The Rise, Mystique, and Re-Release of “Shada.”

To say that Doctor Who has developed a huge following is an understatement. Whether you’re a fan of the British sci-fi series or not is irrelevant. The fact remains that this series arguably has a bigger international appeal than ever. Then there are some episodes that also acquire a cult like status, and probably the one that has it the most is the episode “Shada.”

In Season 17 of the series, which would have been the 6thyear with Tom Baker starring as the traveling Time Lord, there was a plan to conclude that particular round of episodes with another Douglas Adams story (who had already penned a number of episodes, the two most popular being “The Pirate Planet” and “City Of Death”) that would deal with a Time Lord criminal (apart from the Master) with a secret. He knows where a high security prison constructed by the Time Lords, called Shada, is located and an insane genius named Skagra also wants to know where Shada is. All he doesn’t know is where this criminal Time Lord is hiding. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Romana appear to be enjoying a brief holiday on Earth at present day Cambridge (much of this initial photography was used in the 20thAnniversary episode “The Five Doctors”), and he’s there because a professor friend of his named Chronotis summoned him. Meanwhile, Chronotis has loaned out a very special book to one of his students by mistake, and now the professor wants it back because it turns out he is that Time Lord that Skagra is looking for, and the book cannot fall into the wrong hands.

That is the synopsis of “Shada,” but unfortunately it was never completed due to a strike at the BBC. Even after the strike was resolved the filming logistics never allowed for this story to be completed, and given Douglas Adams’ popularity as a writer, fans had been clamoring to see this episode in its entirety. The sheer fact that it had not been finished gave this episode an almost legendary status, only to have that fire fueled when Tom Baker’s and Lalla Ward’s opening sequence in the episode was used elsewhere. Die-hard fans wanted to see this story done. What resulted were a series of attempts at the completed telling of “Shada,” ranging from just narration over production stills to fill in the missing gaps, to a video of Tom Baker actually telling the story intermixed with the still existing footage. There was even an oddly animated version by Big Finish that used Flash imagery, with additional scenery using Paul McGann as the Doctor as he visits the Time Lord home world of Gallifrey, and Romana (Lalla Ward) is now the President of the High Council, and together they must discover what happened to the Doctor’s memory during his time on Earth involving Chronotis.

With all of these different attempts none of them seemed to satisfy the lust that fans were experiencing at getting the completed story they desperately wanted. Then, a few years ago, an animation team began tackling some of the older Doctor Who serials that had missing episodes by taking the existing studio audio tracks (which had been preserved) and simply animated the missing story elements. This has proven enormously successful and in 2017 took on “Shada.” However, because the episode was never completed that meant having to go back into a recording studio and finish some of the dialogue. This also meant that some of the story had to be adapted and altered in some ways to make this work, but ultimately a new version was released with the original cast, most notably Baker, Ward, and Christopher Neame as Skagra.

Ultimately “Shada” is not one of Adams’ best works. It’s a convoluted story that is at times difficult to follow. Much of this stems from having to write “Shada” as a last minute serial for this season of the show. Adams had a different story that he wanted to write to wrap up season 17, but the show producer Graham Williams wouldn’t allow it, thus “Shada” was born. Having seen many of the previous attempts at completing the story I walked away believing that this was a serial that should probably be best left alone. Then I learned of this most recent revival, with the animation and the original talent, so I purchased it on iTunes and Keith and I watched it. It was surprisingly not bad. It doesn’t have the zing that either “The Pirate Planet” or “City of Death” has, but this latest telling of the story is unquestionably the best effort yet. Having the original cast come back to finish the dialogue for the episode certainly helps, and the animation, despite being very stylistic, does help to present a better narrative. Basically, while the story is still murky, this version actually manages to make some sense of the episode and for the first time I actually found myself enjoying it.

If you are a Doctor Who completist, but have not cared for the previous “Shada” releases, then get this one. While the voices may have aged for the animation sequences, the energy levels are still there, especially on the part of both Baker and Ward. They easily fell back into their classic roles (no doubt having played them for Big Finish audio over the last several years has helped) and to see it blend in with the surviving footage makes this re-release of “Shada” a worthy piece to be added to the Doctor Who collection!

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