|The sole thing that Wayne Rooney and Professor Chronotis|
have in common.
Somewhere out of time, in a space between mean and while, in the gap of the conditional, the Graham Williams era does not conclude.
If we were to pretend that this aired after The Horns of Nimon we would discover that The Pretenders were at number one with “Brass in Pocket.” Two weeks later The Specials would take the top slot with “Too Much Too Young,” which would yield after another two weeks to Kenny Rogers with “Coward of the Country.” Styx, The Boomtown Rats, Joe Jackson, The Ramones, Blondie, and Elvis Costello would also have charted. Lower in the charts would have lurked Peter Gabriel’s divinely good “Games Without Frontiers,” which probably would have been in the top ten when this story would actually have aired. (The scrapping of Shada is, I would guess, why there was no Christmas break in Season Seventeen. The only reason Sixteen didn’t have one was that it was a continual story arc. Season Eighteen had one again. This also rubbishes the idea that The Horns of Nimon was supposed to be a Christmas panto or whatever. In all likelihood the season was supposed to break after Nightmare of Eden, with The Horns of Nimon being planned for a January start.)
Again assuming a Key to Time sort of scheduling, the London Gold Fixing would have hit its highest price ever, while the same day the Greek ship the MS Athina B (previously the Japanese MS Kojima Maru) beached in Brighton and became a temporary tourist attraction. Israel and Egypt would have established diplomatic relations, and six US diplomats would have escaped Iran by pretending to be Canadian. (A fun fact – did you know that “Canadian” is actually a racist slur in some parts of the US? Apparently people use it in place of “blacks,” as in “the neighborhood has gone downhill since all the Canadians moved in.”) The Winter Olympics would have opened in Lake Placid, and the famed Miracle on Ice would have happened. A coup in Suriname would place, the Voyager 1 probe would confirm the existence of the Saturnian moon Janus, and Robert Mugabe would be elected Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, bringing an end to the whole Rhodesia problem and beginning a whole new problem.
While on television there is… not Shada. There is something else. Shada, like the eponymous Time Lord prison, remains a half-constructed phantom. Or perhaps more accurately, an over-constructed phantom. There are a wealth of versions of Shada floating around now: the Paul McGann audio/animated version, the John Nathan-Turner-produced video, the forthcoming Gareth Roberts novelisation, the Ian Levine-produced animation, the actual original script, the fan-produced novelization, Dirk Gently, and, of course most importantly, the version that we imagine. Like the legendary lost epics of Hartnell and Troughton there is a version of this story that exists only as the wish of what might have been.
This last version is, of course, the most problematic. Doubly so because of just how good this one seems like it could have been. There are things that are difficult to accept as a Doctor Who fan – the fact that we will likely never see Patrick Troughton’s first episode, or the first appearance of Nicholas Courtney as Aleister Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. But there is perhaps nothing quite so galling as knowing that we are only fifty-five minutes short of a Douglas Adams story. And that unlike Power of the Daleks or The Web of Fear there’s not even audio of it. Shada is not merely lost or missing, it is absent – a gaping, crushing, and mocking wound in Doctor Who.
It’s tempting to say that it could not possibly have been as good as we hope. Certainly the sections that exist reveal their flaws. Christopher Neame is a damp squib as Skagra, a villain who positively drips with lethargy. But then, we see little enough of him and he’s stuck striding around in an unfortunate piece of 1980 through Cambridge. Perhaps his appearances in episodes 3-6, which are almost entirely absent, would have been more impressive.
On the other hand, there are ways in which John Nathan-Turner did the story no favors in the video production. The most criticized aspect is the insertion of Keff McCulloch’s score. McCulloch has the unfortunate but frankly largely deserved reputation as being the worst thing ever to happen to Doctor Who’s incidental music, and he outdoes himself here. In particular, the dramatic orchestral stab in the middle of Professor Chronotis’s “one lump or two… sugar?” joke has to go down as the most inadvertently hilarious moment of science fiction scoring ever. It’s the musical equivalent of the giant rat.
But there are frustrations that go beyond that. Tom Baker’s preposterously self-indulgent intro is unfortunate, although to be fair could well have had nothing to do with Nathan-Turner. But my God, the script for his inserts is bewildering, especially if you read along with the actual script for the trimmed bits. One gets the sense that even in 1992 John Nathan-Turner didn’t understand the Williams era. He recycles lines of dialogue in the narration – fair enough. But inexplicably he drops all of funny bits of Douglas Adams’s dialogue while not only maintaining large swaths of Skagra’s megalomaniacal rantings but transposing them from what are clearly meant to be delusional ramblings to entirely straight-faced descriptions of Skagra’s plans.
