Way back in 2003, Doctor Who was a canceled series approaching its 40th anniversary with little fanfare. In order to highlight the big year, the BBC developed an animated web series called Scream of the Shalka, which was presented in six short parts. While originally intended to introduce audiences to the Ninth Doctor (Richard E. Grant, The Crimson Petal and the White), who could go on for many more stories, the announcement of the 2005 reboot series thwarted much of those rumored plans. Now, that stand-alone, non-cannon adventure has been released on DVD.
The Ninth Doctor in Scream of the Shalka is not the same one that Christopher Eccleston brought to life. This version is darker, in fact, something I would not have expected, and a lot less humorous. He travels with an android version of The Master (Derek Jacobi, Last Tango in Halifax), having long ago shunned human contact. Unfortunately for this reclusive Doctor, the TARDIS drops him back on Earth in the midst of a crisis and refuses to let him leave.
The main story of Scream of the Shalka involves lava-loving monsters, the Shalka, that take over people’s brains and make them scream in such a way that it destroys the planet. Apparently, they are widespread across the galaxy, but only emerge from hiding to attack when a planet is near death, which this special surmises ours is, given the environmental conditions.
The Doctor tries to stay out of things and pawn this emergency off on UNIT, but it doesn’t take much for him to befriend a bold barmaid named Alison Cheney (Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda), thus giving the Doctor some skin in the game. Begrudgingly, he agrees to help save the day.
This Doctor is an intriguing creation. He has a lot of mysterious back story and baggage. Why doesn’t he want companionship any more? Why has he embraced the machine over men? Where has he been? What forces him to return to the public eye? How much of his personality might influence the versions that followed? After all, he’s more similar to the Doctors that can after than before him. It’s a little disappointing these questions are not explored in depth, since this version of the iconic character is not followed up on, other than in a short story, and goes unacknowledged in the modern continuation.
When Scream of the Shalka was released, some reviewers complained about Grant’s disconnect from the material, and the man behind the reboot, Russell T. Davies, says he never even considered using Grant of this version of the Doctor when developing the show. Yet, for the modern viewer, the challenge may be seeing Grant as a hero, since he currently portrays a villain in the current Doctor Who series. Either way, this serial doesn’t quite land as it should.
There are also pacing and originality issues. It plods through the beginning, only later picking up and getting exciting. The plot itself is pretty standard for a Doctor Who tale, other than the little bit that involves the Doctor’s mythology, and the story won’t stand out in the history of the series. Thus, though it is a bold experiment, and many will appreciate it finally getting a DVD release, it isn’t one fans are eagerly anticipating, either.
A few connections to newer Doctor Who episodes do add a little bit to the enjoyment factor. Jacobi not only plays the Master in Scream of the Shalka, but also in the episode “Utopia,” before the Master regenerates into a new body. David Tennant, who is later cast as the Tenth Doctor, makes a small cameo. And Okonedo takes the role of Queen Elizabeth X in a pair of Eleventh Doctor episodes.
The special features on this two-disc release are plentiful. Of course there’s an audio commentary and photo gallery, as well as a production note subtitle option. Also included is a half-hour “Making Of,” the soundtrack album, actor and direction interviews, and a featurette about the BBC’s website and the part Doctor Who serves in that. Among those who participate in the extras is Davies himself.
Scream of the Shalka may not be the best bit of Doctor Who ever made, but it is a unique curiosity for fans to appreciate.
Doctor Who – Scream of the Shalka is available now.