Excuse the muddle. Creative disarray, you know.
Modern viewers of Doctor Who breathe a sigh of relief when they reach the Jon Pertwee era, if only because the Third Doctor’s run marks the end of the “missing episodes” that plagued Hartnell and Troughton’s time as the Doctor. It’s all there on film, every moment of the Third through the Eighth Doctor’s exploits. Except, that is, for Douglas Adams’ “Shada” (Story Production Code 5M), the six-part finale for Season Seventeen that was partially filmed but never completed or broadcast due to industrial action at the BBC.
All the story’s location shooting in and around Cambridge had taken place and the first of three studio sessions was in the proverbial can when a strike stopped all filming. The knock-on effects of multiple shows scrambling for studio space and technical crews once work resumed clearly revealed Doctor Who‘s place in the BBC hierarchy at the time: dead last. Other shows received preference for scarce resources, and the decision was ultimately made to cancel the production entirely rather than spend money storing props and sets and keeping options on actors with other jobs to get on with.
As the swan song for both producer Graham Williams and writer and script editor Douglas Adams, “Shada” would have been quite an achievement on the strength of the extant footage alone: between an inventive (if slightly incomprehensible) story and a superlative guest cast, this tale about a secret Time Lord prison and a megalomaniacal scheme to absorb every mind in the universe into one giant consciousness hints at being as good as anything in Season Seventeen, and potentially one of the best stories in the series to date. To that end, several efforts were made to complete “Shada,” including a version in 1992 with linking narration by Tom Baker between existing footage, an audio play in 2003 (with Paul McGann’s Eight Doctor subbing in for Baker’s Fourth Doctor), and a full animated reconstruction of the unfilmed scenes in 2017 featuring the original cast, which forms the fullest version of the story.
“Shada” sets up in Cambridge, where the Doctor’s old friend and fellow Time Lord, Professor Chronotis (Denis Carey), keeps quarters at (fictional) St. Cedd’s College. Despite having a name even Terry Nation might have blanched at, Chronotis possesses a warmth in his bumbling absent-mindedness, suggesting both age and wisdom in equal measure and played brilliantly by Carey, who gamely takes on all of Adams’ dialogue. He invites a junior teacher, Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill), to borrow several books, one of which just happens to be radioactive, capable of reversing time, and allows access to the long-forgotten prison of the Time Lords—Shada. Worse still, the book is being sought by the evil mastermind Skagra (Christopher Neame), who strides out of his invisible spaceship in his disco best, with a carpet bag full of voices. (Yes, this was made in 1979, in case there were any doubt…)
Professor Chronotis has summoned the Doctor to Cambridge precisely because of that book, which turns out to be The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, an ancient tome dating to the time of Rassilon himself. Chronotis, a “retired” Time Lord, purloined it from the Panopticon Archives for research purposes, and to keep it safe, a decision the Doctor finds baffling but somehow oddly in keeping with his old friend’s behavior. Chronotis wants the Doctor to return it to Gallifrey, as he’s getting more forgetful as time progresses. Adams seems to love playing with Time Lord lore, introducing here the leave-taking oath of the Time Academy Induction Ceremony; having the Doctor remember an old boyhood hero, the stylish Time Lord criminal Salyavin; and even having Romana reminiscing about a Gallifreyan nursery rhyme from when she was a “Time Tot.”
By the time the Doctor recovers the book from Parson’s lab, where it has already begun to exhibit strange behavior, moving on its own and resisting x-ray analysis, Skagra has found Chronotis and drained his mind using a floating grey sphere. The process (seemingly) kills Chronotis, but just before he dies, Romana and K-9 realize he is using one of his hearts to beat out, in “Gallifreyan Morse,” a warning: beware Skagra and Shada! The Doctor needs no such warning, though, as he leads the sphere on a bicycle chase through Cambridge’s streets and back alleys before being rescued by Romana in the TARDIS. Alas, the book falls out of the bicycle’s basket when the Doctor makes a sharp turn, and Skagra retrieves it with little effort indeed.
