By Matthew Kresal
Not the Ninth Doctor you were expecting?
Picture courtesy BBC.
When the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie failed to lead to a new TV series, it seemed as though fan hopes for a TV revival were dashed. Yet while the spirit of the series remained alive in books and audio dramas, the Time Lord found a new home online. The early 2000s saw the release of a series of webcasts, forerunners to modern streaming series. Combining audio with limited animation, three such serials appeared on the BBC Online Doctor Who website between the summers of 2001 and 2003. Then in November 2003, in time for the series 40th anniversary, a new Doctor appeared. His debut serial, Scream of the Shalka , represented – for six weeks in late 2003 – a new start for the series that was to prove stillborn but influential on what was to follow, up to the present day.
The thing that would separate Scream of the Shalka from previous webcasts, such as Death Comes to Time, was that it was a step forward for the series. Previous webcasts had featured existing incarnations, whereas Shalka would be a conscious attempt to relaunch the series.
To do so, BBC Online pulled a major name in to play the Ninth Doctor. One that had been something of a media favourite to take on the role and had, in fact, briefly played the part four years earlier in the 1999 charity skit The Curse of Fatal Death. That actor was Richard E Grant (which was perhaps ironic given that his predecessor in the role was his Withnail and I co-star, Paul McGann).
Richard Grant in The Curse of Fatal Death.
Picture courtesy BBC.
Grant’s Doctor offers an intriguing incarnation, particularly with hindsight, as his characterisation combines elements from the series of two TV incarnations. There’s an aloofness to him in the early portions of the narrative that call back to the Hartnell and Colin Baker incarnations from the 1960s and 1980s. Then, when the military gets called in, we get a sarcasm-laced relationship with them that could hearken back to the early days of Pertwee and UNIT’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.
Yet, as Shalka unfolds, Grant’s Doctor takes on a hurt quality that reveals the pain behind his aloofness and reluctance to get involved. With events suggesting that something and someone in his past haunting him which the events in the serial start to help him recover from, hinted at in dialogue that could have been delivered by the likes of David Tennant or Matt Smith anytime in the decade that followed. It isn’t a perfect performance, with Grant spending the first episode or so finding his feet in the role before settling in and finding confidence in the serial’s second half. While incoming (and, once more, present) Doctor Who showrunner Russel T Davies would be dismissive of Grant’s performance here to the point of claiming that the actor had “taken the money and ran,” there’s little doubt with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight that he made a solid debut here that has grown in future serials.
A solid supporting cast surrounded Grant’s Doctor, including two characters intended to be future regulars. There was Sophie Okonedo as barmaid Alison Cheney, introduced as bored with village life and her unambitious boyfriend Joe who soon falls into the Doctor’s orbit upon arrival. As that description might suggest to those familiar with the likes of Rose Tyler or Amy Pond from Modern Who, Alison was almost something of a template for companions that would follow, with Okonedo offering a strong performance in the webcast.
Sophie Okonedo as barmaid Alison Cheney.
Picture courtesy TARDIS fandom.
The other new regular was the noted thespian Derek Jacobi who would take on the role of the Doctor’s Time Lord nemesis the Master. Not the Master as the fans had known him in his 1971 debut; instead being given the rather interesting development of having had his consciousness transferred into an android body following some of the events that had scarred the Doctor, leaving him confined to the TARDIS. Jacobi’s Master has least appearances of the trio, but there are some tantalising moments that offered both echoes of the character’s past, but also where Jacobi might take the role next.
The chemistry between Grant, Okonedo, and Jacobi was likewise solid, offering a glimpse of a TARDIS unlike any seen before or since on-screen.
The rest of the supporting cast works well with them. Craig Kelly as Alison’s boyfriend Joe offered an everyman thrown into the Doctor’s world and acting how this reviewer suspects so many of us would actually behave in the circumstances.
Jim Norton’s Major Kennet had some echoes of Lethbridge-Stewart but, not being part of UNIT, lacked the respect for the Doctor present upfront that made for something of a refreshing change. To play the leader of the alien Shalka, lurking beneath the Earth, the webcast’s makers turned to noted character actress Diana Quick in an inspired bit of casting. Finally, hidden away in a cameo (an almost a “blink and you’ll miss him” part) as a caretaker at a warehouse is young actor David Tennant who happened to be recording a radio play next door to where the story was being recorded and, after highlighting his fan credentials, managed to land himself the uncredited role as a facility caretaker.
What also separated Shalka from the earlier webcasts was the quality of its animation. Whereas Death Comes to Time and its immediate successors featured illustrations from comic book artist Lee Sullivan given limited animation, Shalka was given the full animation treatment by Cosgrove Hall. Animation that still had to work with dial-up and broadband modems. The results looked good for the time, with some wonderful character designs including Grant’s Doctor and the Shalka themselves that, while not photo-realistic in terms of detail, still allowed for the characters to be expressive and emotional (such as the look of the Doctor’s face when the Shalka try to sacrifice Alison in front of him in episode three) which helped the animation feel more organic.
There’s some wonderful design elements, including an impressive TARDIS interior with the control console and its winding staircase to the underground lair of the Shalka. The story also boasts an atmospheric visual style full of shadows and silhouettes that, while done for practical reasons related to bandwidth, serves the story well. Even after two decades, and re-watching the DVD release on a large flatscreen TV, Shalka’s animation holds up rather well.
Anchoring all their efforts was Paul Cornell’s script. Cornell, who had written one of the first licensed original novels based off the series published in 1991 and had written for various spin-off media in the years since, offered a rather traditional tale to launch the series in its new presumed online home. Indeed, Scream of the Shalka feels like an update of the Invasion of Earth formula that anchored the Pertwee era for the noughties.
