So it has been announced that the BBC is going to release a new version of the Doctor Who story Shada. I say a new version as this is the fourth iteration of this story to be released. For those newer fans that might be unaware of Shada here is a potted history:
Shada was originally going to be the final story of Doctor Who’s 17th season. Douglas Adams was this season’s Script Editor and his sense of humor is woven throughout its stories. Whether or not this is a good thing has been a matter of much debate, but there is no denying that Adams brought something unique to his time on the show. Shada would cap off the season and would be Adams’s last work for Doctor Who, as The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was about to make him much more well known and in demand. Location filming for the serial had been completed and studio recording had begun but, due to industrial action, production had to be abandoned. Some of the location footage was used when Tom Baker declined the opportunity to appear in The Five Doctors but apart from those two brief scenes Shada slipped into fan legend as Doctor Who’s unfinished symphony. Thinking that the story would never see the light of day, and not wanting to waste good ideas, Douglas Adams recycled characters and other elements of Shada into Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency which was published in 1987.
Flash forward to 1992 and the BBC were looking for more Doctor Who to release, having already brought out every complete story on home video. They had also released themed compilations of episodes from incomplete stories and there was clearly a market for previously unseen footage. So the BBC decided to compile all the footage recorded for Shada and brought in Tom Baker to record linking narration for the scenes that were never filmed. As the episodes go on Baker does more and more narration as less of the story takes place in the locations of the completed studio recording. Seeing the half finished work was an interesting insight into how Doctor Who was filmed at the time. It was great to see the Kraags in action and see the scenes from The Five Doctors in their proper context. All in all it was a nice curiosity for fans to enjoy.
Jump forward again, this time to 2003, and the BBC has had some success with Doctor Who audio webcasts. The flash animated audio plays Death Comes to Time and Reel Time had both been popular and so to capitalise on this they commissioned Big Finish Productions to make a new, audio version of Shada. Tom Baker declined the offer to take part and so the story was rewritten to include Paul McGann as the Doctor. The flash animation was drawn by Doctor Who comic artist Lee Sullivan.
Then in 2010, Record Producer and Doctor Who Twitter-rage munchkin Ian Levene funded an unofficial animated version. Again Tom Baker did not wish to be involved and so Paul Jones was drafted in to play the Doctor and in 2013 this version surfaced on torrent sites. I have no idea if it was any good, as I have never seen it.
Now we have yet another version, this time as the result of the BBC successfully replacing missing footage with animation. This approach is essentially a hybrid of the 1992 release and the Levene project, only this time the animation will be provided by the team behind last year’s release of Power of the Daleks. That gives us four versions, not including the novelisation written by Gareth Roberts.
So what is it about Shada? Is it the quality of the original script? No, I don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong there are some really nice sci-fi ideas and pieces of Doctor Who lore in there. But it isn’t anything exceptional. It’s not bad by any means but it’s not brilliant either. It’s a solid script and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I think the fascination with Shada is down to three things. Firstly, it is the only uncompleted story in the Doctor Who’s history. There are many unfilmed scripts. There are several other stories that were nearly abandoned. But Shada is the only partially-filmed serial and that makes it unique. It is an almost story, a beginning without an end, and up until now every attempt to produce a complete version has ultimately lacked something. The VHS release has Tom Baker, but the missing footage was mostly just replaced with still photos. There was an effort to recreate some of the model shots using stills, but there wasn’t much money to do anything more than that. The audio and animated versions avoid that problem, but both lack the presence of Baker. As good a job as Paul McGann (and presumably Paul Jones) did, Shada was made during a time when, for good or ill, Tom Baker’s personality heavily informed the show. This new release with both the original footage and Baker, along with the rest of the cast, could be as definitive a version of Shada as it is possible to get.
I think the second factor in our fascination with Shada is The Horns of Nimon. Now, I will happily express my love of and delight inThe Horns of Nimon to anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in earshot, but I am aware that I’m very much in the minority. It is commonly regarded as a hideous car crash of cheap looking effects and pantomime acting: the epitome of everything that was wrong with the show in the late seventies.
The Horns of Nimon is seen as the lame duck at the end of a very divisive season and some fans wonder if season 17 might have gone out on more of a high if it had closed with Shada.
Finally there is the matter of Shada’s writer, Douglas Adams. It is amazing to watch his vivid imagination and sharp wit fitting with not just Doctor Who in general, but arguably the lead actor best suited to his style.. Whether or not you actually think it’s any good is another matter, but seeing the work of one of the UK’s most popular cult exports in TV’s longest running sci-fi show is something that wouldn’t happen again until Neil Gaiman wrote The Doctor’s Wife.
The fact that Adams reused Professor Chronotis and his time travelling office in the first Dirk Gently book also makes Shada something of an historical artefact for Adams fans. Seeing an earlier form of Chronotis as a Timelord, and moments like the original use of the “One lump or two” joke all add to the appreciation of Dirk Gently. While there would still be interest in completing an unfinished serial written by Anthony Reed or David Fisher, for example, the fact that it was written by Douglas Adams adds a little something extra and makes it more special.
I will admit to being initially a little baffled at yet another attempt to complete Shada, but giving it some thought for this article has made me appreciate it more. Hopefully the forthcoming DVD will be the final version. I don’t see how you could get closer to what could have been without a time machine and a really good industrial relations negotiator. By the end of the year, the Shada saga may finally come to an end, and season 17 of Doctor Who will have the conclusion it was intended to have.
After all, being 38 years over deadline is late even by Douglas Adams’ standards.