Alternative Betelgeuse – The 4th Doctor Returns in Animation Shada Review

I very rarely buy brand new Doctor Who DVD’s to be honest. They always seem frankly designed to take as much money as possible from me as a consumer but I made a rare exception for Shada. The thought of a new (to me) story with Tom Baker still in his prime and filled in with animation was just too delicious a proposition to resist. Shada has always had a mysterious unknown reputation for me. Not because the BBC dumped the tapes as they did for the Hartnell and Troughton eras but due to the industrial strike.

I can imagine if a strike had happened today, meaning we had lost half the latest Christmas special, in this age of the internet, fans would furiously bang out their horror via their keyboards to online forums or the BBC press office or post tedious tweet tantrums out on Twitter. However, strikes weren’t an unusual event in the 1970’s and as an avid television viewer (I think most kids were then) you just became resigned to the way television was affected by industrial action. Shada was lost and that was that. It would never be seen as a complete product again.

Buying my DVD, I had no idea whether this story would actually be any good. I haven’t seen any of the previous versions, on VHS, Big Finish, from Ian Levine, the Gareth Roberts prose or audio books. Good heavens, I never had a clue there was so much out there. Well, that’s not strictly true I watched about five minutes of the Paul McGann animation on YouTube before I bought the DVD.

I’ve always also felt a bit wary of Douglas Adams’s writing style for Who after watching the loud and bombastic Captain, in The Pirate Planet. I really hated that character, every inch of how he was portrayed. Although I do really enjoy City of Death and the original TV series of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy there has always been something a bit too cynical about Adam’s humour for me. Its clever but doesn’t make me smile. I was always impressed by his off side ideas but the humour leaves a sense of the sardonic. But I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised at Shada. It does make me smile for a few reasons.

Location, Location, Location

Well, I have to mention first the location filming. It does look totally gorgeous being filmed in Cambridge. There is something really nostalgic seeing how Cambridge looked forty years ago. Maybe it is my wistfulness set in aspic but it just adds an authentic feel to the story. St Johns College Cambridge is where Douglas Adams went to get his degree so the material feels very natural I am very glad that the location filming still exists. There is a kind of dreaminess to Shada- a protective bubble of tradition and certainty which belies the political upheaval of the 1980’s to come. Its a look into a world of privilege and tradition. Wilkin is the guardian of this when he greets and banters with ‘Sir’ recognising the Doctor’s frequent visits and protects the professor’s privacy.

Some of these certainties of tradition would later disappear when Margaret Thatcher would sweep into power and attack the unions, disbanding their power and taking away protection for the normal working man. Mrs T would also sell off most of the state-owned national utilities, undermining any wealth opportunity for the country for the future. Cuts in spending on social welfare and changes in benefits eligibility would take away the Beveridge Report of 1942’s recommendation of being protected by the state from ‘Cradle to the Grave’. The country would never be the same again.

There seems to be a fair bit of thought by the director put in to show off the best of the Cambridge colleges and the general town. What helps Shada is the location filming works early in the story and the main characters are also encouraged to be fairly physical on location. The tranquil punting scene literally glides us into the story. It’s really nice to see the punting scene in its full glory, which was a bit butchered being forced into ‘The Five Doctors’ all those years ago. Tom trying to punt is a hoot and there’s something quite languid about the pace of that scene which means you lose yourself in the to and fro between the Doctor and Romana as Skagra smiles in amusement when the Doctor misplaces his pole. The other scenes I really like were Chris Parsons negotiating traffic and the chase scene with the sphere. Seeing the Doctor on a bike as he winds through the little lanes and whizzes past the singers, belting out ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ just there on the corner is pure whimsy.

Romana languishing in a boat on the Cam
Romana loves the simple pleasure of punting

Graduating with honours

I really don’t understand why Douglas Adams didn’t like this script. All the characters, bar Skagra of course, exhibit a great deal of likeability. I love Chris Parsons! The actor Daniel Hill brings an inquisitiveness and amiability to the mature student scientist which reminds me a little of Harry Sullivan.

Tom Baker is at the height of his powers as the 4th Doctor, eccentric, intellectual, with a warmth and liveliness especially in the scenes together with Lalla. Maybe this is the honeymoon period before it all went wrong in real life for them. I’ve said before that I never really enjoy Lalla’s Romana as the actress leaves me a bit cold in her portrayal but she does look gorgeous in her hat and long (Victorian?) dress  and I like how she becomes an alternative doctor with Clare as the companion in parts of the story when controlling the Professor’s Tardis.

