While it’s been released on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK for nearly nine months now, the BBC-reconstructed version of the Tom Baker-era Doctor Who story “Shada” finally arrived in the US via BBC-America, and will be released on DVD/Blu-ray as well on November 6th, 2018.
Why the long wait between UK and US release? Can’t say. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely.
I just saw the broadcast today (thanks to my nearly-sentient DVR, which grabbed it while I was away at San Diego Comic Con); the six-part serial was seamlessly blended together as a single TV-movie, and it was an absolute delight.
The legend of this ‘lost’ Doctor Who story began with missing segments of “Shada”, which were never filmed due to a labor strike at the end of the 17th season of the show. Many segments were completed, but many others weren’t. The Tom Baker-era of the show came after the earliest years of Doctor Who, when segments and even whole stories were often erased (an absolute tragedy of broadcast archiving). Most of the missing stories/segments were from the William Hartnell & Patrick Troughton eras. Some have been reconstructed via still photos with recovered audio tracks, and most recently with all-new animation (via the BBC’s terrific animation department). I own many of these semi-animated reconstructions, and they are as close as one can get to hopping aboard a TARDIS and seeing the stories’ original runs back in the 1960s. Personal favorites of mine include the reconstructed versions of the final Hartnell-story “The Tenth Planet” and the Troughton story “The Invasion” (still the best of the animated reconstructions, in my opinion).
“Shada” wasn’t missing, just unfinished. That was part of its unobtainable appeal, along with the fact that it was a story from the mind of the wickedly talented (and sadly late) scif-fi satirist Douglas Adams (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “Restaurant at the End of the Universe”). Adams also wrote the breezily epic, incongruously titled Doctor Who story, “City of Death” (one of my favorites of the Tom Baker-era). “City of Death” sees the Doctor and Romana II (Lalla Ward) involved in a Da Vinci art caper in 1979 Paris that takes them to the end of the dinosaur era and the beginnings of the human race. Being an incomplete Tom Baker and Douglas Adams story has long given “Shada” a uniquely legendary status among missing Doctor Who stories.
There have been many attempts to release reconstructed versions of “Shada”; a novelization, a reconstructed 1992 VHS release using footage of Tom Baker as a narrative bridge (also released on DVD), as well a Big Finish audio drama with Eighth Doctor (the under appreciated Paul McGann) filling in for Baker. I own two of these (the DVD and the Big Finish audio) and while their attempts to finish the story are admirable, they were never quite the ‘complete’ version of the story I’d always wanted to see in my mind’s eye.
Now the “Shada” story is as complete as it can ever be, with the missing segments meticulously reconstructed with the BBC’s animation (not exactly Disney/Pixar quality, granted, but it more than gets the job done). There are also newly recorded audio tracks of the original dialogue, with the original actors returning to their roles.
One of the beautiful things about this approach is that human voices tend to age slower than our bodies, so Baker and Lalla Ward can easily slip back into their roles like a comfortable pair of bedroom slippers.
**** TARDIS-SIZED SPOILERS! ****
“Shada” is arguably not the absolute best of Doctor Who stories, but it’s certainly among the best of the Tom Baker-era. Like Adams’ “City of Death” much of it is shot on location (at Cambridge, rather than Paris) with the quest for a missing Gallifreyan book that leads the Doctor, Romana and their trusty ‘tin dog’ K-9 (voiced by both David Brierley and John Leeson) to a megalomaniac named Skagra (Christopher Neame) with designs on transforming himself into a single, omniscient, universal consciousness.
Skagra, using mind-draining spheres to absorb minds, seeks a rogue Time Lord named “Salyavin” (Dennis Carey). Salyavin possesses a unique ability to transfer knowledge into others, manipulating both mind and memory. The rogue Time Lord had long escaped imprisonment on the prison planetoid “Shada” (he made all concerned forget the place ever existed) and has been masquerading as kindly, daffy old “Professor Chronotis” at Cambridge.
This story twist reminded me of The Master’s disguise as the kindly old Professor Yana (played by “I, Claudius”‘ Derek Jacobi) in the Tenth Doctor episode, “Utopia.”
“Shada”‘s climax sees a grand, space-based face-off between the Doctor, Romana, K-9, Salyavin and an army of Skagra’s awakened, mind-drained zombie prisoners, as well as his alien “Krarg” strongmen. Truly exciting stuff.
Two 20th century humans join the Doctor and Romana on this adventure; the skeptical Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill) and intellectually-boosted Claire Keightley (Victoria Burgoyne), both of whom are clever and resourceful enough to become newly minted companions right on the spot. “Shada” is practically an audition tape for both actors. Shame that the story was never completed until now, as it could’ve left a door open for Hill or Burgoyne to return in the future.
The icing on the cake moment comes at the very end of the story, with the Doctor safely aboard the TARDIS, wondering if people would ever see him aged and imagine how ‘that old man could’ve ever been the Doctor.’
In this newly reconstructed ‘official’ version of “Shada,” Tom Baker steps in front of the camera one more time, and it’s every bit as delightful as his last live action appearance on the show (as “the Curator” in 2013’s anniversary special, “Day of the Doctor”). This is a moment to be savored by Whovians everywhere, and I can’t wait to buy the Blu-ray, just to see him do that famous toothy grin as often as possible. Imagine if Sean Connery appeared one more time in front of the camera as a smirking, retired James Bond and you get the idea.
With “Shada” finally completed, it’s now possible to fully embrace it as another terrific episode of the Tom Baker-era, rather than a long-incomplete what-if.
The animation is perfectly serviceable, yet also colorful enough to add just the teensiest bit of modern pizzazz to the overall visuals.
The voice-acting (with the original actors, no less) is first-rate. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward have kept in excellent practice as their respective characters with the Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas. I was fully immersed in “Shada” from beginning to end, with no distractions whatsoever from the voice acting.
I recall having the opposite reaction when I watched the two recent animated 1960s-styled Batman features (“Return of the Caped Crusaders” “Batman vs. Two-Face”) starring the late Adam West. Sadly, West’s voice sounded distractingly infirm. While it was nice to ‘see’ West in the role again, it was also a bit disheartening to hear him sounding so unlike his robust, 1960s-self.
Kudos to the returning actors, the archivists, the BBC’s animation, and all others involved with finally completing this long unfinished story; finally realizing the vision of the late Douglas Adams.