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The Lost Doctor Who

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Years ago, the ol' Time Lord searched for a planet named Shada. It was an adventure he never completed.

For more than a quarter of a century, the British SF TV series Doctor Who has been entertaining audiences with tales of a mysterious traveler through time and space known simply as the Doctor. At a time when the Doctor's TV life is in limbo, it's worth noting that some 12 years ago, one of the tales about the Doctor was lost due to a combination of human cupidity and pure bad luck.

"Shada" was originally a six-part Doctor Who story, designated as serial 5M and scheduled to be the last story of season 17. Unlike most American SF programs, Doctor Who stories are serialized over several (usually four to six) half-hour episodes.

Tom Baker headed the "Shada" cast as the Doctor. His companions were the Time Lady Romanadvoratrelundar (Lalla Ward) and the canine-shaped computer K9 Mark II (voiced by David Brierley). The principal guest stars were Christopher Neame as the evil scientist Skagra and Denis Carey as Professor Chronotis cum Salyavin.

Behind the camera, Graham Williams was the producer, Pennant Roberts directed and Douglas Adams (STARLOG #102) served as both the writer and script editor.

"Shada" was never completed. It is the only Doctor Who production to have ever been left unfinished. Despite the money, time and work that went into the serial, "Shada" experienced a long and lingering six-month period of production hiatus that ended with its cancellation. "Shada" was never finished due to a strike by BBC's technical crews. Even though provisions for a strike were made when "Shada" went into production, the walkout went on longer than anticipated.

Time Enough

The story begins simply: The Doctor is summoned to Earth by Professor Chronotis, a retired Time Lord who has lived on Earth at St. Cedd's, a college at Cambridge, for more than 300 years. The Doctor and Romana are told that the professor has a dangerous and powerful artifact from their home world, Gallifrey. But Chronotis now wants to return the object to the Time Lords so that it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. Outwardly, the artifact appears to be a book entitled The Ancient Law of Gallifrey, but it's actually a talisman of great power. The Doctor agrees to take the book back to the Time Lords.

Meanwhile, on a scientific research space station known as Think Tank, the evil scientist Skagra has perfected a device capable of stealing other people's minds and storing them for his own use. He demonstrates the device on his colleagues. Leaving them virtual vegetables, Skagra heads for Earth to obtain the Ancient Law book (which reveals the location of Shada, the Time Lords' prison planet where the great Time Lord villain Salyavin is being kept). Skagra needs Salyavin to show him how to superimpose his own mind onto the minds of all intelligent life in the universe. Not content with becoming a virtual god, Skagra has a larger vision. As he tells the Doctor when they meet: "The universe, Doctor, shall not, as you so crudely put it, be mine. The universe shall be me!"

The Doctor and Skagra arrive at Cambridge simultaneously, but before either can act, Chronotis discovers that the book is missing. Graduate student Chris Parsons has inadvertently taken the talisman when he borrowed some of the professor's books.

Chris and his friend, Clare Keightley, have discovered that the book is an alien artifact. After subjecting it to some tests. Chris decides to confront Chronotis about the book. At the same time, the professor remembers that Chris had borrowed some books from him and thinks that Ancient Law may be among them. He dispatches the Doctor on a bicycle to retrieve it.

Skagra confronts Chronotis. The professor is attacked by the mind sphere after he refuses to give up the book or its location. Romana discovers the dying Chronotis. Before he dies, the professor warns Romana to beware Skagra, Shada and the sphere.

Because he has the professor's mind, Skagra can scan it and learn where the Doctor and the book are. He then joins the chase in Cambridge's streets.

The Doctor meets with Chris and gets the book back before Skagra closes in. When the Doctor refuses to hand the book over, Skagra sets the mind sphere on the Doctor. Pedaling furiously, the Doctor quickly bicycles away from the sphere.

Trapped in a dead-end alley, the Doctor might have become the sphere's next victim except that Romana has rematerialized the Doctor's TARDIS, rescuing him.