But what would a “good” version of Shada entail anyway? No configuration – not the Paul McGann version (nobody but Tom Baker can really deliver those lines), not Levine’s probably-never-seeing-the-light-of-day animated version (even if it did have the correct cast), not Roberts novelization (despite him being the great lost writer of the Graham Williams era). Because really, Shada is a story, more than any other, defined by its absence. It’s the final cruelty of the Graham Williams era’s failure to launch. It’s the story that, through its non-existence, fails to give Williams the climactic send-off that would have justified his tenure.
Of course, that reading is as nonsensical as the others. Certainly the view of Shada as showing “what could have been” is rubbish. Adams was on his way out the door, depriving Williams of yet another one of his good writers. And Williams had already decided to leave. There’s no lost WIlliams version of Season 18 that Shada would have served as John the Baptist for. And as a crowning achievement for Season 17 it runs into a different problem, which is that by all appearances City of Death was better. I mean, both are good and full of inventive twists and reversals, but Skagra comes nowhere close to Scaroth as a villain and the script for Shada, dense and charming as it is, lacks anything half as clever as discovering six authentic copies of the Mona Lisa in a basement. Shada’s ideas are brilliant, but every one of them is a brilliant sci-fi idea. What’s so great about City of Death is that one of its central ideas isn’t, on the surface, a science fiction idea at all but a completely real-world idea made possible through a science fiction explanation. (Indeed, as someone pointed out in comments, it’s really just a classic con that uses science fiction to paper over one of the deceptions)
So Shada is at once better than any of the manifestations of it we have and clearly inferior to the heavenly ideal that some have built it into. On top of that we have a bewildering canon debate. I mean, all canon debates in Doctor Who are inherently bewildering because of the basic ludicrousness of Doctor Who canon. But the attempts to adjudicate whether this story “happened” and if so whether it happened to the 4th or 8th Doctor is strike a strange sort of low. But this debate serves to further entrench Shada’s odd status as the most absent story. When we speak of Fury From the Deep we try to figure out how good it was. The debate centers on reconstructing what was, not, as with Shada, on constructing it in the first place.
Let’s abandon, then, trying to “complete” Shada and look instead at what is and what that implies. All writing works through ambiguities and gaps, after all. Shada need not be treated any differently, save for that its gaps and ambiguities are larger than they might have been. Enough of trying to see what Shada could be. Let’s look at what is.
The first and most obvious thing is that this story marks the return of the Time Lords from The Deadly Assassin. It pointedly does not mark the return of the ones from The Invasion of Time, however. Equally pointedly, it does not mark the return of Gallifrey (which did return in The Invasion of Time, simply without its inhabitants.) Among the tangle of threads and paths that The Deadly Assassin left us was the image of the Time Lords as an extrapolation of Oxford and Cambridge. Here we juxtapose them directly, showing a great and ancient Time Lord ensconced happily in Cambridge. It is unmistakably and directly an invocation of Holmes’s Time Lords.
But it is equally unmistakably an invocation of Adams’s own past and interests. We have remarked previously on the odd centrality of Cambridge to the UK cultural export market. Much of this centers on the strange double role of Cambridge itself. On the one hand it is the very definition of establishment, the second half of Oxbridge culture and of the cultural and economic elite in Britain. In a country whose class system is enshrined fundamentally in the structure of government (no failing – the American drive to decouple class and government does nothing to eliminate class and much to sweep it under the table) this has real consequences. But on the other hand, Cambridge is always the second half of Oxbridge culture – the young upstart snapping at the heels. The eternal second son that will never and can never ascend to the throne. This contradiction sits at the heart of the cultural exports of Cambridge, embodied nowhere so clearly as in figures like John Cleese and Stephen Fry, whose entire comedic characters are based on the idea of the rogue aristocrat.
Within this tension are a host of reiterations. The Doctor himself embodies this same tension, at once coming from a position of cultural authority and from the position of an outsider. He is mirrored in the story by Professor Chronotis, but what is crucial is that there are two reflections here. On the one hand is the difference between the Doctor’s title – an academic achievement – and Chronotis’s – a social position. A Doctor is simply someone who has completed a degree. A professor holds a specific job at a specific university. Here, however, Adams intervenes with his usual inversions and satires. Chronotis has visibly retired from being a Doctor into being a mere Professor. His ensconcing himself in the institutional structures of Cambridge does not mark him as superior to the Doctor but as an old man being put out to pasture.
But on the other hand is the Doctor’s contrast with Salyavin. If Chronotis is a diminished Doctor than Salyavin is a legendary one – the famed master criminal. Much is made of the fact that we are supposed to mistake Skagra for Salyavin until Chronotis’s big reveal in episode five, and we are, but the fact that Salyavin is a good guy is hardly hidden from the audience. The Doctor identifies Salyavin as a “boyhood hero” who had “such style, such flair” and is “a bit like me.” That the Doctor should be allied with a great criminal cannot be taken as anything like a surprise from Adams, who did after all turn him into Tom Keating in his last outing. No, Salyavin is clearly a criminal in the great folk hero sense of the word. If the Doctor is on the one hand meant to be anxious about some day turning into Chronotis he is equally clearly meant to hope to some day have the legacy of Salyavin.
