Doctor Who #528: Shada Part 1

"Oh, undergraduates talking to each other, I expect. I've tried to have it banned."
TECHNICAL SPECS: Incomplete and unaired do to industrial action at the BBC, I'm watching the 1992 VHS reconstruction with Tom Baker narrating the gaps, a version recently released on DVD.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor and Romana visit a retired Time Lord, Professor Chronotis, who needs them to return an overdue library book.

REVIEW: I wasn't sure how I would handle poor incomplete Shada, but the DVD release made it easy. Some of the chapters are rather short (around 15 minutes), but Part 1 is nearly intact, only missing a couple of small scenes. In the 1992 VHS reconstruction the DVD showcases, the story is introduced - and then its missing scenes narrated - by an amalgam of Tom Baker and the Doctor (when has he been anything else?), walking through a Doctor Who monster exhibit and remembering. The intro has some flair and wit, but the narrative links are so brief, it's hard to gauge them or even process them. At one point, simple voice-over is used, after which the characters onscreen start asking about disembodied voices. Unintentionally amusing? But while the format has a way of transforming the story meta-textually, how IS Douglas Adams' last Doctor Who opus?

Quite like City of Death, actually, and I mean that as a compliment. Like City of Death, it starts with a puzzling sci-fi scene and skips to present-day Earth. Like City, the Time Lords are on vacation, enjoying a beautiful day, this time punting down a stream in Cambridge, throwing witticisms about. And most importantly, like City, all its story threads are wonderfully intriguing. What is this spaceship at the start, why does a single man (Skagra) wake up from a group and why does he leave with the floating ball that seemed to be mentally connecting them? What dangers lurk in a book written by Rassilon himself and long overdue to be returned to the libraries of Gallifrey? And what about Professor Chronotis? A retired Time Lord who's been teaching at Cambridge for 300 years without anyone noticing, now quite old and absent-minded, and whom the Doctor has been visiting since at least 1960 in some incarnation or another? What's his connection to the Doctor? Adams makes us ask such wonderful questions!

Much of the fun comes from Adams poking fun at the university culture, which completely justifies the presence of a guest Time Lord because Robert Holmes redesigned Gallifrey as massive university in The Deadly Assassin (also a spoof). This may be more personal, because Cambridge is Adams' alma mater. So we have unlimited tenure for professors, the faculty's attitude that college would be great if not for the students, and "dangerous books". Indeed, the plot to date seems entirely predicated on returning a library book! Working at a university as I do, all the jokes resonate, quite aside from the character of Chronotis, FINALLY a Time Lord who acts and sounds as eccentric as the Doctor and Romana. Name's bit on the nose though. Other nice touches include the Time Lords enjoying the simplicity of Newton's Laws in action and a countdown in Roman numerals. The music is a little oppressive in parts (it's a 1992 addition), and I can't hear the so-called voices (THIS piece of post-production is left unfinished!?), but those are small complaints.

VERSIONS: There are several alternate versions of this story which I will discuss at story's end.

- Sparkling dialog, a subtle take-down of university culture, intriguing mysteries... We're off to a great start. Shame about the industrial action.


snell said...

But late to the party here--busy week. Just wanted to note that City Of Death and (what we can see of) Shada demonstrate the the frustrating bit of the Adams/Williams reign. When Adams wrote, the style could work. But neither the other writers or directors on the rest of the season could get it right--or even understood it.

It's a fascinating phenomenon that what could have been a productive vision for the series ONLY worked in one author's hands. And perhaps an indictment for Adams/Williams trying to force others into that style when they clearly weren't suited for it?

Siskoid said...

Coupled with the fact that Adams was a rookie at the script editing job, that he had less and less time to devote to the work given Hitchhiker's increasing popularity, Tom Baker's increasing difficultness, and that Williams was reputedly "too nice", I think you're partly correct.

I don't know that they were trying to push a style on the writers necessarily, but it looks like those scripts suffered transformations by Adams or more usually Baker that introduced grave tonal problems and encouraged guest stars to send it up.


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