Shada by Douglas Adams

Few stories continue to present so many obstacles for the fan who likes a quiet life as Shada. What was originally planned as a rip roaring finale to the comedic seventeenth season has turned into a minefield because of one word – canon. "Canon" is the term used by fans to decide what "is" and what "isn’t" Doctor Who. Anything can have the diamond logo slapped on it and call itself "Doctor Who" so it falls to the viewers, readers, listeners and buyers to construct their own definition and, by extension, attempt to impose it on everyone else via the flame-hot medium of the internet.

Shada causes so many headaches – rarely has so much mind bending been caused by so little. The original story was, for those unfamiliar, halted mid-way through production by industrial action at the BBC. Attempts to restart the following year were unsuccessful and so it sat, incomplete, in the vaults until the early 1990s. A couple of clips were revived for "The Five Doctors" and constituted "new" Tom Baker material for that story (thereby contributing to the argument that Shada is "real" because parts of it feature in a "real" story). John Nathan Turner persuaded Tom to record some links in order that the unrecorded segments be somehow replaced and thereby allow the story to make some kind of sense. Although it is rare for Tom Baker be brought in to clarify anything. Baker, then well on his way, wouldn’t wear even the mildest costume and instead wore a formidable suit. But he still performed in the first person which made the whole thing very strange indeed. Think Derek Acorah channelling the spirit of a dead guy on Living TV’s "Most Haunted".

Ok, so far I’ve waffled on for two paragraphs in an Audio section without ever mentioning the aural medium. I have a point – don’t rush me.

The 1990s version of Shada is a bit of a hotch potch – anachronistic music, cheap video effects, Tom’s bizarre narration and the unfortunate petering out of material as we reach the last third of the story. It has a running time of over 100 minutes (50 minutes less than it would’ve had were it complete) and much of that is repetition and credits. Sidebar, JNT’s name is missing from the credits even though he was an underling on the series at that time. Modesty or an erasing of his junior past?

Should Shada be released on DVD? The video is difficult, but not impossible, to find. Were it released on DVD, should it be the VHS version or should the Restoration Team make use of the modern facilities at their disposal to create a new version? Can "Shada" be canon but the Tom Baker video not be canon? And if there were a new DVD version, would that be canon? Is it really worth trying to make Shada good when it doesn’t really give any indication from the surviving footage that it wanted to be good?

And so we get to the main point – and the reason for this essay being here. In 2003 Big Finish productions joined forces with the BBC website – then a producer of original webcast material – to produce an entirely new version of Shada. Tom Baker, now very much on his way, wouldn’t join in so they got the next best thing – Paul McGann. Gary Russell was chosen to adapt Douglas Adams’ scripts for the new format. Adams, always Shada’s biggest selling point as he is probably the most successful person ever to work on the series, was not the most disciplined writer and Russell faced the unenviable task of reworking the scripts without setting himself up as "the man who thought he could improve Douglas Adams". The framing device which allowed the story to pop its head through the Doctor Who door and say "I’m here – please accept me" was a work of genius. Taking the Five Doctors element into account Russell contrived to say that the timescoop used by Borusa took the Fourth Doctor and Romana out of time so the events of Shada (1979) didn’t happen. But the web of time insists they have to happen so the Eighth Doctor (and President Romana) have to go to Cambridge (1979) and sort things out. Skagra has been chomping on the bit and wants to get on with his web of mayhem and intrigue.

McGann is a long way from Tom Baker but that isn’t necessarily to the audio version’s detriment. While Tom would dominate the screen, dominating an audio play to the same degree would make it almost impossible to listen to. McGann’s performance is more low key and answers a long standing question posed by those that don’t like the Williams/Adams/Baker version of Doctor Who. Could the scripts work differently under a different regime or are they terminal cases which can only be performed in a pantomimic way? Personally, I would’ve liked to have seen Meglos and Nightmare of Eden swap seasons as the former was dismal when played straight and the latter would’ve benefited more had the underlying drug addiction theme not been played for laughs.

Overall, the Shada experiment was a good one on many levels even if it will end up being forgotten. The cast may have been variable, the animation may never be released, it may create continuity headaches which would tax even someone versed in those book things which rewrite history at the drop of a hat and it may not be the best script ever written but the BBC webcasts were a short lived period of experimentation and that is to be cherished. Death Comes to Time may have been bizarre, Scream of the Shalka may have become a regenerational cul-de-sac and Shada may have been a convoluted and sometimes badly acted (stand up Chris McParsons) but none were less than enjoyable.

Retcon made it possible to explain how Shada could happen twice. I wonder if all the retcon in the world (or in Gary Russell’s head, whichever is the larger) could rationalise Death Comes to Time?