Shada is the best known and more deeply beloved of any Doctor Who story that no one has ever actually watched.
Intended to screen as the final story of Season 17 (which had begun with the introduction of Lalla Ward as Romana II in Destiny of the Daleks), Shada’s production was cancelled partway through filming because of a strike at the BBC.
Perhaps under other circumstances it might have been forgotten, a footnote in the show’s history. But there were many elements which came together to form a kind of mythology about how magical this story was, and what a terrible loss it was to Doctor Who fans, that it continues to enjoy a kind of semi-canonical status.
Season 17 is a mixed bag. It was the final run of producer Graham Williams, before he passed the job to John Nathan Turner, the producer who would continue for the remainder of ‘classic’ Who’s life on air. Some of the least-appreciated stories of Tom Baker’s tenure are in this season, and yet it also contains City of Death, a witty romantic comedy time travel romp, often cited as the Best Doctor Who Ever by a large number of fans (along with the rather less cheerful Genesis of the Daleks and Caves of Androzani).
The mythological status of Shada almost certainly owes much to the success of City of Death, not least because both were written by the legendary Douglas Adams, who was also script editor for Doctor Who in his early career. The warm, flirtatious banter of the Doctor and Romana that so livened up their time in Paris can also be seen the in these Cambridge location scenes. None of which are hurt by Lalla Ward’s most stunning outfit of all time, and one of the best hats ever seen in a Doctor Who story.
Hmm. Now I want to make a list of all the best hats. Romana I’s Tara hat, obviously. And almost everything Patrick Troughton ever put on his head. And the straw boater from The Leisure Hive. A future blog post, perhaps…
Perhaps the most important reason why such a mythology built up around this story is that two of those Cambridge location scenes were saved from the unused footage, and formed part of the 20th Anniversary story The Five Doctors, in 1983. When Tom Baker declined to take part in the special, those bits (of he and Romana punting down the Thames, and her later calling him into the TARDIS) were cleverly used to show the Fourth Doctor getting trapped in time, and thus unable to help his other selves.
For many fans like me as a child, this was the first glimpse of the famous ‘lost story’ Shada, though at the same time it rendered Shada completely non-canonical. After all, the Doctor and Romana can’t have had that lazy, banterific conversation about Cambridge dons in a punt twice, can they?
But in 1992, John Nathan-Turner (then the former producer of Doctor Who) made an attempt to complete the lost story, and make it available to viewers. Special effects shots were commissioned, as well as linking narration from Tom Baker, for a VHS release.
Watching Shada on VHS, though, was something of a frustrating experience. Gleams of brilliance, to be sure, with the sparkling Douglas Adams dialogue and the chemistry of Tom and Lalla, not to mention an excellent supporting cast. But while all of the location shooting had been completed, only the first block of studio work was, which means you start out with episodes that are mostly complete (and rather wonderful) and by the end of the six parter, the whole thing runs mostly on fumes and empty tin cans. Despite Tom Baker’s rrrrrather wonderful voice.
For me as a first time viewer, far too aware of the show’s history, I was mostly keen to see where those bits from The Five Doctors fit in, and not all that interested in the rest of it. My little ‘it must all make sense’ canon hungry brain was also ever so slightly broken by the fact that most of the plot, especially all the Professor Chronotis bits, were, well. FAMILIAR.
Douglas Adams is famous for his sharp, witty comic writing, and for his cavalier attitude towards deadlines. He was also very quick to re-use his own material, though fans tend not to slam him as badly for this as they do Terry Nation, possibly because he didn’t repeat himself very often within Doctor Who. In 1987, Adams had published Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which borrowed heavily from his Shada script. Well, why not? It wasn’t like Shada was going to ever be seen by anyone… or so he had believed.
In 2003, Shada lived again in yet another form, as a BBC Webcast. Images and simple flash “animation” were paired with a new audio track, featuring Lalla Ward as Romana, John Leeson as K9 (who had actually been voiced by David Brierly during most of Season 17) and Paul McGann as the Doctor.
Hang on, what?
Yep, you heard me.
Tom Baker once again had turned down the offer to reprise his role, and so the original script was tweaked slightly. In this version, Romana was much older and the President of Gallifrey (as she was in several tie in books as well as the Big Finish Audio range), and the Doctor in his Eighth Incarnation popped by to remind her about that mission they had missed out on the first time around.
This clever twist – whereby being taken out of time in the The Five Doctors meant that there was a paradox about their Shada adventure still to be resolved – rather nicely made it clear that Doctor Who canon could now stretch to include both Shada and The Five Doctors. The dynamic between McGann and Ward was also very enjoyable, and the whole thing can be heard as a Big Finish audio play if you don’t fancy looking at pictures while you listen to your Doctor Who.
More recently, in 2012, Shada took on yet another lease of life. Gareth Roberts, who has not only written for the new series of Doctor Who and the Sarah Jane Adventures, but was renowned back in the day for his ability to capture the voices of the Fourth Doctor and Romana II in the Missing Adventures book range, was commissioned to write a novelisation of the Lost Story To End All Lost Stories.
The stories scripted by Douglas Adams (The Pirate Planet and City of Death as well as Shada) had never been novelised, mostly because he did not wish anyone else to adapt his stories, and the BBC paid so little for this work that he couldn’t justify doing it himself after the success of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A Douglas Adams novel, after all, was worth quite a LOT of money.
In any case, the Gareth Roberts version has been highly acclaimed, and greatly enjoyed by many since its recent release. Even more welcomed by fans was Lalla Ward’s reading of the unabridged work as an audiobook, complete with the voice of John Leeson as K9 and full professional sound design.
Finally (we must suppose this is finally!) Shada has had a new DVD release this year in The Legacy Collection, paired with the documentary 30 Years in the TARDIS, and brimming with special features. I haven’t seen it yet, but I will admit that after the VHS experience, I am more tempted by the audiobook of the novelisation than I am of trying to watch it as a ‘TV story’ again.
But, extras. Including, as it happens, the Paul McGann webcast. I’m also keen to see the documentary stuff about the making (and not making) of Shada, and The Lambert Tapes, along with other goodies.
Then of course there’s the Other Shada, the version I have heard snippets about but only second or third hand – the one produced by notorious super-fan Ian Levine, who apparently commissioned most of the original cast to re-voice an animated-to-completion version of this least lost of all lost stories. While those who have seen this endeavour privately have spread the word that it’s very good, it was never going to be part of a BBC official release, for fairly obvious rights reasons (not least of which are that no permissions were given to make it in the first place).
Apparently there are many subtleties and extra complexities to this particular bit of the story’s history that I can’t possibly understand without having waded through many, many conversations on the forums of Gallifrey Base. I’m kind of okay with that. Instead, I point you at this Starburst article.
And now I’m going to go listen to the entirely canonical Paul McGann and Lalla Ward version again.
ELSEWHERE ON 1980:
Doctor Who The Legacy Collection [Gary Gillatt]
Original Costume Design for Mena and the Argolina in The Leisure Hive [June Hudson Design Archive]
Meglos Episode 3 [Chronic Hysteresis]
The Young Alzarian Who Sacrificed Much [Marlow Inc]