Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Shada written by Douglas Adams and directed by Pennant Roberts

This story in a nutshell: Nearly half missing, but still rather charming…

Teeth and Curls: Go digging through the archives and you wont find a more perfect example of a Doctor and companion at peace with each other than Tom and Lalla during the punting sequences in Shada. Even the recently discovered Enemy of the World with its giddy beach opening sees Jamie and Victoria objecting to the Doctor going for a paddle. I would be fascinated to see how they would have played out had Mary Tamm stayed out for a second year without the romantic connection between the leads, which I feel is what makes the atmosphere so intoxicating (that and the exquisite scenery). Tom is every inch the English eccentric with a punt clasped in his hand. He objects quite strongly to the idea of having met Salyavin but admits with a glint in his eye that the Time Lord criminal was one of his childhood heroes. There is something so wonderfully warming about the Doctor cycling amiably around the back streets of Cambridge and taking in the sights, it is the mixture of the scientific and the domestic that makes this story such a joy. You might assume that the Doctor of the Williams era is going to be frivolous but it is all a front for a much more dangerous personality that is lying underneath all that good humour. Check out the moment when he swears that he is going to catch up with Skagra for murdering a very old friend of his, this is a man who I wouldn’t want to see the wrong side of. The Doctor thinks he is a wily fellow but he forgets the literal judgment of the mechanical mind and so once he has twisted the computer in cats cradle of illogic that proves he is dead, she switches of the oxygen assuming that he doesn’t need it. Hoist by your own petard, methinks, Doctor. Only in a Douglas Adams script would the Doctor be able to abuse technobabble to such an extent that he can achieve the impossible simply by indulging in overcomplicated techno-speak – the ability to travel anywhere in a few minutes. He wonders if people will come to think of him as they do Salyavin in the future, boggling at his reputation because he seems like such a nice old man.

Noblest of them All: Incomparable to the Mary Tamm wanabee that parade through Creature from the Pit, Lalla Ward’s version of Romana is firing on all cylinders at this stage and having a whale of a time in the Doctor’s company. She can match him in witty banter as they punt along the Cam, she can ingratiate herself with the Professor and Chris Parsons, she is excellent in a crisis and can do all the important bits whilst her erstwhile companion is off cycling around Cambridge trying to protect the book. Romana thinks is illogically as the Doctor these days and so you think nothing of her toasting a crumpet by an electric fire. Watch the blissful way she destroys Chris’ entire perspective on life so casually by stating the Professor isn’t human. Because of the nature of the scenes filmed, Romana disappears for almost two full episodes before making a triumphant return in episode six. The little but of business that she and the Doctor indulge in, him pinning a badge to her lapel for her moment of inspiration and the pair of them saluting one another, made me grin like a Cheshire cat. There’s a second when she is deadly serious and tells him to stop trying to be funny when he is about to walk into the most deadly danger…and he leans in as if to kiss her. These two really were besotted, weren’t they?

Dotty Professor: If this story had been completed and broadcast I would hope that Chronotis would have made far more of an impact than he did and that Denis Carey might have been convinced to have made a return appearance. Given JNT’s penchant for dragging every element of the show out of the continuity cupboard and giving it a dusting down, it is at least a possibility. As it stands he was probably too embarrassed by this whole debacle to get Shada completed to bother with anything to do with it again. As a result poor Chronotis, one of the most amiable, charming Time Lords we ever get to meet (only Engin comes close) doesn’t quite get the celebrity status he deserves. He was successful enough for Douglas Adams to transplant the character and setting out of Doctor Who and into his Dirk Gently novels. If they say your surroundings are the personification of your head space then Chronotis is as scatty, messy and disorganised as he comes across. I love being surrounded by old books so his gentleman’s study is a delightful place to spend so much of the action (and it is a good thing it is so well designed because most of the studio work completed takes place there). Anyone who states that a man who makes this much tea, one after the other, is ridiculous clearly hasn’t spent a day with my husband who consumes so much of the Indian broth that I fear one day he will cut himself and bleed a smoking hot brew. He’s been hanging around the dusty old cloisters of Cambridge university for 300 years in the same set of rooms, ever since he retired from Gallifrey. He’s just mad enough to be entirely believable, exactly the sort of quirky eccentric that you would want to knock about with if you were studying at Cambridge. Imagine the adventures. Chronotis is in on Adams’ scheme to hide the identity of Salyavin for as long as possible, cursing the mans name when he is alone. How lovely that Chronotis rescued his TARDIS from the scrap heaps as his companion, a ship that was consigned to destruction.

