The list of proper “alternate Doctors” is relatively small: you’ve got Cushing, of course – the alternate Doctor who has actually impacted culture in any meaningful sense. You’ve got the Curse of Fatal Death set of Doctors, but they were never actually meant to be taken as seriously as they are. And you’ve got Trevor Martin, but since he was in a 1974 stage play that nobody knew much about until 2008 when Big Finish did an audio adaptation, he’s pretty firmly purely a trivia answer.
It’s worth thinking a little bit about the nature of “alternate Doctors” in this regard. Our pool of three noteworthy interests contains exactly zero that were ever intended by anyone as a serious alternative to Doctor Who. Cushing’s Doctor existed only to provide a platform upon which Dalek thrills could be built. The Curse of Fatal Death was, as noted, a joke, though for all its quality it turned out to be not nearly as funny as fans taking it seriously as a plot to kill off Doctor Who by burning through the remaining regenerations, a viewpoint that is fascinating in its utter wrongness. And Trevor Martin was a disposable product to handle the fact that Jon Pertwee didn’t want to do the show. None of these are “alternate” Doctors, as that suggests some sort of fully functional alternate history in which they are Doctor Who, and none of them could possibly support that. They’re trivia answers.
Which brings us to Scream of the Shalka. On the one hand it’s clearly a trivia answer – the hardest answer to “name the three contexts in which Richard E Grant has appeared in Doctor Who.” On the other, we have to remember that this was a completely sincere attempt at rebooting Doctor Who, intended as such a big deal that Davies cited his guilt over killing off the project as part of why he hired Cornell to write Father’s Day. (That and Cornell being bloody good, of course.) Richard E Grant was announced as the official Ninth Doctor, and the plan was that this would spin off into a proper series of Doctor Who. It’s just that before it actually came out it got completely pre-empted by Russell T Davies, and so Grant became an alternate Doctor by default.
And so the first and most obvious question to ask about Scream of the Shalka is whether it ever could have worked. Is this in fact the first properly “alternate” Doctor – an alternate launching point into forty years of new adventures, as Cornell breathlessly hyped it before the bottom dropped out. Certainly much of the familiar scaffolding is there: we have a post-traumatic Doctor with a new status quo following some hazily defined event. The Master Robot ruefully seeking redemption is charming, not least because Derek Jacobi is a national treasure who’s having an absolute blast. The villain is solid, which is impressive, as there was an awful lot else to launch in this story and doing a mediocre villain that’s just a placeholder against which the Doctor gets to define himself is a pretty standard response to that problem. (We will, after all, almost certainly never see the Atraxi again, or, for that matter, another multiform.) The new companion is quite good, and Cornell makes the Davies-esque decision to commit to a multiethnic cast, getting to “first black companion” several years before Mickey or Martha.
There is, of course, an element of speculation here. We don’t know the whole arc, which means that this is a lot like judging everything up through The End of Time on the basis of “I should know, I was there. I fought in the war. It wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t save your world! I couldn’t save any of them!” Which, I mean, you can see that there’s an arc of some sort, but the details of it are completely obscure and there’s no way to see how it could play out. Something has clearly happened that means the TARDIS is partially under the control of other forces and the Master is now a robot who works on the TARDIS and is ambiguously seeking redemption, and it’s clear the Doctor is a bit post-traumatic and wary of the idea of companions, but we don’t really know what.
There are also huge problems. The biggest is Richard E Grant, who Russell T Davies was absolutely correct to describe as lazily phoning it in and doing for the paycheck. He’s absolutely awful, with no interest whatsoever in putting any nuance into his line readings. It’s a pretty titanic problem, given that he’s the lead and that animation still collapses a lot of the character information to the audio track. Cornell is writing a Doctor who combines the impulsiveness of the Vampire Science-style Eighth Doctor with the sense of being haunted and worn out of many of the New Adventures, and what he gets is someone who just wants to scowl impassively through every line whether it’s meant to be comedy or drama.
It’s worst on the comedy, of course. Grant clearly thinks the idea of the Doctor every being silly is foolish and uninteresting. Cornell, even though he’s working in his “dramatic” mode here, loves nothing so much as bits of whimsy and silliness, and in fact goes out of his way in this story to define the Doctor by the fact that he is endlessly contradictory (the whole “I don’t like the military, but I have so many friends in it” speech that BerserkRL likes to quote so much). Grant, on the other hand, wants the most one-note interpretation of the Doctor imaginable, and it kills this stone dead, especially in the opening episode or two, where Grant is given that most thankless of tasks for a new Doctor, namely explaining the plot until the companion shows up. It’s a brutal acting task. Several otherwise solid actors have run aground at it.
