Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka DVD Review: A Cartoon Doctor For the 40th Anniversary

A fascinating bit of Who history.
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In 1989 after 26 seasons, Doctor Who was cancelled.  There continued to be various radio programs and novels, but the television series was effectively dead.  In 1996, a television movie was produced by an American studio but the ratings were not good enough to turn it into a regular series again.  The series was so dead that as the 40th anniversary of the program began to creep closer the BBC had no desire to celebrate the still-very-popular series.  

The Doctor Who website, at this time, was very popular and the managers of the site had previously created some very rudimentary web series.  These would include audio stories with tiny still pictures that would be periodically be changed out as the story progressed. Slowly, the technology improved and broadband speeds became the norm, which allowed the team to create full animation using Flash technology.

Through this Scream of the Shalka was born.  There were still a great many hurdles to jump including getting full permission from the BBC to do a full-on animated show, plus copyright issues, and little things like writing a story, animating it, and getting actors to voice it.  In the end, they prevailed and on November 13, 2003 the first of six 15 minute episodes aired online.

The end results are not too shabby all things considered.

The TARDIS arrives in Lancashire in 2003 - a fact the Doctor realized by simply breathing in the air. This Doctor (Richard E. Grant) is angry and annoyed having apparently been transported here against his will.  For much of the series, he will do everything he can think of to not help anyone, but eventually he gets sucked into the story and saves the day.  Lancashire is surprisingly quiet and empty - the residents all apparently staying inside their homes, too afraid to venture out.  

Inside a bar, the Doctor finds a barmaid named Alison (Sophie Okonedo) and a drunk, both of whom at first refuse to tell him what is going on. Outside, he stumbles upon an old lady who begins to inform him of what's happening but before she can give very much information, a tremor strikes and she is killed.  The TARDIS too has fallen into the earth, swallowed up in the lava.  Angered by this, the Doctor runs back to the bar and drills the inhabitants who inform him that three weeks previous aliens began causing strange noises to immolate from underground and were seen walking about.  The townspeople decided that to keep the aliens at bay they needed to stay indoors and make as little noise as possible.

Though the Doctor says he does not want to get involved, he of course does.  He discovers the aliens are snake-like creatures called the Shalka who are using their screams as mind control over the humans in a convoluted plot that involves destroying the ozone layer to make the atmosphere more breathable for the Shalka and detrimental to the humans.  The Doctor gives this information to UNIT and tries to flee but the TARDIS is trapped in lava and slowly he gives way and is willing to help save the day.  Along the way, he befriends Alison and sets her up to be the next companion.  

There's some fighting, lots of talking, death by black hole, and some weird mini-Shalkas coming out of people's heads.  Also, in this version the Master is now an android and in service to the Docotr.  All in all, the plot is very classic Doctor Who, which is to say its cheesy, far-fetched, and lots of fun.

Scream of the Shalka was enjoyable for what is was, but it felt very much like a children's afternoon cartoon version of Doctor Who.  There was never a real sense of pending doom.  It certainly has some darker themes to it, but no more than Batman: The Animated Series or similar afternoon cartoons.

The animation used the flash software from 2003 and looks it.  It looks very much like the online games I used to play from the same period.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing; there is a certain artistry in that style, but it's also not exactly fluid.

Grant's Doctor is an odd one.  At first he's angry and annoyed at being there, but slowly he warms up to Alison and gets personally involved.  They had originally planned to make this an official part of the series with hopes to make many more internet-based animated stories, but during post-production it was learned that the BBC was finally planning to bring the Doctor back properly with the series that is currently still running.  As such, Grant only gets this one story to be the Doctor and while I'm thrilled with the new series, it would have been interesting to see what he could have done with the character.

There are a couple of oddball bits to Shalka; the first being the Master as an android companion and the second finding the TARDIS (and to some extent the Doctor) being controlled by outside forces.  Both concepts are fascinating and it would have been fun to see what they could have done with those concepts had they been given more stories to tell.

As it is Scream of the Shalka is a fascinating bit of Doctor Who trivia.  The first official animated series of Doctor Who with a new (though unofficial) Doctor and a new style that comes with animation.  The story is a bit light and Grant never got the chance to really get comfortable with the character but it's an interesting little show none-the-less.  I certainly am glad the BBC got wise and created the new series, but there is a part of me that would have liked to see where they could have taken this animated one.

The DVD is loaded with extras including audio commentary, production notes than can be played while you are watching the film, and numerous featurettes on the production of the show, Doctor Who's role in the Internet, and various other things.

I'd not recommend Scream of the Shalka to anyone as a starting point for the Doctor nor really would I recommend it to anyone but true die-hard fans, but for those of us who love our Doctor Who this is a fascinating bit of history.

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