This story in a nutshell: Nearly half missing, but still rather charming…
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘When I was on the river I heard the strange babble of inhuman voices, didn’t we Romana?’ ‘Oh undergraduates talking to each other, I expect.’
‘I’m not mad about your tailor.’
‘Dead men do not require oxygen’ – filmed or not, this is still a extraordinary cliffhanger.
‘Think of me as a paradox in an anomaly and get on with your tea.’
‘You understand Einstein?’ ‘Yes’ ‘What? And quantum theory?’ ‘Yes’ ‘What? And Planck?’ ‘Yes’ ‘What? And Newton?’ ‘Yes’ ‘What? And Schenberg?’ ‘Of course’ ‘You’ve got a lot to unlearn.’
- Whatever edition I watch these days, I couldn’t fathom bypassing the introduction with Tom Baker which is basically the scatty old git wandering around the Museum of Moving Image Doctor Who exhibition and reminiscing about Shada. He manages to show what a masterful storyteller he is, how charismatic he is in person and get across the aching sadness from the whole cast that this story was never completed. Weirdly, this story wouldn’t feel complete without the attractive introduction scene.
- You have to make a few concessions for the disco space wear and the mild epileptic fits but the opening scene is rather atmospheric as scripted and filmed. Pennant Roberts might not be the worlds best action director but he can create an atmospheric scene and paint a mystery in quite vivid imagery. What I love about this sequence is that it plays in almost mute silence with the audience having to watch and figure out what is going on for themselves. Men slaved to a master brain, their brains sent into shock as the contents are emptied and the man responsible heading for the nearest shuttle with a sphere full of whispering voices and dangerous notions. That’s a startling opening.
- Recycling the top section of Mentalis in The Armageddon Factor. I approve.
- Never underestimate Pennant Roberts when he is given a large amount of location filming to be getting along with. Strangely (much like Richard Martin before him) he feels much more comfortable and ready to experiment on film. Check out the opening shot tracking Chris as he cycles through Cambridge, that alone is an accomplished, beautiful shot. It is lovely to spend some time in contemporary England since the show has pretty much steered clear of that time and place for the past three seasons. It means that coming home is the ultimate refreshment, unlike nowadays where you much be fatigued by the shows reliance on it.
- To a modern audience Daniel Hill might look like that awkward Uncle of yours that is always trying to look hip, in the 70s he was the very model of a gorgeous slip of a man and he offers up a lovely performance as Chris Parsons. For a young performer he displays no nerves and a total ease with the camera and difficult actors like Tom Baker. Romana interacts with him very nicely, looking down on him without ever patronising him and Hill’s chemistry with Tom Baker is tops. I could imagine him slipping into this ensemble very nicely in the way that Matthew Waterhouse completely failed to do. Victoria Burgoyne acquits herself beautifully too, starchy and serious and making the latter scenes with Chronotis work because Claire’s intellectual world is pushed beyond all known boundaries. Some of the early eighties stories can’t get any of the regulars right (Davison, Sutton, Fielding and Waterhouse all plunge over a precipice in Four to Doomsday and others) but Shada sports an impressive ensemble cast that I would have loved to spent more time with.
- This is a Douglas Adams script and no matter how much of a hurry it was written in he cannot help but pack it full of clever, creative concepts. We’ve already seen how devastating Gallifreyan artefacts can be in The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time which makes Adams choice of a mere book very clever. Both wonderfully mundane and highly dangerous, knowledge is the most powerful weapon of all. Especially Gallifreyan knowledge. Adams gives the designers the impossible task of designing an invisible spaceship and I must say they have done an excellent job, one of the best physical effects the show has ever pulled off (hehe). All the malarkey with the Doctor, Romana, Chris and K.9 stumbling across the sleek, stealth craft in a field is a delight to watch, the actors having great fun convincing there is a physical prop in existence. Time Lord criminals were still relatively scarce at this point in the series history (only the Master and the War Chief qualify).I’m sure that everybody knows somebody that has suffered from Alzheimers or simply the creaking inevitability of senility, so it is easy to buy into what a horrifying prospect it is to have the contents of your mind emptied and left a brain dead husk. As a consequence of it’s mental hunger, the sphere is one of the most terrifying devices that the show has ever concocted. It means that the end of episode two is a very exciting moment because the Doctor has a wealth of information about the universe to be devoured. Tom Baker acts his heart out as the frightened Doctor and the sphere’s ghostly advance is louder than ever. If you are the sort of person that objects to frivolous notions such as beating out your heart in Gallifreyan more code then I would suggest this story might not be for you. For me, it’s all part of the creative madness that comes with Adams. You might find the scenes where Clare endlessly explores the Professor’s study a bore but they are leading up to that incredible twist that his rooms are his TARDIS that have nestled into the university for the past 300 years. Once it has dematerialised it leaves a gaping void the other side of the Professor’s entrance, which Wilkin discovers and mimics my reaction to this most imaginative of twists. Adams spaces out his nuggets of information (Salyavin, Shada) throughout the story and builds upon them cleverly as the narrative progresses. Who says he cannot craft a linear storyline? Chronotis transferring his knowledge to Clare is a massive clue to his true identity, it is just Denis Carey’s sweet portrayal that keeps you in any doubt. Merging the whole of creation into one single mind is a boggling concept, a universal brain that consists of all knowledge and enslaved to Skagra’s will. This is a villain that wants to become one with the entire universe. You have to hand it to Adams, he thinks big.
