Shada was originally intended to be the final story of Doctor Who’s seventeenth season and the swansong for then-producer Graham Williams and script editor Douglas Adams, but due to some industrial action it was never finished. The season ended six weeks early with its finale unfinished and left to collect dust in some backroom somewhere.
That is until 1992 when Doctor Who’s caretaker producer John Nathan-Turner completed the story (so far as was possible) by commissioning new effects shots and a score, and having Tom Baker record linking material to cover the missing scenes. The result was six shortened episodes, varying between 14 and 22 minutes each. It has since become something of a cult favourite with many fans who grew up with the classic era and had to endure the so-called wilderness years, this being the closest thing to a new episode they were ever going to get (or so it seemed at the time).
However, despite being something of a superfan of the show, I had never watched it. My copy of the story had just been sitting there on my shelf for a few years being ignored and skipped over. I’d never been inclined to bother with it until recently because I couldn’t be dealing with missing scenes (at least the wiped episodes of Hartnell and Troughton have a soundtrack and stills to help you along) and so I left it there unwatched for years. But that’s all changed now and I have to admit that I was wrong to neglect it.
“Shada, SHADA, SHA-DAAAAAA......”
The big issue I took with Shada – its unfinished status – isn’t even an issue. We have in place of these unfilmed scenes narration from Tom Baker in a museum and basically being… well… being Tom Baker! He walks around big models of various monsters from the 26 seasons of Doctor Who (Vervoids, Yeti, Cybermen, Daleks, Krargs and Robots… “Beat you cock!”) as he informs the viewers what went on.
This can take you out of the story at times, particularly in the last two episodes where the majority of the unfilmed scenes would’ve been, but if you pay attention to his words and get your imagination switched on then you shouldn’t have a problem with it. In a world where these scenes exist only in written form it’s the best way to tell the story so it’ll have to do. JNT’s fingerprints are all over these linking scenes – say what you will about him, you can’t deny that he was dedicated to the show he loved. He wanted to make sure as many people as wanted to see this story could have the chance to see it, so he set about making it possible. For that JNT, I salute you!
So what about the actual story then? In a word: complicated. Yet because Shada is written by the legend that is Douglas Adams (of “Hitchiker’s Guide” fame) the plot never feels too complicated to follow. It's tricky to accurately summarise because of how convoluted bits of it are but nonetheless I shall try.
The Doctor, Romana and K9 visit Professor Chronotis of the University of Cambridge (where Adams studied, which I’m sure is a coincidence). He is in fact another renegade Time Lord who has retired to Earth as his thirteenth and final life nears its end. Unbeknownst to the Doctor Chronotis is in fact a psuedonym for the ancient Time Lord criminal Salyavin who has escaped from the Gallifreyan prison Shada. One of the things he has with him is an ancient book, one of the artifacts of Rassilon, which serves as the key to opening Shada. The villain of the story, Skagra, comes to steal Chronotis’s mind so as to get inside Shada and steal knowledge from all the criminals in there. His eventual goal is to take over every mind in the universe. The story conclude with Skagra and the Doctor battling for control of this “universal mind” which the Doctor wins by turning Skagra’s victims against him since the Doctor’s own mind is already among them as his own knowledge (or a small amount of it at least) was extracted earlier.
Like I said: the plot is a convoluted one, even River Song’s timeline looks simple by comparison. However Adams script is so well written that it comes together in a way that you can follow and, more importantly, it’s immensely enjoyable. The plotting is tightly focused, Adams is on top form with his signature unique style of comedy and although the missing scenes are a little jarring the story is so entertaining that even having Tom tell you what you’re missing out on doesn’t hurt it, you'll stay glued to the screen for the whole 111 minutes. The plot is interesting enough that it even manages to justify its six-episode running time (which is no small feat) and it never drags, not even for a moment.
The cast is brilliant in this story, something you can’t often say about Doctor Who’s original run, with everyone serving their purpose and doing what they need to do to make the story work. Daniel Hill (who resembles a young Steven Moffat) and Victoria Burgoyne (in her debut TV role) convince as two skeptical students caught up in the plot by accident. Christopher Neame brings Skagra to life and makes him one of the Doctor’s most memorable foes, equally arrogant as he is a credible threat to the universe, and whoever cast him should take a bow. Lalla Ward is reliable as ever as Romana II and even K9 is used effectively as an essential part of the plot, though I’m still yet-to-be convinced by David Brierley’s voice acting for him and much prefer when John Leeson does it.
But the star of the show is, of course, Tom Baker. He is absolutely wonderful as the Fourth Doctor doing everything you’d expect from the man who still remains (for good reason) the definitive version in the popular consciousness. He does some of his very best work here, managing to convince as a know-it-all, a charmer and a comedian and he even pulls off being frightened. The scene as he punts down the river while relating to Romana about Sir Isaac Newton has to rank as one of the Fourth Doctor’s best ever moments – Trivia fans will recognise this as the scene later used for Baker’s inclusion in The Five Doctors – and the chemistry between Baker and Ward just lights up the screen, but I think we could call that a given at this point. Were they a couple yet when this was filmed? It couldn’t have been long afterwards if not!
Yet there is still one person who even outperforms Baker and that person is Denis Carey (who Doctor Who fans will recognise from both The Keeper of Traken and, sadly, Timelash) as Professor Chronotis. He’s amazing in this as the scatterbrained Time Lord with a love for tea (Adams milks the one lump or two question for all it’s worth) and the resulting character is a joy to watch. It seems that Adams liked him a lot too and was saddened that Chronotis would never see the light of day enough to copy-paste him into one of his later novels: So it’s official, Doctor Who and Dirk Gently exist in the same continuity! In fact, Russell T Davies would later work Hitchhiker’s Guide into this same fictional universe with The Christmas Invasion so there’s that too.
So is there anything that I don’t like about this story? The Krargs feel like an unnecessary late addition to the script when Graham Williams told Adams to work a monstrous race into the story. What do they add to proceedings exactly? Why are they here? They don’t do anything and aside from one (admittedly very good) cliffhanger they are barely seen or mentioned. Monsters made of walking coal are never going to send anyone behind the sofa, are they! (Still miles better than monsters of walking sleep dust mind you.)
But as they barely have any presence in the story I can let that issue go. I can’t really take any issue with Shada and, based upon what we have of it, I’d say it looks like a very good story that would be held in high esteem by many if only had it been completed. Why, of all the season seventeen stories, did it have to be Shada that got the boot? Why couldn’t we have lost Destiny of the Daleks, Nightmare of Eden or The Creature From the Pit instead?
While it’s a shame that some big portions of Shada are missing I would still recommend you check it out if you haven’t already. I ignored it for years because of the missing segments putting me off – if you can relate to that then please, I urge you: Don’t let that stop you from taking a look at this overlooked gem!
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.