Doctor Who: Shada (1992), dir. Pennant Roberts & Shada (2003), dir. Nicholas Pegg

Shada (1992), dir. Pennant Roberts

The 1992 VHS ‘compilation’ of Douglas Adams’ unfinished and untransmitted Shada (shot on location on 16mm film in Cambridge in 1979) comes across increasingly worse with age. It’s been maybe a decade since I watched a rip of the VHS uploaded to YouTube, long before any sign of an official DVD release. During frequent trips to Cambridge, I’d wonder whether I’d ever encounter a copy of the VHS tape in charity shops. This version retains the episodic structure from the scripted episodes and production intent and is characteristic of the series, unlike the ‘omnibus’ format adopted by the definitive 2017 version, incorporating newly filmed model shots by Mike Tucker, inserts, props, costumes, animation by Anne Marie Walsh (designed by Martin Geraghty and Adrian Salmon), voice acting by the original cast and a new ending under producer/director Charles Norton, derived from rehearsal scripts, floor plans and set designs. As Norton noted to Doctor Who Magazine #520, he adopted the philosophy that it was “December 1979 and Pennant Roberts is ill and we got called in to finish the production”, allowing the freedom to edit and excise sequences.

However, the episodic choice is problematic given the nature of this version. With Tom Baker’s linking material, the serial is unevenly paced between episodes, with the later three episodes particularly affected thanks to the incomplete material shot in Television Centre (most of the completed material was within Professor Chronotis’ study) with absences especially in scenes on Skagra’s spaceship. The extant production material comprised five days of location material and two days in Television Centre.

The narration Tom Baker was supplied with is particularly ineffective in conveying the events of the story, even as it clings to the first person narration Baker was also burdened with the same year for the linking narration of the audio cassette tape of The Evil of the Daleks (released on the same day as Shada in July 1992). Despite the best efforts in culling together rushes, the editing is mediocre, with a reliance upon stills to fill in some of the unfilmed sequences alongside Baker’s narration. The hideous capabilities of early 90s video effects are ruined even further through badly rendered CSO (Colour Separation Overlay), without adjusting the contrast of the shots filmed in 1979 to match against grainy stills chosen as the background for the CSO shots.

The worst aspect of the entire effort is Keff McCulloch’s score. Although never reaching the heights of Dominic Glynn and Mark Ayres, I’m an apologist for the synths he supplied to the soundscapes of the Sylvester McCoy era. Although Mark Ayres’ score for the 2017 reconstruction, composed with an EMS VCS3, a Roland synthesiser, percussion and clarinets, relies too heavily on emulating Ayres’ friend, the late Dudley Simpson, McCulloch’s terrible score doesn’t even begin to help represent the uneasy transition between Graham Williams and John Nathan-Turner’s (himself the producer behind the VHS release) tenures as producer and the late 1970s and early 1980s eras of the programme. McCulloch diffuses the comedic potential of Douglas Adams, destroying dramatic beats, with many moments deserving a score lacking what it needs. Despite the original 1992 VHS release being packaged with each episode of Douglas Adams’ teleplays, imagining every viewer in 1992 would pause the tape and compliment their viewing experience by visualising scenes within their heads seems a tall order, losing the story of any momentum.

Shada (2003), dir. Nicholas Pegg

2003 CD artwork for Big Finish’s release of the audio drama

Shada was ‘completed’ properly in 2003 as a Flash animated webcast, still available with compatible browsers on the archived (pre-2005) Doctor Who website, produced by Big Finish, adapted by producer Gary Russell, illustrated by Lee Sullivan and animated by James Goss. Shada was transmitted between May and June 2003 as part of the BBC Cult online strand in an era of webseries prior to the emergence of YouTube as a platform and the investment by networks and studios in streaming television. Perhaps one of the most glorious aspects to emerge from the entire animation is this music video to Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2001), and is worth enabling and redownloading Flash – no matter the security concerns – for this express purpose.

This version is rather special to me. Circa Christmas 2005 or 2006, I stayed up late at night as an omnibus of the audio version played on BBC Radio 7, staring at the black screen on the 4:3 image of the silver television. Almost midnight, the lights were dark; the sound kept to a minimum. My mum came in midway through to drag me, reluctantly, to bed. It was my introduction to Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor (before I bought the DVD of The TV Movie the following year from the closing down Norwich BBC Shop, subsequently The Television and Movie Store), but also my introduction to Romana (Lalla Ward), K9 (John Leeson) and perhaps the classic era as a whole. Significantly, it was my introduction to Big Finish: across 2006 and 2007, I recorded the adventures of the Eighth Doctor, Charley and Lucie onto cumbersome DVD-Rs, inspiring my own pursuit of writing and performing my own audio dramas in the late 2000s, and has since desecrated my wallet through continual sales.

