InfoText: “The history of SHADA is long, complicated, sad, funny and fascinating".
This eccentric WHO special edition – eccentric in as much as it feels like a grab-bag of material the ‘Beeb’ did not feel comfortable shoe-horning into other DVD releases – is released in January 2013.
DOCTOR WHO - SHADA was the 1979 story by then script-editor Douglas Adams’ story, scuppered by the Corporation’s industrial strike action and so was never finished. In 1992, the BBC released the remaining & errant footage structured as a VHS-format six-part story, linked with on-camera and voice-over narration by Tom Baker.
Importantly, it’s key to understand just how much material is actually missing: the music had to be supplied by Keff McCulloch in 1992 as did a lot of the sort-of-special FX shots and most of the missing footage appear to be for the later episodes. However, in 2002, Big Finish and BBCi presented an audio version of the abandoned six-parter casting Paul McGann as the Doctor; and in 2012, BBC Books published an excellent extended novelisation by Gareth Roberts.
The highlight of the first disc (DOCTOR WHO – SHADA) is Nicholas Pegg’s frank and chatty Info Text (“but let us begin at the beginning”; “Everything is about to happen all at once, so let’s prepare ourselves”), during which Adams self-assessment of his efforts is charming in its frankness. There’s nothing new here (all of it would have probably been picked up in DOCTOR WHO MONTHLY magazine) but it provides light and shade to an otherwise thin piece of work.
Interestingly, Pegg informs us that Tom’s introduction for SHADA (it was Tom’s idea to narrate in the first person as the Doctor) was staged at the WHO exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image, in London, and, as we all know, Tom is always good value: “I was irresistible in those days!”; “Designing an invisible spaceship – that takes imagination”; and “Poor old Douglas: I wonder what became of him”. Wandering around the exhibits, he quips, “I’ve always felt at home in museums”, adding, as he spots the giant robot, “Beat you, cock!” The InfoText tells us that the linking narration was written by JNT, “although much of the opening section was improvised by Tom Baker”. We are later told that Adams was not particularly proud of SHADA and was definitely not supportive of a video release.
InfoText: [Adams] “SHADA wasn’t actually very good”.
Adams had previously pitched an idea about which he was apparently really keen involving cricket and aliens but that was vetoed; and so perhaps we should be thankful for small mercies. Naturally, SHADA was a last minute compromise, and it probably shows.
InfoText: “Adams donated all his royalties from the VHS release to Comic Relief”.
As it is, the plot feels worryingly like an old Cambridge man struggling with writers block. Professor Chronotis, a Time Lord living as a Don in St Cedds (his TARDIS has taken on the shape of his rooms) stole a dangerous book from Gallifrey which will help the baddie, Skagra, played with desperate courage by Christopher Neame, to access SHADA, the Time Lord prison.
InfoText: “Fearlessly striding through Cambridge sporting the campest costume in the cosmos is Christopher Neame”.
The Doctor and Romana turn up, in the punting scene used in The Five Doctors, having received a call for help from the old buffer.
InfoText: “Tom Baker had difficulty controlling the [punt] and there were multiple retakes”.
It turns out that Skagra has the resource to remove minds while one of SHADA’s inmates, Salyavin, has the capacity to implant them; combining both powers will apparently enable Skagra to create one universe-spanning mind. The Doctor has to pursue Skagra to Shada, aided by a student, Chris, which provides another IT highpoint.
InfoText: [As the Doctor wires Chris into a mind download machine, Tom says “I’d like you to do something. It won’t be pleasant.”] His adlib was cut: “In fact, it’s going to crucify you, kid!”.
Later, when piloting Chronotis’ TARDIS, the IT highlights another ad libbed exchange. Tom’s scripted line to Victoria Burgoyne (Clare) – ‘Come and hold down this switch’” became “Come over here and hold onto this, then.” Followed by, “Whatever you do, don’t let go, we’re in for a very, very rough ride.”
The debate about whether this effort was worth recording, let along salvaging, will probably drag on and on but it is a hard story to like. Leaving aside the smug, lazy choice to set this effort in and around Cambridge, we are still left with a tale they feels like it was cranked out in a lunch break, between meetings.
InfoText: “This goodish serial seemed over-extended to me” (Graeme MacDonald, Head of Serials).
At one point, as Skagra is on his way to confront Chronotis, the InfoText offers a poignant bit of history.
InfoText: “The first edition of Marvel Comics DOCTOR WHO WEEKLY was published six days before this scene was shot”.
Additionally, the InfoText highlights gaffes such as Chronotis’ “disappearing spectacles”, a continuity error that occurs during his confrontation with Skagra and a premature edit which shows his eyes moving when he is supposed to be dead.
InfoText: “As K9 emerges into the corridor, listen for the thud as he collides with the doorway”.
Great InfoText moment: The Doctor trying to feel on the wrong side of Chris Parsons chest for a heartbeat. Parson’s is played by actor Daniel Hill, who’s from Bristol, and this was incorporated into Chris’s background. Tom had developed the habit of referring to people by their town of origin which was used in the story.
