Doctor Who Project: Shada


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.

Punting the Cam

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.

An animated K-9!

“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…)
Continue reading

Doctor Who Project: The Horns of Nimon


Oh, well, people often don’t know what you’re talking about.

Anthony Read began his tenure on Doctor Who as script editor for “Underworld,” a dismal retelling of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts and possibly the worst story of the Fourth Doctor’s entire run. Fitting, then, that he would make his last contribution to the series by writing another mythological story, “The Horns of Nimon” (Story Production Code 5L), that shows just how well legendary fables can be repurposed into futuristic tales. The trick, it turns out, is to be blatantly obvious about the borrowing, letting the audience in on the secret from the beginning.

Beware the Nimon!

Read signposts his recounting of Theseus and the Minotaur by simply scrambling letters in proper names, opening proceedings in this four episode story on a decrepit spaceship bound for Skonnos (cf. Knossos, primary city of the ancient Minoan culture on Crete), bearing human sacrifices from the defeated planet Aneth (cf. Athens). The tributes are to be handed over to the Nimon, who, yes, just happens to be a horned creature, half-bull and half-human, better known as the Minotaur. To be fair, Read builds the layers up slowly, so that the audience feels clever at recognizing the allusions and noticing the parallels before they become so explicit as to be painfully obvious.

Jury-rigging the TARDIS

The Doctor, meanwhile, has disassembled the TARDIS control console, preventing the blue box from dematerializing or putting up defense shields, helping set up a chance collision with the Skonnon spaceship. Both craft are caught in the pull of a nascent black hole, and they come close enough that the Doctor is able to create a passage between them. There they discover the tributes from Aneth, seven young people in golden yellow jump suits, one auspiciously named Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent). (In the original telling, Athens regularly provided Minos with seven boys and seven girls to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, and the hero Theseus—Seth—took the place of one of the youths in order to defeat the monster. Having fourteen tributes here might have taxed the guest cast budget.)

Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent) and Romana (Lalla Ward)

Doctor Who seldom deviates from the pattern where the Doctor prevails at the end; one needs to go back as far as the Third Doctor’s inaugural season, with “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” for an example of the Doctor unequivocally failing, though “Horror of Fang Rock” comes close. The journey, the telling, then, becomes more important than the outcome, so the fact that we know Seth will “slay” the Nimon in keeping with the underlying myth adds to, rather than detracts from, the narrative experience. It’s not a spoiler if you already know it’s supposed to happen.

The mythology provides coloring for the characters here, unlike in “Underworld” where the Jason and the Argonauts story yields narrative structure but not any detail or nuance. Still, one could be forgiven for having trouble recognizing that Soldeed (Graham Crowden), the sole scientist on Skonnos, is an analogue for Daedalus, if only because the generally accepted concept of that old artificer does not include manic laughter and overacting sufficient to make even Tom Baker blush…
Continue reading

Doctor Who Project: Nightmare of Eden


Always do what you’re best at.

Nothing says Doctor Who quite like monsters running rampant on a spaceship, and Bob Baker’s “Nightmare of Eden” (Story Production Code 5K) delivers a passable, if somewhat overwrought, story where alien beasts drive the narrative forward as the main source of danger in the story while also being victims of the real villains of the piece: drug smugglers. The true nightmare from the planet Eden comes in the form of Vraxoin, a drug so addictive and lethargy-inducing that the only planet known to supply it was incinerated.

Economy Class to Azure

Baker, writing his first solo effort without his usual partner Dave Martin, revels in creating elaborate settings for his stories by means of a few choice details, and when he succeeds, as in “The Armageddon Factor” and “The Sontaran Experiment,” the world feels real without needing to be completely sketched out. Starting proceedings on the interstellar cruise liner Empress, with shots of passengers packed into economy-class seating and wearing protective garb, helps establish the story’s setting; the package tours and entitled tourists of the year 2116 could as easily have been on a chartered 747 to the Canary Islands as on a warp-drive flight to the planet Azure. A collision between the Empress and a small survey craft in the wrong orbit around Azure results in the two ships being dimensionally stuck, with the smaller craft engulfed by the larger when the liner came out of warp.

Smushed Spaceships

The Doctor and Romana arrive on the scene with no explanation and dive straight into attempting to separate the two craft, pretending initially to be agents of Galactic Salvage & Insurance. They soon meet a scientist, Tryst (Lewis Fiander), whose over-the-top German accent and square-framed glasses immediately cast him as suspect. Tryst has been collecting samples of all the flora and fauna in the galaxy using a Continuous Event Transmuter (CET), which dematerializes whole areas of planets and transfers them to laser crystals for storage, an undertaking the Doctor finds both fascinating and horrifying—mostly the latter. The primitive (to the Doctor) technology interacts poorly with the dimensional instability caused by the collision of the two ships, allowing passage into—and out of—the captured milieux.