But the Doctor has dropped the book without knowing it. Finding it, Skagra kidnaps Romana and forces her to fly the Doctor's TARDIS to Shada for him. A TARDIS is needed to interact with the book for the results Skagra wants.

Along with K9 and Chris, the Doctor follows in Skagra's own spacecraft—only to be met by Skagra's own minions, the Krargs. They're crystal-like creatures that are produced in a vat and can absorb energy directed at them. Again, the Doctor is rescued by a TARDIS, this one manned by Chronotis. Because he's a Time Lord, Chronotis has recovered from Skagra's attack. His rooms at Cambridge were, in actuality, his TARDIS.

On Shada, Skagra has released various prisoners from their cells: Doctor Who monsters such as a Dalek, a Cyberman and a Zygon, and criminals and villains like Earth's Rasputin. Salyavin isn't in his cell: Chronotis reveals that he is really Salyavin and escaped from Shada long ago. A skirmish between the Doctor and Skagra ends with Skagra and several prisoners (under the mind sphere's influence) taking the Doctor's TARDIS, while the Doctor and friends leave in the time machine.

The Doctor devises a way to leave his borrowed TARDIS, traverse the temporal vortex safely and enter his own TARDIS. He makes a device similar to Skagra's and begins his final challenge. The Doctor and Skagra engage in mental combat, using the prisoners as game pieces, while his friends deal with the Krargs.

Victorious, the Doctor imprisons Skagra on his own ship, returns the stolen minds to their rightful owners on Think Tank, takes the prisoners back to Shada, and allows Salyavin to continue his life on Earth as Professor Chronotis.

Time Lapse

Season 17 was a difficult one for producer Graham Williams. The strike that shelved "Shada" was one of the longest in the BBC's history, lasting more than two months and affecting much of the program's season. The strike came during the Christmas holidays, when scheduling was already tight due to special programming. Thus, a large backlog of programs, both regular and seasonal, had to compete for the limited studio slots. The BBC gave higher priority to those programs with large ratings or a prestigious reputation.

But a substantial amount of work had been completed on "Shada" before the strike. "Shada" was in the latter stages of shooting when the strike interrupted production. It was cancelled nonetheless.

Filming for Douglas Adams' six-part "Shada" script required a few days' location shooting and three "blocks" of studio taping sessions (a "block represents two to three days, usually done weekly or bi-weekly). By the time of the strike, all the location work and one of the studio blocks had been shot.

While pandemonium erupted at the BBC in general, and Doctor Who in particular, changes were going on behind the camera. Williams left the show after three seasons as producer. Adams departed as script editor and Brierley left the role of K9's voice. The new producer, John Nathan-Turner (who himself left the helm in 1990), took over in November 1979. Nathan-Turner had been the Production Unit Manager on Doctor Who and had, in fact, worked on "Shada." Considering the amount of effort already devoted to "Shada," he believed it could be finished and so worked hard toward that end.

"Approximately half of 'Shada' was completed." says Nathan-Turner. "There were tentative plans to complete 'Shada' during my first season, but they did not come to fruition."

Each episode of the six-part script had had some work completed on it, and Nathan-Turner was keen to have a remount done so that "Shada" would be part of season 18. The remaining unshot studio footage had mostly to do with interior TARDIS scenes and the sequences set on Shada.

The key to whether or not "Shada" would be completed rested on when studio work could be rescheduled. The actors had to be available to resume their roles. Guest stars might have presented a problem, but the regular cast (except for Brierley) was back for another season. John Leeson, the first actor to do K9's voice (STARLOG #143), was re-contracted for the role's final season on Doctor Who. Brierley may have been available to complete "Shada," or Leeson could have redubbed K9's lines.

But before Nathan-Turner could begin, the BBC formally cancelled the serial. On January 12, 1980, the decision to abandon "Shada" was made by BBC execs. Nathan-Turner wasn't deterred and continued to try to salvage the show for six more months.

