Shada. The long lost adventure from famed sci-fi writer Douglas Adams. Over the years since its aborted filming, the adventure has undergone no less than three separate adaptations. The question is: which Shada is the ultimate Shada? With the release of another version of the story, it’s becoming harder and harder to figure that out, so let’s break it down in a Tale of Three ‘Shada’s. Originally written by famed author – and one-time Doctor Who script editor – Douglas Adams, Shada follows the Doctor and Romana, his Time Lady companion, as they investigate a mysterious summons from an old friend of the Doctor, Cambridge Professor Chronotis, and work to thwart the plans of the evil Skagra – a man seeking the Professor, and a book he possesses, for his own evil ends. Their adventure will take them from 1970s Earth to a mysterious Time Lord prison planet that nobody can remember: Shada. Beware Skagra. Beware the Sphere. Beware Shada. For this review, we’re gonna be looking at three particular adaptations of Shada: the 2003 BBC-i/Big Finish Productions webcast/audio adaptation, the 2012 novelization (by Gareth Roberts), and the 2017 BBC animated reconstruction.
2003 BBC-i/Big Finish Productions webcast/audio drama
The first adaptation of Shada we’ll be examining is the webcast/audio drama done by Big Finish Productions and BBC-i in 2003, produced to mark Doctor Who‘s 40th anniversary. Out of all the adaptations, this one is the one that makes the most changes. Instead of the Fourth Doctor, this version features the Eighth Doctor (played by Paul McGann) and Romana II later in her life (at this point, she’s the Lord President of Gallifrey, keeping with the Big Finish continuity of her character at the time of production). In this version, the Fourth Doctor and Romana went to visit Professor Chronotis but were scooped out of time shortly before they could actually meet him (as seen in The Five Doctors) and subsequently had their minds erased and left before actually having the adventure. Shortly before this adaptation begins, the Eighth Doctor has started having dreams/memories of the previous time he and Romana went to visit Chronotis, but he can’t remember what Chronotis wanted. He eventually convinces Romana, now the President of Gallifrey, to accompany him back to 1970s Cambridge and find out exactly why they were there in the first place. From there, the rest of the story plays out fairly similarly to how it was originally written, aside from the occasional reference to something the Eighth Doctor did or to Romana’s new position in Time Lord society.
This adaptation exists in two forms: an audio CD from Big Finish Productions and a webcast, with limited animation, from BBC-i. The audio-only version is basically up to par with the rest of Big Finish’s line of Doctor Who audios. What makes this adaptation interesting, however, is the accompanying webcast. The animation leaves much to be desired; it’s essentially a collection of still images that zoom in and out and move. It’s very clearly designed to be a mid-quality Flash-based video from the early 2000’s, and in that respect, it does its job well. Even with the minimal animation, it’s actually amazing how good this version looks. While most of the characters, aside from the Eighth Doctor and Romana, look a bit wonky, the rest of it looks surprisingly creative.
Primarily, it excels in set design. Since the animation was so minimal, the budget required wasn’t a whole lot, so it wasn’t too complicated or expensive to design really interesting sets for the various locations. The design for the Think Tank was really interesting, as were the designs for both of Skagra’s ships. The only set design that I didn’t fully love was the one for Shada, the Time Lord prison planet. It wasn’t plain, or anything, it was just essentially located on the surface of an asteroid and didn’t look all that Gallifreyan to me. But so little of the story is actually spent on Shada that it’s only a minor complaint. The sheer creativity present in the majority of the sets really made me fall in love with this version.
I actually wish this adaptation had made more changes. I love changing it to feature the Eighth Doctor. It’s a neat way to have this story happen without contradicting the fact that footage from it was used in The Five Doctors, essentially erasing this story from the Fourth Doctor’s timeline. I only wish that more changes had been made to the script to make it fit in with the Eighth Doctor’s characterization. Aside from a few references here and there, most of the dialogue was clearly written for the Fourth Doctor. There are even lines that survive from earlier versions that directly reference adventures the Fourth Doctor had with Romana in a way that suggests they just had them (instead of them happening hundreds of years earlier in the Doctor’s life). All the added stuff with Romana really made her character have more to do in the story; her willful ignorance of the Time Lords’ actions in regards to Shada is all the more ironic now that she’s the President of Gallifrey. More changes like those would have made this adaptation work better. As it is, it’s still really enjoyable. The production of the audio is fantastic, Paul McGann somehow manages to make the vast majority of the dialogue sound like it was written for his Doctor (aside from those occasions where the dialogue references something in a way that only the Fourth Doctor would reference it), Lalla Ward is superb as Romana as well. The rest of the cast, new to this version, do a great job as well. Andrew Sachs is a bit too hammy as Skagra in this version for my taste, but he’s still good. The animation is weak, but it never pretended to be anything other than a 2003 Flash animation.
