Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka
Doctor Who was discontinued by the BBC in 1989 but there had always been hopes that the show would return to the nation's television screens. Those prayers were answered one Bank Holiday Monday in 1996 when the TV Movie was broadcast. Sadly, that was not a success in the USA, so further small-screen adventures with Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor did not materialise. So, the show's fortieth anniversary came along in 2003, and what were the BBC to do to mark this event? The answer was Scream of the Shalka, a six-episode story, written by Paul Cornell and animated by Cosgrove Hall, broadcast on the BBC's Doctor Who between 13 November and 18 December 2003, with Richard E. Grant playing the Doctor.
There were plans to make further animated stories – as Cornell says in the commentary on this disc, horror writer Simon Clark (who wrote a Who novella, The Dalek Factor) was commissioned to write one – but they were not to be. As we all know, thanks to Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner and others behind the screen and Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper and others on it, Doctor Who did return to our screens a year and a half later, and Scream of the Shalka became a sidelight, particularly as Cornell avoided too many continuity references in his script. The TV Movie had brought Sylvester McCoy back so that he could regenerate into Paul McGann. The new series didn't feature a regeneration from McGann to Eccleston, but references back to the show's history were rife and have become more so as the show continues. So Grant's Doctor has become one of by now several “shadow” Doctors, other than the official eleven, soon to be twelve, actors who have played the role. There have been stunt doubles, one actor standing in for one deceased (Richard Hurndall deputising for William Hartnell in The Five Doctors, Peter Cushing's cinema incarnation (here and here.. In more recent times, we have had David Morrissey as The Next Doctor and we will presumably find out more about John Hurt in the forthcoming (as I write) fiftieth-anniversary episode.
As sidebars go, this is a pleasant six episodes, rather shorter ones than the live-action show. At the time (and I didn't watch it then, or indeed at all before the DVD), any Doctor Who was better than none, even if watched on small computer screens on dial-up (younger readers, ask your parents what that was). Given those inevitable limitations, Shalka stands up well when watched on a larger TV than was available then, in widescreen (a Who first) and stereo sound (NICAM Stereo had arrived with Series 25, in 1988). Grant is a somewhat darker Doctor than most, and tends to play up the character's remoteness and otherness, though once in a while there's a line (often adlibbed by Grant) which gives an eccentric spin to things. Sophie Okonedo (trivia question: who is the only Oscar-nominated actor or actress to have played a Who companion?) makes an appealing, and rather Rose-ish, companion, and Craig Kelly (who had played the Who fan Vince in Russell T. Davies's Queer as Folk) gives a good account of the rather thankless boyfriend character. (Interesting to note, Cornell presents us with a mixed-race couple without much fuss. With the new TV show, Davies reversed the races with Rose and Mickey.) The Shalka are effective monsters, benefiting from the fact that giant snakelike creatures lend themselves more to animation than they would to live-action, one reason why so many Who monsters have been bipedal.
In some parallel world, new Who never happened, as it might not have done, and Scream of the Shalka might have heralded a more niche series of animated Who. (Not without precedent – remember that Star Trek was revived in animated form before the big-screen and Next Generation and later incarnations of the show.) Shalka is certainly not essential Who, but fans will be glad it finds a place in the DVD range as it nears completion.
Scream of the Shalka is released by 2 Entertain on a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. As usual for the Who range, there is an optional audio-descriptive menu.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. With all the Classic Who DVD reviews, you have to bear in mind that you are quite likely watching your DVDs on screens much larger and of higher-resolution, and therefore more unforgiving than those on which the original episodes were intended to be viewed upon. That also goes for this serial, which was originally viewed by most people on computer monitors rather smaller than today's and at download speeds not exceeding 56K. Cosgrove Hall's animation was produced with that in mind, and to say that it looks a little basic is both true and beside the point. That said, watching this on a bigger screen does enable us to pick up some injokes that the animators left in (such as their logo on pub beermats). As for the DVD transfer, this has no issues as you would expect, having existed in the computer realm from start to finish.
The soundtrack is Dolby Surround (2.0). Who had started being broadcast in NICAM stereo, as I say above, with McCoy's last two seasons, though then only in the London area. Certainly some people had stereo sound systems for their computers in 2003. Dialogue, music and sound effects are clear and well-balanced, with directional Shalka screams and the surrounds being mostly used for the music – immediately obvious when the version of Ron Grainer's celebrated theme kicks in. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing. The information subtitles are the work of Paul Scoones, and devote much of the running time to variations between script drafts.
As usual, there is a commentary track on this DVD, and as with many other Who releases, Toby Hadoke is your moderator. However, instead of the usual roundtable discussion, this track is a series of solo interviews by Hadoke, of Paul Cornell (episodes one, four and six), director Wilson Milam (two and five) and executive producer James Goss (three). As you might expect, this isn't scene-specific, and with shorter episodes than normal to fill, there isn't a lot of digression. Given the most space, Cornell talks about how he was approached to write this – and being a Who fan of long-standing and a writer in the New Adventures novel range (and by then an established television scriptwriter, on Casualty and elsewhere), this was a dream job for him. He discusses his approach to writing the story, and the expectations of fans at the time, and how Shalka seems now, in the wake of New Who. Milam and Goss both talk abouit the production of the serial, which was the beneficiary of unspent use-it-or-lose-it BBC budgets. Milam is primarily a stage director, having worked in that medium with both David Tennant and Matt Smith. He also explains Tennant's brief and uncredited voice role, as he had been working in the studio next door. Tennant jumped at the chance to appear in Who - after all this might have been his only chance to do so...
In “Carry on Screaming” (26:53) Goss introduces us to the Richard E. Grant era of Doctor Who, blink or miss it. This is the making-of documentary, beginning in 2002 when it was realised that the BBC had no plans to mark Who's fortieth anniversary the next year. Grandiose plans were reduced to one six-part webcast, a medium which the BBC had just began to explore. Cornell was writing the script on his honeymoon in New Zealand.
“The Screaming Sessions” (7:20) is a series of interviews with the cast and director, with Richard E. Grant being the notable exception. In fact, he's not among these DVD extras at all. However, Sophie Okonedo, Craig Kelly, Diana Quick (who talks about the challenges of playing a reptilian alien) and others, are on hand to convey anecdotes of the recording sessions.
The Internet may have been invented in the 60s in the Post Office Tower, according to Doctor Who, but it took thirty years for the BBC to use the new medium. “Interweb of Fear” (23:48) describes the progress of the development of the BBC's online face to the world, including the development of RealPlayer, the great expansion of online news as a result of 9/11 and the first steps in what is now called Iplayer, and in particular the role that Who played in this. Nostalgic viewers may appreciate the modem noises with which it concludes.
Also on the disc are a sel-navigating stills gallery, mostly shots of the cast (2:05) and a soundtrack album (Russell Stone's music over a still image, 26:58). The Coming Soon trailer this time is for Terror of the Zygons (1:11).