Instead of making "Shada" a part of season 18, Nathan-Turner decided to make it a Christmas special. First, he had Adams rewrite the script, reducing its length to approximately 100 minutes (or a third less than its original length), as well as making it non-episodic. Next, Nathan-Turner needed one more filming session. Even with the rewrite, the production had to have some additional linkage filming. Finally, he had to bring back the principal actors.

Although "Shada" was close to being finished, the planned special never came off. The actors were no longer under contract and not all of them could return due to other commitments.

Besides the cast difficulties, Nathan-Turner wasn't allowed the additional recording session needed to finish the production, effectively writing finis to "Shada."

All of the recorded material comprising "Shada" was preserved by the BBC and stored in their Film and Videotape Library. While additional filming was needed, the production was nearly complete in other aspects. The director had been appointed, the actors cast, location scenes filmed, all models made, the costumes manufactured, studio sets constructed and one session of studio filming was in the can. All "Shada" lacked was editing, music and audio and visual FX.

Time Passed

Many fans speculate that "Shada" wouldn't have been very good, based on opinions of the era in which it was produced. Seasons 15 through 17 were produced by Williams—with many fans labeling this period as being too comedic rather than seriously dramatic.

Generally speaking, during Williams' tenure, violence had been toned down and humor was increased. Not every story was affected by this overall pattern. nor did every serial include over-the-top humor. Although "conservative" Who fans may have disliked Williams' work, the general public and other supporters liked it; indeed, the ratings were often very good for the Williams-produced serials. Yet season 17 is often cited as being one of the show's worst, and since "Shada" belonged to that season, it must have been a poor story according to the conservative fans' viewpoints. However, two other Douglas Adams scripts, "The Pirate Planet" and "City of Death" (also a season 17 story) were generally popular with all parties concerned. Like "City of Death," "Shada" had many location shots which included scenes filmed at Cambridge. "The season would have seemed much more successful had ["Shada"] finished it," Williams once said in response to the controversy surrounding his last serial.

Similarities to "City of Death" continue. "Shada" was written in approximately six days when another script fell through. Williams co-wrote "City of Death" with Adams, and for "Shada," he collaborated with Adams on some of the concepts.

"It was always about a prison planet—the Time Lords' Prison Planet—and the arch-villain. At the time, capital punishment was quite a raging controversy because there were the Yorkshire Ripper murders going on and the IRA, and we thought, 'What would the Time Lords do about capital punishment?' We decided that they would probably duck the issue (although we originally thought they would lock them up forever and throw away the key, as you could do with a Time Lord, but we thought that was too sadistic for words, even for the Time Lords), so they would probably just put them to sleep in a deep freeze for eternity until they came up with the answer," Williams has recalled.

The people who made "Shada" have made their feelings known about this last Williams-produced script. Says Baker, "Douglas had written a clever script and we g had done some excellent filming at Cambridge. It was a great shame. At the g. time, we couldn't believe it was lost, they a had spent so much on it, we had done studio work and everything."

Adams tends to downplay "Shada," saying that it's mostly famous because of its incomplete status. The plot, the author has remarked, wasn't the greatest, and was too long and padded. He did think well enough of it, however, to reuse parts of it in a later novel.

Lalla Ward, who was experiencing personal problems at the time, may have been the most disappointed of all. "It was awful. We had done so much of it; we had really done about two-thirds and we had worked so hard on it. It was agony!"

Director Pennant Roberts said that the serial "had terrific sets, a super script and a marvelous cast. It was a disgusting shame that it was never finished."

Finally, producer Williams has stated categorically that the best Doctor Who serial he ever produced was "Shada."

The prospects of "Shada" 's ever being presented in any form aren't promising. Many fans believe that since so much work was done, "Shada" will be completed in some version. although Nathan-Turner disagrees: "I do not think it feasible to consider completing 'Shada' now."

Suggestions include cannibalizing "Shada" into parts of a similar story (akin to how "The Cage" was used in "The Menagerie" during Star Trek) or using it as the basis of a documentary. But those ideas haven't been pursued.

