The terrible irony surrounding Shada, the legendary incomplete 1980 Doctor Who story, is that it should have been the jewel in the crown of the programme’s most popular series on air – and yet the fact that it has never been finished (much less broadcast) is down to the very same reason that Season Seventeen achieved such astonishingly high peaks of viewing figures: strike action.
It’s well known that the autumn 1979 series of Doctor Who debuted to zero opposition. ITV was off the air due to industrial action and Destiny of the Daleks and City of Death were transmitted to homes in which the BBC was the only televisual option. Audiences reached an unprecedented 16 or so million, a feat never matched before or since. But this wasn’t only because ITV was broadcasting a blank screen; Season Seventeen was also the year in which Douglas Adams became Doctor Who’s script editor, and whatever you might make of such stories as The Creature from the Pit and The Horns of Nimon, it’s beyond question that this era of the show had massive audience appeal. In fact, the 1979/80 series was probably 20th Century Doctor Who’s last hurrah as populist, and fun, Saturday night entertainment.
The second story in broadcast order, City of Death, underwent something of a difficult birth. Originally scripted by David Fisher (as A Gamble with Time), the story was deemed unsuitable and Douglas Adams (together with producer Graham Williams, and under the pseudonym David Agnew) concocted a last-minute replacement. What they produced has gone on to become one of the series’ all-time great stories, an evergreen amongst fans’ Top Ten lists. But City of Death was Adams writing under pressure and from somebody else’s ideas; concurrently with this, the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy author was also crafting a six-part, end-of-season adventure that would be both his last contribution to Doctor Who, and his ultimate word on the programme. It would be the Douglas Adams story. It might have topped even City of Death.
And then, with location filming and the first of three studio sessions completed, strike action hit the BBC and the remaining production on Shada was cancelled, never to be remounted. It is perhaps the series’ greatest loss, the 1992 VHS release (comprising the extant footage and a linking narration by Tom Baker) providing a tantalising glimpse into what might have been.
It’s an indication of how mythical the quest to achieve a ‘completed’ version of Shada has been, that in 2003, the BBC combined forces with Big Finish Audio to produce a partially successful, partially animated version for release first through BBCi and then the BBC website. A little convoluted continuity in the prologue saw Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor involved, replacing Tom Baker. The result divided fans, with many happy that at least one version of Shada existed in its entirety, and others unhappy that it was the wrong one.
Next year, the quest to ‘complete’ Shada continues with an adaptation for BBC Books by Gareth Roberts, writer of a number of episodes of the television series. Shada was one of only a handful of stories never adapted as a Target novelisation in the 1980s, and there is so much strength of feeling about the story, that now, even this is being put right.
Enter Ian Levine.
Ian Levine is a record producer and songwriter whose credentials speak for themselves: he once worked closely with Simon Cowell (in the days before Simon Cowell became the Simon Cowell; check out this interview here for more), and he had a big hand in the early days of Take That. (His project du jour is a band called Inju5tice; his main love is Northern Soul.)
But Ian Levine is also a Doctor Who fan, and one with a significant position in the show’s history. For Ian Levine is The Man Who Saved The Daleks. In the 1970s, it was standard practice at the BBC to wipe episodes of previously broadcast material, in order to make way for new programmes. There are still 108 episodes of Doctor Who missing from the archives, thanks to this practice. Were it not for Levine’s intervention, there might well be significantly more. He will always be respected amongst Doctor Who fans for being the man who, effectively, stopped the junking.
However, Levine’s reputation is not without blemish. He was also an adviser to the producers of the show during the early 1980s (even going so far as to contribute story ideas; it is a generally accepted assumption that Levine was in fact an uncredited co-author of the scripts for Attack of the Cybermen in 1985), and many old school fans consider this to be one of the lower ebbs of the programme’s original run. I shall not dare to mention Doctor in Distress.
But Levine has two character traits that I admire and respect in anyone: he speaks his mind, and he puts his money where his mouth is. And that’s where Shada comes in.
Levine has long been a champion of the Recons, fan-made reconstructions of missing Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s, that marry the existing soundtracks to telesnap photos taken of the action as it was broadcast on a television screen, and providing what is essentially a photo-story, albeit one with an audio soundtrack. They’re as near as most fans will ever get to witnessing the original episodes. Levine has also been a long-standing campaigner for a completed, Tom Baker Shada. But with roughly 50% of Shada never having even gone before the cameras, it is obvious that in this instance, to Recon the story would not be a possibility.
