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Who Review: Shada (Untransmitted)

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.

Who Review: City of Death

The TARDIS randomizer lands our heroes in Paris, France, 1979, which is just as well since the Doctor and Romana are in need of a holiday. In a café, a local artist attempts to capture Romana’s likeness, but runs away when she turns to look at him. Not impressed with his picture, the Doctor decides to take her to the Louvre, where she can see some real art. A strange disturbance in time affects them while in the café, and again while they are in the Louvre. The Doctor falls into the arms of a strange woman, while Romana steals a strange looking bracelet from her wrist. The bracelet is not of Earth origin, but the detective pointing a gun at the Doctor certainly is–from England, in fact. Together, the Doctor, Romana, and their new detective friend, Duggan, investigate the strange time disturbances, which leads them to the Count and Countess Scarlioni, who are not pleased with their meddling. And our friends soon discover why: the Count is involved in selling copies of valuable works of art, but the forgeries look incredibly like the real thing. Not only that, but he’s conducting some volatile experiments in time travel. All is not what it seems with the Count, and the Doctor, Leela, and Duggan need to get to the heart of it, before the Count’s true intentions come to fruition–intentions that could bring life on Earth as we know it to an end…

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!

The original story for this serial was written by David Fisher, but re-written by script editor Douglas Adams and producer Graham Williams (Fisher was unable to complete re-writes himself). As a result, the script that was eventually used for the show was more Douglas Adams’s work that either Fisher’s or Williams. Given BBC policy that members of the production team could not also receive writing credit, the show was broadcast as written by “David Agnew.”

If you are familiar with Douglas Adams’s work (THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, DIRK GENTLY), you can hardly fail to notice his fingerprints all over this serial. And of his contributions to Doctor Who, this story is by far the best. First, there’s the idea of an alien scattered throughout Earth’s history, trying to nudge the human race to the point where it develops the technology necessary for him to time travel back to when his spacecraft exploded so he can prevent that happening. And then the alien funds his experiments by selling art, his biggest project being the sale of six Mona Lisas, all painted by Leonardo DaVinci, and hidden away by his fifteenth century self for his 1979 self to find and sell. In itself that’s a fascinating premise for a story, but why should the Doctor get involved? Because that alien spaceship’s explosion all those years ago triggered evolution (Adams was an atheist and, hence, committed to the theory of evolution). If the spaceship doesn’t explode, the human race would never exist. This is why the Doctor has to stop him.

The alien, Scaroth, a Jagaroth, is disguised as Count Scarlioni, who lives in Paris with his wife, the Countess. Julian Glover, an actor who has played a Bond villain (in “For Your Eyes Only”), as well as having parts in “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and “Game of Thrones,” plays Scaroth/Scarlioni, and does an excellent job. Catherine Schell plays the Countess, and she too plays the part very well. There’s a charming, understated quality to their performances that play off the Doctor’s humor and antics wonderfully.

The English private detective, Duggan, who is assisting the Doctor and Romana on this adventure, acts more like an American “hard-boiled” private eye. His character was actually originally based on the 1920s British fictional “adventurer” Bulldog Drummond. Again, a wonderful performance by Tom Chadbon, who plays Duggan with more muscle power than brain power, which, given the high-powered intelligence of the Doctor, Romana, and Scaroth, provides a much-needed balance.

Episode one opens with an amazing model shot that I’m not sure today’s CGI technology could better. The alien landscape of prehistoric Earth is perfectly captured on film, as is the Jagaroth ship taking off. For some reason, this same scene doesn’t work as well when we return to it in episode four. Maybe it’s the difference between film and video tape? I’m not sure.

K-9 gets left behind again. We aren’t told why–perhaps the Doctor hasn’t finished putting him back together again (see “Destiny of the Daleks”)? In any case, the TARDIS randomizer has dropped them in Paris, so the Doctor and Romana want to take advantage of this opportunity for a holiday. This also afforded the production crew the opportunity to film the outdoor sequences on location in Paris, France–the first time in the show’s history a non-British location has been used.

It does boggle the mind a bit how the Countess could not have known that her husband is really a green, slimy, one-eyed alien. He wore a mask to conceal his non-humanoid face, but what of the rest of him? Was she really only concerned with the trinkets and title he provided, and never with any intimacy that might have betrayed his true form? That’s a bit of a stretch.

There’s an interesting discussion toward the end, when the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan note that there are now seven Mona Lisas, six of which have “This is a fake” written under the paint in black felt-tip pen (thanks to the Doctor’s visit to DaVinci). Duggan feels this is wrong, that the Doctor has devalued the painting. Experts will x-ray the paintings and discover they are forgeries (which, of course, they aren’t since DaVinci painted them all). The Doctor makes the observation: “Serves them right if you have to x-ray it to find out if it’s good or not. You might as well have painting by computer!” His point is that the value of the painting is not determined by monetary value, based on its authenticity. The true value of the painting is in the eye of the beholder. Hence, whether or not it says “This is a fake” is irrelevant. As a work of art, it should be appreciated for what it is, not what it isn’t.

I would say this story is must-see Who. Douglas Adams only wrote three or four stories for Doctor Who, and while he was script editor for this season, script editing was not his forte. So, as an example of what Adams was really capable of, it’s well worth your time. None of the rest of the season really does him justice.

