Professor Chronotis, a Time Lord posing as a Cambridge University lecturer, unwittingly lends an extremely powerful book to one of his students. The book is powerful because it reveals the location of the Time Lord prison planet Shada. Chronotis “borrowed” the book from Gallifrey, and, since he isn’t supposed to have a TARDIS (he’s retired), has called upon his old friend, the Doctor, to return the book for him. But when the Doctor and Romana arrive, he realizes he no longer has the book, and struggles to remember what he did with it. Meanwhile, an evil genius named Skagra wants to construct a “Universal Mind” filled with knowledge from all the greatest criminals. To complete the task, he must access Shada. His search for the planet’s location leads him to Professor Chronotis, and eventually the Doctor, who must prevent Skagra finding Shada. If Skagra completes his task, he will use this “Universal Mind” to take over the universe…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
“Shada” was supposed to be the season 17 finale, broadcast in six parts over January and February, 1980. The production team managed to complete outside filming, and made a good start on studio recording. But before the in-studio scenes could be completed, a technicians’ dispute at the BBC brought everything to a stop. Once the dispute was settled, Christmas 1979 was fast approaching, and a number of TV specials that had been put on hold were given studio priority. Doctor Who would have to wait its turn. And eventually time ran out. “The Horns of Nimon” broadcast as the season 17 finale, and “Shada” was shelved. In-coming producer John Nathan-Turner tried a number of times to have the story remounted, but eventually admitted defeat in the summer of 1980. The story remained a thing of legend until 1992, three years after the end of the Classic Series, when Nathan-Turner managed to procure the rights to the story from Douglas Adams, and released all the completed scenes, along with linking narration by Tom Baker, on video. This is all that remains of the original “Shada,” but it’s enough to give a sense of what the complete story would have looked like.
Many fans were excited to see “Shada” for the first time in 1992–even if close to half of the story is missing–having heard about it. But, as so often happens with the stuff of legends, the reality can be disappointing. At least it was to some. Not me, however. I think it’s a shame it wasn’t finished and broadcast, as it would have helped justify an otherwise dodgy season. “Shada” and “City of Death” were the only redeeming features of a lackluster and inconsistent season seventeen. It’s not Douglas Adams’s best, but close to it. The story has depth and the characters are interesting, with the final reveal about Professor Chronotis being perhaps the biggest surprise.
Adams was known for being a well-spring of creative ideas, and “Shada” is full of them. There’s Skagra’s invisible space ship, which was much beloved by the production team since it was very cheap. Also the ball that chased people and sucked out all their knowledge and memories. And then there’s the idea that a book can be dangerous, and the Professor’s study could be a TARDIS. Adams has Skagra initially wandering around Cambridge wearing a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a carpet bag–an odd visual that works because Skagra is an alien trying to “fit in.” Finally there are the Kraag, the monsters of the story, made of crystal with fire at their core.
There are some points that bothered me. First, when Chronotis dies, Romana isn’t surprised he doesn’t regenerate, even though he didn’t say anything about being on his last regeneration. In Cambridge, during the chase scene between Skagra’s knowledge sphere and the Doctor, we linger for a while on a group of singers. It’s a nice interval, but completely pointless. They add nothing to the story. David Brierley provides K-9’s voice, thankfully for the last time. As I’ve noted in other stories of this season, I don’t like his characterization of K-9. His inflections are too human, and give K-9 too much personality for a robot dog. And, lastly, there’s a scene where the Doctor gives Romana a medal for reminding him of something very important to the story. This comes across as patronizing, a bit childish, and, again, pointless.
A number of the special effects work quite well. The sphere that chases people and sucks their minds is well done, and the Kraag costumes aren’t bad either.
“Shada” isn’t must-see Who. Indeed, a number of fans weren’t able to see it for nearly thirteen years, so it won’t hurt your Whovian credibility if you never get around to it. But, given the opportunity, I recommend you take it. As one of Douglas Adams’s best Who scripts (as well as his last), it’s worth your time.