A little while ago, I wrote here about how the incomplete story The Reign of Terror was going to be finished via animation – and of how animation had been used in 2006 to complete The Invasion for a DVD release. But without a soundtrack for the missing portions of Shada to work from, even animation wouldn’t be possible for this story. Would it?
That’s the thing about Ian Levine, he’s not a man to let the little things get in his way, even if those little things are actually huge obstacles. And so he embarked upon an adventure just as remarkable as any that the Doctor himself has undertaken. He began to reassemble the original cast of Shada, with a view to recording the scenes that had never been filmed. And Levine, no mere mouth without trousers, put the money up to complete this venture entirely out of his own pockets.
Ultimately, this was not to be an easy task. For a start, during Season Seventeen, David Brierley had provided – in a break from the norm – the voice of K9. Sadly, Brierley is no longer with us. And Tom Baker, entirely the most important member of the cast, proved uninterested, pricing himself out of the project. Other actors such as Lalla Ward, Christopher Neame and Daniel Hill demonstrated willingness and availability, however, and compromise solutions to various problems were found.
If David Brierley was unable to provide the voice of K9, then what better replacement than the original K9 voice artist John Leeson? Leeson was contacted and came aboard. If Tom Baker – probably one of the most impressionist-friendly voices in the business – was unwilling to recreate his Doctor for the project, then why not simply get someone in to do an impersonation of him in the part? Enter Paul Jones.
And of course, with everyone involved being a touch over thirty years older than when the original was recorded, animation was chosen as a way to disguise that fact and bridge the gaps. Thus it was that, towards the end of last year, the newly reconstituted cast convened in a recording studio to record the missing sequences. At the same time, Levine posted on internet forums asking for animators to come forward, not specifying what the project might be, but intimating it was going to be both ‘important’ and worthwhile. Fast forward to last week, when Ian announced (via his Twitter feed and his Facebook profile) the completion of the project.
That’s right. The missing 50% of Shada is now recorded and animated and ‘in the bag’.
This is where things get tricky. Levine’s intention right from the start of the project has been that this will be seen by the wider public, hopefully through a DVD release from 2|entertain. His budget for the animation was thus set accordingly, and the timeframe for the project has been deliberately chosen to accommodate when any potential DVD release would have to take place. In fact, essentially, Ian Levine set out to accomplish the completed Shada that he probably thought 2|entertain ought to have been working on themselves, and yet obviously weren’t. It was a case of, If you’re not thinking laterally enough to get this done, then I certainly will.
Since Levine’s announcement, the forums have been buzzing with both congratulatory posts, and those of a more negative nature. Was this the right thing to do? Was this the right way to go about doing it? Should it even have been attempted without Tom Baker’s participation? Will this ‘private’ re-creation of Shada stop a more official one from taking place? Why couldn’t they just have let the incomplete version stand for itself? Will it even be any good? And so on and so forth.
A number of people who’ve worked on the project (and thus being the only people in a position thus far to have seen any of it) are also active members of these forums. And a couple of dozen screen grabs of the animation can be found on Ian Levine’s (public) Facebook profile. A picture is beginning to emerge of what Ian Levine’s Shada might be like, and of what the chances are of the rest of us ever getting to see it. (The problem with posting even the shortest sequence somewhere like YouTube, for example, being that the script is still under BBC copyright, and so while Levine’s re-creation of Shada is perfectly legal as a private enterprise, it cannot enter the public domain in any way without infringing that copyright.)
The main hurdle to Shada receiving a wider release is a man called Dan Hall, the commissioning editor for the Doctor Who releases at 2|entertain. He’s the man who decides what budget is allocated to which story, and how that money is then spent. Basically, he’s the man who would have to agree to the purchase of Levine’s animation, and agree a price with Levine for that to happen. (Even if Levine were to offer Hall Shada for free – and being a businessman who has already paid out heavily for the recording and animation to even happen, that’s not something it would be at all reasonable to expect him to do – that still might not necessarily mean the re-creation would appear on DVD; Dan Hall has also got to consider it worthy of being released under the auspices of the wider BBC.)