InfoText: “If the Doctor is checking for a heartbeat, he’s feeling the wrong Bristol!”
For me, the extras make this package worth a look. Disc 2’s BEING A GIRL, narrated by Louise Jameson, and Disc 3’s THE DEADLY DIVAS are odd bookends in as much as they cover the same subject but from different perspectives: the former looks at the passive girls (qv Victoria) while the latter looks at female characters with strong personalities (not just the female baddies; Tegan crops up in the list as well). Verity Lambert appears briefly (which is fair enough because she has her own interview in THE LAMBERT TAPES elsewhere on the disc) but the focus is on the companions. Diva’s lists the female foes – such as The Rani, Lady Peinforte, Captain Wrack, and Lady Adrasta – but then turns to the female companions and others notable for strong personalities (Tegan, Rose, and Sarah Jane). The conclusion is that in the early days, DOCTOR WHO was profoundly sexist.
TAKEN OUT OF TIME is the standard behind the scenes doc and STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE! places the production in context to explain how and why it collapsed. One genuinely sad aspect of this debacle is that departing Producer Graham Williams “would be going out on a failure”; Tom summed up the atmosphere, “BBC farewell parties make you long for death” (Tom being Tom, he subsequently says, “I must be the oldest survivor”). Director Pennant Roberts (THE FACE OF EVIL, THE SUN MAKERS, THE PIRATE PLANET) was “absolutely heart-broken”. But Daniel Hill (Chris) and PA Olivia Bazalgette met and fell in love during the production, subsequently married, and are still together, and so something worthwhile came out of the debacle, perhaps.
Fronted by the BBC’s Shaun Ley, STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!, points out the irony that a series about a champion of the underdog is brought down by a union management battle. Strikes beset the Beeb in the Seventies and DOCTOR WHO had been hit before, but never as seriously as the moment when the production team returned from lunch to discover that the studio doors were locked! As it was, night filming had to be abandoned due to a walk out by lighting technicians. And pretty much every actor who’s worked on the show in those days has commented on the strict policy of turning the studio lights off promptly. The stepladder story has become legend: a stepladder appears repeatedly in some of the studio background shots in DOCTOR WHO - ROBOT because no one could be found with union approval to move it. Ley traces the source of grievance to the management and maintenance of the PLAYSCHOOL clock (no, really). Thatcher’s arrival meant an aggressive change in policy: staff associated with pro-union activities had their personnel files stamped with a Christmas tree.
Originally released in 1994 (VHS format), MORE THAN 30 YEARS IN THE TARDIS, an overview of all things DOCTOR WHO concluding with McCoy, and struck me as an oddity when I first saw it. Nick Courtney narrates and it is broken down into different themed sections (e.g. the Daleks, Monsters and Companions), with a dramatized linking device, then-contemporary interviews, clips, and news items about DOCTOR WHO covering Hartnell to McCoy, including the two movies. It’s profoundly quotable but it’s unlikely you’ve not heard any of this stuff. Pertwee’s “monster on the loo in Tooting Bec” is here, as is Tom’s “WHO is watched at several levels in the average family”, Colin Baker's “There’s an essentially British quality to the programme”, and Carole Anne Ford’s news that Hartnell treated her “like a fifteen year old”. Given their vintage, a lot of these quips are going to feel like a collection of non sequiturs to a younger audience. Still, we also get some moments worth noting. Dalek means “far and distant thing” in Serbo-Croat. A vintage episode of WHICKER’S WORLD focussing on the success Terry Nation is off-set by a contemporary chat with an understandably crestfallen Ray Cusick. Mary Whitehouse’s complaints are cited as a ratings-winner. The object of this almost stream of consciousness race through DOCTOR WHO history is not clear because we do not encounter a perspective (pro or con, say).
REMEMBERING NICK COURTNEY presented by his official biographer, Michael McManus, is a good-hearted tribute to the late fan favourite and DR WHO STORIES showcases some anecdotes by an affable Peter Purves (he never found the Daleks scary and DOCTOR WHO - THE CELESTIAL TOYMAKER is a favourite story). Again, nothing new here.
The interview with Verity Lambert (THE LAMBERT TAPES: PART 1) is notable because it’s always worth hearing what a key creative has to say. Sydney Newman recommended her for the job as DOCTOR WHO’s first producer when she was 27, back when the BBC was “an old boy’s club”; Newman made it clear early on that he did not want a “monster of the week” production (“No BEMs” – Bug Eyed Monsters) but the popularity of the Daleks pushed that argument to one side. Lambert’s response to the question, “What was it like, riding on the wave of success?” is a pithy “It was better than being a failure”. One comment stayed with me: “In those days, you had to be checked by MI5”.
This release is the epitome of the old phrase; “...a curates egg...”. In part, the DVD Extras do offer value for money but the 'main documentaries' do, sadly, feel like exercises in milking a cash cow.