2012 Novelization by Gareth Roberts
Published in 2012, this adaptation is written by Gareth Roberts and is based on the original scripts written by Douglas Adams. It returns the story to the Fourth Doctor’s era, as originally written, and expands upon the scripts with insights into the various characters’ thoughts and motivations – as any good novelization does. For the most part, it follows the scripts closely, embellishing a little here and there in order to flesh out the story and characters in ways that only a book could do. It frequently changes points of view in different chapters, allowing readers the chance to get in the heads of the various characters – something that really ends up working to the novel’s advantage. The best thing about this version is that a novel lacks any kind of a budget. Character and set design are limited only by the reader’s imaginations. Gone are the wonky sets of the 1970s or the bland animation of early 2000’s Flash animations. Here, it’s all up to the imagination of the reader, and Shada is a story that greatly benefits from this kind of freedom. How do you build a prison planet with a shoestring budget? How do you animate several aliens of different designs and a variety of locations when you’ve got the restraints of early 2000’s Flash animation weighing you down? In both of those scenarios, you’ll never end up with anything better than a compromise. With a novel, the sky’s the limit. In terms of execution, the novel is written well. At times, Gareth Roberts actually seems to imitate the style of Douglas Adams, which is a very nice touch. It’s paced well and the additional material added to the book helps flesh out the story in new and interesting ways. The novelization allows Shada to shine without the hindrances of low budgets, bad animation, or wonky sets. As a Doctor Who book, it’s one of the best.
2017 BBC Animated Reconstruction
Finally, the BBC released an animated reconstruction of the story (with animation by the same studio that animated the missing episodes of The Power of the Daleks, and newly recorded dialogue for the unfilmed scenes) in 2017. For all intents and purposes, it seems like this version is meant to be the “Definitive Version”. It’s got the original cast (or as much of it as is possible to have), all the surviving footage, the original scripts, and all new animation for the unfilmed scenes. Featuring all the surviving footage and newly recorded dialogue and animation, this version stars Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor and Lalla Ward as Romana. In execution, it’s probably the closest to what would’ve been seen on TV in the late 1970s as we’ll ever get.
The problem with this version, however, is the animation. Surprisingly, the problem isn’t the existence of the animation, but the quality of it. The animation is just really bad. Amazingly bad. The first time an animated scene played, I just sat, staring at my TV, marveling at how truly awful it was. I spent money to see this animation, and this is what I got. If it were an animated webcast from the mid-to-late 2000’s, it would be pretty good, but as professional animation done for commercial release on a DVD produced by a major television network in the UK, it’s bad. It’s of the same quality as the recent BBC animated reconstructions have been, but they’ve been bad, too. You could almost ignore how bad the animation was in those, however, since it wasn’t intercut with real footage. It’s jarring to go from the filmed scenes to the utterly lifeless animation. Had the animation been better, the cutting back and forth would likely have been fairly seamless, but as it is, it’s distracting.
It’s not all bad, though. It’s almost impossible to recognize the newly recorded dialogue. All the actors sound almost exactly the same as they did all those years ago and the soundtrack that links all the scenes together does a great job at dulling the edges of the newly juxtaposed scenes. The design of Shada, the prison planet, is a lot more interesting in this version than in the 2003 webcast, too. But that’s really the only improvement on set design. The rest is disappointingly bland. I understand that they were probably trying to realistically match the kind of sets we’d have gotten in the 1970s, but after seeing the sets from the 2003 webcast, it’s just disappointing.
This version would’ve worked better if they’d just animated the entire thing. For a start, they’d have been free to be as imaginative with the set designs as they wanted to be; there’d have been no reason for them to try and make it look like it would’ve looked. Had it all been animated, the quality of the animation would be more forgivable, too. Alternatively, they could’ve spent the money they used to restore the existing footage to pay for better animation for the entire production had they chosen to just animate the whole thing. As it stands, this version of Shada is a Frankenstein of a beast. It’s nice having a version that’s fully completed with all the original footage and the original cast, but the quality of the animation really lets it down.
Which Shada is the Best Shada?
The ultimate question, then, is which version is the best version? Which Shada is the definitive Shada? Each version has their pros and their cons. The 2017 animated version suffers from weak animation that jars with the surviving footage. The 2003 version suffers from little animation, but fantastic designs for the various sets. The book suffers from having no visual representation but benefits from the lack of budget constraints. Personally, I think the book does the best job of conveying the story. The way it’s able to take us inside the heads of the characters and the way it bounces from one point of view to another really helps the story shine. I have a soft spot for the 2003 Big Finish version, mostly because I adore Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, but at the end of the day, all three of these versions are good. If you’re curious about this story, you can’t go wrong with any of them. I’d say check out the novel first, then the Big Finish version, then the 2017 BBC DVD. But whichever version you can get your hands on won’t disappoint you.
2003 Webcast/Big Finish adaptation: 4 out of 5 wands
2012 Novelization: 4.5 out of 5 wands
2017 BBC Animation: 3.5 out of 5 wands