The Scream Of The Shalka

Richard E. Grant as the 9th DoctorThe Doctor, now in his ninth generation, finds himself in 2003 England. The small town he has been sent to (by powers unknown) has been overcome by strange, ground-dwelling creatures known as the Shalka. The Shalka keep the townspeople under their thrall with the ever-present threat of destruction. The Doctor comes to realize that the Shalka use sound as their weapon and turns that weapon against them. What he doesn’t realize is that the plan is much bigger than simply taking over one small town in England. All over the world similar towns are being invaded, their populations being slowly, subtly altered. Once complete, these humans can be used as a conduit to bring about the destruction of the Earth by way of a scream that will alter the Earth’s atmosphere, making it habitable for the Shalka, but little else. While combating this latest threat to the Earth, the Doctor tries to deal with the demons of his past and find his way in the Universe.

written by Paul Cornell
directed by Wilson Milam
music by Russell Stone

Cast: Richard E. Grant (The Doctor), Sophie Okonedo (Alison), Craig Kelly (Joe), Andrew Dunn (Max), Anna Calder-Marshall (Matilda), Conor Moloney (Dawson / Greaves), Ben Morrison (McGrath), Derek Jacobi (The Master), Diana Quick (Prime), Jim Norton (Kennet)

LogBook entry and TheatEar review by Philip R. Frey

Review: On July 11, 2003 the BBC’s Web Site, BBCi, made a stunning announcement: Doctor Who would be returning, but not in a way anyone had expected. Well, not anyone who wasn’t paying close attention to what BBCi had been up to over the last few years. Starting with Death Comes To Time in 2000, BBCi had been producing or commissioning a series of webcasts to be shown on the BBCi site. Death Comes To Time, a completed version of an aborted Seventh Doctor radio series, was followed by Real Time, an original Sixth Doctor adventure produced by Big Finish and then by another Big Finish product, Shada, modified from Douglas Adams’ fourth Doctor story into an eighth Doctor adventure.

In all of these, BBCi had not strayed far from the formula the other major Doctor Who outlets followed: new or re-worked tales of “past” Doctors. With the new webcast, entitled The Scream of the Shalka, they would finally advance the timeline: Richard E. Grant would step into the TARDIS as the ninth Doctor. (Side note: the earliest announcements concerning Shalka refer to Richard E. Grant as “the ninth Doctor.” Later announcements would amend this to say “BBCi’s ninth Doctor,” leaving Grant’s status as a “proper” Doctor unclear.)

The story of The Scream of the Shalka owes a lot to the Pertwee era; monsters invading earth, the military along for the ride, ham-fisted cautionary tales, etc. The mood is established pretty quickly in the first episode: humans cowed into silence (literally) by invading monsters. The main problem with the initial setup is that something that might have made sense in 1973 seems out of place in 2003. In our current age of full-on digital connectivity there’s no way to reasonably accept that a whole town could be cut off from the world like it is in Shalka (not to mention all the other towns we learn about later). The obvious solution, setting it in a different time, seems to have been overlooked in favor of “modern” characters and the opportunity to make topical comments, neither of which add to the story at all.

That’s not to say the story itself is not original. In fact, the details of the plot and the Shalka’s plan to take over the world are interesting. The basic plot is Shalka‘s greatest strength. It builds up well throughout, with the Doctor being no more aware than the audience is. It all plays out compellingly until the end where, after such a massive build-up to world destruction, it is a bit hard to accept that everything is back to normal so quickly. But this is a quibble. Overall it’s the best plot of any of the three completely original webcasts and would be an acceptable story for the original TV show.

The performances are for the most part good, but inconsistent across the cast. Grant, in particular, doesn’t really seem to know who his Doctor is. And while some of this can be attributed to the Doctor’s state of mind, I think more can be attributed to Grant’s “cautious” attitude towards the role itself. More grating is Craig Kelly, whose mopey Joe irritates from the first. Kelly imbues Joe with not one iota of positive qualities. There was an opportunity here to portray Joe as a noble person. The script supports it; he’s always on Alison’s side, he doesn’t fight to make her stay at the end, etc. But all this is lost behind Kelly’s constant whine. Of the main (human) cast, only Sophie Okenodo really seems to know her character. She establishes Alison from the first moment we see her and never allows her to waver, despite some wonky dialogue (see below). Sir Derek Jacobi, as a less-than-typical Master, conveys a strong sense of self that belies his place in the story. Other supporting characters range from annoying (the opening scientists) to highly effective (Diana Quick’s Prime Shalka).

The dialogue, however, is a major problem for Shalka. A lot of it just doesn’t seem very natural. Unlike the forgivable over-the-top dialogue typical of so much Doctor Who (and science fiction in general), characters in Shalka tend to simply talk too much. The characters seem to convey their every motivation or thought. Perhaps Cornell’s experience with Doctor Who novels and audios has skewed his thinking somewhat. He tends to over-explain things that would be best conveyed through action. It’s no surprise that many view Shalka as an audio with pictures (like the previous webcasts) and not the animated adventure it was meant to be.

And as for the animation, while considerably more articulate than previous webcasts, Shalka fails to come up to a broadcast level. It is obvious that a great deal of time was spent on the facial expressions and animations as that is the one place where Shalka shines. Unfortunately, it fails to hold up in other areas. Characters move stiffly and are usually limited to only a few different angles. All too often, the animators simply default to straight-on head shots, giving the animation a South Park feel, complete with numerous instances of head-cocking and arm-flailing. A few key characters (the Doctor, Alison and Joe, particularly) are intended to be representations of the actors themselves, but most are relegated to clichèd cartoon types. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, but the animators often seem to have developed the characters around only the dialogue or a character’s position in the story, as there seems no connection between the image on the screen and the voice that comes out of it. The best example of this is in Derek Jacobi’s Master. While Jacobi’s performance is full of suave self-assurance, the visual representation of The Master (two parts Delgado, one part Ainley) fails to convey the portrayal. His angular features and perpetual frown don’t jibe with Jacobi. In fully animated projects, the animators use the actors’ performance to guide their work, often watching videotape of the recording process to better understand the characters. This is not evident at all in Shalka. Judged as “merely” a webcast, Shalka comes off quite well. But as an attempt to be “fully animated,” as Paul Cornell once stated, it falls far short.

So does The Scream of the Shalka work as a Doctor Who story? As with so much in modern-day genre works, it depends on what you’re looking for. It is generally accepted that the post-eighties Doctor Who books, comics and audios have strayed considerably from the template set by the TV show. They have a tendency to focus more on character issues; motivation, emotion and the like. In this way, Shalka mostly follows their lead. While this approach may be something that appeals to the hardcore fanbase (those most likely to buy books and audios or watch a webcast), it does little to appeal to the average viewer, who is more interested in exciting, fun romps in time and space than in social commentary and deeply felt character arcs. Shalka attempts to walk this line and succeeds to a certain extent. It’s mostly in the sermonizing and self-aware dialogue that Shalka veers so far into fanboy territory that it can lose its grip on general audiences.

The Scream of the Shalka, ultimately is an entertaining, if flawed, piece of Doctor Who. It lays down a foundation on which further adventures can be built. With tinkering, the pieces found in Shalka can make a satisfactory whole. It’s just not quite there yet.