Breathless Romantic: I believe this story came out between Neverland and Zagreus where the eighth Doctor was at the height of his popularity (and just before he was about dive off that pedestal quicker than you can say Rassilon’s Rod). Lets take this as a last grasp of greatness before all the Divergents schlock perverted the man and there is more than a touch of the EDA eighth Doctor here that travels about having laughs aplenty with Lucie Miller. Its great to see McGann being able to play the Doctor so loosely, people forget how good at comedy he is because his Doctor is always the victim of emotional torture! Chronotis and the Doctor once spent a charming evening at Lake Geneva with Lord Byron and Mary Shelley (that’s the first of two name drops by the eighth Doctor before we experience a Mary Shelley adventure…and the trilogy that is to come!). He visited St Cedd’s in 1964, 1960, 1958 and 1955 so he must enjoy popping back to see the old duffer from time to time, probably in his various guises. He’s sometimes crackers and happy to admit it! When the Doctor finds out that Skagra has killed Chronotis it is no more mister man about the Cam, he wants to punish him for having the arrogance to murder one of his oldest friends. The Doctor has a very dangerous line for an audio adventure suggesting that he has a very boring voice to listen to. He has great fun winding up Skagra, being utterly facetious and making the most ridiculous of noises when pretending to read the book! Oh he’s a clever fella alright, by allowing the sphere to think that he was a simpleton it only got a copy of his mind but left his intelligence intact. However under the impression he is on a run of luck twisting artifical life forms to his way of thinking he tries to outsmart Ship by suggesting that he is dead and it almost costs his life. When the Doctor asks Chris if he understands Newton and Einstein and all manner of lauded physicists, philosophers and scientist he declares that he has a lot to unlearn! Skagra scoffs at the Doctor’s limited vision of things when he suggests that the madman wants to the universe to be his! How he has missed having K.9 around to tell him the patently obvious. He refuses to play judge and jury and shoves lets the Time Lord’s deal with him. Time Lord’s always exaggerate things – he imagines that somebody might meet him in the future and say ‘Is that really the Doctor? He seemed like such a nice old man…’
Aristocratic Adventurer: She’s delighted to see the Doctor and she likes the new body, the dirty old mare! You get the impression that Romana was simply desperate for the Doctor to turn up and whisk her off on another adventure…and how fortunate that it should be one of the gorgeous ones! Listening to Romana giggle at Chronotis’ eccentric ways makes me long for the simpler days of her travelling in the TARDIS in the most gloriously irreverent of adventures. Sometimes the Doctor remembers why he used to love travelling with her so much (other than he fancies the ass off her! - she’s a genius! Nice to see Romana can see the bigger picture and sweetly allows the Professor return to Cambridge and live out the rest of his final life in his rooms rather than banging him up for his previous crimes.
Twitchy Ears: John Leeson is a classically trained actor and yet is most famously known for his portrayal of the Doctor’s best friend. To some actors it would be an insult to be remembered for voicing a metal dog but listening to Leeson in interviews he selflessly embraces the love that people have for the character and happily has played him now across various spin offs (K.9 and Company, the Sarah Jane Adventures, K.9 plus Big Finish Doctor Who and Gallifrey) for years. His is one of the most recognisable voices in the history of the show and I want to take a second to salute such a charming man for providing so many children (plus this big kid) many hours of joy with K.9. As pedantic as he ever was and all the more lovable for it, when the Doctor suggests that they don’t need Chronotis’ postcode he delights in giving it anyway! K.9 never liked the Earth because the composition of the soil interfered with his traction! I’m surprised that K.9 doesn’t have an inferiority complex given the amount of times the Doctor tells him to shut up but it seems to have the opposite effect. I actually punched the air with delight when K.9 let out one of his famous little coughs! You’ve got to chuckle when K.9 points out the likelihood of the Doctor Master’s survival after his dangerously unstable plan to link two TARDISes is 0.47%
Standout Performance: This is a cast to lose your mind in a big silver whispering ball for! Paul McGann sounds more exuberant than ever, stepping into Tom Baker’s role but in no way attempting to emulate him. He brings his own style of boyish humour to the story and it matches Adam’s script perfectly. Lalla Ward sounds as though she has never been away and once again proves herself to be the most impressive Who girl on audio with her rich accent like a fruity red wine. Sean Biggerstaff has a smooth Scots accent I would be happy to die listening to and Susannah Harker would go on to prove her worth in Gold…well no in Sapphire in the Sapphire and Steel audios. You’ve got Andrew Sachs camping it up but never going too far as Skagra, James Fox providing a memorable Professor Chronotis…I could go on all day. It’s a gorgeous script and I am pleased that Big Finish has casted the story to the hilt to bring out all of its riches.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I don’t think they’ll ever be quite right in the head again…’
‘It seems to me that Time Lords take a very proprietarial view of the universe.’
‘I can’t think why you would want to steal an old Type 40 crock like this you have a perfectly good and usefully invisible ship of your own!’
‘That’s enough “don’t knows” to win an election!’
‘Who could possibly want to take over the universe?’
‘Well with this on my head it doesn’t matter if it works or not they’ll all be paralysed laughing at me!’
