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DVD Review: Doctor Who – Shada

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The “Shada” story on Doctor Who is an exceptionally special Who tale.   Actually, to be more precise, it isn’t necessarily the story that is special, it is the story surrounding the story which makes it so important.

“Shada” was written by Douglas Adams and was meant to close out season 17 (1979-1980) of the original who series and features Tom Baker as the Doctor and Lalla Ward as his companion, Romana.  However, due to production strikes, filming was never completed on “Shada.”  The story was eventually released to VHS in 1992 and features Baker reminiscing on the story and providing some voiceover to connect the filmed bits together (most of the original filming seems to have taken place).  “Shada” has also been turned into an audio drama with the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) stepping in for the Fourth (an animated Flash version of this story is included as a bonus feature).

The January 2013 DVD release is the 1992 VHS version along with two discs worth of supplemental material including—outside of the Eighth Doctor “Shada”—the  very good feature-length documentary, More than 30 Years in the TARDIS, which tells the tale of the series as a whole.  There is also a bonus feature on other worker strikes that impacted the production of the original series.  And more, but we’ll discuss some of that later.

So, after that buildup, what is “Shada” all about?

The story features the Doctor and Romana going to then present-day England (1979), in order to have the Doctor visit a professor at Cambridge.  The Doctor, it seems, has gotten a distress call from the Professor,  who is named Chronotis and who is actually a retired Time Lord (played by Denis Carey).  There is also, quite naturally, an evil alien present.  This villain is a humanoid named Skagra (Christopher Neame) who has designs on conquering the universe and to do this, he needs Chronotis’ knowledge of where the Time Lord prison planet, Shada, is located. 

Wow, okay, so it doesn’t sound like the greatest of stories, or rather it sounds eerily similar to any number of other Doctor Who stories, but the truth is that it is really quite good.  Baker is in top form as the Doctor, and Ward is always fun as Romana.  However, it is Carey who steals the show as Chronotis.  Chronotis is a bumbling old Time Lord who can’t quite remember what he is doing and why.  The story has the sort of whimsy one generally attributes to Douglas Adams and Chronotis’ appearance and bumbling but ridiculously smart nature is the exact same type of character that Adams fans will be familiar with in the form of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s Slartibartfast (or with Dirk Gently‘s Chronotis, but that’s cheating because he’s more or less the same character as the one in “Shada”).

In short, “Shada” is an intriguing little bit of Who, one with interesting characters, great acting, and the sort of Adams whimsy that pleases so many.  That being said, I have a little bit of trouble imagining that many people out there will be interested in “Shada” with its status as being incomplete, but Whovians will really enjoy getting to watch the unaired broadcast. 

For my money, the 2003 radio drama (the McGann one) is, perhaps, more enjoyable and its inclusion here as a Flash series is just brilliant.  I wish that it were in mp3 (or similar) format so that it could be added to an iPod for listening to at one’s leisure, but even as a necessarily computer-based activity it is still well worth one’s time.

As should be obvious, and in similar fashion to other Doctor Who DVD releases, the BBC hasn’t skimped on the extras in addition to the above are several other featurettes include a particularly interesting one on the representation of women in Doctor Who and how it has changed (or not) through the years.  Rather than adding my own analysis here (it would be the subject of a terribly long and rather scholarly piece), I shall simply point out that it exists and that it opens the door to a larger conversation, one that cannot possibly be held in the 29 minute runtime of the featurette.  Interestingly, another included featurette is on some Doctor Who diva characters (make of that what you will). 

Doctor Who – Shada makes a great DVD release because it doesn’t just offer up an interesting story from the series, although it does do that.  Rather, it makes a great release because it provides more than the usual look inside the series’ production.  The addition of another take on “Shada” merely seals the deal, making this an absolute must have for fans of the classic series.  

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.