Doctor Who: Shada (Eighth Doctor)
(6 episodes, 2003)
A new look on a once unfinished classic.
The story opens on Gallifrey with the Eighth Doctor paying a visit to Romana and K9. Romana has been elected Lord President and has not regenerated since taking her second incarnation, and the Doctor has intentionally breached the transduction barriers to steal his former companion away for an adventure from their past. He talks of their travels together four of his regenerations ago – collecting the Key to Time, defacing da Vinci’s artwork, and punting on the River Cam – and Romana mentions their bout in stasis during their trip to Cambridge. It seems that neither Romana nor K9 remember the visit to Professor Chronotis, and together they believe that they landed in Cambridge, sailed the river, were put in stasis, and then immediately set course for Brighton.
It was only because of a vision… a dream… that the Doctor even thought of this point in his history, and now he wants answers.
Across the universe, the Institute for Advanced Scientific Studies drifts through space under quarantine. The station has suffered an accident, and scientists Skagra and Caldera discuss the situation and a familiar sphere. Skagra demonstrates the sphere’s ability to consume minds, much to Caldera’s horror.
On Earth, Chris Parsons visits Professor Chronotis (who is housing the TARDIS in his office) to borrow books on carbon dating. Parsons picks up a book with mysterious writing, gathers the carbon dating references, and departs in a hurry. Chris travels to his lab to meet a woman named Claire, and when he analyzes it, he calls Claire right away to seek her advice.
Elsewhere, the Doctor and Romana wander the university’s grounds on their way to the professor’s office. Romana hears a babbling of voices as Skagra and his sphere lurk in the shadows. They also meet Mr. Wilkin, who still remembers the Doctor and the honorary degree in 1960. Wilkin remembers the Doctor’s three visits (1964, 1960, and 1955), but has no recollection of the fourth visit thanks to the events of The Five Doctors. The Time Lords arrive in Chronotis’s office, and this time it is no surprise that the professor is also a Time Lord. The Doctor tells the professor that they came at his summons, but the professor says that he didn’t send the signal. After a little prodding, the professor remembers that he summoned the Time Lords to help find the missing book.
Skagra, having spoken to Wilkin, follows his previous actions: He hitches a ride with a stranger (in a Ford Prefect in honor of Shada writer Douglas Adams), assaults the stranger with the sphere, and steals the car. The event echoes to our Time Lord trio as they hear voices.
The professor explains that the missing book is The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, dating from the era of Rassilon. The Doctor is beside himself: The book is one of the powerful artifacts, and the professor stole it from the Panopticon Archives upon his retirement. As Time Lords past and present continue to search the professor’s library, Skagra absorbs massive amounts of data about the Doctor, continuing the same path as before.
Skagra’s ship is beautiful in this incarnation, and he’s not wearing the sun hat and flowing silver cape from 1979-80 which is a plus. Also, despite it being pompous, I did like the expanded mythology of the Time Lord Academy and their induction oath: “I swear to protect the ancient Law of Gallifrey with all my might and brain. I will to the end of my days, with justice and with honor, temper my actions and my thoughts.”
Carrying on, the Doctor and Romana briefly discuss Salyavin, a Gallifreyan criminal and one of the Doctor’s heroes. When the Doctor asks Chronotis about Salyavin, the professor scrounges up Chris Parsons’s identity from his spotty memory. The Doctor goes to find Parsons while Romana stays with the professor.
In the laboratory, Claire (who no longer resembles Sarah Jane like she did in the original Shada) and Chris are analyzing the book. As they puzzle over it, Skagra returns to Cambridge and pesters Wilkin for directions to the professor’s office. The professor runs out of milk (after brewing his tenth pot of tea), and as Romana looks in the TARDIS for some, Skagra arrives in contemporary clothes and demands the book. When Chronotis refuses to yield, Skagra’s sphere attacks.
Chris returns to the professor’s office as Romana and K9 (after a brief discussion of milk in the console room) examine Chronotis. The professor has had part of his mind extracted, resulting in severe mental trauma. Romana sends Chris into the TARDIS for a medical kit while she tends to the professor, placing him on life support with the kit Chris retrieves.
After the Doctor arrives at the lab, he and Claire analyze the book and determine that it is 20,000 years old. Meanwhile, in his ship, Skagra analyzes the professor’s mental data. After it doesn’t pan out, he pursues the Doctor. In office, K9 and Romana tend to the professor. Sadly, he is in a vegetative state, but he does send a message in Gallifreyan morse code (via his heartsbeat) warning them of the spheres, Skagra, and Shada before dying.
