Doctor Who #710: Scream of the Shalka

"I'm a homeless person myself. It's the first thing I am."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. Animated webcast first "aired" on the BBCi website in 6 15-minute parts between Nov.13 and Dec.18 2003.

IN THIS ONE... Richard E. Grant is an animated 9th Doctor fighting alien lava worms who control people with their scream.

REVIEW: From what I understand, people didn't like this when it was webcast for Doctor Who's 40th Anniversary because there was worry and fear that all Whovians were ever going to get ever again was Flash animation. Those fears were laid less than two years later (less, from the time New Who was announced), so I hope now that Shalka is on DVD, fans will want to give it a second look. Because it's bloody good stuff! Now sure, the animation is relatively stiff and 2003's bandwidths require it to have regular still shots and fades to black, but for all that, it's got some neat action bits (the Doctor manifesting a TARDIS door as he falls into a black hole is pure Who) and an atmospheric look. Plus, Shalka is the direct ancestor of the animated Hartnell and Troughton episodes, and of Doc10's The Infinite Quest. It's a nice look, and I like that a lot of Who animation projects share it. But technical specs aside, look at the credits on this thing! Paul Cornell wrote it and it stars Richard E Grant, Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo, and cripes, DEREK JACOBI! The rest of the cast isn't half-bad either, and there's even an uncredited cameo by a young unknown called David Tennant!

If the monsters weren't so fantastic-looking, you could make this story in the live action series and it would work quite well. A town where no one dares make a peep because the downstairs neighbors, crusty volcanic worms living in lava, come and get them when they make too much noise. People taken over by the screams. A sequence where it's happening all over the world. And mysteries! Cornell builds his cast up in case the cartoon goes to series, with hints of what might later be revealed. This 9th Doctor is obviously being forced to intervene in situations by the Time Lords (kind of like Pertwee, just like the basic plot, and the animation provides an opening sequence that recalls that Doctor's Bunsen burner vortex), but because he's lost someone he cares about, he wish it could all be over. He's making himself not care. It's only through his meeting with Alison that he dares give a damn again. She's a young woman who kind of has Rose's style (and has a good claim to being the first non-white companion ever seen - the novels had them before this, of course) and who ends up leaving her boyfriend to travel with him. Sound familiar? Oddest of all is the Master as a Jarvis figure, his consciousness apparently housed in a sly, amusing evil but loyal, robot that can't leave the TARDIS. How did we arrive at this particular status quo? Cornell's series bible has some answers, but nothing that made it to (any kind of) screen. Though this is an aborted timeline, a lot of its elements wound up in the new series, including Derek Jacobi as the Master!

What surprises me most when watching Shalka is the tone. It balances really well the horror and the humor. The description of Alison's friend melting her hands and face off in lava, or the homeless lady dying, are good examples of the disturbing nature of the threat without going for onscreen gore. That's effective. But the comedy is where the story really shines. Cornell writes lots of one-liners, and most characters get at least one, with actors sometimes adding their own. Richard E. Grant as the Doctor is an outrageous snob and his bone-dry wit incredibly funny. The animation doesn't do him any favors though. I don't just mean the rather extreme vampiric look, but that the character is so deadpan that he's not always allowed a full range of expressions, which makes his face more stiff than it ought to be. He does warm up as the story progresses though, and gets a little more boisterous. The funniest character has to be Jacobi's Master though. He's clearly evil, but quick to change his tone when the Doctor shows up as if not allowed or willing to show that side of his character. I love the disdain he has for Alison as the latest in a long line of young girls adopted by his Time Lord rival. Alison herself has a sharp wit too, and knows what she's about. And you even get some fun out of the military types the Doctor dislikes so much, yet invariably counts among his friends ("Don't bully the monster!"). The animation goes with this and adds unscripted touches, like the TARDIS-shaped cell phone and Shalka doing double-takes and such. It does get a bit screamy when they're around, I'm afraid, but it IS written on the tin. Ultimately, I would have liked to see a few more stories of this, so it's a win.

The novelization doesn't feature any notable changes that I know of. The book also includes a Making of the webcast.

- An oddity, perhaps, but it looks very nice on a big screen TV and is at once a lot funnier and creepier than it's usually given credit for.


Randal said...

Have you read the story "The Feast of Stone" featuring this Doctor?

What could have been...

Siskoid said...

Haven't read it, but I did find the link researching the article. Cornell also had another story planned which was turned into an EcclesDoc story in his first Annual.

LiamKav said...

DWM shows the backstory for the ShalkaDoc which was given to potential writers, but which would never be mentioned on the show. If you've not read it, let me know and I'll dig it out.

I find it interesting that they went for the "start the Doctor off as moody and try and make him better as time goes on" approach. It didn't work for Colin Baker. Although I guess it did work for Eccleston, although it was more mild there.

Siskoid said...

Haven't seen it, no.

What didn't work for Colin (as part of a continuum and dreadfully executed) might well have worked when the property was a niche web thing for hungry fans years after the show's cancellation. An audience likely trained by the New Adventures to accept a darker take on the Doctor. I think that kind of arc works well over the 6 webisodes we did get.


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