So maybe it’s hard to approach this objectively. But it’s so joyous both Shada and Scream of the Shalka are available on disc, with a high quality soundtrack beyond the capabilities of early 2000s internet (unfortunately there is some, but not much, pixellation in a few shots). Flash animation is unfortunately a lost art that created my formative years of playing Flash games, making Flash animations in school lessons, or the complexities and imagination of web design not engineered for compatibility with touchscreen devices which didn’t yet exist. No matter the understandable security concerns, the death of support for Flash is a blow against the history of online culture, in particular through gaming and animation sites like Newgrounds, as much as the drowning of Yahoo!’s Geocities was to the infrastructure of decades of websites.

The animation is simplistic, dragging and enlarging illustrations across the frame without much ‘animation’ as such – more a colour storyboard with additional motion elements. But there’s a charm to seeing the basic elements of a new medium develop as much can be felt watching the early silent shorts of the 1890s through 1910s. Shada improved upon the still images of Death Comes to Time (2001) and Real Time (2002), before reaching the apex of more complex fluid, solid and professional animation with Cosgrove Hall’s Scream of the Shalka the same anniversary year. Though the more complex animation of Scream of the Shalka wasn’t necessarily better (as recounted in the DVD documentary Interweb of Fear), putting a strain on dial-up with long loading times between scenes. Doctor Who’s three decade relationship with analogue videotape had ended with Dimensions in Time (1993) and The Curse of Fatal Death (1999); its relationship that began in the 1960s with photochemical film ended with the TV movie. Shada and BBCi’s other productions are the first shift – beyond the Restoration Team’s DVD masters – of the series into a widescreen digital workflow before the returning series made this standard. 

The coproduction with Big Finish (who later collaborated again with the BBC on The Davros Collection DVD boxset and the animated reconstruction of The Reign of Terror) lends a highly effective component: Gareth Jenkins’ sound design and Russell Stone’s score are the most important, developed elements, where performances and effects come first; the animation is complimentary more than anything else. Despite both characters’ curly brown hair (one of which is a painful wig), Tom Baker and Paul McGann are two highly different actors: McGann doesn’t have the same comedic energy Tom Baker brought to his incarnation, but it’s still wonderful to hear him making these lines his own, adapting where appropriate but still keeping Douglas Adams’ script. As ever, his voice creates a Doctor with a joie de vivre, and with only the TV movie and The Night of the Doctor (2013) as televised stories, more audiovisual material with this incarnation is always precious. The changes to this version make the prospect of the 2017 completion worthwhile: the Eighth Doctor carries the shoulders of every other Doctor, an interim Doctor without a defining broadcast series, dealing with his own timestream in the novels The Eight Doctors andconspiracy theories in War of the Daleks (1997), and the constant return of numerous villains and his granddaughter Susan in comics, novels and audio dramas. Cubicle7’s sourcebook for the Eighth Doctor for their RPG Adventures in Time and Space conceives of a campaign for the incarnation transported from the Time War across the adventures of his past and future incarnations, including the adventures of Battlefield (1989), without his own era to rely upon.

The prospect of a Shada that never happened as proposed by Gary Russell’s prologue on Gallifrey with the Eighth Doctor and Romana – the Fourth Doctor and Romana were taken out of time using archival footage from the story in The Five Doctors (1983), an element adjusted to facilitate the VHS release with the 1995 special edition – makes a certain meta sense, but it’s equally destroyed by the series’ own narrative rules (and the 2012 novelisation by Gareth Roberts); an excuse to explain away the absence of Tom Baker. My heart goes out to Lalla Ward and John Leeson for performing the story so many times, across the rehearsals and mounting in 1979, the webcast and audio drama, Ian Levine’s 2011 animation, the 2012 unabridged audiobook and the 2017 version.

