5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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"I just mouth the words like everyone else."
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Ah, Shada. Graham Williams and Douglas Adams's impressive swansong and the season's huge finale. At least, that was what was supposed to happen, before industrial action killed it in its cot. It seems almost unfair to judge Shada on the disconnected shreds we have left. (Certainly Douglas Adams thought so: he was horrified when he found out it'd been released, and considering he based large chunks of Dirk Gently on it thinking nobody would ever notice, that's not surprising.) But that's all we've got, so let's get on with it.
It's a shame that what's missing of Shada is often the bits that were probably supposed to be the most impressive: the climactic battle scenes, with Krargs aplenty and peril and derring-do on every side. On the other hand, though, since we've seen those bits in practically every episode ever screened, we probably didn't miss much. Granted, it doesn't add much to dramatic tension to hear Tom Baker telling us how they would have looked, but we can pretty much fill in the gaps ourselves. What we do have gives enough of the flavour and tone of the story for us to get the idea.
It starts brilliantly, with the striking dialogue-free opening shots of the scientists twitching fitfully like smokers three hours after the last cigarette. The scene then shifts to Cambridge, and the location shooting here gives the story a real depth. It's another great visual moment when we see the TARDIS in Chronotis's study. While Adams is a bit heavy-handed with the clues that Chronotis (sic) is a Time Lord, the whole Chronotis/Salyavin/Shada plot thread is an excellent wheeze that adds to our knowledge of the Time Lords without chipping away at them in the way Invasion of Time did.
So it's interesting meeting (yet another) renegade Time Lord and seeing how the Doctor and Romana relate to him. But there's something horribly off about these scenes even so. After much pondering and squinting at the screen sideways, we conclude it comes down to two things.
First, it's the script. There are some truly terrible and laboured jokes in here - apparently, Adams took the "I can't remember what my memory is like" shtick from a story he wrote when he was twelve, and frankly, we can tell. And as for the one lump or two stuff, please, stop before our brains start to haemorrhage. Then there's the time this and that routine: as well as the appalling "when I was a Time Tot" (possibly the worst line in all of Who), there's horrible stuff like "the ancient time prison of the Time Lords". Argh! Time tea, anyone? Time milk or time lemon?
So that's part of why things seem so stilted. But the other part is Romana. She's seriously bad here: while we have no trouble believing in the Doctor's and Chronotis's characters, we can never forget for a moment that Lalla is Acting. It's ghastly.
Things roll on. Skagra is dastardly, Chronotis is dotty and all and sundry are menaced by mini-Rovers, reminding us forcefully of the Father Ted episode where Dougal has trouble with balloons sticking to him. The invisible ship's a nice if not particularly original idea, although the red carpet made us groan out loud.
And that's typical of the whole piece. It's difficult to tell with bits missing, of course, but the tone seems very uneven, as if Adams were going for high drama but couldn't resist undercutting it with knockabout comedy. He succeeded perfectly in combining the two in The Pirate Planet, but here it doesn't really work. A prime example of this is the bike chase past the choristers: we're supposed to be terrified for the Doctor, but Adams totally knocks the tension on the head by making bits of it straight out of Benny Hill.
It's pretty clear that Shada would have suffered from Six-Part Disease: even in its amputated form, it's too long. And while the Krargs are quite pretty, they're too Generic Monster to be very interesting. (Combine them, in fact, with K9 and you've just invented the perfect barbiturate.) While the idea of Shada and its key is an interesting one, it's a bit explanation-heavy, although part of that may be due to the narration.
As for the characters, on the whole they're not bad. Skagra is appropriately evil in a pretty standard villain part. Chronotis is a bit of a puzzle: maybe we'd dropped off during that part, but is he supposed to be an evil criminal mastermind or just misunderstood? Chris of the tragically tight trousers does the naive observer efficiently, but Claire is a disappointment. She's supposed to be a highly intelligent scientist, but in the scene where she and Romana are trying to control Chronotis's TARDIS she's completely daffy. Annoying. As we've already said, it's best to draw a discreet veil over Romana's performance, but the Doctor at least is a huge improvement over The Horns of Nimon.
Tom Baker's narration, wincingly embarrassing bellow of "Shaaaaaadaaaaaa!" aside, is a nice complement to the story. And we love his knowing look at the camera when he talks about what people will say about the Doctor when he's an old man. Now, with Tom looking more portly and cherubic by the year, it's even more poignant.
Graham Williams must have been bitterly disappointed at what happened to his swansong. But in a lot of ways, Shada's a very fitting tribute to his time at the helm. It's not entirely bad: the plotline's got its good points, and much of it is watchable. But it's also seriously flawed and well below the level of what Who can achieve. And we can't think of a better summation of the Williams era than that.
MORAL: Once you're over sixty, you can get away with anything.
Fetching as that silver outfit is, see it from the side and it's really obvious that Skagra's got a terrible VPL problem.
Denis Carey makes a terrible job of being dead, doing a lot of very visible breathing.
MY OTHER CAR IS A TARDIS
In some mysterious way, a bicycle seems an incredibly appropriate Time Lord conveyance. Particularly an old-fashioned one with a basket on the front.
BUGGER THAT, I'M OFF
When the Doctor abandons the bike to escape on foot, he makes no attempt to take the book with him. (Yes, we know it's no longer there, but he doesn't know that.) Since the book is the point of the whole enterprise, why would he leave it behind?
I'M GOING TO HOLD MY BREATH UNTIL I TURN BLUE
Tom tells us that one of the cliffhangers occurs when Skagra's ship cuts off the oxygen supply. Not very scary considering they've already established that the Doctor has a respiratory bypass system.
ORDER OF THE CRINGE, FIRST CLASS
There are a lot of awful moments in this script, but the Doctor pinning a medal on Romana is the most horrendous of them all. And it's not even original: the Doctor pinned a rosette on K9 in the previous story The Horns of Nimon.
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