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“Doctor Who” DVD for January: “Shada”

This month gave us a bit of a strange case for a Classic Doctor Who DVD, but a very interesting and informative one as well, if you’re into that type of thing, of course. With the range of original series DVDs running down (until their inevitable re-issues), it’s time to get to a story that has become legend among fans.  There are 106 episodes from the 1960s that are missing but at least were aired; this is a story that isn’t complete, never aired, and wasn’t even finished, yet somehow is a lot of people’s favorite, apparently. I’m speaking, of course, of the incomplete six-parter from Season 17 in 1979, the second to last season to feature Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, entitled “Shada,” written by then-script editor, Douglas Adams. You know Douglas Adams.

Only about half of the necessary scenes for the serial were shot, delayed, and then scrapped entirely due to a strike at the BBC. What does exist was released on VHS in 1992 with Tom Baker himself on hand to provide linking narration for the stuff that was never filmed. It is this version of the story (as opposed to a privately-funded production with animation for the missing bits, to which the BBC said “Thanks, but no thanks”) that has been released on DVD, along with the 1994 extended edition of the 1993 30th Anniversary documentary, “More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS,” and a bevy of new features. It’s a 3-disc set, and it’s kind of great.

Having already written “The Pirate Planet” the season prior and co-written the great “City of Death” from earlier in Season 17, script editor Douglas Adams wrote “Shada” to finish out that season, the story of a missing Gallifreyan law book which holds the secrets to an unspeakable power which a pompous alien mind-stealer named Skarga wishes to use to take over the universe. The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward) certainly don’t want to let that happen, and they come to the aid of the Doctor’s very old friend, the Time Lord exile, Professor Chronotis. K-9’s there too, saying “Master” and “Mistress” a lot, as is his way.
I’d actually never seen “Shada” before this DVD, though I knew plenty about it, and I’d read Gareth Roberts’ recent novelization of it written in the style of Douglas Adams. I really enjoyed that, but I was almost scared to see the show, knowing that so much of it was never filmed. It’s a wonder that it works as well onscreen as it does. This wasn’t a case where the first 3 episodes were filmed in their entirety and the latter three were not; it’s completely based on location. Anything that takes place outside on the grounds of Cambridge (a terrific location) as well as Chronotis’ office and Skarga’s ship’s prison from the studio recordings was filmed, but anything that takes place indoors but not in either of those places was not shot at all, meaning, especially during the final two parts, you get long scenes in Chronotis’ office followed by brief narration from Baker and then back to the office again. Still, the story is quite entertaining, and the performances all around are great. Tom is surprisingly reigned-in, given his bravura scenery chewing in “The Horns of Nimon,” the story that ultimately ended the season.

Now, whether this story would be as celebrated as it is if it had been completed like nothing was the problem is debatable. We’ve no idea what the unfilmed sets would have looked like, or if they’d have been performed as well as the other ones. It’s an absolute shame it wasn’t finished, but if the aforementioned “Horns of Nimon” had been the unfinished one, would it instead have the notoriety? I’d like to think not, but who knows? The involvement of the late lamented Douglas Adams is also a huge factor, but Adams didn’t rest on his laurels, reconstituting much of the “Shada” storyline into his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

The extras for “Shada” are as thorough as is usual for BBC Home Entertainment. It actually features the entirety of BBCi and Big Finish’s Flash animated version of “Shada” from 2003 featuring Eighth Doctor Paul McGann, though this can only be accessed on your computer, which is a bit irritating. There isn’t a commentary, but there is a great making- (and unmaking-) of called “Taken Out of Time” as well as a feature called “Strike! Strike! Strike!,” about all the many times industrial action has caused grief to Doctor Who and other BBC programs. There is a “Now and Then” featurette about the locations used in the story, and a great feature called “Being a Girl,” which discusses the way in which the show represents women.

Disc three of this release features “More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS,” which is a delightful retrospective of the classic series, made before there even was a TV movie and certainly well before anyone named Russell T. Davies had anything to do with the show beyond watching it. It’s clearly handled with a lot of love, and a great many of the stars of the series through the years show up to be interviewed and take part in skits. Jon Pertwee, who died in ’96, is featured very prominently, as well he should be. The documentary is narrated by the late Nicholas Courtney (who, of course, played the Brigadier), the subject of a very lovely feature called “Remembering Nicholas Courtney” in which a friend of the actor’s talks about his life while showing the very last interview footage he shot before his death. Tom Baker appears in this as well, speaking to his friend.

This whole release feels a bit like a way to release a lot of stuff that had been burning a hole in the restoration team’s metaphorical pocket, and the extras on disc three are the most evident of this. There is another installment of “Doctor Who Stories – Peter Purves,” in which the First Doctor companion and Blue Peter presenter talks about his time on the show. This was filmed for a doc back in the early ‘00s. Next, there’s a similar interview called “The Lambert Tapes – Part One,” which features the very first producer of the show, and indeed the very first female producer ever at the BBC, Verity Lambert. She was a very remarkable and capable woman who really shaped the show into what it became during her brief tenure. Finally, there is a half-hour thing called “Those Deadly Divas,” which was filmed after Series 2 of the relaunch and features interviews with actresses Kate O’Mara (the Rani), Camille Coduri (Jackie Tyler), and Tracy-Ann Oberman (Yvonne Hartman), and writers Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman. They’re talking about the various women or, annoyingly, “divas” who’ve been a part of the series over time, focusing on villainesses, supporting characters, and the like. It’s interesting enough, but really just seems like an “And This, Too!” addition.

Overall, though, this is a set that fans of the show will definitely want to pick up. “Shada” alone has been one of the most sought-after DVD releases for a long while and, aside from “Terror of the Zygons,” which is scheduled for release this summer, represents the final unreleased Tom Baker stuff, though reissued older titles are on their way also. This release is really more for special features buffs, but who among us isn’t one of those?

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  2. Anthony says:

    The way the bad guy walks in this is priceless. He’s got this shiney cape, and he walks like he’s on a fashion runway. I muted the video, and put on some techno music, and kept watching him walk like that while gut laughing. Worth it just for that. And well…a Dougie Adams story!