That said, it provides this version’s greatest strength: it can honour the recently and unexpectedly departed Adams, who had himself become involved in the digital space through Starship Titanic (1998) and the H2G2 encyclopaedia website (this animation is dedicated to his memory), but also the ability to do its own thing with his script within the medium’s limitations and strengths. The change in voice cast allows not only a shift in character design, but also a change in era specific effects and locations (the TARDIS’ exterior and console room in particular) and the imagination of expansive animated sets: this is Shada for 2003, not 1980. Noticeably, the bicycle chase is noticeably condensed given the complexity of more visual scenes. Rather than definitive, the webcast a fun alternative just as the (incompatible with continuity) Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), with their own individual strengths and detractors compared to their televised counterparts. I’m so glad this version exists.

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Raising Kane (1971) by Pauline Kael

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The late Pauline Kael’s controversial, extended New Yorker piece Raising Kane is best read from a critical distance: a willingness to skim past tangential paragraphs, ignore untruths around authorship and arguments that leap into a stretch at best. Kael didn’t write 140 pages on Citizen Kane as is presented in the promotional Sight & Sound paperback edition I read: she wrote a handful of pages (across many columns) in a renowned magazine printed in a scarcely perceptible font size. Kael is writing for a reader willing to forget sections as they flick through the pages of a much larger magazine; it feels as if Kael was being paid for every page and word turned in, with her goal being to achieve the maximum word count. There’s John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a monumental piece of New Yorker reportage (the August 31st 1946 edition of the magazine) that became a fundamental, standalone non-fiction book of its own; then you have Pauline Kael.

One of the most prolific and visible female film critics of the 20th century, Kael is undeniably important to film criticism. She had some great, interesting pieces, but she also had some ridiculous and laughable hot takes. Raising Kane has a number of engaging sections, examining the loaded pun symbolism of ‘Kane’ and the Biblical mark of Cain and integrating aspects from Welles’ biography working in radio, using extracts from newspaper reviews from the film’s premiere. Kael contextually foregrounds the film against German Expressionism, the emergence of talkies and newspaper pictures (The Front Page and His Girl Friday) and the comedies of the 1930s and 40s. In particular, she provides details of Herman Mankiewicz’s extended 350 page screenplay compared to the filmed production, and illuminates the William Randolph Hearst newspaper controversy that influenced Kane’s character and the film’s narrative – creating part of its endurance – but ruined its box office potential and left it with lawsuits. Most luridly and in search of gossip, Kael writes on Hearst’s own connections with the film industry.

Unfortunately, a more recent biography on Kane or Welles may be the stronger read. There’s value to be drawn, especially as Kael discusses her initial reaction to watching the film in 1941, aged 21, compared to her response in 1971, and her own experience meeting Hearst as a teenager, but she falls back on herself too easily in a way that doesn’t necessarily come across as readable. Her elevation of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz over Welles isn’t bad in principle, but it merely substitutes the idolisation of a singular creative source with another auteur. Although facilitating a change in the elements of biography she utilises, it struggles to radically rethink Welles as a personality. The elevation of Mankiewicz is unable to elevate the roles of composer Bernard Herrmann, cinematographer Gregg Toland or the actors, costume designers, producers and RKO executives that played equal roles alongside Welles in completing the project.

Norwich Film Festival 2018: Q&A with Christopher Eccleston, moderated by Peter Bradshaw

Screening of Danny Boyle’s film Shallow Grave (1994) at Norwich Film Festival held on 6th November 2018 at OPEN Norwich, followed by a Q&A with actor Christopher Eccleston, moderated by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.

An official blog review of the event can be found on the Norwich Film Festival website.

Questions

As tends to be my experience with Q&As, I had so many questions I wanted to ask.

  • “Am I allowed only one question?”
  • “In 2005, I was eight years old. I went against my non-existent sense of fashion and ended up with short hair, a t-shirt, a leather jacket, a sonic screwdriver and psychic paper. So I’d like to ask you some questions that aren’t about Doctor Who.”
  • “This was a screening of one of your earlier films. What lessons did you learn from your nineties roles, like Let Him Have It (1991), Shallow Grave, eXistenz (1999), and how have they informed your more recent roles?”
  • “You’ve portrayed many morally ambiguous characters. In Shallow Grave, your character (David Stevens) initially seems sane and sensible but becomes darker as the film goes on. In Let Him Have It, Derek Bentley is disabled but is also a criminal. The Doctor is a positive figure but is also dealing with trauma; in G.I. Joe (2009) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) you portray villains. How do you balance characters heroism, villainy and the grey areas in between?”
  • “How does your experience differ between working in independent film, broadcast television, major Hollywood movie studios and the theatre?”
  • “How does it feel to appear in an independent film like Shallow Grave, and then for the cast and crew to go onto franchises and multi-million pound budgets, like Ewan McGregor going onto Star Wars, and Danny Boyle directing the 2012 Olympics?”
  • “What’s it like to work with an actor portraying a corpse in Shallow Grave, especially considering ‘corpsing’ is a part of being an actor? How did it feel to be stabbed by Ewan McGregor?”
  • “Given how important Film4 is to both the UK film industry and the global industry, what is your experience like working with them?”

