Original Webcast 2 May – 6 June 2003
Audio CD Released December 2003
There have been countless lost Doctor Who stories through the years, ranging from stories that are just a fragment of an idea to ones with completed scripts simply waiting to be filmed. However, ‘Shada’ is something wholly unique, a partially-filmed Fourth Doctor serial written by the indomitable Douglas Adams that offers a fascinating collision of contemporary Earth and Time Lord history that unfortunately fell victim to an industrial strike. While ‘Shada’ has certainly remained in the public consciousness through the release of the filmed material with linking narration as well as a novelization, Big Finish has crafted an alternative, full-cast production featuring Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor alongside Lalla Ward’s Lord President Romana and John Leeson’s K-9 to finally bring ‘Shada’ fully to life.
Obviously a television production and audio production follow wholly different models, but the audio fully captures the whimsical imagination so ingrained into Adams’s original work in a way that simple narration could never manage. Still, with all of the wonderful work Big Finish has done in fleshing out the character of the Eighth Doctor, it is still very evident that this is a script not intended for this incarnation even with the exposition explaining how this version of events could come to be. McGann is as charismatic and charming as ever and displays wonderful comedic timing as the script requires, but this is nonetheless a story specifically tailored for Tom Baker’s idiosyncrasies, and Baker’s absence is noticeable despite the wonderful work from everyone involved.
Still, the fact that the biggest complaint is that Tom Baker is not involved in the story originally written for him speaks volumes as to how strong the production is as a whole. Six-part stories were notoriously hit or miss during the classic series of Doctor Who, and the two-plus-four format became a more trusted way of circumventing some of the common pacing and padding issues that could plague longer productions. However, Adams is always in firm control of his story from beginning to end, and the scope and danger gradually escalate as the plot progresses from Cambridge to a long-forgotten Time Lord prison in a seamless and satisfying fashion, even managing to delve into the rather scholastic divisions of the history of Gallifrey as the origins of Skagra are revealed.
Of course, the residence of the Doctor’s friend and retired Time Lord, Professor Chronotis, at Cambridge strengthens the academic nature of Gallifrey shown in televised episodes, but it also provides an intriguing look into what could realistically be a potential future for the Doctor himself. Chronotis himself comments on the rather stagnant nature of Gallifrey that the Doctor so abhors, and it’s quite fascinating to realize through second-hand implications just how worn Time Lord society has become with time, forgetting even about a maximum security prison housing some of their most dangerous criminals. Intriguingly, there are several implications that, despite the prisoner Salyavin’s undoubted powers, he was imprisoned for not much more than what the Doctor does in flagrantly skirting Time Lord norms and customs, providing a unique perspective of the Doctor’s travels through time and space. This sort of dichotomy again comes to the forefront as the Doctor uses Skagra’s plan to become all-powerful and instead uses his immense willpower to stop Skagra in his tracks, thereby saving the universe and certainly lending ‘Shada’ the sort of momentous season finale action that was beginning more common at the time the script was penned.
‘Shada’ is brimming with superb ideas that certainly stand the test of time, fully embracing the absurdity of Doctor Who and blending comedic moments with genuine emotion spectacularly. A book being the key to a Time Lord prison, the Doctor’s success and unexpected failure when using logic to trick a computer, and a novel twist on the villain’s typical universal domination plan are strong plot points by themselves, but the fantastic performances and exploration of the Doctor as a character as Earth’s present and Gallifrey’s past collide help to create an incredible production that fully captures the imagination of Douglas Adams’s original script.