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
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.