For Ian Levine’s efforts to impress Dan Hall enough to make the deal, then, certain criteria would have to be considered. Is animation the right way of presenting Douglas Adams’ final, unfinished Doctor Who story? Is the animation that Ian Levine paid for of sufficient quality that the BBC, through 2|entertain, would be happy to be associated with it? And if so, what changes might need to be made? (For instance, one section features a Dalek, a Cyberman and a Zygon, and clearances for those might need to be sought, or the creatures deleted from the scene.) What would be the right price?
It’s certainly not a black and white issue, and it’s certainly not as simple as that now the animation has been done, it’s time to see it.
Ought we to want to see it, for a start? A ‘complete’ version of Shada already does exist, and while it might not be quite how Douglas Adams originally conceived it, the webcast animation with Paul McGann is at least consistent in a way that a mixture of live action and animation by definition can’t be. There will also, always be those fans who are unhappy with the animation itself. This is no multi-million pound Pixar effort, and anybody who is expecting photo-realistic images of Tom Baker, Christopher Neame, Denis Carey and all wandering in a naturalistic fashion around fully-realised 3D sets, is also bound to feel a touch let down, by something that isn’t even going to have pretensions towards that sort of level of sophistication. And there will be some fans who take umbrage with the fact that anybody has seen fit to try and complete the Tom Baker Shada without the participation of Tom Baker himself. Sacrilege, will be the cry.
The benefits far outweigh the disadvantages, however.
On a personal level, although I am extremely pleased that they exist – and delighted that we, as Doctor Who fans, are in the position of extraordinary good fortune to even have them – I have always found it difficult to live with the soundtracks of the missing episodes as they stand. It’s sad but true, that try as I might to give, say, The Knight of Jaffa (episode two of The Crusade) my full attention, I always find my mind wandering while listening to the unadorned soundtracks. The Recons (even the very primitive ones, which are essentially nothing more than a series of still photographs) are a very definite step up; having at least some kind of pictorial representation helps to focus the concentration on the narrative and characters at hand. The animation as seen on The Invasion is a vast improvement, for two reasons, one of which is rather fundamental. Firstly, it gives the soundtrack kinetics; there’s a sense of how the original episode might have looked and – more importantly – moved, but also there’s a greater sense of how the soundtrack is part of a ‘living’ thing. The telesnap-only Recons allow you to imagine what was once a complete picture, but the animations (and the more sophisticated Recons) allow you to feel it. More importantly, as far as I’m concerned, the animation – unlike even the most sophisticated telesnap reconstructions – allows for a critical distance between what once was and what now is, that – once you accept the difference – lets you immerse yourself in this ‘second best’ solution more fully. If you’re watching a Recon, you are always aware that you’re not watching the real thing, you are always (even if subconsciously) re-assessing the images and trying to consider how the original might have looked and moved. With the animation, there’s never the sense that you’re that close to the way the episode originally appeared, and as a result, it’s far easier to turn off that analytical part of your brain and just enjoy the best of what you have.
This is why I believe the animated Shada is pretty much the ideal solution.
Once it became apparent in 1980 that John Nathan-Turner (the producer who succeeded Graham Williams at the head of Doctor Who) wasn’t going to be able to remount the abandoned production, there was never any chance of us seeing Douglas Adams’ story the way we should have been able to. You have to accept that, and then you have to accept that the best solution to the problem is not going to be ideal. There is never going to be a live-action Shada with a 1979-aged Tom Baker and Lalla Ward.
But the Ian Levine animation will at least allow us to enjoy the entire story – the entire script – in the closest possible manner to that original (there are, for example, no faces attempting to disguise a thirty-year gap in production), and in a fashion that will allow us to make the best of the inconsistency of the presentation. My best guess would be that, the first time the story switches from live-action to animation, your brain will engage a process of re-evaluation that will make the change less jarring each subsequent time it happens. It’s not as if Doctor Who fans haven’t had to put up with similarly jarring situations before: the switch from an animated Part One of The Invasion to the live-action Part Two (and back again for Part Four) is a case in point; perhaps more relevantly, oddly enough, is the VHS release of The Ambassadors of Death, in which the colour recovery accomplished by the Restoration Team resulted in a story which switched from colour to black and white and back again during the course of a single episode, often on a number of occasions. We dealt with it partly because we had to, and partly because as the story went on, we became used to it and found it easier to handle. Shada will be the same.
