Oh I do love the spring. All the leaves, the colours.
Cambridge is an amazing place. When I was a teenager I stayed in one of the colleges for a few days, one summer, with a view to possibly studying there. I never did, but I always retained a fondness for the place. One morning I got up ridiculously early and just walked around Cambridge for a few hours as the sun came up and the milkmen were delivering, taking in the scale, history and architectural beauty of the place. Some friends and I skipped off a lecture on our last day to go punting on the Cam. When I say punting, I did my best just to stay afloat while my friends wobbled around taking turns with the pole as we meandered from one side of the river to the other, trying not to crash into the banks and other people. We didn’t need to hear mysterious voices in order to do a bad job of it.
A? A? B? B? C? Cambridge… Cedd’s College, Chris, Claire, Chronotis, Chattanooga Choo Choo, won’t you choo choo me home?
The location filming for Shada goes some way to capturing the magic of Cambridge: the beauty of the Cam, that wonderful sequence with the Doctor cycling around, the male voice choir singing Chattanooga Choo Choo (love that song). Living there is Chronotis, who is a pseudo-Doctor character, functioning as a foreshadowing of what the Doctor might become. At this stage in Doctor Who, the Doctor is rarely a famous mythical figure in the universe, whose name alone sends the monsters running. That would all come later, but Salyavin is the inspiration. He is the Doctor’s childhood hero, now retired to live a quiet life as a professor. Post-2005 Doctor Who takes a lot from this, and in The Pilot the Doctor finally takes on the life of a professor in a university. Note also how Chronotis is at the end of his cycle of regenerations, but finds a way to cheat. Like the Doctor, he is too good a character to end there. Douglas Adams had planned to kill him off, but some legends refuse to die, and Chronotis took on a life of his own.
With just one Time Lord and some well-written scripts, we are right back to where we were in The Deadly Assassin: the Time Lords as mysterious figures with dark, scary secrets, in the guise of bumbling erudite types.
Q? Q? R? R? S? Skagra, Salyavin, Shada. Naming by alphabet. That happens a lot in sci-fi and fantasy. Names have power. Slytherin, Snape, Smellfoy. Harry, Hermione, Hron, Humbledore. No, it’s not quite right. Always a piece that doesn’t fit.
Shada has always remained frustratingly just out of our reach. Like the black and white era of Doctor Who, we can see a lot, but never the whole picture. Luckily, the location filming was always going to be the best part of the story. If only part of Shada was destined to be filmed, we got a pretty good deal. It may be that everyone would have knocked it out of the park with the scenes set on Shada, but it was more likely to be anticlimactic; the idea of a Time Lord prison is compelling and frightening, but much like the Time War it’s probably something that’s best left to the imagination. I suspect it would have ended up looking not much scarier than the prison cells in The Stones of Blood. The Krargs, on the other hand, are a great bit of monster design, the best of the season, so it would have been good to see more of them.
Like many fans, my first experience of Shada was the VHS release, with linking narration by Tom Baker. The animation has now taken its place, and it’s magnificent. I was expecting the mix of live action and animation to be terribly jarring, but the first time it happens the camera pans up to the sky from the live action and then pans down again, and we’re in the animated world of Shada. Genius. The new music takes some getting used to, simply because the music for the VHS release has become so familiar that hearing something different going on feels wrong, but when you get used to the change it is actually a wonderful effort, highly reminiscent of the work of Dudley Simpson. It is perhaps a little too derivative of City of Death, but it hits that nostalgia spot that grounds it perfectly within the era. As for the ending, well, why not finish Shada by smashing right through the fourth wall?
W? W? X? X? Y? Young! Young Tom Baker, back to complete Shada. Young Cambridge, full of youthful enthusiasm in ancient surroundings.
Oh I do love the autumn. All the leaves, the colours.
We might just have our last word on Shada, the final completion of the jigsaw. But seasons change. We move on. RP
The view from across the pond:
I’m going to say something that might be controversial: I think the Dirk Gently books are superior to Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide Books. This isn’t a slight against the Guide, mere a statement that I think the Dirk Gently books are stronger. Where does one come up with the ideas in a story like Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency? Well, perhaps in the prison planet of Shada. While Dirk might be unique to his universe, Professor Chronotis is not and honestly, Chronotis is Shada.
Let’s first say, it’s a tragic shame that Shada was never completed. Let’s go on to say that it’s a horror that the US still hasn’t released the recently created Shada with animated footage, because I could have watched that and added it to what I’m talking about now. Typical, I say! However, back in the 90’s they released it with the great Tom Baker narrating the missing bits to give us some context about what was going on. Launching into it with his calling out of “Shada… Shadaaa…. Shadaaaaaaaaaaaa”, the story begins and it’s a lot of fun. This is mostly due to the location footage and more importantly, some truly memorable characters.
For me, Chronotis is the biggest draw to the story. He is absent-minded and absolutely hilarious. I think the idea of beating out a message using your heart to create Morse code was a bit rubbish, but every other moment with this character is magnificent. When I read Dirk Gently, I realized so much was lifted right out of Shada, but you know what? Who cares! Anything for more of Chronotis. And there’s no end to the fun we have with this character.
Meanwhile Skagra is one of those fantastic villains that you’ve just got to love. He dresses in the most awful fashions, going from reasonably modern to over the top eccentric on a moment’s notice. This causes the Doctor to give one of his finest retorts to any villain, ever:
Skagra: Doctor, you will give to me everything that you have in your mind. Your mind shall be mine.
Doctor: I’m not mad about your tailor.
Skagra is looking for the Time Lord named Salyavin. With Salyavin’s help, he will be able to take over the minds of all of humanity. This has to make one question: why? Why would any villain think taking over the minds of everyone on a primitive planet would be a good idea! Ok, it’s one of those “it doesn’t make sense” moments, but it still leads to a wonderfully comical story.
Chris Parsons, I imagine was the inspiration for Dirk, or more likely, Dirk’s friend McDuff. The Doctor is probably the de facto Dirk while Parsons has to ask all the questions that we, the audience, are thinking. Still, there’s a scene when he goes to visit the Professor which sums up how utterly brillaint Douglas Adams’ writing was. While off screen, the Professor is making tea while Chris, who wants to borrow books on carbon dating, is in the professors library:
Chronotis: Or is it the second shelf down? Second, I think. Anyway, take what you want. Milk?
Chris: Oh, yes please.
Chronotis: One lump or two?
Chris: Two please.
The sad thing is that to convey the brilliance of this scene, one needs sound. When Chris realizes what he was just asked, a fairly dramatic and fairly jarring musical chord is heard, as if a major revelation has just been announced! It’s marvelous and hilarious which typifies Douglas’s crazy writing perfectly.
But Shada is about more than characters, it’s just that they carry the story so well. The story is also about The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, a relic from the time of Rassilon. This book is of such immense power, it could unlock the location of a Time Lord Prison Planet, Shada. This is the sort of stuff we fans live for: those revelations about the Doctor’s past and his people. While it doesn’t offer us much, every scrap is worth its weight, as they say.
There will come a time when the US will release the DVD and Blu-ray (November as of my last check) at which time, I may revisit this write up. For the time being, I’m working off the old VHS copy that I had viewed ages ago. It’s one of the few stories I’ve only seen once or twice. But it holds a special place. It’s that one time that Dirk Gently and Doctor Who connected and made both universes work together because it predated one of them. And it is still fantastic! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Leisure Hive