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to ask a question. So many other people raised their hands to ask their own brilliant questions, I never had a chance! 

But here are some of the things I learned:

Growing Up

Eccleston’s parents were both creative people: his dad was very well read, and his mum enjoyed cooking, but they were limited by their working class backgrounds that favoured manual labour in factories.

Eccleston was very well supported by his parents to go into acting, which he compares to being unlike the hostility by the coal mining father towards pursuing ballet depicted in Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot (2000). Both academically and in jobs he felt useless, and was only able to go to drama school with a grant. He feels that with the industry today, working class actors like Albert Finney (an actor he greatly admired from boyhood onwards), Sean Bean and Maxine Peake would no longer be able to receive the training and careers they have: being well off is what counts.

Eccleston had a number of inspirations and influences, including Finney, James Cagney (across dramatic, gangster roles and musicals), and footballer George Best. He watched much more television than cinema: because films were a special treat, Eccleston instead took great interest in socially conscious television, admiring the era of series like Play for Today that conveyed a message to people. In drama school, he was trained towards theatre and never thought about working in television or film, appearing in an amateur production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. As a young actor, Eccleston carried a “Bob Dylan” approach, wanting to only appear in roles that could affect social change and address socially conscious matters. (He admits he no longer keeps to the same standard.)

Shallow Grave (1994), dir. Danny Boyle

Shallow Grave was developed by Danny Boyle and his partner, casting director Gail Stevens. Eccleston recalls being sent a script that was very appealing for many young actor, at a period in his life when he was living in a bedsit with a male friend and only just getting by. Both Bradshaw and Eccleston question whether the same film could be made today.

Eccleston was meant to lead the poster for the film, with a photoshoot capturing his character, David, as the lead character. However, Eccleston trusted in Boyle’s personal relationship with the project to instead depict the three main characters, even though the other strategy could have helped get his face known. Bradshaw discussed how much of 90s cinema such as Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) and series like Friends (1994-2004) were able to depict a group of equal characters which isn’t so much the case anymore.

Eccleston believes many aspects of the film are still relevant, especially elements such as auditioning flatmates considering the housing crisis – he notes that it’s now impossible to find a place in London. Bradshaw linked the questions the film raises of who you can trust and who your friends really are with social media. Bradshaw and Eccleston discussed how the 90s were different to today, with a feeling of hope of a transition from Thatcherism and John Major into Tony Blair and New Labour – a period Eccleston feels dissolved with 9/11.

Cracker (1993-95), Hillsborough and Our Friends in the North (1996) 

Eccleston appreciates writers, praising the writer’s room of modern American television series like The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Breaking Bad (2008-13). He prefers writers rather than directors, and will always try to follow the script well. He believes there was a golden age, prior to the 1990s when money became more of an issue, where a writer could propose a particular project idea and it would then be produced: Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and others were supported by the BBC.

Eccleston notes that many of these projects, like Cracker (1993-95) and Our Friends in the North (1996), were proposed to Danny Boyle, but Boyle is very selective in what he chooses, despite the amount of offers he gets.

Eccleston remembers where he was in 1989 when the Hillsborough disaster occurred, with Bradshaw raising that the negative press coverage around the disaster conveyed football fans as bringing the disaster on themselves – a ‘natural’ disaster. Eccleston feels the families of the 96 victims have only begun to receive some sense of justice through court proceedings in the past year. Bradshaw proposes that the docudrama Hillsborough helped shift some of that perception. Eccleston and Jimmy McGovern met with and interviewed many of the victim’s families, getting to know them as people. Eccleston’s character, Trevor Hicks, was a part of the Establishment – a conservative who lost his daughters – with Eccleston arguing that this shows the disaster affected everybody, not just the working class. Many of McGovern’s series could get very high ratings, which simply isn’t possible in an era of multiple channels.