The trick, of course, is that the roles are one and the same, a trick emphasized by the final scene in which the Doctor imagines some day having an outsized legacy among the Time Lords that does not jibe with his own kindly and harmless demeanor. Again we see Adams treating the Doctor as a magnificent fraud. Much like Scaroth turned out to be an uninteresting villain well-handled by just being punched, Skagra similarly drops out of the story here, defeated in the end by a fake copy of the Doctor created while the Doctor was pretending to be stupid. The villain, once again, is silly and uninteresting. The real action is around the Doctor.
But you can also see Adams here reaching back to the Deadly Assassin and the Hinchcliffe era in other ways. The Time Lords’ power is shown to exceed the quality of their civilization. They are shown once again to have long-forgotten secrets hidden within their traditions, to at once have godlike powers and an astonishingly limited and blinkered view of the world. On the one hand this is wholly compatible with the Williams era’s tendency to show ignorance and insularity as the true sources of danger in the world. However well-meaning the Time Lords are their failure to understand their own power makes them dangerous in spite of themselves.
But Adams adds something that has been missing in recent years. There is a clear sense of evil in this story, and one that goes far beyond Skagra, who is just another blinkered fool. (There’s a delightful scene scripted that Nathan-Turner skips over entirely in the linking narration in which the Doctor dismisses Skagra’s tired rantings about trying to take over the universe only to be told that Skagra has bigger plans… mere moments before Skagra goes into exactly the tired rant that the Doctor predicted.) No, what’s interesting here is the implication of dark horrors in the history of the Time Lords. Shada is a truly scary concept – a lost and forgotten Time Lord prison that houses unknown and unknowable terrors. That Salyavin turns out to neither be terrifying nor actually housed in Shada does not erase the larger issue that the very concept of this, or of a stray artifact as powerful as Chronotis’s book, is scary. It’s been a long time since Doctor Who presented a universe full of ancient and forgotten terrors, but here Adams not only brings that view of the universe back but merges it seamlessly with what the program was at the end of season seventeen.
But even when the implied bits of Shada are penciled in there is something of a gap around all of this. The connections are drawn, the ethics and aesthetics are all set up, the frame is there, but there’s no sense anywhere in the script of the moment in which it would come together and execute what it seems to be pointing towards. For all that Shada seems to map out a new and vibrant vision of Doctor Who, it steadfastly does nothing more than map it. It never quite demonstrates it.
Which perhaps explains the tendency of people to treat the story as some lost herald of a never-made golden age of the series. Because even with as much filled in about the story, and even if one assumes that the Shada sequences and the final confrontation would have been as good as it could be, the end sense of Shada is that it suggests how good things could have been. Even if it existed it would be in some sense absent, a marker for the Williams era that never was and never could be.
But on the other hand, particularly in 2012, there has started to be another way of looking at it. Because the blueprint suggested by Shada is strikingly close to what the series actually is today. I do not mean to suggest that Moffat is simply executing the model of Doctor Who offered by Shada in a deliberate way or that Shada is somehow Moffat’s primary inspiration. Rather, I think it’s a matter of what we discussed last time about the fact that there just weren’t the writers needed to do something like Adams/Williams style Doctor Who from 1977-80. Robert Holmes and Douglas Adams could do it because they were miles ahead of their contemporaries.
But it took, in many ways, the 25 years of television that came between The Horns of Nimon and Rose before the model that Williams was aspiring towards could be done in the first place. It took a generation of writers who were completely comfortable with making sudden tonal shifts and an audience who could deal with a lengthy scary sequence comprised almost entirely of jokes without the dissonance causing them any problems. Something like The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone is doing almost exactly what Shada gestures at – with a very similar conception of the Doctor, his relationship with authority, and his relationship with his own legend and a very similar sense of ancient horror. Similarly, part of what is so compelling about City of Death is how much it still, 32 years later, adheres perfectly to modern taste and pacing. The fact of the matter is, for all the faults of the Williams era, the things that worked about it proved to be one of the most enduring models of Doctor Who ever.
But even this view falls short somehow. Yes, the Williams era was ahead of its time. But as the cliche goes, more by luck than judgment. You just can’t read the Williams era as a couple of visionaries stymied by the fact that nobody else understood what they were doing. There are too many searingly obvious and avoidable failures to give it that much credit. But that doesn’t mean that the underlying idea has to be abandoned. What can, I think, be fairly said was that the Williams era is a very, very rough prototype of what turned out to be the future of television. It cannot be credited with inventing that future; it’s too far from getting it right. But it must be credited with seeing it, even if through a glass darkly.
And in many ways that makes Shada a more fitting monument for it than people give it credit for. Not because of its unfinished nature or its squandered potential, but because it is, in an odd way, the perfect fulfillment of everything the Williams era was. A joke far too clever for anyone to get. Even the people making it.