As is generally well known now, what was intended to be the six-part season closer of Doctor Who’s 1979-80 season, Douglas Adams’ Shada, had completed all of its location filming and roughly 2/3 of its studio filming when studio workers at the BBC went on strike, halting production of Doctor Who and most everything else in production at the time. In an attempt to sow a little bit of anti-union discord, the BBC – despite having the ability to complete production on Shada and get it ready to air – opted to not finish the show, blaming the strike for the truncated season and the never-broadcast story. (Incoming producer John Nathan-Turner, who took over in 1980, made a push for completing Shada as well, either as a movie-length special or as part of his own first season as showrunner, only to be stonewalled by the BBC brass, which needed to show to remain incomplete and unairable just to make its point. JN-T did eventually give the viewing public its first taste of Shada by including excerpts from it as “all new footage” of the fourth Doctor in 1983’s The Five Doctors, in which Tom Baker otherwise declined to participate.)
Since then, finishing Shada in one form or another has become a bit of a cottage industry. A 1992 VHS video release saw the original footage unearthed and shown in its entirety for the first time, with Tom Baker, slipping in and out of character, narrating the missing parts. The results were…interesting…if only to see just how eccentric Baker had become in the decade since he’d left the role of the Doctor. (The BBC seems to have purged clips from the 1992 intros from YouTube, but a brief clip of one can be seen in this video.)
For the 40th anniversary year in 2003, Big Finish Productions (purveyors of fine and, it must be said, award-winning Doctor Who audio plays) teamed up with BBCi (the BBC’s now-defunct think tank for original web content) to not only re-record Shada from the ground up, replacing Tom Baker with Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor by grafting a scene onto the beginning in which Romana and the Doctor’s later incarnation team up to tend to “unfinished business”. BBCi created Flash animation to accompany the audio, though in those days before the average denizen of the internet could reasonably be expected to have access to broadband, the results were not exactly fluidly animated.
Controversial fandom figure Ian Levine even attempted to complete the story in animated form on his own dime and offered the results to the BBC, who politely declined, something which he publicly fumes over to this day.
There’s also been an official novelization, something which was oft-suggested during Douglas Adams’ lifetime, but which the writer kept refusing since he’d gone and reused some rather major elements of Shada in the first Dirk Gently book, confident that Shada would remain unseen. (Ironically, Adams himself was responsible for the infamous 1992 VHS release, as he signed off on it without realizing what, exactly, he was signing off on.)
In late 2017, the BBC announced that Shada would be returning to DVD with the missing portions re-voiced by the original cast and animated. Where bandwidth and budget, respectively, had dogged BBCi’s and Levine’s attempt to re-animated the unfinished story, you’d expect the new version to be much more fluid, taking advantage of the huge strides that have been made in animation. And that just isn’t the case for much of the new version of Shada, which aired recently on TV via BBC America.
The first animated scene in Shada makes it clear that any scenes involving human actors will be rather embarrassingly stiff, as if the animation is still being sold to a dial-up internet audience. It’s a shame, because the newly recorded audio of the scenes is outstanding, and there are some great moments in the animation – scenes with the Krargs or K9 are obviously utilizing at least some 3-D animation. Even if the animation seems a bit odd and stilted, it’s an improvement over the 1992 VHS release to have the full surviving cast reunited to play the scenes out in real time.
Is there now a definitive version? This may be as close as we get, warts and all, but in the end there’s a flavor of Shada for nearly every day of the week. In the end, it’s still a fascinating tale with great guest performances, and it’s still about two episodes too long thanks to the well-worn 1970s Doctor Who tropes of escaping down corridors and indulging in lengthy chase scenes. A four-part version of Shada could’ve tightened things up. As it is, there’s no real hurry, which just bleeds tension off into nowhere.
Christopher Neame is incredibly effective as the single-minded villain Skagra, while the late, great Denis Carey steals nearly every scene he’s in as Professor Chronotis. Another unsung star of this edition of Shada is Mark Ayres’ deliciously Dudley-Simpson-esque musical score, recorded by real musicians instead of a synth, echoing Simpson’s hummable City Of Death music and perfectly recapturing the ambience of the era. Never mind Shada on DVD, I want Shada’s new soundtrack on CD.
Do you have a favorite iteration of Shada? Feel free to chime in below. For now, this is probably as good as it’s going to get.