The scenes of the Doctor with Professor Chronotis in his rooms are a pure delight. Tea? Milk? One lump or two, Sugar? A comforting beverage is brewed and a civilised ceremony of tea drinking takes place. Denis Carey brings such charm to his role. The humour is gently prodding fun at their companionable relationship and I enjoyed learning a bit more about this retired and secretive Time Lord who contradicts with an interesting, deeper past as a criminal. I did guess who he was before the eventual reveal that his prison cell was empty, as soon as he telepathically controlled Clare and I would have liked to see more of this personality but it was clearly a past he wanted to be rid of. Salyavin was made a character of legend where the stories became more and more exaggerated about his wickedness, not this man. There is redemption for all of us given a chance.

Professor Chronotis is a clandestine time-traveller, whose time machine is disguised as his college rooms.
Professor Chronotis is a clandestine time-traveller, whose time machine is disguised as his college rooms.

Christopher Neame as Skagra is an interesting villain. The actor has had quite a prolific career here and in the United States and he was one of the first male actors apparently to appear nude on TV. There is something quite regal in the way he moves as Skagra but then it really tickles me seeing Skagra stride around Cambridge in his silver cape and boots and nobody bats an eyelid! I love the way he booms out ‘You! ’ and ‘I want to see Chronotis’ at Wilkin. This kind of describes his scientific character so well I think, cool, authoritative with a distinct lack of emotion.  Of course, he is a bit of a megalomaniac too! Gerald Campion is a fine foil to both Tom Baker and Christopher Neame. Nice comedic timing throughout and his exclamation when the Professor’s rooms disappear and subsequent bringing of a policeman to the rooms allows for some lovely comedy in the diverting dialogue from the other characters.

Oh, did I say I love the character Ship? My lord doctor! Who doesn’t love a sparky ship’s computer? (remember Holly in Red Dwarf, Orac in Blakes 7, Actually, I’ve decided right now I’m going to get a Blakes 7 reference into each article. Garry, Adam, this series needs to be reviewed on BBBP!!) Miles better than the Star Trek brain dead ‘warning, warning’ klaxon cry.

Animating a lost story

So, the big question is, of course, the mix of animation and real footage. Does it work? I believe the animation is from the same company that created for ‘Power of the Daleks’. Initially, I was surprised that the story was edited as one long feature. I do think leaving the cliffhangers in would have added more tension to the story impressing those moments with a high. But I understand why they may have chosen not to. Having a mix of animation and real action within an episode can be a jarring experience and then splitting the story up too.

I haven’t watched all the additional features so I’m not sure how much of the dialogue from the original script was kept. I noticed the animated parts of the story are quite wordy, more like a radio production and the pace becomes slower than during the real-life footage but I was impressed how seamless most of it joins together. I think the studio filming plus animation is slightly more noticeable when it changes but I really like the colour palette used. I suppose the limitations of animation is that action sequences won’t play so well but it also is a blessing where the budget doesn’t stretch to a great looking monster. Pennant shot the Kraags somewhat sparingly in the studio so we rarely see the whole thing but they actually seem better as animation.

Animating Shada
The animation works really well with the existing footage

A Time Lord Operation

I liked the ideas given in this story. Of a scientific genius such as Skagra wanting access to the Time Lords prison planet to create a big universal mind. It was interesting that the Time Lords made even their own people forget about the prison planet Shada. Was that for the people’s protection or just to hide their own shame of how they treated their criminals? I do wonder how Salyavin actually escaped and no one seemed to notice? I don’t remember many guards on Shada but maybe the Time Lords left the prisoners much like the Daleks were abandoned in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ as literally forgotten. I talked about privilege earlier in the glimpses of Cambridge University and it seems the Time Lords and Skagra are trying to impose their own form of eliteness here.There is that deceiving element of influence over their own kind by the Time Lords which will continue in the manipulation seen in the modern series in the stories ‘The End of Time’ (the Master and the drums) and Heaven Sent (The Doctor).

If there is a downside it could have happily shaved an episode off without losing too much probably as the pace of the story is slightly measured but I never truly found myself bored as there was always something happening. Its old school Doctor Who, not 42 minutes of dash and exposition. Yes, Shada is not a story to see in a hurry but it does invite you to grab a glass of wine and some nibbles and just enjoy the ride. I wanted to keep watching although it is not a classic ‘fan’ story in the veil of ‘The Deadly Assassin’ adding lots of Time Lord mythology but it is a perfectly satisfactory one with lots of charm due to its characters.

The Rumours of Death that followed this story after the original strike are happily dispelled. Restored in entirety with the original cast and the art of animation has given the story a new lease of life of which as a huge Tom Baker fan I am very glad.


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