Much as Paris brought a sense of vitality and realism to “City of Death,” the location shooting in Cambridge grounds “Shada” in the comfortable, the everyday. The scenes in and around the town feel familiar, and the juxtaposition of spaceships and robot dogs and floating mind-draining orbs with college quads and bicycling dons causes just enough dissonance to give them a more visceral heft than they probably deserve. Gerald Campion’s turn as Wilkins, the college caretaker who well remembers the Doctor from his prior visits to Cambridge, helps cement the down-to-earth feeling, with his genial bemusement at the increasingly bizarre events unfolding in his college keeping the storytelling from spiraling into absurdity.
Indeed, Adams’ solution to the plot’s convoluted threads hinges on everyone just pretending it all makes sense, characters and actors and audience alike. After Chronotis dies (and the body vanishes), the Doctor remarks that he must have used up all his regenerations. Later, however, Chronotis returns from the dead because Clare Keightley (Victoria Burgoyne), Parson’s friend, inadvertently activates Chronotis’ TARDIS—which serves as his office and sitting room—causing the professor to re-appear, quite alive, due to her having tangled with his timeline. She, much like the audience, is confused and unconvinced, so, in a bit of trademark Adams dialogue, Chronotis says, “Think of me as a paradox in an anomaly and get on with your tea.” Not terrible advice, all things considered.
In Adams’ prior story, “The Pirate Planet,” the laughs came from over-the-top characters making grandiose proclamations; here, the humor derives far more from the absurd situations and various characters’ almost deadpan responses, from Parsons being insulted that Romana and the Doctor are treating him as a primitive creature or the Doctor matching wits with a very literal-minded computer-controlled spaceship that gets the better of him by taking his insistence that he is actually dead, and thus not a threat, quite literally, cutting off life support since there’s no one who needs it. Even the technobabble, of which “Shada” has copious amounts, works more organically than in “The Pirate Planet,” again played not for direct laughs but for oblique mirth, as in the Doctor’s instructions to the ship on how to create a dimensional stabilizer:
Doctor: No, realign your maxi-vecto-meter on drag so they cross connect with your radio-dicentric anodes.
It makes no sense, but Tom Baker delivers it straight this time, whereas in “The Pirate Planet,” one could swear every bit of technobabble and villain-speak was followed by a brief pause to allow the audience to laugh.
Skagra’s aim is to subsume every consciousness in the universe, by means of his floating mind-draining spheres, and then to transfer all the minds into his own, to create a grand consciousness with the entirety of the universe’s knowledge under his own control. Not quite the typical galactic conquest one encounters on Doctor Who, though the Nestene and Great Intelligence might want a word. Skagra needs the special ability of a particular Time Lord criminal, conveniently already mentioned by the Doctor, in order to move the minds from the spheres into his own consciousness; Salyavin, cryogenically suspended in the forgotten Time Lord prison of Shada, uniquely possesses the ability to project his mind into other minds, which somehow would allow Skagra to achieve his grand gestalt. (Get on with your tea, remember…)
Once Skagra realizes that the ancient book itself, when its pages are turned inside a TARDIS, causes the time capsule to travel to Shada, he wastes no time heading there, though in terms of the story itself, a good two hours have passed, leaving little time indeed for the rescue and revelation of Salyavin. Turns out, though, in a neat subversion of expectations, that the criminal Time Lord has been with us all along in the form of Chronotis, his mind-projecting powers foreshadowed when he imparts information on repairing a TARDIS to Clare earlier on.
Salyavin wanted to hide the fact of his escape from Shada, so he used his power to erase knowledge of the prison planet from all Time Lords, explaining why the Doctor had but the faintest recollection of the word and Romana had no reaction to it at all. He stole The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, the sole means of accessing Shada, to further protect his freedom. Left unexplored here is just how Gallifrey dealt with criminals after their prison disappeared, a seemingly large gap in their jurisprudence.