Gateway to Eden

Between the need to free the ships from their trans-dimensional embrace, the revelation of Vraxoin being present on the Empress, and an unknown assailant who knocks out the Doctor, Baker and director Alan Bromley deliver one of the finest monster reveals in years, even better than Scarlioni’s unveiling in “City of Death,” because it comes as an actual surprise. Though signposted by a crewman who dies with claw marks on his face and neck, the sudden appearance of a large, scaly, green-eyed alien from a hole in the wall cut by K-9 nevertheless delivers as much shock as Doctor Who has provided in ages.
Continue reading

Doctor Who Project: The Creature from the Pit


We call it the pit.

In seasons past, one would have expected David Fisher’s “The Creature from the Pit” (Story Production Code 5G) to provide exactly what the title promises: a beastie in an underground labyrinth posing a deadly threat. Season Seventeen, under producer Graham Williams and script editor Douglas Adams, continues to subvert expectations, with the featured creature instead being a well-spoken interplanetary ambassador on a thwarted trade mission, albeit an envoy some two hundred feet in length, covered in a sickly green membrane, festooned with unfortunate appendages, and given to crushing people inadvertently.

Intergalactic plenipotentiary and giant blob, at your disposal

Deadpan humor abounds in this story, which sees the Doctor and Romana landing on the planet Chloris—a verdant jungle world, in case the Nation-esque planet name didn’t give it away—after homing in on a distress beacon being sent out by what appears to be a giant egg shell. Unbeknownst to our time travellers, however, they have landed in the “Place of Death,” so named because anyone found there is put to death by the servants of Lady Adrasta (Myra Frances), the most powerful person on the planet thanks to her monopoly on metal. The Doctor’s curiosity about the shell leads Adrasta’s lady-in-waiting, Madam Karela (Eileen Way), to spare the Doctor and Romana, so that Adrasta can question them.

Madam Karela and the Fourth Doctor

No sooner do they head off for Adrasta’s palace than a group of bandits waylays them, intent on stealing as much metal as possible, kidnapping Romana in the process. The bandits’ scruffy appearance, particularly in comparison to Adrasta’s sharply attired guards, serves to highlight her power and wealth and the poverty of the rest of the planet, but the social commentary disappears as soon as the bandits begin to speak. They come across as greedy bumpkins, driven solely by their desire for metal of any kind; their predations stem not from penury but from avarice. While their behavior does emphasize the scarcity of metal on Chloris, the comedic presentation drains them of any degree of menace or threat, a danger sapped even further when Romana just sternly orders them to let her go, which they do, with a little help from K-9.

Romana and K-9 face off against a scruff bunch of bandits

Comedic moments in Doctor Who work best when they provide a counterpoint to the drama and the action, when they stem from the events on screen rather than being the whole purpose of a scene. The earnest yet literal-minded detective Duggan from “City of Death,” for instance, and the glib con-man Garron in “The Ribos Operation,” lighten the mood because they are juxtaposed against more serious events rather than attempting to be humorous in and of themselves. “The Creature from the Pit” feels like everyone wants in on the funny business, from veteran director Christopher Barry through to the deposed court astrologer Organon (Geoffrey Bayldon), who survived being thrown in the dreaded pit after displeasing Adrasta. When the Doctor meets Organon, after he jumps in the pit himself to escape from Adrasta’s clutches, the two exchange such a wildfire patter of witticisms and bon mots that one almost doesn’t notice the green pulsating creature stuffing itself through a doorway, trying to reach them…
Continue reading

Doctor Who Project: City of Death


Is no one interested in history?

For all the fantastical planets and places Doctor Who has presented on screen, its location shooting has tended, for obvious financial and logistical reasons, to center within a day’s coach drive of Television Centre, making David Agnew’s “City of Death” (Story Production Code 5H) all the more striking for its quite exotic setting: Paris. Rather than dress up a London street as the City of Lights, the production team skipped over the Channel, providing some of the best location shots in the series to date. Normally, scenes of the Doctor and companion running around would be dismissed as filler, but here, the pleasant dissonance of seeing Tom Baker scampering down the middle of the Champs-Élysées, scarf flying, with nonplussed Parisian pedestrians paying him no mind, yields ample justification for the narrative interludes. No alien planet could provide such a backdrop.