As for the lack of a Tom Baker (and a David Brierley, of course), I find this considerably less of a problem. For a start, the fact that you’re switching between live-action and animated segments will make the change in the voices feel less abrupt (once your mind registers the first change, the second change will be less of a leap; and don’t forget, it’s likely that the other actors’ voices – the ones who were able to participate in the project – will have changed somewhat in the thirty intervening years as well, meaning the entire presentation will change, rather than just elements of it), but secondly, and again possibly more fundamentally, while what we might think we’d be missing would be the performance, the idiosyncrasies of Tom Baker circa 1979, there are a couple of reasons why I think this might not be true.
Baker famously went ‘off-script’ on any number of occasions during the latter years of his tenure, but this was usually because he wasn’t terribly happy with the quality of the lines he had to say. It’s unlikely that this would be the case with Shada; it was written by Douglas Adams. (In fact, if you look at Season Seventeen as a whole, there’s considerably less obvious evidence of Baker ad-libbing or playing up to the cameras in City of Death – the other Adams script – than in almost any other story.) And secondly, even if Tom Baker were to have agreed to participate in this remounting of Shada, it’s a cinch that his acting choices in 2010 would be different to the ones he would have made in 1979, so it’s not as if either version would or even could have been definitive. In fact, and especially given how much scrutiny classic series Doctor Who comes under these days, it is almost certainly the case that an actor versed in vintage Tom would more likely make the more authentically contemporary choices than a three-decades older Tom Baker himself.
There is also the possibility that, if Dan Hall and Ian Levine were to come to an accommodation, and Shada were to be picked up for release by 2|entertain, then Tom Baker’s services might still be acquired and he might ADR in a voiceover for the animation anyway, albeit that this time he would have to stick to the script. Tantalising, isn’t it?
To me, it doesn’t matter how professional or expensive-looking Ian Levine’s animated Shada might or might not be. The screen grabs that are available on his Facebook page show a production that has strived to achieve the most authentic-looking results that could possibly have been attained. The fact that Levine contracted as many of the original actors as possible speaks volumes about his dedication to preserving the feel, the ethos, of the original. Whatever the quality of the results he achieved, the simple fact that it will be possible to sit down and enjoy an entire, ‘new’ Tom Baker Doctor Who story, will be satisfying enough. Because up until now, even with a script book to hand and a webcast permanently available on the BBC website, Shada has never felt complete. It has never felt right. Thanks to Ian Levine – and say what you will about the man, here is an occasion where he has put his hand in his pocket and done something that will hopefully, eventually, be to the benefit of us all – it now feels as if there’s a Tom Baker version of the story that can be watched in a way that will satisfy and feel complete – and that’s never been true before. The VHS release, with the linking narration, was a very nice way to experience the extant footage, but there was never a sense that you were watching a story through to its conclusion. Now that will be possible.
If Dan Hall chooses to buy it, that is.
Whatever Dan Hall’s decision, though, we must retain our respect for both the players in this little drama. If Hall decides that Levine’s Shada is not up to scratch, is of a lesser quality than Hall would be prepared to stomach for a professional, available-in-the-High Street release, then we must respect that decision. And neither must we bay for Levine’s blood for creating something so unique and so special, and yet that we might never be allowed to see. Ian Levine has done his best to bring us a complete, Tom Baker Shada. We couldn’t have asked any more of him. Dan Hall’s job is to ensure a consistency of quality across the Doctor Who DVD releases. That’s just his job.
If Dan Hall chooses not to share Shada with the world, then I won’t hold a personal grudge. But I’ll still be upset at what might have been.
But there’s a huge part of me that thinks that, now that Shada actually exists, now that there is a complete version which can be released, then you’d have to be mad not to want to. This is one of those moments when a myth has the chance of becoming a reality. When something we never ever thought we’d see has a chance of being watched in our own living rooms. For many a Doctor Who fan, we’re potentially on the cusp of something very exciting indeed.
And if there’s anyone who doesn’t like the animation, then there’ll always be a second disc featuring just the existing footage.