Part of "Shada" has been seen—in another Doctor Who adventure, "The Five Doctors," a 90-minute special adventure broadcast in November 1983, marking the series' 20th anniversary. The plot involved the meeting of all the Doctors in an adventure featuring old Companions, enemies and situations from past exploits. Terrance Dicks (STARLOG #107) scripted. Originally, each Doctor had a very active part in the show and provided meaningful input. At the eleventh hour, Tom Baker withdrew from the project. Fortunately, "Shada had been saved, so never-before-seen film of the fourth Doctor doing something did exist.

Dicks rewrote the script using some of the "Shada" Cambridge location work with Tom Baker and Lalla Ward punting down the river Thames. The story involved each Doctor's being scooped up by a device and removed from time to a place where he would meet his other selves. These kidnappings were to be surprises, so that scenes were written to have the various Doctors doing rather mundane things when snatched. So. when the fourth Doctor and Romana were "scooped up." it seemed no different than the other abductions. The fourth Doctor didn't arrive and participate, the story had it, because he had been caught in a temporal ' eddy that his abductor couldn't free him from. The ploy worked perfectly.

Another scene was used at the end to show that the fourth Doctor and Romana had been freed and continued their adventures. This footage showed Baker lying on the ground near the TARDIS, when the door opens and Ward pops her head out and implores the Doctor to hurry. A grinning Baker reassures her, dashes into the TARDIS, and then causes it to dematerialize.

While a quality version of "Shada" doesn't seem likely, a videotape of the existing material with captions explaining missing sections has been shown at some American conventions. However, it's seldom shown now due to copyright restrictions. It is illegal to show footage from unfinished projects without syndication rights, which BBC Enterprises doesn't own.

A novelization of Douglas Adams' script is also not in the cards. W.H. Allen, the parent company of Target Books, is the publisher of the Doctor Who novelizations. Although Target Books would like to novelize "Shada," Adams has not granted them that permission. He does not wish to do it himself or allow someone else to write it. Adams has also not yet agreed to novelize his other two Doctor Who scripts, "The Pirate Planet" and "City of Death."

Editor Jo Thurm comments, "Maybe sometime in the future, we will be able to produce the book, but it seems unlikely." According to reliable sources, the contract dispute concerns finances.

There's another slight problem in seeing "Shada" eventually novelized. Many of the names, locations, plot elements and concepts of "Shada" were used by Adams in his first Dirk Gently novel. The character of Professor Chronotis appears in both works. He is still a faculty member at St. Cedd's college at Cambridge.

"Shada" isn't a comic book prospect either. John Freeman, editor of The Doctor Who Magazine, which carries the only current Doctor Who comic strip, doubts that an adaptation of "Shada" is likely because since Adams hasn't given permission to W.H. Allen for novelizations, the problem would be the same for those publishers, Marvel UK. Freeman isn't against the idea, however. "It's a good idea, and one that we have considered, but the cost of such a project in terms of artwork, adaptation and clearances to use actors' likenesses are very high. As a result, it is not a project we are keen to develop at this time, although I personally prefer to keep an open mind about any development of our Doctor Who material."

So, "Shada" remains unfinished, with no real prospects for completion as a comic strip, novelization or video. It truly is the Doctor's lost adventure.

LARRY S. BARBEE is a North Carolina-based writer. This is his first article for STARLOG.


Lalla Ward, who co-starred with Tom Baker, says finding out "Shada" would not be completed "was awful."

"Shada" writer/script editor Douglas Adams used several elements from the serial while writing Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

Unlike "Shada," Adams' Doctor Who scripts for "City of Death" and "The Pirate Planet" were completed.

David Brierley voiced K-9 in "Shada." but couldn't return during an attempt to turn the unfinished story into a Christmas special.

Producer John Nathan-Turner hoped to somehow finish "Shada," but his plans "did not come to fruition."

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  • APA 6th ed.: Barbee, Larry S. (number 130 (September 1991)). The Lost Doctor Who. Starlog p. 61.
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