‘He has done the most extraordinary things to my circuitry…’
Great Ideas: I love how Professor Chronotis doesn’t batter an eyelid at the TARDIS materialising in the corner of his study, in fact he thinks that it fits in there quite nicely! Every one is so discreet in the Cambridge colleges that Chronotis has manages to live in the same set of rooms for the past 300 years. He brought an immensely powerful Time Lord book from Gallifrey that dates back to the time of Rassilon that has powers that nobody understands. One of the main complaints about the Type 40 was that the kitchens were an intolerable distance from the control room! Gallifreyan writing looks like an explosion in a spaghetti tree. The Sphere takes away the contents of your mind but fortunately the Professor is a Time Lord and can think with his autonomic brain. The Professor using his heart to beat out a message in Gallifreyan morse code is pure Douglas Adams, witty and wonderful and totally barmy! Anybody can design a spaceship…but an invisible spaceship now that takes some skill. The very idea that the Professor’s rooms being a TARDIS that has integrated into the University is simply gorgeous and the fact that the reveal is kept back for three episodes makes it all the more surprising. A creature made up of crystal fragments held together by white hot lava – Douglas Adams almost went out of his way to put a new spin on the every monster that appeared in season seventeen (logic halting Daleks, a creature splintered through time, a giant amorphous blob that’s actually the good guy, monsters that can be transformed into drugs and balletic bull like creatures with promises of prosperity) and the Kraags are no different. Skagra has 50 vats all-capable of creating a Kraag army. Another smashing idea is the book being the key with which the Time Lords lock up all of their most violent and evil criminals. Imagine if someone like the Master is allowed to roam about the universe not pursued just how heinous these actual Time Lord prisoners must be! Chronotis’ TARDIS is ancient and he literally rescued it from the scarp heaps on Gallifrey. Only the Time Lords would have a prison planet. Time runs backwards over the book and turning the last page takes them to Shada. The Thinktank is made up of the most impressive minds in the universe and Skagra sucked out their intelligence by pooling their minds through electronic mind transference. The way the story hints at the twist that Chronotis is Salyavin when he pours the contents of his mind into Claire’s is subtle leaving you going ‘ah-ha!’ at the end. The whole of creation will be merged into one Godlike entity or as Skagra so succinctly puts it ‘the universe shall be me!’ Being the weak willed rulers of the universe that they are the Time Lords lock their prisoners into cryogenic storage, trapped in a moment of time but self aware – a humane way of punishing their criminals. Skagra plans to put minds into their bodies with the powers of Salyavin. The Doctor uses the force field created by the two TARDISes to move through the same part of the space/time vortex to create a tunnel between the two craft. Skagra gets a wonderfully parting scene as Ship transmat’s him to the brig whilst she sensually tells him about how wonderful he is and how he has played about with her circuitry!
Audio Landscape: Nick Pegg is not a shame that we don’t see these days which is a shame because he was one of the standout early directors (with Loups-Garoux his triumph). He directs Shada with a subtle touch of warmth that makes the whole experience light but like slipping into a comfy pair of slippers, utterly delightful. Thunder rumbling, wind whistling, K.9’s whirring motors, the whispering voices of the sphere, whistling sugar, a motorbike gunning past, people chatting outside, birdsong, a car honking and screeching off the road, the computer voice is gorgeously silky and the Kraag voice booming and menacing just as computer and monsters should be, the Professor’s crazy heartsbeats, the Doctor ringing his bicycle bell, some cows mooing quite dramatically, the spaceship door closing, the Doctor banging into the spaceship, ‘Blast it!’ and K.9’s mad shooting, the windows locking, the study transforming into a TARDIS with a shrieking alarm, the clunking footsteps of the Kraags, bubbling vats of lava, Chronotis pouring his knowledge in Claire’s mind, TARDIS junk, rubber duck, the Kraags shatter and explode as the mental energy tears them apart, K.9’s awesome blaster noise,
Musical Cues: How wonderful that they used the fourth Doctor title music. There’s a charming piano score that introduces Chris Parsons. As much as I hate to criticise Keff McCulloch’s contributions to Doctor Who (actually no I don’t, its one of my few pleasures) but his music for the Shada video releases was diabolical and proved to be extremely distracting from the quality material. Fortunately we have Russell Stone on hand to score the audio version of the story and he is one of the best musicians Big Finish has ever had.
Standout Scene: The end of episode three is superb with the Doctor thinking he is a clever clogs in convincing Ship to release his friends since he is dead but having the knock effect of her turning off the oxygen supply to conserve power since ‘dead men do not require oxygen…’
Notes: There’s a lovely sequence as we get to flick through various Big Finish adventures as Skagra learns about the Doctor and the stories chosen are The Fires of Vulcan, The Marian Conspiracy and Phantasmagoria.
Result: Shada has a beautiful script that charms you with its delicate humour into thinking this is going to be a simple story before wowing you with one fantastically creative notion after another and widening the scale of the story further and further until finally we land on the famous prison planet of the Time Lords. With Paul McGann, Lalla Ward and Susannah Harker on board you have the lead actors of three different Big Finish ranges bringing this story to life but its hard to highlight one member of the cast because they all tackle the material with real enthusiasm and an almost childlike joy that is infectious to listen to. The Graeme Williams is one of my personal favourites in the classic series and this delightful audio of Shada reminds me of why I enjoy it so much; its ambitious, charismatic and dazzlingly imaginative. I want to watch season seventeen now. An absolute joy to listen to: 9/10
Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/