Who Review: The Pirate Planet

The quest for the six segments of the Key to Time continues. This time, the tracer takes the TARDIS crew to the planet Calufrax. The Doctor’s attempt to land fails, so Romana tries, and succeeds. The Doctor suspects something’s not right, and not simply because Romana succeeded where he failed. Calufrax is supposed to be cold and uninteresting, but the planet they land on is warm and thriving. Indeed, an announcement declares a new age of prosperity for the inhabitants. The people seem happy enough, though they live in fear of the Mentiads, strange robed people with powerful mental abilities who live under the planet’s surface. But as the Doctor, Romana, and K-9 soon discover in their quest for the the second segment, the planet holds a secret that even its inhabitants don’t know about. Only the planet’s ruler, the bombastic Captain, and his crew have any idea what’s going on. And the truth is more horrific than the Doctor could ever have imagined…

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!

This is the first script submitted to Doctor Who by up-coming writer Douglas Adams. At the time, Adams’s radio play, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” had just been broadcast, and he was riding the wave of success from that. A second series was due, and a book adaptation. Nevertheless, as a life-long Doctor Who fan, he relished the opportunity to write for the show. What we have here is classic Douglas Adams: clever and witty, with characters that ride a fine line between real and parody. There’s a good story that comes to us in pieces but gradually forms a complete picture as the serial progresses.

The Captain is the bombastic pirate, pilot of the planet that hops around the galaxy devouring smaller planets, mining them for their minerals, then spitting out what’s left. His right-hand man, Mr. Fibuli, grovellingly submits to every command of the Captain. The two of them remind me of Hook and Mr. Smee from Peter Pan.  And then there’s the Captain’s “nurse,” who spends most of the story skulking in the background. Little do we realize how important she is to the plot until near the end. When we first encounter the Mentiads, they seem hostile, but the Doctor finds out they are very misunderstood. Indeed, they recognize that the Doctor shares their desire to bring down the Captain and stop his evil plan.

There’s not much I can fault with this story. Perhaps the biggest plot hole I can find is the fact that the planet Calufrax is the second segment of the Key to Time. So, if the Captain hadn’t destroyed it to mine it for minerals, the Doctor would have destroyed it to convert it back into the second segment. I suppose one could argue being the second segment of the Key to Time is better than being sucked dry and having one’s remains mounted for display. Either way, the planet was doomed.

What impresses me the most about “The Pirate Planet,” however is the sheer imagination of the story. Everything from the Captain’s robot parrot (that gets into a laser fight with K-9) to the real reason the planet needs to destroy all those planets and harvest their minerals.

A point of interest: The Doctor and Romana use jelly babies to break the ice with the residents of the planet. However when the Doctor leaves a trail of confectionery from his white paper bag to tempt a guard away from his hover car, the candies are clearly Licorice Allsorts, not jelly babies.

Also, when the Captain announces “a new golden age of prosperity,” he talks of there being “wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.” This same phrase was used in the previous story, “The Ribos Operation.”

Must-see Who? Almost. Douglas Adams’s next Who story, “City of Death” certainly is. But this one is worth watching, and is one of the best freshman efforts of Who’s many writers to date. I wouldn’t quite call it essential, though. Others may differ. 🙂

RTW: Uomo d’Acciaio

This week is the last of our YA Highway Road Trip Wednesday/A-to-Z Blogging Challenge mash-ups. Next week, we’ll be back to the regular Road Trip Wednesday. The question this week is:

In Debra Driza’s MILA 2.0, the main character discovers she’s an android trained to obey orders. We want to know: What other human-like robots (or robot-like humans?) have you enjoyed in books, TV, or movies?

Our letter for today is “U” which explains my brief excursion into Italian for the blog title. “Uomo d’Acciaio” literally means “Man of Steel”–in this case a reference to robots, not Superman. A bit of a stretch, perhaps, but it’ll do…

My first thought went to Iko, Cinder’s very likable robot friend and the family factotum, from Marissa Meyer’s “Lunar Chronicles” series. She has a lot of sympathy for Cinder, and is loyal to her. But she also longs to be more like a human. She’s a great character… but in the end I had to go for Marvin, the Paranoid Android, from Douglas Adams’s HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. Marvin is not actually so much paranoid, as manically depressed. He came with The Heart of Gold, the ship that the heroes of the story hitched a ride on. All the computers and robots on The Heart of Gold have GPP: Genuine People Personalities. The doors are obnoxiously cheerful, and delighted to open for you. Marvin, on the other hand, is like Eeyore on his worst day. And then some. For example:

“Sorry, did I say something wrong? Pardon me for breathing, which I never do anyway so I don’t know why I bother to say it… I’m so depressed. Here’s another one of those self-satisfied doors. Life! Don’t talk to me about life.”

[In response to the question “What are you supposed to do with a manically depressed robot?”]: “You think you’ve got problems… what are you supposed to do if you are a manically depressed robot? No, don’t bother to answer that, I’m fifty thousand times more intelligent than you and even I don’t know the answer. It gives me a headache just trying to think down to your level.”

My favorite screen depiction of Marvin is still the one from the 1981 BBC television series adaptation, voiced by Stephen Moore (see the picture on the right–that’s Marvin, not Stephen Moore, btw). His low, bored, almost monotone fits the character perfectly.

And if the picture’s not enough, here’s a clip I found on YouTube, a little over 4 minutes long, featuring Marvin:

Who’s your favorite literary or screen robot/android/uomo d’acciaio? You can answer in the comments, or better still, join the Road Trip (details at the YA Highway blog)