Skagra intercepts the Doctor and the book. The Doctor is pursued through Cambridge by the sphere, losing the book in the chase. Skagra retrieves the book, but the Doctor is captured by the sphere and it starts to drain his mind. This version of the chase loses the situational humor and impact of the original version, which is just as well given the limited visual effects of the animation.
Romana arrives in the TARDIS and rescues the Doctor. They return to the professor’s offices just after the retired Time Lord disappears – no regeneration or anything, which makes the Doctor think that Chronotis was on his last life – and the Doctor vows vengeance. K9 scans for the sphere as the Time Lords and Chris wait in the TARDIS.
Claire heads to the professor’s offices with a printout just as the TARDIS dematerializes in pursuit of the sphere. The capsule arrives in the field where Skagra’s ship is located – K9 is displeased about navigating the pasture – and Skagra welcomes the group aboard before taking them prisoner. Skagra reveals that he was only interested in the professor’s mind, not his life, and he demands that the Doctor decode the book. When the Doctor stalls and delays, the sphere attacks him. In their cell, Romana, K9, and Chris look for a way out. They can find nothing, and K9 cannot blast out. The robotic dog does detect the voices, including a new addition in the Doctor’s voice. Romana is transmatted from the cell and forced by Skagra to pilot the TARDIS.
Claire, in search of the professor, finds Wilkin and explains that the book is absorbing energy. She returns to the office while Wilkin looks for Chronotis, and as she looks about, she inadvertently sets off an explosion that results in a time vortex filling the space.
The Doctor awakens on the ship and reveals to the vessel’s computer that since he was playing dumb, the sphere only copied his mind. He convinces the ship that he is dead to secure freedom for him and his companions, and it replies by shutting off the air supply. When Chris and K9 are transmatted into the corridor, the ship promptly restores life support. Just as it was in the original, this moment was a cheap cliffhanger.
Following the original story closely, the TARDIS travels and Skagra reveals that he is after the criminal Salyavin. Thus, he needs Time Lord technology to find him. They materialize on the Krarg carrier ship, and Romana discovers that only a Time Lord can decipher the book. Back on Earth, the Doctor pilots Skagra’s ship into space, setting the course for Think Tank, and it dematerializes just like a TARDIS as he boosts the power. There’s also a Krarg on the ship.
Claire awakens inside the professor’s office to discover Professor Chronotis. The office is a TARDIS, Claire has activated it, and the capsule restored him in the accidental temporal convergence. Oh, and the book… yeah, the book is revealed to be the key to Shada, a Time Lord prison.
Back on the carrier, Skagra plows through the Doctor’s memories but is unable to crack the code. As the Doctor’s ship arrives at the Think Tank, he and Chris board the ship while K9 holds the Krarg at bay. On the carrier, Skagra and Romana retreat to the Doctor’s TARDIS. As Skagra turns the pages and continues his study, the TARDIS operates, and he deduces that turning the last page will unlock the code.
The Doctor and Chris discover the aged members of the Think Tank, and the Doctor connects Chris to the machine. This restores the Think Tank members, and the lead scientist, Caldera, explains the group’s history with Skagra. The evil scientist intends to use his intellect to dominate humanity by merging everything into himself, but needs Salyavin to do so. The Doctor is interrupted by K9, who has no choice but to release the Krarg, and the crystalline creature attacks the group. In the process it destroys the central computer column. In the smoke, the Doctor, K9, and Chris escape to Skagra’s ship and escape just in time. Sadly, the Think Tank members die as their ship explodes. The Doctor feels guilty, but K9 assuages him by reporting that only the Doctor and Chris were still alive when the Krarg attacked.
The professor’s TARDIS is wedged between two irrational time interfaces, and Chronotis and Claire attempt to fix the capsule (with a sonic screwdriver!). The retired Time Lord telepathically focuses on Claire’s mind and transfers his knowledge into her. Meanwhile, Skagra’s ship arrives at the carrier, and in the attempt to rescue Romana, the Doctor, Chris, and K9 end up inside the professor’s newly repaired TARDIS. While everyone catches up, Skagra pilots the Doctor’s TARDIS to Shada using the book and start searching for Salyavin. The Doctor and Chronotis soon follow in the professor’s TARDIS, and when they arrive, they leave Chris and Claire in the time capsule while they search for Skagra.
Skagra starts the revival process in the prison, but Salyavin’s not there. The other two Time Lords arrive and Chronotis reveals that he is Salyavin. Chris and Claire come to the same conclusion and leave the TARDIS to confront him.
