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Shards of Shada: Thoughts on the not-quite sublime fragments of a Doctor Who adventure.

July 23, 2015


1992.  A greying Tom Baker enters an dusty and neglected looking exhibition space.   He is surrounded by Doctor Who memorabilia and waxes all nostalgic before being struck by a memory of the lost story, the unbroadcast adventure, the tale lost to industrial action – Shada.

And so unfolds the truncated spectacle – the bits that were filmed joined up with Tom Baker’s narration.  Too much of Shada was filmed for it to be dismissed or neglected, but not enough for it to be judged on anything like its own intended terms.

In its existing form (or its 1992 form), it’s very Cambridge, because the Cambridge location shots were the ones that had been completed.  For those who know Cambridge, there’s the rather smug comedy of trying to figure out how the Doctor could possibly have cycled in between various locations using the route he seemed to be taking.  But that’s TV for you.  They decide what’s pretty and have no interest any logic underpinning the in between bits.  I have to say I always feel rather awkward seeing Cambridge on screen, and even more so visiting Cambridge in person.  Cambridge to me always feels like a rather distant parent, someone who probably feels rather disappointed in me, someone I’ve let down in some way.  I can’t see any part of it without feeling rather ashamed of my waste of life.

This is a Douglas Adams story, so although it’s about the end of the universe as we know it, it’s not short of humour, although of a rather strained kind at times.  There’s a cup of tea joke that is used so often that it starts to taste of recycled teabags itself.  Adams, not so many years out of Cambridge himself, enjoys a few mild and affectionate Cambridge jokes, but after a while, the proportion of film diminishes and the proportion of Tom Baker just telling us a story increases.  Which is not a bad bargain.  Little has survived of the spaceshippy bits, nor of the scary monsters.   There is a “big reveal” towards the end, which you’ll probably guess – but it’s no so obvious that you won’t feel slightly proud of yourself for guessing.

If there’s a major problem with the interweaving of footage and narration it’s that Tom Baker’s narration feels rushed.  I doubt if this is Tom Baker’s fault.  It’s more likely to be a director’s or producer’s demand that he speed things up to get to the actual footage quicker.  The effect is of an attempt to make Shada look rather more complete than it is.  But it also evidences a rather disappointing lack of faith in the power of Baker’s voice.   Many of us could listen to Tom Baker recite the phone book.  1992 preceded the success of Big Finish, and I suppose John Nathan Turner could have been forgiven for not realising that simply hearing events described, slowly and carefully, would have an appeal all of its own.

But it’s still a pleasure to see and hear. There’s a plan for a “universal mind” that, properly told, is scarier than any conventional scheme of cosmic domination.  There is some sophistication to the way Adams juggles  ideas of time and memory and identity itself.   In some ways, I regret the fact the fact that Tom Baker was unable to talk slowly in 1992 even more than I regret the incompletion of the original production in 1979-80.  There’s a peculiar sublime pleasure in incompletion – the way it forces us to extrapolate things – to consider how things “might have been”.  To do some imaginative work all of our own.

Ruined castles have a splendour denied restored castles, and Shada is Tom Baker’s ruined castle.  It’s just a shame that in 1992, John Nathan Turner didn’t quite realise this – did not quite cherish the peculiar thing that he had charge of.  He wanted Shada to look finished and I want to to look ruined.


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