A Doctor Who Missed His Appointment With Fame
2003 marked the 40th anniversary of Doctor Who, an event which came at a time when nobody, least of all most of the BBC, thought it would ever return to television. BBC Worldwide wanted to make a film, but offers were scarce. It was possibly the lowest point for Doctor Who since it was cancelled in 1989, or when the novel licences reverted to BBC Books in 1997, depending on who you ask. Anyway, the upshot was that it appeared no-one was going to do anything about the 40th anniversary of this icon of British pop culture.
In answer to this, a small band of fans within the BBC managed to secure the rights to produce an animated web series. Cosgrove Hall, producers of classic British animated series such as Noddy and Danger Mouse, plus pretty much every other animated show that was on the ABC in Australia during the 1990s and 2000s by the looks of this list, were commissioned to create the animation. The voice cast included Richard E Grant as the Doctor, future Oscar-winner Sophie Okonedo as his companion Alison, and Sir Derek Jacobi as the Master.
The result was Scream of the Shalka. It’s a short but quite enjoyable little romp, appropriately low-key for the time. Written by Paul Cornell, significant contributor to the Virgin Books Doctor Who novels range in the 1990s and future new series writer, Shalka tells the story of what happens when the Doctor arrives in a mysteriously quiet British village, a town where everyone lives in fear of noise. It’s a classic premise which sets the scene for some good old British Gothic body horror, at which even in Flash animation the BBC never fails.
Scream of the Shalka had a troubled beginning. The production team had several arrivals and departures during the early phases, and the originally commissioned series of stories was cut down to one story over six fifteen-minute episodes. It was supposed to be ready for December 2003, but production issues saw its release pushed back until February 2004, and then before it could even be released, the Russell T Davies revival was announced, relegating Shalka straight into an alternate and dead-end universe. It’s likely for the best, but the fresh Shalka approach to plot was certainly vindicated by the new series (indeed, Paul Cornell would go on to write some of the best loved and received episodes, such as “Father’s Day” and “Human Nature/The Family of Blood”, and many members of the voice cast would go on to play major guest roles in the new series, except one who would actually become the Doctor!).
It contains many of the elements which would later become important plot points in the new series – the Doctor has a newly troubled past, he’s been travelling without a human companion for some time, and he needs someone to help him remember his calling. He collects a working class companion whom he helps escape from everyday tedium and an unimaginative boyfriend. It’s also darker and more violent than the classic series, which is to be expected from Cornell given his Virgin Missing/New Adventures novel pedigree. There’s also much more wit and fun on the Doctor’s part, even if he’s broadly a bit dark and scary.
The plot is simple, and at times kind of stupid, but never short on fun. The villagers are afraid of screaming worms which are awakened by the slightest noise. Any villager who tries to raise resistance to the worms is burned alive, or mind controlled by the sonic pitching of the screams. There’s a lot to love here – a huge crowd of people is mobilised by the screams of the worms, but are still conscious of what they’re doing. A rioting crowd screaming for people to stop them makes for a horrifying concept. Naturally, UNIT are called in and the abrasive Major Kennet effectively balances the over-superior Doctor. The worms, revealed to be named the Shalka, are on Earth to terraform and then consume the planet before moving onto another, and the Doctor is appropriately outraged. This is where it gets a little less awesome and a little more cringeworthy – the Doctor ends up eating one of the worms and learns their sonic frequency, before singing them to death using showtunes. It was funny, I won’t lie, but good lord it was ridiculous.
The big problem with Scream of the Shalka is its lack of audience. Because there wasn’t 8 years of continuity fresh in the public’s mind to plough for references like in 2013, Shalka draws on classic Who, which had been off-air for 14 years and had become the exclusive preserve of die-hard fans. It assumes a knowledge which, for the average audience member, would be non-existent. Like 2013’s “The Day of the Doctor”, it calls back to old favourite characters like UNIT, and the Master, but without the strict script supervision and tight direction that makes the new series generally so brilliant and accessible. If I had watched Scream of the Shalka in 2004, I would have had no idea what any of it was about beyond what little I had seen of classic Who which was being rebroadcast at the time. I was 11 and we didn’t even have the internet at home anyway.
Fortunately, in the intervening decade and then some I have become a massive hack, and so heartily enjoyed every little reference and Baker-esque piece of dialogue that Cornell could dish out. Cornell’s script is fantastic, the dialogue is hilarious. Sure, Richard E Grant is a little flat in his delivery in the early episodes, but I think people seem to miss the fact that he is characterising the Doctor as dry, not boring. For example, the Doctor, in trying to find a way not to have to interfere makes the excuse that “I only come to this planet for the wine and the total eclipses!” His poor companion, Alison (the engaging Sophie Okonedo), has to put up with all of the Doctor’s whingeing and eccentricity, and ultimately they play a part in drawing her into a full-time TARDIS role. She’s certainly the supporting character with the most depth, and it would have been interesting to see how they developed her character over the cancelled series.
Hands down the best dialogue, and best delivery, goes to Sir Derek Jacobi as the Master. He’s styled very much along the lines of everyone’s favourite Master, Roger Delgado, and it’s clearly that iteration of the character that Cornell is writing for. Trapped in the TARDIS and for some reason now an android, the Master shares the Doctor’s exile and copes by making witticisms. If only we found out why the Master’s consciousness is in an android, and whether he can still hypnotise people, but alas we shall just have to enjoy these gifs of him trying instead.
Scream of the Shalka excels in the visuals department. It uses a fairly minimal movement style in order to minimise buffering times on 2004 internet connections, but the backgrounds are beautifully atmospheric, contributing to that Gothic atmosphere so beloved of Doctor Who creative teams.
So, should you watch Scream of the Shalka? It’s little more than a curiosity, it must be said. So neglected has it been that it didn’t even get a DVD release until 2013, a full decade after it was commissioned. However, it’s a good laugh, and at only an hour long, it’s hardly a big investment – take it from someone who wasted hours of his life on 1986’s Trial of a Time Lord. And look, here it is still available online at the BBC for free! What’s not to love? If you’re a fan of classic Who, give it a go.