- It is astonishing how a change of clothes can change your entire outlook on a character. As soon as Skagra slips into civvies he is far more menacing and less camp, although perhaps Neame’s performance was informed by his threads too. We are denied any presence of Skagra in the latter half of the story which is one my biggest regrets but at least we get to witness his delicious, humiliating defeat at the hands of the Doctor who has convinced the computer that he is the most wonderful man in the universe.
- Either Brierly had relaxed into the role or I had become accustomed to him at this stage but this is one of two stories where I really like his interpretation of K.9 (Nightmare of Eden being the other). Given a choice I would always choice John Leeson’s prissy interpretation, but the character works so well in all the settings of this story and is part and parcel of the series at large by this point that it is impossible for me to object.
- The Doctor being pursued by the sphere and travelling at speed past a pitch perfect all male voice choir on a street corner in Cambridge. Just heavenly. Sometimes there are moments when you know why you are a Doctor Who fan through and through.
- They had a thing about introducing bystanders for one scene and killing them off in the Williams era, didn’t they. Just like the Hiker in Image of the Fendhal and the two campers in The Stones of Blood, the poor fisherman who is enjoying a gentle afternoon on the river in Shada is beset by the Sphere. Poor guy, we never even find out his name. It’s always the little people that suffer. Plus it is rather wonderful that Sphere has a little personality of it’s own, furious that it failed to consume the Doctor’s mind and bloody mindedly grabbing the nearest yokel to take its frustrations out on.
- How on Earth they would have been able to realise the Do It Yourself Kraag section of the story baffles me. It sounds like the sort of overly ambitious Adams concept that wouldn’t translate particularly well on screen. Mind you saying that The Pirate Planet convincingly pulled off a planet that hops through space and eats other planets and the BBC adaptation of the Hitch Hikers radio play pulled off similar unbelievable feats with a tiny budget. If you want to see how this might have played out on an epic scale then read Gareth Roberts’ superb novelisation of this story.
- The sudden cut to the Institute for Scientific Research is much appreciated because until the point the story has been either set outside in the brilliant sunshine, a comfy old mans study or an overlit spaceship. Finally the lights go down and its time to indulge in a little atmosphere. Think Tank goes up with a spectacular explosion, proof if ever it was needed that the Doctor definitely makes an impact on the places that he visits.
- I supposed I better get the discussion of Keff McCulloch’s music out of the way. It’s not great, I have to be honest, and it is plastered all over the thing like a handsome thing trussed up in a gaudy fur coat. Keff seems to think that by making an electric keyboard sound as if it is the work of basic instruments that it automatically apes Dudley’s style and sounds as if a small band has been at work on the soundtrack. Unfortunately he is wrong and it just sounds like tinny synth trying to sound like it is instrumental. However there are a couple of sequences (which was about how successful his hit rate was during the McCoy era) where he calms it down and manages to provide some atmospheric passages. It is usually when he takes to actually playing the piano such as when Skagra confronts Wilkin in episode one or the bouncy theme as the Doctor is pursued by his enemy in episode two on a bicycle. Also the moments when he tries to be playful and charming work well, relaxing you into the company of some lovely characters.
