Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ian Levine's Shada: A Review

Shada is for many the holy grail of Doctor Who stories, the one unfinished Tom Baker story from the Douglas Adams golden era (an era that Stephen Moffat dryly states began and ended with all-time classic City of Death). It was unfinished due to industrial action in 1977 preventing the completion of its studio-time. A fair chunk of the studio work had been completed, and all of the location work shot in Cambridge had been finished so it has stuck in a lot of fan's craw that production was never remounted. Shada saw outgoing producer Graham Williams and outgoing script-editor/writer Douglas Adams replaced by well-known producer JNT (who would hold the job until the 90s) and Christopher H. Bidmead who both wanted to take the show in a different, less joky direction and thus a remount did not happen.

Shada currently exists in three legitimate forms - the DVD/VHS release with Tom Baker sorta out of character providing narration explaining the missing scenes, the Paul McGann/Big Finish audio/webcast version available here with the 8th Doctor filling in for the 4th Doctor in an audio adaption of the original script (with extra scenes to explain the 8th Doctor's presence) and most recently a novelisation by Gareth Roberts almost ghost-writing as Douglas Adams with a substantial RTD-era influence.

However a fourth unofficial version has been made - utilising the existing live-action footage and new  animated sequences to cover the unshot parts with as many of the original cast returning to voice their characters. The fan animators were contacted by Ian Levine, a controversial 'super-fan'/record producer with deeps pockets who is responsible for the return of a number of missing classic Doctor Who episodes and served as an unofficial fan consultant in the 80s.  (I'm also obliged to say he played a part in the making of the record Doctor in Distress and claims he was denied credit for the writing of Attack of the Cybermen).

Levine wanted his animation to appear on the recent Shada DVD but due to politics and perhaps the irregular way he went about this production it was not. Whether that was the case is debatable and the kind of discussion to get you banned off Gallifrey Base or shouted at on Twitter. There's also some unpleasantness between him and some of the animators that he took public on Twitter - so suffice it to say this is a controversial bootleg version! Let's move on to actually reviewing the product...
I watched this with my girlfriend who is a big Douglas Adams fan but a stranger to classic Doctor Who. She often finds classic Doctor Who hit-or-miss. Meanwhile  I am a big fan of Douglas's Doctor Who I've never actually read any of his books. I have watched the original Shada VHS, the Big Finish audio is one of the first and best audios I've heard, and I've even listened to the audiobook of Gareth Robert's novel, read by actress Lalla Ward. So I like to think I knows me Shada.
The episode we watched was on a Raspberry Pi running RASPBMC (basically we watched it on a small HD-ready TV). There's a DVD version out there, but as my lousy cheap DVD/TV combo no longer plays DVDs we didn't watch that version.

Sadly the first piece of animation we see in
this special edition is a great view of the phone
as Chris Parsons twitches and glides
across the room.
The bulk of episode one was previously filmed live-action material, with it being primarily the conclusion of this episode aboard Skagra's ship that is animated. However our first piece of animation concerns Chris Parsons in his lab. This animation is less than stellar here as you can see - and you can play a drinking game with how often the Ancient and Worshipful Law of Gallifrey changes size in the different animations.

As one proceeds further into Shada more and more of the episodes consists of newly animated material. By and large the artwork ranges from okay to beautiful, with excellent likenesses. It is clear several artists worked
The book size changes throughout the
animated segments and appears to be
in a different time-stream from the humans.
on this however, and some are better than others. The animation is perfectly serviceable - a lot of classic Who was static scenes with a lot of dialogue. However the animation tends to be poorest whenever there is any real action - for example
Ian Levine Presents: Doctor Who on ice!
this gif of Romana and Skagra struggling in a corridor of his ship. Movements range from fluid to "Doctor Who on Ice", like this clip of Romana walking across a room. It seems like the animation is typically a rough 10-15 FPS, akin to some of the jerky animations one gets on the reconstructed episode DVDs. Often the characters seem stiff, twitchy and move in a very un-lifelike manner.

Action scenes are not the
animators forte I'm afraid.
Episode 2 sees the introduction of Paul Jones as Tom Baker as the Doctor. While Levine was able to reunite most of the cast to record their dialogue for the animation Tom Baker's fee to record the remaining dialogue for this story was way out of the project's budget, and instead Paul Jones was brought on board. He does a reasonable Tom Baker impression, but it is clearly an impression and lacks the cadence and subtleties of the real man. However his delivery of the final lines of the story sound like he is reading from the script, while the real Tom Baker would have delivered it as the boggle-eyed loon we all love him for.

Judge Mr. Jones's impersonation for yourself... here's the first animated Tom Baker appearance:-

Lalla Ward can't help but sound slightly older than in the live-action sections but overall the quality of the cast is good. Sadly the worst offender in the cast is the person who does the voice of Professor Chronotis in Episode 5, replacing poor Denis Carey who passed away in the interregnum. However if you can look past these things it's a pretty solid reproduction.

Overall this is an impressive fan project, albeit one whose legalities are highly debatable. The animation ranges from superlative (some of the initial scenes in Shada are of comparable quality to the Invasion animation) to comparable to fan animations on youtube. It is probably not ready to be released on DVD but with some retouching of some of the poorer animations, and getting a certain Mr. Baker to replace Mr. Jones's impersonation this could be a real treat. The jump from animation to live-action was not as jarring as I'd thought, though I'd prefer it if it was either all animated or all-live action.

However for me, the Big Finish version is my favourite as it is a rebooted production with an all new cast. Kevin Fox is a wonderful Chronotis, Suzanna Harker is wonderful as Claire, Andrew Sachs is a better Skagra to Christopher Neeme (though Neeme makes an excellent Sith Lord)...

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