Mark Sachs (ksleet) wrote,
Mark Sachs

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Shada? It rings a bell...

"Why would anybody want to take over the Universe? It's a troublesome place, difficult to administer, and as a piece of real estate it's worthless because by definition there'd be no one to sell it to."

Right, so I mentioned I had obtained the Shada Doctor Who recording from Big Finish, and gave it a listen. Here are my thoughts on the subject (and a sloppy cartoon.)

Shada is, or at least was at one point, the most famous "lost" Doctor Who story. It wasn't lost because of the BBC's disturbing habits of taping over old Patrick Troughton episodes whenever they wanted to record Coronation Street, but instead because of a strike in the middle of production that essentially wrecked the shooting schedule -- only about a third of the six-part show was ever filmed. As it goes with most things people are not allowed to have, Shada passed into legend as potentially one of the best stories ever, not least because it was one of the few episodes directly written by Douglas Adams during his time working with Doctor Who.

We now have Shada, of course, or at least as much as we're likely to ever get. The BBC produced a special version on video tape a few years back, with Tom Baker narrating the missing chunks of the story, and more recently Big Finish recorded a new version starring Paul McGann as the Doctor. So anybody who wants to experience Shada now can do so with great ease.

The conclusion is... Well, unsurprisingly, the conclusion is that while Shada is decent it's not that spectacular. While the script does move along relatively efficiently for a six-episode serial, there is still an awful lot of rushing back and forth as the Doctor, Romana, and a few bewildered Cambridge students try to figure out the goals of the enigmatic villain, Skagra, and just who or what "Shada" really is. The first half of the story does a great job of building the mystery which the second half doesn't quite manage to live up to -- the actual explanation of who Skagra really was is a trivial aside at the end of the story, and the horde of "Krarg" creatures he employs really don't fit into the plot very well at all. Still, there are some good lines and clever ideas (recognizing this, Adams borrowed the first half of Shada and glued it to the second half of City of Death to produce Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency sometime later) so Shada would have slotted nicely in with the rest of that season of Doctor Who.

As for the audio production, that has its own quirks. One issue is that Shada is a very visual story, with the Krargs and a wide variety of locations across Cambridge and outer space; the audio production has a hard time creating a sense of place without us being able to actually see where things are going on. I don't know if this is a general issue with Big Finish recordings or not, of course, having only heard this one. The second and possibly more serious issue is that this was originally written as a Tom Baker story, not a Paul McGann story, so he feels odd in the role. My only experience with McGann is from the old Fox TV movie, but I recall him being a rather quiet, thoughtful, sympathetic, and somewhat gothic Doctor. Baker's Doctor by contrast was a huge, intimidating character whose air of good cheer and friendliness was excellent at throwing people off guard so they didn't realize how brutally condescending he was being to them. They really couldn't be more different, so it's odd to hear dialogue I'd associate with Tom Baker's Doctor coming from Paul McGann's.

Another problem is kind of related: they've made an effort to slot the re-recorded Shada into Big Finish's chronology. At the beginning of the story, the Doctor arrives on Gallifrey and badgers Romana -- who is now Lady President -- to come with him to Cambridge and get this mysterious Shada thing straightened out once and for all. It's an amusing start, but it just doesn't fit in with the rest of the story; events and conversations that made sense when Romana was just a newbie Time Lady, enthusiastic yet a bit naive in the ways of the universe and a nobody back on her homeworld, don't quite add up when she is the President of Gallifrey. (Trivial example: It's traditional for villains to go around randomly kidnapping the Doctor's companion(s). It's hard to accept treatment of that as a minor plot point when the Doctor's companion is the President.) Thus the comic. Paul McGann is surprisingly easy to draw, incidentally!

So in the end, what's my rating? Seeing Paul McGann and Lalla Ward back in action gets an "Awesome." The story and production quality itself earn an "eh." I suppose I should give Big Finish another chance, though. I've heard some of the Colin Baker stories are really good. Anyone out there experienced any other Big Finish recordings they'd like to recommend?

I've tried to cruise Doctor Who podcasts for Big Finish reviews, by the way. Oddly, though, every time a podcaster starts talking about Big Finish they seem to come down with a horrible case of laryngitis that makes their program impossible to listen to.
Tags: art, comics, media, nerd
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