- I remember when this story was released with the tag of ‘state of the art effects added’ and thinking that given the amount of time between its intended transmission and its release that there would be subsequent improvement. Certainly in the case of the model work that was proven to be a massive disappointment, more static images of ships hanging in space than the impressive live action model work that was sported in stories such as The Invisible Enemy, Underworld and City of Death during the Williams era.
- One of the criticisms of those story that I have heard over and over again is that it resorts to ‘undergraduate’ humour (whatever that means). There are a few overused gags (‘one lump or two…sugar?’) but they are aberrations in what is a sparkling script, ripe with sunshine and gentle humour. You’d have to be a bit funless to object to some cheesy gags.
- The Kraags. Erm… they are clearly the weak link of the story, visually but this is one case where the added effects enhance the success of an element of the tale. They glow with molten fury and their weaponry is arced with electric shocks so whilst they might lumber into shot ineffectively, they still look as though they mean business. I think we can quite happily say that the realisation of the monsters is season seventeen’s singular weakness. They are all interestingly written and a given a refreshingly different spin but the shoddy Daleks, blobby Erato, spongy Mandrels, mincing Nimon and pantomimic Kraags all have serious design flaws. It is a good thing that that is not the reason I watch this show. However I would have forgone full length shots of the creatures as Pennant Roberts seems to delight in exposing here.
- The scenes that I miss the most are the confrontations between the Doctor/Romana and Skagra as it is during these moments that you usually see the best of the leads. Remember the edgy, humorous battle of words in City of Death between the Doctor and the Jagaroth? Neame isn’t quite in Glover’s league but he’s strong enough that I bet there would have been some entertaining sparks flying. Plus I bet Romana run rings around him. That and the fact that we never get to actually see Shada. In my head it is the most enormous, oppressive prison imaginable…so perhaps it is a mercy that it never wound up on screen.
The Shallow Bit: Robert Webb is one of my weird crushes (you know, one of those men that you have the hots for and you really shouldn’t) and the similarity between him and Christopher Neame is uncanny. That makes Skagra one of the hottest villains in town in my book, regardless of his disco dress sense. We’re still (just) in the glitziest, most garish decade of them all and so in the right circles Skaga’s expressive tin foil jacket and felt rimmed hat wouldn’t look too out of place (the sort of place where there is a toilet for illicit liaisons, probably). However walking around the cloisters and aged architecture of Cambridge, he stands out like a sore thumb. Once he changes into a brown chords and jumper he fits in much more convincingly (and yet manages to look even more 70s somehow). Somehow Lalla Ward is so beautiful she can pull off a wedding dress tied up with a bright red sash around the middle and a bunch of cherries on her head. There’s confidence.
Result: Only in a Douglas Adams script could you stop for a pot of tea in a gentleman’s study which just happens to be a TARDIS before heading off to defeat the villain. I’ll forgo all the usual platitudes about how much of a crying shame it is that this story was never completed and avoid the churlish criticism of those who claim that had it been broadcast it would never have earned the attention that it has (oh wait…). Shada is a fine story to end the much maligned but generally strong season seventeen on, an adventure that bothers to finish the season off with a memorable climax. The first half of the story almost exists in it’s entirety and is the best chunk of material of which to judge it on and I found the majority of it charming in the extreme. The location in and around Cambridge looks great and grounds the story like very few in the Williams era, allowing Adams to inject a great deal of domestic allure into his imaginative tale. In Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, Denis Carey, Daniel Hill and Victoria Burgoyne you have an honest to goodness ensemble championing the tale, each character appealing in their own right and all the different pairings proving a success. The story is a clever one with its clues expertly slipped in early so Adams can build on them as the narrative progresses, bringing all the elements together just before the fifth episode climax beautifully. If Adams thought this was one of his weaker efforts then it proves that this is one time when his instincts deserted him because it is a very nicely plotted piece of work packed with incredible ideas. Perhaps he wasn’t just being modest, or perhaps he was incapable of delivery poor work. A shame that we can’t see all the vital confrontations with Skagra (he’s prevalent in the first half of the story but disappears altogether later on) are missing but the story rallies for much of the final episode and it is clear that the pace would have been pretty damn furious, capped by a very sweet coda. There might be a few amusing diversions here and there but on the whole there is six episodes of dramatic material to be found in Shada and that is not a plaudit that you can pin on many other stories of this length. Is it an all conquering classic? No. But Shada is a lovely piece of work to cap off the Williams era with and contains so much of what made those three years a delight: 8/10