That Pertwee-era feel can be felt from the serial’s six parts (though episodes run in the 15-minute range instead of 25) to its opening scenes setting up the deserted streets of the Lancashire village of Lannet which brings to mind the opening scenes of 1974’s Invasion Of The Dinosaurs, to the story’s somewhat eco-friendly message in its climax. With a strong military presence (even if UNIT was relegated to a cameo on a folder Major Kennet has when he first meets Grant’s Doctor) and the credit sequences owing much to their early Pertwee counterparts, Shalka looks to the past for inspiration throughout.
Yet there’s also a sense of what was to come when Doctor Who returned to BBC One in Spring 2005. The wounded nature of Grant’s Doctor, the sense of something terrible that has happened to him, is the most obvious thing. Indeed, though not revealed in the serial itself, an event not dissimilar to Modern Who’s Time War, wiping out the Time Lords and the Doctor’s wife (the daughter of the Lord President of Gallifrey), formed a major part of that backstory. Beyond the Doctor himself, Shalka’s opening scene in New Zealand feels like a pre-credit scene out of Modern Who, given as it is otherwise unconnected to the serial that follows. Alison is a future companion in an unhappy relationship seeking a better life, the Doctor using a mobile phone (shaped like the TARDIS itself here), but also using his sonic screwdriver in a fashion that wouldn’t be at all out of place in Modern Who, and even the gag of the TARDIS being locked like a car, use in End Of Time, appears here first as well. The sense of scale brought to proceedings in the climax when events go worldwide with brief glimpses of events, would also become a trademark of post-2005 Doctor Who. Cornell’s Shalka script offers, much like the 1996 TV Movie, something of a thematic bridge between 20th and 21st Century televised Doctor Who in bringing the best of both worlds, even if it didn’t know what was to come.
A collection of the different designs of Sonic Screwdriver over the decades up until 2022.
Picture courtesy BBC.
Something that seemed set to be borne out in future serials. A second serial for the Grant Doctor, Blood of the Robots, had been commissioned from novelist Simon Clarke (whose other work included the Doctor Who novella The Dalek Factor for Telos Books), described by Clarke in 2013 as featuring “a blend of adventure, drama, and humour. The Doctor arrives to find a world full of intelligent, sensitive robots that have been abandoned by their human owners, who are too squeamish to ‘kill’ them when they’re obsolete. Now ruthless salvage squads are hunting the robots in order to make room for human settlers to migrate from their dangerouslt over-crowded home planet.”
Potential future serials were in the works, as well, including a storyline by Jonathan Clements involving what at first appeared to be the gods of Greek mythology come to life and a return entry from Cornell. Clarke’s work on Blood of the Robots was quite advanced as Shalka began to stream, with not only the storyline but also three of six scripts completed.
Which is when the fate of Grant’s Ninth Doctor was sealed.
Because Scream of the Shalka’s greatest legacy is that it helped get Doctor Who back on BBC One. Lorraine Heggessey, the Controller of BBC One since 2000, was asked about the possibility of Doctor Who’s return in early 2003, leading her to mention it as something she would like to commission except for it being bogged down in rights issues regarding a potential film project in the early stages of development by BBC Worldwide. This was a statement which led to confusion among fans of the series who queried how BBC Online could be producing a new animated series. Daniel Judd, a member of the online team, then followed up the paper trail regarding the rights, leading first to an article on the Doctor Who site on BBC Online and a memo being sent through the BBC to Heggessey’s office.
That memo, and the meeting that followed it a fortnight or so later, would set the stage for Heggessey to get Worldwide to shutter their film project and to recruit Russell T Davies for a 21st Century regeneration of the beloved series. All leading to an announcement in September 2003, at the same time that Scream of the Shalka was being promoted to the press and in Doctor Who Magazine.
In the months that followed, this new Ninth Doctor was left in limbo, with Cornell’s novelisation appearing in February 2004 followed by the short story The Feast of the Stone, appearing on the “Cult Vampires” portion of the BBC website in April. The same month that the short story appeared, Davies confirmed in Doctor Who Magazine that Shalka would be ignored, with a new Ninth Doctor appearing in the revived TV series. Having helped to relaunch the series on-screen, the series would relegate Shalka to an “unbound” status within Doctor Who canon.
Even so, Shalka’s legacy could be felt in the series. Cornell would write for the regenerated series’ first season in 2005 and adapt his 1995 novel Human Nature for David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor as a two-parter in 2007. Several members of the cast, including its three leads and Tennant, would go on to appear in Modern Doctor Who, with Jacobi getting the chance to play a screen incarnation of the Master in the 2007 episode Utopia that heralded that character’s return and Tennant playing not one but three incarnations of the Doctor. Davies would even offer a nod to Shalka having the Doctor and Master travelling the universe together in the final script of his first run on the series in 2010’s End of Time, Part Two with Tennant’s Tenth Doctor making such an offer to the mortally wounded Master played by John Simm. Clements intended follow-up would, in 2007, serve as the basis of the Eighth Doctor audio drama Immortal Beloved, broadcast on BBC Radio 7 (now Radio 4 Extra).
Scream of the Shalka has become something of a curiosity in Doctor Who fandom, which rediscovered the serial following its 2013 DVD release. It offered a vision of what the series might have become had it not returned to TV in such a high-profile fashion, though how long it might have lasted with BBC Online archiving many of its Cult pages in Spring 2005 is a topic for debate. Yet without it, Doctor Who might never have returned to TV at all. A paradox, but one worthy of the series that spawned it.
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