It may not be much of a confession, but I’m a bit obsessed by the idea of animated Doctor Who. Although I consider the fan-produced anime that appeared on YouTube to perhaps be the ultimate cartoon-style adventure, I’ve been particularly thrilled by the recent reconstructions of classic, incomplete serials.
So you shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that I’m also a big fan of Scream of the Shalka, Paul Cornell’s confident online-and-official relaunch of Doctor Who from 2003 that was unceremoniously overlooked by pretty much everyone once that announcement was made in September of that year. Yes, it’s an unusual story, comprising six 15 minute episodes that were squeezed down an old dial up Internet connection in my parent’s house, but it contains some amazing ideas, some of which were picked up on in the TV series that stole its thunder.
But, you’ve probably read all about the presence of the Master (played by Derek Jacobi) as a travelling companion and the Doctor being affected by the loss of a companion and his people. You no doubt know by now that future Doctor David Tennant appears briefly in Shalka, or that Russell T Davies had little regard for Richard E Grant’s performance as the original official Ninth Doctor. Liz 10 actress Sophie Okonedo also co-stars as companion Alison Cheney, a girl with a dead-end job, reliable but uninspiring boyfriend and a spark with the Doctor – not to mention a sense of adventure.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t she? Okonedo would probably be the best thing about Scream of the Shalka – certainly the early episodes – if not for the wonderful Derek Jacobi. How well would we have regarded 1990s Doctor Who with him as an occasional Master, had the show been properly treated by BBC One?
Hopefully you’ve also read our interview with Paul Cornell in which the writer – who apparently won’t be writing any future Doctor Who stories – recalls the genesis of the story.
So why should you buy this DVD, which includes a relatively short Doctor Who story (for a “classic” era release) and some extras?
Well, because it’s really not bad. Certainly more than a curio, the serial is a little more than a footnote in Doctor Who‘s history. Rather, it underlines the show’s ability to transcend media formats, and more importantly its innate ability to survive. Throw in idiosyncratic design and animation from Cosgrove Hall and the fact that watching it on DVD is far superior than trying to suck it up through a straw (which is how the original webcast felt) this is a release that should interest more than just the completists; the animation has also been digitally remastered, along with the soundtrack. While there might have been some other animated adventures prior to this (notably Real Time and the Paul McGann version of Shada), Shalka is notable in that it gets its own DVD release and introduces a new Doctor.
The Ninth Doctor.
For a few days, at least. Here’s the synopsis:
The TARDIS lands in a small English village in 2003, where the population are living in fear from a malevolent alien force. With the help of UNIT and his new friend Alison, the Doctor discovers that a race called the Shalka are residing underground, preparing to strip away the earth’s ozone layer and embark on a full-scale invasion of the planet…
Personally, I can’t agree with Russell T Davies’ assessment. Although Grant sounds subdued in the early episodes, it is clearly due to the recent experiences of his Doctor (or his predecessor). As the episode progresses and the tide turns against the invading Shalka (lead by queen Diana Quick, wife of Vincent and the Doctor‘s Bill Nighy), Grant’s Doctor becomes warmer, and more like the man we’ve always known. In places the adventure can be hard going, and the UNIT troops are needlessly comedic, but on the whole Shalka is there to be enjoyed.
Given the relative anonymity of Scream of the Shalka among wider fandom, it is good to see such a selection of extras on the disc, starting with a commentary track featuring writer Paul Cornell, director Wilson Milam and producer James Goss.
Perhaps one of the greatest ever value added material features in Doctor Who’s history on DVD is Carry On Screaming, the behind-the-scenes story of what appears to be a bunch of people working their way through what could have been an abject disaster. The personnel involved discuss the making of Shalka, with contributions and recollections from executive producer Martin Trickey, producers Muirinn Lane Kelly and Jelena Djordjevic, animation director Jon Doyle, writer Paul Cornell and researcher Daniel Judd. James Goss, who did sterling work on the BBC’s Doctor Who website back in the day and was one of the one of the story’s executive producers, presents with memorable aplomb.
Although the not-quite-Ninth Doctor is notable by his absence, The Screaming Sessions is an interesting look at the how the cast and crew viewed the production, recorded during their time in the studio in 2003. Sophie Okonedo (Alison), Jim Norton (Major Kennet), Diana Quick (Prime), Craig Kelly (Joe), Anna Calder-Marshall (Mathilda) and director Wilson Milam chat to the camera.
Following this and concluding the main set of extras is Interweb Of Fear, a brief history of the BBC website and the role Doctor Who has played over the years. Unfortunately this could have been so much more if the remit had been wide enough to include the fascinating roles various mediums (message boards, newsgroups, forums, websites and social media) have played over the years. Among those chatting in this programme are Internet consultant Martin Belam, editor Ian Garrard, producer James Goss, commissioner Martin Trickey, rights expert Ann Kelly, iPlayer inventor Ben Lavender (in a particularly interesting segment) and one-time Doctor Who executive producer Russell T Davies.
Other extras include a soundtrack of specially commissioned music for the Scream of the Shalka, which works in its isolated form (much TV show music fails to do so), the unmissable production information subtitles, the necessary programme subtitles and the usual photo gallery and coming soon trailer.
While it’s never going to be the most fashionable Doctor Who adventure or be accepted into that artificial construct known as “canon” Scream of the Shalka is available now from Amazon for £15.99. The extras alone are worth the cover price.