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Review: Doctor Who - Scream of the Shalka / Cert: 15 / Director: Wilson Milam / Screenplay: Paul Cornell / Starring: Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Sophie Okonedo, Craig Kelly, Anna Calder-Marshall / Release Date: September 16th

It’s sobering to remember, as we canter towards Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations in November, that the series wasn’t always the darling of the BBC it’s become since the 2005 resurrection. Just ten years ago, fans faced the very dismal prospect of commemorating the show’s fortieth birthday with little more than a few paperback books and the odd DVD release from the glory days. Certainly it seemed that few at the BBC gave much of a damn about this relic of a bygone TV age; the much-hyped 1996 over-Americanised Paul McGann TV movie had come and gone and various complex rights issues precluded the BBC from making new TV Who even if they wanted to. Or so it seemed…

The story of the making of Scream of the Shalka is infinitely more interesting than the actual resulting fiction itself. The BBC’s Doctor Who website had already enjoyed some success with new ‘animated’ Doctor Who which amounted to little more than illustrations with voice-overs. Despite BBC disinterest, funds were liberated for a more elaborate animation – from Manchester-based Cosgrove Hall (who’d previously been responsible for ITV hits Dangermouse and Count Duckula) - for an all-new full-cast adventure which would, significantly, introduce a fully sanctioned ninth Doctor in what was hoped would become an ongoing series of animated adventures. The hoops the production team had to jump through to get Shalka made are chronicled in the DVD’s most compelling extra, the Carry on Screaming ‘making of’ documentary. Richard E. Grant was cast as the ‘new’ Doctor alongside Sophie Okonedo as Alison Cheney (who would join the Doctor in the TARDIS at the end of the story) and, remarkably considering his casting in the same role in the resurrected TV series in 2007, Derek Jacobi as the Master. The serial, scripted by popular author Paul Cornell (who would himself go on to write for the TV series), finally went ‘live’ online in November 2003... two months after the BBC had announced their intention to bring Doctor Who back on TV in a big budget Saturday night production overseen by Russell T. Davies. Scream of the Shalka became redundant even before it aired.

Ten years later, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for Scream of the Shalka because it now just seems like an unfortunate, pointless diversion. And in truth, even if you leave aside the immediate obsolescence it achieved when it was made, it really doesn’t amount to much. The primitive ‘flash’ animation does it few favours; Cornell’s story – hostile aliens plotting to strip away the Earth’s ozone layer are terrorising the inhabitants of a small English village – never really soars despite some interesting concepts for the shrieking, subterranean, volcanic alien Shalka. To be fair, Grant makes a fair fist of portraying a slightly colder and more distant version of the Doctor but, Jacobi aside, other performances are altogether less convincing. Interestingly, this version of the ninth Doctor bears some similarities to the TV series which reappeared sixteen months later. The Doctor himself is trying to keep a low profile, he’s a damaged man following some unspecified catastrophe which appears to have cost him the life of a recent companion. Alison too isn’t a million miles away from Billie Piper’s Rose, a frustrated young girl trapped in a dead-end job and lumbered with an uninspiring boyfriend, who snaps up the chance to travel in the TARDIS with the Doctor and his pet android Master. Don’t ask…

Considering its limited budget, the restraints its production team found themselves working to and the BBC’s general disinterest in the project, it’s amazing that Scream of the Shalka was made at all and it was a well-meaning effort at giving fans something new when it looked like the show was the last thing on the BBC’s collective mind. But viewed now, after eight years of the hugely popular and fast-paced new TV show, Scream of the Shalka looks creaky and old-fashioned and it can’t help but seem more redundant now than it did in 2003. Completism alone justifies this DVD release but really it’s just one big ‘so what?’ shoulder-shrug which exists as little more than a good example of Doctor Who fans fighting to keep the show alive when all around them had just about given up hope. Worthy and yet ultimately worthless.

Extras: Commentary / Making of documentary / History of the BBC website / 2003 cast and crew interviews / Photo gallery

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