Doctor Who: Shada DVD Review: The Doctor Goes to Cambridge to Save the Universe

The story behind Shada is one of the strangest in the long history of Doctor Who. The six-part serial was originally scheduled to close out the 17th season of the show, to air from January into February of 1980. Tom Baker starred as the fourth incarnation of the Doctor, and the script was written by Douglas Adams. Production was halted mid-way through the shoot due to a strike though, and was never completed. Shada sat on the shelf for over 10 years, and was finally finished with the help of Baker, for a straight-to-VHS release in 1992. The serial has been digitally remastered, and nearly five hours of bonus materials (spread out over two DVDs) have been added for this set. Taken together, the triple-DVD Shada is a very impressive package.

Roughly two-thirds of the show had been filmed before the strike. When production resumed, the unfinished Doctor Who serial was dead last on the BBC’s list of priorities to complete. In fact, everybody moved on, and the partially filmed Shada was shelved. When the home-video market took off, the BBC discovered that there was a huge demand for old Doctor Who programs. The decision was made to figure out a way to finish Shada.

The solution was brilliant in its simplicity. Baker was brought back, and the story is presented as his remembrance of a terrible incident that occurred long ago. This provided an easy explanation for the fact that he had obviously aged, and allowed him to narrate the events which were never filmed. The result is sort of a cross between a TV show, and an old-time radio play.

The story begins with the Doctor visiting an old friend at Cambridge. Along with companions Romana (Lalla Ward) and the robot dog K-9, they discover that the retired Time Lord has brought back a book from the Time Lord library, and misplaced it. The book is very dangerous, as it holds the secret to Shada, the lost prison of the Time Lords. Quite obviously, an artifact like this could spell disaster for everyone. They are up against Skagra (Christopher Neame), who wants to release the prisoners and have them join him in conquering the universe. Fortunately for all, the Doctor’s visit coincides with Skagra’s, and he is able to foil the diabolical plot.

Shada is certainly one of the most unusual Doctor Who serials ever, but what makes it worth the effort is the script Adams wrote. For fans, anything having to do with the mysterious, and very dangerous Time Lords is always intriguing. The first DVD also contains an interesting bonus, which can only be accessed on your computer. This is the animated webcast “Big Finish Version” starring Paul McGann (the Eighth Doctor) and Lalla Ward from 2003.

The second DVD contains quite a bit of material pertaining to the Shada strike, as well as others which have plagued the production of Doctor Who over the years. “Strike! Strike! Strike!” is a 27-minute piece detailing how the unions crippled the production of Doctor Who over the years. Apparently, the anti-union policies of Margaret Thatcher went a long way towards eliminating that particular obstacle.

“Taken Out of Time” (25 minutes) details how Shada was finally completed for release on VHS in 1992. The segment features interviews with actors Tom Baker and Daniel Hill, and director Pennant Roberts. “Being a Girl” (29 minutes) takes a look at an essential ingredient to the world of Doctor Who, his female companions. They have always performed the essential role of representing the audience in the show. When the Doctor explains what is going on to them, he is explaining it to us. There is no way that the program would have worked without having someone along for the ride. This second DVD is rounded out with a 10-minute photo gallery from the Shada shoot.

The third DVD is also devoted to bonus material, and contains a brilliant 90-minute documentary titled More than 30 Years in the TARDIS (1993). Even though it was made 20 years ago, while the show was (temporarily) off the air, it provides an excellent overview of the first incarnation of the series. Like the serials themselves, this documentary is a multi-part affair. Part one is titled “Doctor Who and the Daleks,” part two is “Monsters and Companions,” and part three is “Laughter and Tears: Behind the Scenes.”

“Remembering Nicholas Courtney” is a 13-minute piece which reviews the career of the man who played the Brigadier in the program. The segment features some interview footage with Courtney from May, 2010. “The Lambert Tapes – Part One” is a 10-minute excerpt of an interview with the first producer of Doctor Who, Verity Lambert. She was a true pioneer, both with the show and at the BBC. When she began her career as a producer, she was one of the only female producers at the company. The fact that she was only 27 years old at the time was also quite unusual. “The Lambert Tapes – Part One” are culled from a 2003 interview she did for the documentary The Story of Doctor Who (2003).

The third DVD also contains “Those Deadly Divas.” This is a 22-minute look at some of the female villains the Doctor has dealt with over the years. The segment features interviews with actresses Kate O’Mara, Camille Coduri, and Tracy-Ann Oberman, plus writers Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman. The disc also contains some PDF materials.

It is unfortunate that Shada was not completed back in 1979, as it was a great story. The linking segments with Baker allowed it to be released, but they are very distracting. I found myself sort of drifting off with his explanations of the unfilmed action. I think that the people at BBC Home Entertainment realized this, and added all of the bonus material to make up for it. Even though Shada is pretty unusual, and a little difficult to follow, I do recommend the set. Baker was one of my favorite Doctors, and Adams’ script tells a fantastic tale. Shada is definitely not the place for a newcomer to start, but I would think that longtime Doctor Who fans would be quite happy with the set.

Greg Barbrick

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