Appellate Judge James A. Stewart has been reviewing DVDs for 300 years.
"When you get to my age, you'll find that time doesn't matter too much."—Professor Chronotis
The first time heard about Doctor Who was in a blurb on the back of a paperback. I loved Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and its author, Douglas Adams, had been a writer and story editor for the British science-fiction show. I eventually caught up to the series and liked it.
At the same time, though, I've noticed that its most famous alum is an irreverent parodist who casts a long shadow over the series—and not just when David Tennant's Doctor recognizes himself as Arthur Dent when emerging from regeneration. There was comedy in Doctor Who before Adams. Yes, I really believe the Autons were a put-on that everyone took seriously, even though I don't expect anyone involved will ever admit it. But it's not surprising that the current writing team would feel they must infuse the show with a hefty dose of humor, if potential viewers might still learn about the series through a Douglas Adams' blurb.
Oddly, one of Adams' claims to Doctor Who fame is a serial that never aired, entitled "Shada." I've heard the audio version of this story arc with Paul McGann as The Doctor, and I've read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency which reused Adams' plot, so I'm familiar with the story, as many of you undoubtedly are. Still, I couldn't resist a serial that was never transmitted, which is one of the reasons I watch Doctor Who in the first place.
Doctor Who: Shada contains what was filmed (a lot of studio work was canceled because of a 1979 strike at the BBC), with narration by Tom Baker to fill in the gaps. As with many of the BBC's Doctor Who classic series releases, the disc also holds a lot of extras, some of which even have something to do with "Shada."
Facts of the Case
"Doctor Who is at its best when the humor and the drama work together," Douglas Adams says in the documentary, More than 30 Years in the TARDIS. Elsewhere it's mentioned that Adams wasn't overjoyed with his work on "Shada" and was reluctant to have it pieced together on VHS back in 1992.
It's hard to tell, but I'm guessing his reticence is because "Shada" tilts the balance toward humor. No one at Cambridge has noticed that Chronotis has been teaching for 300 years, Skagra's main weapon is a floating ball that looks like a spoofy nod to Rover on The Prisoner, and the story gets farcical at times, as when the Doctor passes Parsons—the man he's trying to track down—without even noticing. The plot relies on more than the usual allotment of coincidence and luck; the Doctor drops the book without realizing it during a chase, and Chris Parsons, having never set foot in the TARDIS, pops in and out with its medical pack.
Of course, if you look beyond the surface, there's something in "Shada" that makes it a little deeper than you might think at first glance. Like many a modern Doctor Who story, the plot seems to be a McGuffin. What's really supposed to sink in is that Chronotis is a Time Lord on the outs, with parallels to The Doctor (Tom Baker reads a scripted exchange between The Doctor and Romana at the end which emphasizes that point, although the info text suggests the ending was still in flux). He even recruits Clare, Parsons' girlfriend, as a companion to help stop Skagra.
Interestingly, there's a scene between Chronotis and Clare which echoes one of the current Doctor's abilities. Chronotis, tired of trying to explain what's going on, imparts the knowledge directly into Clare's brain. It's not a power Tom Baker's Doctor has, which he notes, but Matt Smith's Doctor does have a way of doing just that. There's also a bit in which we learn that Gallifreyans can speak from the heart—literally. Romana can understand when Chronotis, unable to speak, talks through his heartbeat.
Doctor Who: Shada may have a lot of missing scenes—including scenes in the TARDIS, on Skagra's ship, and in the Time Prison—and its special effects (many created for the 1992 release) are rougher than usual, but no one can say this release is light on extras. There's info text that tells us Tom Baker's presence in "The Five Doctors" was taken from "Shada," and that the first Doctor Who convention in the United States was held during this arc's choppy production. The filming—including Tom Baker recalling how the students laughed at that idiot punting badly (over and over again, thanks to retakes) on the Thames—is discussed in "Taken Out of Time." There's also a history of labor actions at the BBC and ITV (which was off the air for a while in 1979) in "Strike! Strike! Strike!" There's a "Now & Then" segment which shows Cambridge locations which haven't changed all that much since 1979. I couldn't get my computer to play the animated version of "Shada," but I think it's that Paul McGann audio version, with pictures. A photo gallery rounds out the "Shada"-related extras.
The rest of the extras in this three-disc set don't have much to do with "Shada," but they are admittedly entertaining. Chief among them is More than 30 Years in the TARDIS, a documentary which uses a lot of humor to illustrate the history and cultural impact of the original series. Daleks and Cybermen follow actors and key personnel around as they talk about the series. Commercials for computers and popsicles break up the topics. Interestingly, the two actresses from the movies with Peter Cushing are included along with Doctor Who stars ranging from Carole Ann Ford (the Doctor's granddaughter Susan, who appeared in the first episode) and Sophie Aldred (Ace, the last companion). Gerry Anderson (the recently deceased creator of shows including Thunderbirds, Space: 1999, and Space Precinct) tells viewers that his own son claims Doctor Who as his favorite SF show. There's a photo gallery for the documentary as well.
Women involved with the series are featured prominently here. There's part of an interview with Verity Lambert, the show's first producer; she talks about getting the job and the less-than-auspicious start to the series that was soon redeemed by Daleks. "Being a Girl," narrated by Louise Jameson, unveils clips of women companions, notes that female companions still tend to leave the TARDIS for romance, and asks the "Will there ever be a female Doctor?" question. "Those Deadly Divas" features actresses (Kate O'Mara, Camille Coduri, and Tracy Ann Oberman) from both eras of Doctor Who discussing female villains and the occasional otherworldly posessions of companions. Lambert gets the set's Easter egg, a clip of director Richard Martin remembering her; it's on Disc Three's menu, top right.
If that's not enough, there's the last interview with the late Nicholas Courtney and an interview with Peter Purves, a William Hartnell companion who later did a lot of Doctor Who-related segments as co-host of Blue Peter, the children's show that Paddington Bear liked.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Let's face it. This is an incomplete Doctor Who serial. Tom Baker does a good job of narrating the missing action, but they're still missing—and Doctor Who was still a cliffhanger back in 1979. If you're not big on Douglas Adams, you might prefer some moody monochromatic Patrick Troughton stories.
Two goodies I'd have loved to have seen in a Doctor Who DVD package were mentioned in the extras, but not included: two radio dramas with Jon Pertwee and a Dalek comic strip. I'm drooling just thinking about them.
Doctor Who: Shada actually seems to be a better example of Douglas Adams' early work than of vintage Doctor Who. If you're a fan of Adams, you've got to see it, whether you've followed the Doctor's adventures or not. If you're a Whovian who hasn't read Adams, it's still a decent adventure with a few elements that carry over into the current series, and a great introduction to Adams' humor.
I'm off to celebrate May Week 2012, so Not Guilty.
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