He felt he was too old for other television roles such as playing John Lennon in the biopic Lennon Naked (2010), but was cast anyway.

The Second Coming (2003) and Doctor Who (2005)

Eccleston never grew up with Doctor Who, unlike Bradshaw who raved about Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee, and other actors like David Tennant and Peter Capaldi who approached the series as existing fans. Eccleston was more interested in playing football when the series was broadcast.

Eccleston had appeared in Russell T. Davies’ The Second Coming (2003), portraying the Messiah figure of Steve Baxter before Doctor Who. Davies hadn’t considered him for the role of the Doctor, instead interested in a well known star (Hugh Grant). Eccleston emailed Davies asking for an audition; Davies was shocked at the idea. The thought came to Eccleston while out running, wanting to bring some greater depth and sadness to the part – what a Time Lord actually is. The way the series handled female characters such as Rose (Billie Piper) helped pave the wave for the casting of Jodie Whittaker today, but executives would never have considered and have been dead against casting a female lead at the time – there would have been outrage. Eccleston had a massive, irreconcilable falling out with Davies and states he would never work with him again.

However, Eccleston feels very positive about the fans who have grown up from 8 and 10 year olds into their 20s who end up stopping him in the street to talk about their childhoods. Eccleston remembers his own childhood, with working class films he loved like Ken Loach’s Kes (1969). Eccleston recalls some fans who have spoken to him about hating his interpretation of the character – that he wasn’t portrayed as alien enough, but are glad he brought the series back. He was hurt by this at the time, but feels better about it now. However, one of the questions at the Q&A praised him for the grounded nature of his performance – unlike other Doctors.

He hasn’t seen Jodie Whittaker’s performance in the series, but had worked with Whittaker on the stage several years ago, believing this is quite “timey wimey” and could destroy the universe – the Ninth and the (it takes several hints from the audience for Eccleston to know her incarnation) Thirteenth Doctor together before she was the Doctor. Eccleston jokes about how one of his children doesn’t know about the series, asking him about how he is a doctor – does he help people get better? Eccleston is waiting for after his time at the RSC finishes so he can show his two sons, aged five and seven, Whittaker’s time on the series and experience it together.

Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) and Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Eccleston remembers one time he was drunk and a man approached him, praising him for his role as Raymond Calitri in Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) – he was exaggerated and terrible to the point where he was “so bad it’s good” and a part of a cult film. He felt pretty bad and hurt by this comment until he came around to it.

Eccleston feels very negative about abandoning his previous instincts about selling out, and “whored” himself out to Hollywood, with his respect for writers not crossing over the pond. However, with acting, he feels putting food on the table and paying off his mortgage is very, very important; acting is just another job. However Bradshaw is more positive about the formulaic nature of these films: they’re exciting and do their job. Often, agents would talk him into parts with a big paycheque – agents wanting a cut of the cheque themselves. By comparison, on films like Shallow Grave, Eccleston worked for equity minimum.

The Leftovers (2014-17)

Eccleston is very proud of his work on HBO’s The Leftovers (2014-17), but only “one person and their dog” watched it, despite the second and third seasons being well reviewed. Although Eccleston is an atheist, the series allowed him to look within himself and ask spiritual questions. Acting functions to Eccleston as a kind of religion – a replacement for it.

The A Word (2016-present)

Eccleston confirms a third series is being worked on. Eccleston forms a connection between his earlier socially conscious roles and his role as grandfather and father Maurice Scott, spreading wider visibility and awareness around autism. Although Scott as written was neither autistic nor neurotypical, Eccleston performed Scott with autistic traits, seeing him as ‘on the spectrum’ but coming from an older generation where people weren’t diagnosed.

Macbeth (2018-19)

Eccleston is frustrated by many of the negative critics around his performance as the monarch Macbethin the RSC’s recent staging of Shakespeare’s play. From his vantage point now, he wishes he had pursued theatrical roles rather than television, having performed little Shakespeare except in drama school and without enough grounding in it. He’s at his happiest working on stage alongside interesting characters like Lady Macbeth. However, he is especially happy about school parties who introduced to the play for the first time as he had with other plays when he was in school. He appreciates the RSC hiring people from diverse backgrounds and is making more of a push towards doing so: twenty years ago, he doesn’t think he’d have ever had a chance of being cast in the role of Macbeth.