But look, say what you want about Tom Baker mugging his way through the pre-Leela bits of The Face of Evil, he was at least trying to make it entertaining. Grant… isn’t. He’s not doing anything but reading the lines out loud with generically dramatic inflection. And so any hope that this could work evaporates. Because animation is unforgiving in this regard. I mean, I’m not knocking animation as a medium in the slightest, but it’s not a great one for subtle human emotions unless you’re a hell of a lot better at it than Cosgrove Hall are. I mean, they worked pretty well for The Invasion, but that’s a simpler story where everyone has simpler motivations and internal lives. And even there they don’t come anywhere close to capturing the continual shifts and nuances of Troughton’s performance.
But 1969 and 2003 are very, very different times and the program is very different. The Invasion doesn’t try to have one of its major plots be the transformation of the Doctor’s character as he opens himself up after a past trauma. It’s just got Patrick Troughton fighting aliens. And if Cosgrove Hall can’t quite keep up with the emotional registers of Troughton fighting aliens, they’re up a creek with Grant. Especially because Troughton, even when you take away his facial expressions, is still doing more with his performance than Grant is. With flat visuals and flat acting there’s just no hope of a script like Cornell’s working.
In a way it’s an odd and mixed refutation of Lawrence Miles’s predictions about Doctor Who, which was that it would come back, flop spectacularly, and then finally end up as an animated series where, in his view, you could do something interesting with it. Obviously he was wrong about it flopping spectacularly, mostly because he mistakenly assumed that any new take on Doctor Who would work basically like Babylon 5, but in many ways the more revealing fact is that he thought animation was a better medium for Doctor Who. When, in fact, what actually happened was that there was an animated Doctor Who that got pre-empted and overtaken by a massively successful television version.
But it’s also worth looking at how this happened. This is the fourth BBCi Doctor Who production, following the Paul McGann version of Shada, a Sixth Doctor audio produced by Big Finish, and, of course, the astonishingly awful Death Comes to Time. The basic logic of the webcast was, of course, that Doctor Who was hopelessly cancelled and a cult program that was never going to attain a mass audience. Tellingly, its BBC website was under the “cult” section, and the bbc.co.uk/cult/doctorwho url still redirects to the classic series website today (and you can still find the webcast of Scream of the Shalka there). The webcasts were reasonably popular, but nobody in 2003 seriously believed that Internet-based television series were ever going to reach mass acclaim. (Heck, in 2013 it’s easily argued that they still haven’t, although the wall is crumbling at least) This was firmly for a marginal audience of fans.
Why? I mean, Doctor Who was clearly a reasonably big property. The fact that it took nearly a decade to revive after the TV movie remains, in many ways, difficult to explain. So why was Doctor Who faffing abut in webcasts instead of coming back? After all, the BBC took a meeting with Russell T Davies around 2000 to explore bringing Doctor Who back. So what took so long?
In a practical sense the answer is that BBC Worldwide kept trying to make a movie out of it and thus declined to allow a television series. The logic here is strange in two regards. First, Doctor Who is terribly suited to film, as its occasional dalliances with Joseph Campbell by-numbers style storytelling have demonstrated. The rules of film say you have to start with an origin story, whereas Doctor Who seems to work only if you avoid the origin like the plague and do what the series is actually good at, namely continuing to explore things. The word “continuing” remains important as well – Doctor Who lends itself to serialization in a way films don’t.
Second, of course, is the fact that BBC Worldwide kept being obsessed with film despite never getting anywhere with it. Doctor Who film projects never really left the ground save for, obviously, the TV movie. This latter point seems, in most regards, a holdover from the John Birt approach to the BBC. Doctor Who was to be a film because Doctor Who was a big name sci-fi property, so should be sold to a private company that does those sorts of things. And it took a change in what the BBC did and the sense of “let’s create a new sense of national identity” that New Labour brought in to finally shift that. By 2003 the BBC was actually acting like Labour was in charge and the Tories were decisively out of power, and was willing to actually decide that they were good enough to produce their own program. And at the end of the day that change, more than anything that happened in the wilderness years, was what was key for Doctor Who.
But it leaves Scream of the Shalka in an odd artifact without era. While it’s probably not true that Paul Cornell could have brought Doctor Who back as effectively as Russell T Davies, the fact of the matter is that he gets it. He knows how to do this sort of story. He knows how to make Doctor Who work for a mass audience. And he clearly genuinely believes in Doctor Who as a mass-audience phenomenon. But he’s working in a model that doesn’t allow for mass audiences. So what we get is all of the ideas and concepts of the new series applied to the wilderness years ghetto of miniscule fandom. The result isn’t even some necessary step along the road of Doctor Who’s evolution. It’s just an oddity along the way.