Average Parisian traffic

Pleasantly, the story on offer lives up to the grandeur of the location. The pseudonymous duo of producer Graham Williams and former script editor Anthony Read delivers a smart tale that makes time travel integral not only to the outcome but also to the intermediate complications in which the Fourth Doctor and Romana find themselves embroiled. Just as their prior story together, “The Invasion of Time,” delved deeply (if at times awkwardly) into Gallifreyan history, adding to the series’ lore while simultaneously mining it for plot beats, Williams and Read here use the full measure of the series’ core conceit of time travel, having the Doctor travel through time within the story—itself a rarity—only to discover the Doctor’s urbane foe, Count Scarlioni (Julian Glover), got to Renaissance Florence first. Or did he?

Count Scarlioni, I presume?

That Scarlioni, first encountered in Paris in 1979 funding experiments and plotting grand larceny, is somehow linked to Scaroth, a green tentacled, one-eyed creature known as a Jagaroth seen in the opening scene of the first of the story’s four episodes, is obvious from the beginning; their names alone give it away. It’s the nature of the linkage that drives the intrigue and interest, with the audience learning the details slowly along with the Doctor. Indeed, there’s so much going on by the end of the first episode—time slips, thugs in Parisian bistros, an artist drawing Romana with a broken clock for a face, a plot to steal the Mona Lisa, wild experiments with chickens, and a gung-ho gumshoe—that it comes as a mild shock when Scarlioni rips off his human face to reveal the Jagaroth beneath.

Behold the Jagaroth

More curious still, however, is why an alien might need to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre when he already has six of them walled up in a long-undisturbed cellar in his Parisian château…
Continue reading

Doctor Who Project: Destiny of the Daleks


It’s what’s on the inside that matters.

During Doctor Who‘s first dozen seasons, the Daleks appeared with tedious inevitability, losing some their power to frighten and amaze each time they trundled onto the screen in increasingly bumbling fashion. And then, after 1975’s “Genesis of the Daleks,” arguably the finest Dalek story since, well, “The Daleks,” they just…vanished. These iconic antagonists would not reappear until five years later, with Season Seventeen’s opening story, Terry Nation’s “Destiny of the Daleks” (Story Production Code 5J). Though the title gives away the surprise, as it tends to with Dalek stories, “Destiny of the Daleks” nevertheless builds on the strong foundations of the prior story. Terry Nation returns his beloved pepperpots to the top rank of Doctor Who villains by making sure they don’t play too large a role in the proceedings, setting them against formidable foes and bringing back their creator in a tightly-plotted story that demonstrates both Nation’s growth as a writer and the benefits of letting the Daleks lie fallow for a time.

A quick jaunt to Skaro

Still on the run from the Black Guardian, the Fourth Doctor and a newly regenerated Romana (Lalla Ward) trigger the TARIDS randomizer circuit to arrive at an unknown place and time. Random, that is, in the way a loaded pair of dice is random, for they arrive on a deserted, radioactive planet that the Doctor vaguely recalls from prior visits: Skaro. Nevertheless, Nation neatly avoids confirming the Doctor’s—and the audience’s—suspicions until the end of the first of four episodes, only announcing the planet’s infamous name seconds before a column of Daleks smashes through a barrier, pinning Romana against a wall with their sucker arms in a knowing recreation of their initial introduction, when Barbara suffered the same fate. The Daleks do certainly know how to make an entrance.

Shades of Barbara's introduction to the Daleks

But even with the Daleks revealed, Nation continues to layer on narrative mysteries, through both extensive world building and deliberate obfuscation. Another group makes an appearance, the Movellans, a multi-cultural platoon of humanoids dressed in white leotards and silver braided wigs, ostensibly keeping tabs on the Daleks. Typically in Doctor Who, the audience has knowledge that the Doctor lacks, a technique that drives tension as we watch the Doctor and companions figure out the plot complications. The Doctor’s trademark cleverness comes through more strongly in this structure, as his logical (and illogical) thought process becomes part of the story. Here, though, Nation gives the Doctor moments of awareness that he keeps to himself, both in his supposition about what the Daleks dig for on Skaro and, more significantly, his realization of Movellans’ secret. This structural decision shifts the story’s focus from the Doctor onto the Daleks and Movellans, a vintage Terry Nation approach when it comes to prioritizing his own creations.

Meet the Movellans

In retrospect, all the clues are there from the moment the Doctor enters the Movellans’ diamond-shaped spaceship, but one is overwhelmed by the visual impressiveness of both the ship’s interior and the costume design of the Movellans themselves, which owes far more to the 1970s than the 3070s. Indeed, the most striking aspect of the Movellans’ presentation comes from the refreshing casting, with an even split of male and female actors, most of whom are actors of color. For a series where the number of speaking parts by non-white actors can still, some seventeen seasons in, be counted on two hands, it’s a noticeable decision. So once can be forgiven for not immediately recognizing these disco-fied, idealized humanoids as robots themselves. As far as Dalek enemies go, they’re no Mechanoids, that’s for sure…
Continue reading