliar with the format or due to the script itself, I don't know.

Having seen the webcast, though, I had a basic idea what was coming when I sat down to watch this version. It's hard for me to say, therefore, how "brilliant" the script is. Was I surprised? No. Did I think it was clever? Fairly so, yes. Did I think the acting was well done? Weeeeell... I thought the supporting cast were quite good, but both Tom and Lalla felt a bit over the top to me, as they often were in this era; the Doctor comes off as nearly slapstick, and Romana a bit too breathlessly keen.

There's a lot to like here. Adams' script does have some clever conceits, and I enjoyed many of the toss-off jokes (K-9 giving a uncertain reply of "insufficient data?" to a rhetorical question, lumps of milk, Skagra being "too clever by 7/8") and unusual perspectives (the academic's room that's really a TARDIS; the way Chris, as a scientist himself, is fascinated with the advanced technology he encounters; a different look at Time Lord history and legends).

On the other hand, it's not above reproach any more than any other serial is. The sphere chase scene is a bit laughable. The bit about "time [running] backwards over the book" really makes no sense as presented in the linking narration. The Krarg looked a bit shit (like a bunch of painted corrugated cardboard cutouts glued together), aside from the selective CSO to make it look a bit like hot magma. And the external view of Shada made me "WTF?"

In short, Shada is much like any other Doctor Who story - there are good parts and bad. All in all, I estimate the good outweigh the bad, and had it ever been broadcast, it would rank firmly among the better stories in the franchise. I don't think it would necessarily rank among the best-of-the-best, though. And there should be no shame in that.

More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS

In a certain sense, this is a double feature release. Not only is there the recombobulated version of Shada discussed above, but there is also a newly remastered version of the 1994 video release of a 1993 television documentary in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the show. During the 50th anniversary year seems a fitting time for such a re-release.

The piece is divided into three sections: "Doctor Who and the Daleks," "Monsters and Companions," and "Laughter and Tears Behind the Scenes." I'm not entirely sure why the last section was titled as such, but it includes much of the same type of material we get on every DVD's "making of" extra these days. My biggest take-away from that part was that both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (Six and Seven, respectively) tried to draw on Hartnell's performance to color their own.

In the rest of the show, there were a few things that leapt out at me as particularly notable for one reason or another, so I'll share them here. To begin, I found it rather telling, and perhaps counter to some Long-Term Fans' objections to the "change" in post-Hiatus Who, that one celebrity interviewee claimed her favorite Doctor was Pertwee's Three, "because he's just so damn sexy!" Who says no one ever watched because they fancied the Doctor until these last few years?

The later discussion of the Peter Cushing movies almost made we want to go watch them, if just for completeness (and Bernard Cribbins); I enjoyed seeing the origin of "the color for monsters is green"; and I was amused and a bit frightened to see Mary Whitehouse herself (famous for writing letters of complaint about Doctor Who) briefly interviewed. I also loved hearing how original creator/producer Sydney Newman hated the Daleks, as he considered them the ultimate BEMs.

As others have said, though, one of the things that struck me most while watching is just how many of these people we've lost in the past 20 years. Not only have some of the artists (like Jon Pertwee, Lis Sladen and Nick Courtney) left us, but many of the production team, too (Verity Lambert, John Nathan-Turner, Barry Letts...). On a slightly upbeat note, the number of missing episodes - listed in 1993 as 110 - has been slightly reduced to 106 by now. As time passes, we'll lose more cast and crew; we can only hope we'll keep finding more episodes as well, cold comfort though it be.

DVD Extras (highlights)
Taken Out of Time
Subtitled "The Making and Breaking of Shada," this extra documentary not only covers the usual behind the scenes anecdotes about doing the location work and beginning the studio blocks, but also explores the sequence of events that led to its eventual cancellation.

Being a Girl - Women in Doctor Who
How women are represented in Doctor Who, both on screen and behind the scenes, has been a discussion I've seen a lot lately. I found this particular foray into the debate to be both interesting and a bit tone-deaf itself. (Specifically, one female expert being interviewed made a generalization about male fans being into tiny details of continuity and such, while female fans just sit back and enjoy the story. As a female blogger who's always nitpicking the details, I found that a bit insulting.) However, the exploration of differences between female and male companions was a nice twist, and there were many good points made both for and against Who's representations of women.

Remembering Nicholas Courtney
Oh, boy... I was a bit nervous of getting overly emotional while watching a tribute to one of my favorite actors/characters in the franchise. Mostly, it was a fairly matter of fact overview of Courtney's career, including an incomplete interview with the man himself shortly before his death. But I simply couldn't hold it together with the final quote from Tom Baker, which really says it all: "There are many Doctors, but there's only one Brigadier."

Those Deadly Divas
I've no idea why they chose to include this extra with this set, but it was fun anyway. Interviewees included Kate O'Mara (the Rani), Camille Coduri (Jackie Tyler) and Tracy Ann Olberman (Yvonne Hartman) giving their thoughts on several of the female baddies over the years.

There's lots more in the way of extras, but these were a few of the notables. Be sure to check them all out, if you buy or rent the set.

I think Production Assistant Ralph Wilton summarized the general reaction to Shada perfectly (see "Taken Out of Time"): "Perhaps it's like the 'Unfinished' Symphony. If it had been finished, nobody would have cared that much. But because it's this great mystery hanging, 'what really happened?' that people are still fascinated by the story of Shada." So if you've never seen it, don't go in expecting the sky to open and angels to sing, but do go in expecting a fun ride.



Thanks for the review. I should be getting the DVD any day now. Ordered it before it came out with Amazon UK. I am currently reading the book, and I find it a likeable enough plot. :-)

By Tree (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Enjoy! :)

By mrfranklin

Sorry I've been missing for a bit, I haven't felt too well. I think I watched Shada about a week and a half ago - 2 weeks ago? and read the book around the same time.

I thought it was okay, but didn't feel I could form an accurate opinion because so much of it was missing - especially the end of it! I knew that going in, but I still felt a bit deprieved. :-) I think I would still rather see what they have, though. I don't feel as if Chris Parsons' character had enough of a chance to develop, though, as he did in the book, or for that matter, Professor Chronotis.

I think it was a great concept, and a good villian, though. I will say this - even in the book, the ending just dragged. Some parts of it simply didn't make sense, and it's impossible to know what parts Douglas Adams wrote and Gareth Roberts wrote. Tom Baker had quite the knack, though, for yelling "Shada" and drawing the word out, back in 1992, when he filmed the "explanatory" narrative parts. Quite theatrical. I felt myself wanting to do yell out the word in the same manner, he had so much fun doing it.

By Tree (not verified)
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