Thursday, January 24, 2013

Doctor Who: Shada with More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS DVD review

The first classic Doctor Who DVD release of the year will appeal mostly to the hardcore fan and collector. This three-disc set features “Shada,” the almost preposterously infamous unfinished Season 17 serial starring Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, alongside the 1993 30th Anniversary documentary, “More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS.” Also enclosed is quite the array of documentaries and interviews, yet by the time you’re finished, the entire collection really just feels like three discs worth of extras. Now, if you’re into classic Who DVD extras, this set is prime fodder for you. If not, it’s little more than an extensive collection of bits and bobs that will likely hold zero appeal for those who’ve no interest in such minutiae. Now that we’ve got that sorted out, you can stick with me or move on.

Due to an industrial strike, only about half of the early-1980 six-episode “Shada” was completed. No doubt a big reason so much mystique surrounds the story – which centers on a powerful Gallifreyan book and a lost prison planet of the Time Lords - is because it was written by then-script editor Douglas Adams. It was a hasty contribution to the season after another story fell through, and Adams allegedly had no great love for it, though he did reuse some elements of it in his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

The existing footage of “Shada” languished until 1983, when Tom Baker decided not to take part in “The Five Doctors,” at which point producer John Nathan-Turner (with Baker’s permission) used several scenes of the Fourth Doctor and Romana in the special. For years this was all of “Shada” that was available for public consumption. Finally, in 1992, JN-T brought what exists of “Shada” to VHS, along with a score by Keff McCulloch, some appropriately low-fi effects work, and Baker himself providing linking narration for the parts that did not exist. This program is the main feature on this DVD, “newly restored from original film negatives and studio recordings” (per the back of the set).

The concept works pretty well for the first couple episodes - much of which takes place and was filmed in Cambridge, and that footage is an absolute delight. But as the tale moves forward, the enterprise becomes increasingly clumsy, and certainly by the time one gets to the last couple of episodes it no longer works as much of anything but an uneven document of what might have been. Now if only this presentation were the final word on “Shada,” I could stop here.

The Whovian fascination with “Shada” never truly waned, which is rather understandable given how unsatisfying the VHS version was. A flash animated webcast produced by Big Finish and retconned to feature Eighth Doctor Paul McGann, alongside Ward and John Leeson as K-9, was released in 2003. It, too, is present on Disc One of this set, though it can only be viewed on computer, which is a mild shame for those of us who hate viewing programs on our PCs (granted, I am probably in the minority). The animation is extremely clunky insofar as its movement goes, though the pictures can be pretty at times. Some may find it almost as limiting as viewing the VHS version. This version is also available as an audio play through Big Finish.

Fan freak Ian Levine has since funded a full-blown animated version of “Shada,” though who knows when and where that will see the light of day. It’s a shame it isn’t part of this DVD, but given Levine’s prickly reputation, it’s anyone’s guess what hoops he’d have made the BBC jump through to include it (snarky speculation on my part - nothing more). And then, finally, there’s the official novelization written by Gareth Roberts, which was released a year ago, and was followed by an audio book read by Ward. There are all sorts of ways for the Doctor Who fan to imbibe in “Shada,” and this DVD presents two of them. Also present on Disc One is a trailer for the upcoming DVD release of “The Reign of Terror” (though curiously sans any bits of the animation that's been created to complete its visuals), and the production notes subtitle option for the VHS version of “Shada.” There is no commentary track.

Still from the flash animated McGann "Shada"
Moving on to Disc Two, which features a 25-minute documentary devoted to the tragic non-production of the serial, entitled “Taken Out of Time,” which features interviews with Baker and director Pennant Roberts among others. Another fascinating doc, entitled “Strike! Strike! Strike!” (27 min.), details the numerous times Doctor Who, as well as some other BBC programs, have been affected by strikes over the years. “Now and Then” is the now familiar location report, this time on “Shada” (it’s somewhat reassuring to see how little has changed at all the Cambridge locations). “Being a Girl” is a half-hour look at how women are represented in the series (really, this thing could have been three times as long and still not said everything). There’s also a 10 minute photo gallery from “Shada.”

For many, though, it’ll be Disc Three that shines brightest, as it contains “More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS,” a 90-minute doc that’s whimsically nostalgic magic works as well today as it did 20 years ago. Written and directed by a guy named Kevin Davies, this thing soars, and absolutely deserves to be seen and imbibed in at some point during Who’s 50th Anniversary year. The BBC is said to be producing a new documentary celebrating 50 years, however it cannot be narrated by Nicholas Courtney, as this one is, and Lis Sladen and Jon Pertwee cannot take part as they do here. This is a lovely, well-rounded piece, loaded with clips from all eras of the classic series, and featuring opinions and thoughts from a wide variety of classic Who talent, all wrapped around a storyline (of sorts) of a young boy exploring and being affected by the many worlds and aspects of Who.

Additionally, Disc Three features unrelated interviews with Peter Purves and Verity Lambert, as well as Nick Courtney’s final interview (26 min.), which is just about perfect and features a surprise guest. For the Brig fans out there, this one’s a keeper. A doc called “Those Deadly Divas” plays well alongside the “Being a Girl” doc from Disc Two; this one focuses on the darker sides of women in Who, and features interviews with Kate O’Mara, Camille Coduri, and Tracy-Ann Oberman along with Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman. Lastly, there’s a photo gallery of behind the scenes shots from the “More Than…” documentary.