In common with many Doctor Who stories, “Shada” wraps up a bit too tidily and pithily, jamming an entire denouement into fifteen or so minutes despite being a six-part tale. Almost none of the Doctor’s final confrontation with Skagra, featuring a mental battle and K-9 roasting the well-conceived Krargs—crystalline rock monsters serving Skagra—exists from the original footage, and one wonders just what the action-packed scenes might have looked like, particularly at the end of a season with, one imagines, most of the budget already spent. No doubt the extra costs saved by cancelling the production before all of the effects were completed factored into the BBC executives’ decision.
In the end, the Doctor and companions drive off Skagra, who is imprisoned by his own ship’s computer, which has switched allegiances to the Doctor for reasons mostly unexplained. All the captured minds are returned to their rightful owners, and the Doctor agrees to keep Chronotis’ escape a secret while at the same time informing the Time Lords of the long-forgotten Shada. It ties up neatly, indeed, satisfyingly, but without any sense of having earned that resolution. Adams’ gleeful skittering over the surface of plot complexities allows for a smooth narrative but doesn’t stand up to any sort of close analysis. More tea?
Regardless, the journey itself proves delightful, given strength through the guest cast in particular. Denis Carey imbues Chronotis with ample stores of goodwill, such that one intuitively understands the Doctor’s desire to protect his friend, despite his having re-written Time Lord history and condemned the prisoners on Shada to an eternity of captivity. There’s sufficient depth in Carey’s characterization that the revelation of Salyavin serves as a surprise, but not as a shock. Skagra comes alive through Christopher Neame’s voice alone, issuing timbrous commands that just drip with power, privilege, and certainty. Both Daniel Hill and Victoria Burgoyne, meanwhile, as Chris Parsons and Clare Keightley, serve the audience identification role well, being impressed but not overawed by the strange situation they find themselves in, and holding their own even as Time Lords and supervillains and rock monsters do battle all around them.
Indeed, the guest stars more or less steal the show in this one, marking the sole occasion in Season Seventeen where Tom Baker cedes the spotlight for any length of time. In part, this stems from the lack of studio sessions, where Baker tends to leave his mark on proceedings most keenly; the animated segments don’t leave him much room to ad lib or inject his hallmark acting tics. Which is not to take anything away from his performance here, particularly in conjunction with Denis Carey; together they sell a very clear vision of the the Doctor and Chronotis having had a long relationship. Adams keeps giving the Doctor lines where he repeats what has just been said as though he just thought of it himself, a tired schtick at this point, but Baker sells it as only he can.
Lalla Ward doesn’t have terribly much to do for long stretches of the story, particularly when Romana is captured by Skagra, but she does provide the Doctor with the insights needed to ultimately defeat Skagra, and she continues to act independently and bravely throughout. It’s a story with so many characters, though, that she inevitably has to share lines that would otherwise have been hers.
To that point, it’s notable that the term “companion” is used in the plural in this story, referring not only to Romana but also to Chris Parsons. (K-9 has yet to be referred to as a companion per se, by the Doctor or others, though certainly K-9 qualifies for the “official list of companions” that all Doctor Who fans mentally compile.)
Doctor: Will you tell me where my companions are?
The term is used several times in short order by the Doctor, in fact, emphasizing it in a way most stories do not.
K-9 (voice, David Brierley) features economically in this story, likely because Adams, as script editor, knows the problems the tin mutt can cause both to plots and to production costs. Once more, K-9 provides whatever techno-features the story requires, from fixing a TARDIS to monitoring the brainwaves of a dying Time Lord, with a few blaster shots thrown in for good measure.
“Shada” falls into a special category, if only because filming never completed. Particularly with a veteran director like Pennant Roberts, all kinds of alchemy occurs in the studio sessions to change the written word into visualized action, and while the welcome animated reconstruction brings Douglas Adams’ words to life, we’ll never know exactly what would have been produced back in 1979. Still, it’s clear there’s something special here, despite the convoluted plot and likely over-ambitious effects work required to bring it all to the screen. The final outcome of the core cast at the peak of their performance combined with a strong guest cast, invigorating location shooting, and a script by someone who knew the series well could only have been exceptional. Unlike the prison planet that gives the story its name, “Shada” is not one to be forgotten. It stands as a fine conclusion to Season Seventeen.
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Post 112 of the Doctor Who Project