Skagra drains Salyavin’s mind, and not even K9 can slow it down. The sphere deposits fragments of all the minds it holds into the Krarg army, starting Skagra’s plan of the universal mind. The sphere attacks Chris and adds him to the collective. K9 builds a wall of ricocheting laser blasts, and the Doctor uses the distraction to escort Romana, Claire, and K9 to the professor’s TARDIS. As the Doctor attempts to find a solution, Romana reminds him that all of the captured minds are in the melting pot, including the Doctor’s.
Romana is wearing a TARDIS key around her neck like a choker. How interesting.
Skagra takes his legion to the Doctor’s TARDIS, preparing to dispatch them throughout the universe. The Doctor, Romana, and Claire use the professor’s TARDIS to generate a force field as they pursue Skagra, capturing the phone box in the time vortex. The Doctor attempts to pass across to his TARDIS, but the force field fades, threatening to toss the Doctor into the vortex. The professor’s TARDIS ends up a shambles, but the Doctor is dumped into his workshop. He formulates a plan, including a helmet with familiar markings and the Second Doctor‘s hat.
Both TARDISes arrive on the carrier ship as the Doctor struggles for control of the joint mind. The Krargs self-destruct, restoring Chris’s mind, and Romana teams with K9 to destroy the Krarg generators. Seeing that he has lost, Skagra retreats to his ship, but the computer incarcerates him after deciding to serve the Doctor. The heroes travel to Shada and restore Salyavin’s mind to his body. The Doctor tries to decide Salyavin’s fate, deducing that Salyavin covered his escape by erasing the memory of Shada from the collective Time Lord memory, including stealing the key. Romana uses her executive authority to sentence Salyavin to Earth, acting once again as Professor Chronotis.
The TARDISes return to Earth. The return of the professor’s offices stumps Wilkin, who has summoned a policeman to report the “stolen room,” as the professor entertains his guests to tea. The Doctor and Romana depart, stymieing the policeman as the TARDIS dematerializes.
My feelings on Shada in its entirety are complicated. When I first covered the story, I gave it a solid four out of five rating, calling it an enjoyable romp. Even here, the story remains solid, and it is only amplified by including Paul McGann, bringing back K9, and advancing the story of Romana following her last appearance in E-Space. Romana’s story is even more special as she has finally surpassed her mentor in nearly every way.
But, while it’s entirely possible to do so, I have a hard time acknowledging it as part of the continuity. I would love to, but this makes the story of Shada so much more complicated than it needs to be. I mean, look at it on the real world timeline:
- 1979-80 – Shada is intended to serve as the Season 17 finale, but a production strike stops the completion of the story.
- 1983 – The Five Doctors premieres, in which each incarnation of the Doctor is pulled from (and replaced within) their respective timelines except the Fourth Doctor because Tom Baker didn’t want to participate. Using footage from the unfinished Shada, the Fourth Doctor and Romana are removed from the story during the river punting scene.
- 1992 – Shada premieres, completed with narration by Tom Baker (sort of in character) over the missing segments. A reasonable viewer could conclude that the events of Shada took place regardless of The Five Doctors: The Doctor and Romana arrived in Cambridge, got abducted by President Borusa, were returned, and then completed the Skagra/Salyavin mission without a hitch.
- 2003 – This version of Shada premieres. It acknowledges that the Fourth Doctor and Romana arrived in Cambridge, but after their abduction by Borusa, they immediately left Cambridge for Brighton. Presumably, since Skagra couldn’t get access to the Time Lords – assuming that he didn’t have the fortitude to invade Gallifrey and none of the other traveling Time Lords in Doctor Who mythology were available to be brain-sucked by the sphere – the ability to open Shada was lost and the threat was stopped. But, the Eighth Doctor found the hole in his memories and responded to the (what seems to be a fixed constant) call from Chronotis/Salyavin to find the Shada key and stop Skagra, so that means that the threat is still serious enough.
So, why not just stick with the assumption from 1992, especially considering that Shada was finally completed with animation in 2017?
To me, that makes this version an alternate telling of events.
The highlights were having more Paul McGann and furthering the Romana/K9 story. I was a bit put off by the animation and its limits, particularly in the chase sequences and some of the narrative shortcuts that were more powerful visual sequences in the original. Overall, though, it’s still a good tale.
With this post – excluding future revisits to Power of the Daleks, The Enemy of the World, The Web of Fear, and Shada thanks to their recovery and reconstruction – the Timestamps Project has covered the entirety of the classic era of Doctor Who. This leg of the journey has taken approximately four and a half years to complete, but the adventure is far from over.
It’s time to revisit the modern era with the understanding of the classic era in my mind.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Rose
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.