“Welcome to the Richard E Grant era of Doctor Who. Blink and you'll miss it.”Those words, spoken by its executive producer James Goss in the DVD documentary Carry On Screaming, more than adequately describe the reputation of Scream Of The Shalka. Originally produced with the intention of being the first story in a web based continuation of the then still canceled series, this animated six part Doctor Who “webcast” from 2003 has often been neglected, if not downright forgotten, by fans. With its long awaited DVD release last year, the story has been enjoying something of a much needed reexamination.
There is Richard E Grant's Doctor for example. Grant's Doctor (originally intended to be the Ninth before being “replaced” by Christopher Eccleston) feels like something of a cross between the Doctors of the Old Series and the New. There's an aloofness that brings to mind the First and Sixth Doctors while his rather abrasive attitude towards the military (and especially Major Kennet) calls to mind the Third Doctor's early dealings with UNIT. In other ways though, this Doctor has intriguing pre-echoes of the New Series Doctors that were to follow within just a couple of years. Grant's Doctor has a hurt quality to him with something and someone in his past haunting him which only the events in the story start to help him recover from, while some of the dialogue could easily be delivered by the likes of David Tennant or Matt Smith. Like Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor, we get only a glimpse of this Doctor and it's something that makes judging him more difficult, but there's certainly plenty of promise here.
The story also has a good cast, some of whom would go onto appearances in the New Series. Perhaps the most obvious connection to the New Series is Derek Jacobi as the Master, a role he would play in a different context in the New Series episode Utopia (and who earlier in 2003 had played a version of the Doctor in Big Finish's Doctor Who Unbound story Deadline), though the character here has the interesting development of having had his consciousness transferred into a android body. There's also Sophie Okonedo (Liz X from Series Five episode The Beast Below) as barmaid Alison Cheney, who is introduced as the Doctor's new companion and comes across almost as something of a template for the companions of the New Series. Hidden away in a cameo (an almost a “tune out and you'll miss him” part) as a caretaker at a warehouse is a pre-Tenth Doctor David Tennent who happened to be recording a radio play next door to where the story was being recorded and has only a couple of lines and a scream in the story. The cast also includes noted character actress Diana Quick as the Shalka Prime, Craig Kelly as Alison's boyfriend Joe and Jim Norton as Major Kennet
What perhaps makes this webcast most intriguing in retrospect is the script by Paul Cornell. What this story feels most like is an attempt to take the classic series “alien invasion of Earth” formula and update it for the twenty-first century. From its six episode length (though episodes are in fact thirteen minutes long instead of twenty five) to its opening scenes setting up the deserted streets of the Lancashire village of Lannet (which bring to mind the opening scenes of Invasion Of The Dinosaurs), to the story's somewhat eco-friendly message, the story has strong links back to the Pertwee era with that connection being made even stronger by the opening and closing titles which harken very much back to the initial Pertwee era title sequences. Even though UNIT doesn't appear (though it gets a brief reference as the source of one of Major Kennet's briefing documents), the strong military presence in the story certainly brings them to mind.
In other ways though, it also brings to mind the New Series that was to come. There's those aforementioned elements in Grant's Doctor and some interesting casting, there's other New Series elements that come into play as well. The story's opening scene in New Zealand feels like a pre-credit scene out of a New Series episode as it's otherwise completely unconnected to the rest of the story. There's the future companion in an unhappy relationship with her boyfriend whom she ends up leaving to travel with the Doctor. There's the Doctor using a cell phone and at one point using his sonic screwdriver in a fashion that wouldn't be at all out of place in the New Series. The idea that the Doctor and the Master might travel the universe together in the TARDIS is an idea that got a mentioning when the Master returned in the New Series (writer Paul Cornell confirms on the DVD that Davies told him he was indeed thinking of this story) while the gag of the TARDIS being locked like a car, used in End Of Time appears here first as well. The DVD reveals that, like the New Series, seeds were being planted for larger story arcs that would eventually go into this Doctor's background and explain not just his state but also how the Master ended up as an android. In a way then, Cornell's script feels like something of a bridge between old and new that came at an unfortunate time and place before it could lead to more.
Something that made this controversial in 2003, and that also gives it some distinction as well, is that it was the first licensed animated Doctor Who story. Despite having been originally produced as a Flash animated series more than a decade ago for an era with much slower internet connects (and is therefore limited in some ways), it holds up rather well. There's some wonderful character designs including Grant's Doctor and the Shalka themselves (from the average worm like ones to their leader, the more humanoid Shalka Prime) that, while not hugely detailed, still allows for the characters to be emotional as well (such as the look on the Doctor' face when the Shalka try to sacrifice Alison in front of him in episode three) which helps the animation feel less artificial as well. There's some wonderful design elements including an impressive TARDIS interior and the underground lair of the Shalka. The story also boasts an atmospheric visual style full of shadows and silhouettes (something that, while done for practical reasons related to bandwidth, serves the story very well). So while the animation might not as detailed as other animated projects (such as the DC Universe Animated Movies being reviewed elsewhere on this site), it serves the story well and even looks good on your typical wide-screen TV thanks to its DVD release.
On a more practical level, the story can also be credited with having helped to get the BBC to comission the New Series. Following the Paul McGann TV Movie, the BBC seemed to lose interest for some years in making Doctor Who again until the early 2000s when BBC executives, like Controller of BBC One Lorraine Heggessey, said they'd like to make it but there were rights issues keeping it from being produced. The production team of Scream Of The Shalka though were able to prove that those issues didn't in fact exist and helped to set events in motion that saw Russell T Davies coming on board, which eventually led to the series we're watching today. It meant though that plans for future adventures and a DVD release of the story were abandoned, that Grant's Ninth Doctor and the story itself was soon to be made non-canon, with both being dismissed by many fans at the time and unseen by many others who were to come to the series in the years that followed.
In the final analysis then, what are we to make of Scream Of The Shalka more than a decade later? It certainly deserves more than the obscurity it's languished in ever since. There's a Doctor that shares many things in common with the Doctor's we've been watching for the last few years as well as elements familiar from the New Series being done in a different way. With its appearance finally on DVD, perhaps the story will be seen as more than an obscure curiosity at last and as something far more than just another thing from the “wilderness years”.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.