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.’

The Good:
  • 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.

The Bad:

  • 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


Anonymous said...

Of course, Ian Levine's Shada is on Pirate Bay - has been for a week and a half.

Corpus Christi Music Scene said...

I would add that 2Entertain missed an opportunity with that one. With a little tweaking and a rescore it should have been on the DVD.

Anonymous said...

I think this a pretty good definition of what undergraduate humour.

It's always a criticism, but of what, exactly? Well, undergraduates have a reputation for pranks, for jokiness, for not taking things too seriously and not respecting those in authority. There's also a general dislike of undergraduates in society at large, for being faintly decadent and lazy (see Rose, in which the title character believes that only students would dress up as Autons and try to scare people for a laugh). Bidmead himself deplored such people, commenting that, at thirty-six, he realised he was "a bit fed up with arty people and wanted the discipline of science back". The stereotype of the student is a tousle-haired fellow with a scarf and bohemian clothes thinking deep thoughts but making crap jokes: in other words, the fourth Doctor himself. In what is clearly something of a handicap for him as a script-editor, Bidmead just didn't like the kind of person the fourth Doctor was.

Joe Ford said...

Some good points, all. I especially like the point about Bidmead being handicapped which I would like use in an upcoming review if I may. I'd like to know who to credit the observation to because at the moment it will only be to 'Anonymous.'

Anonymous said...

You can credit Hugh Sturgess at the DWRG and his article on Adams vs Bidmead. One thing I would like to say is that unlike a lot of season 17 fans you don't write off season 18 unlike some fans I could mention. See Cookson Thomas

Joe Ford said...

Thanks for the details. I would never judge a story on where it falls, I would always judge it on it's own merits. I prefer season 17 but there is great deal of worth in season 18 too.

Anonymous said...

Will you/have you seen Ian Levine's Shada yet? I think its a great way to salvage a story that should've been completed, and should've been officially released on DVD.

Jay said...

Disagree about Bidmead not liking the 4th doctor. Bidmead gushed over and constantly praised Tom's interpretation of the doctor in the commentary for his last story "Logopolis". Maybe that's because Tom was there doing the commentary as well but still...

Me, I can honestly not understand anyone disliking Tom's 4th doctor. He is so iconic and wonderful. So many traits that make him by far the absolute best representation of the character there has ever been. And may I mention that the 4th doctor is one of the best role models a kid OR an adult can have?

Joe Ford said...

The way you phrase your final sentence makes it sound as if I have a problem with the 4th Doctor as a role model, which I really don't. He's an ideal candidate. My point is (actually it wasn't my point as I said in the review but it is one that I endorse) that Bidmead didn't like the character of the fourth Doctor as written and tried to shape him into something quite different in his final year. Against Tom Baker's wishes too, who didn't like the direction the show was going in and fought the creative controllers tooth and claw. He still managed to inject a little silliness into the character but he was mostly a sombre presence in his final year, that funless nature enforced on him by Bidmead who would head down to the studio floor if necessary to ensure that Baker stuck to his precious scripts. I don't think that Bidmead did an altogether bad job with the fourth Doctor in season eighteen but I do think that Bidmead didn't like the fundamental characterisation of this incarnation and tried extremely hard to shape him into something else. The mix of Baker's insistence that show remain a fun experience for children and Bidmead's determination to aim it at teenage geeks is epitomized in the fourth Doctor this year, a pretty inconsistent, awkward character.