Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros take a drive up this Doctor Who equivalent of a cul-de-sac...
The year was 2003 and Doctor Who had been away for the best part of a decade and a half (overlooking the unfortunate charity crossover and the unsuccessful attempt at an American co-production); a new series of televisual adventures was still something that fans were having fevered dreams about and the Powers-That-Be decided to take advantage of the storytelling capabilities of the-then still relatively untapped potential of the internet. Teaming up with legendary British animation studio Cosgrove Hall, Scream of the Shalka was born.
Things are not well in the quiet Lancashire village of Lannet; an unwilling Doctor (Richard E Grant) materialises in the little hamlet, only to discover that the place is practically deserted and that the last remaining residents are fearful of making a noise. Something lies beneath the earth and The Doctor, aided by plucky barmaid Alison Cheney (Sophie Okonedo) soon discover that Earth is under threat and only they can stop them…
Richard E Grant had been considered by many to be one of the ideal actors to play The Doctor; he's smooth, charming, witty and quintessentially British (despite being born in Swaziland). Grant was one of several actors who had been linked with the role over the years, so much so that the 1999 Comic Relief spoof/homage The Curse of Fatal Death (penned by future New-Who writer/producer Steven Moffat), he was persuaded – along with all the other names – to briefly play an incarnation of the character.
Although Grant's Ninth Doctor would officially been seen as canon by the BBC, this would only be brief, as Russell T Davies would bring Doctor Who back to television two years later, with Christopher Eccleston replacing Grant as the official Ninth Doctor. It was very unfortunate in that about half way through production on Scream of the Shalka, the news that Doctor Who was going to be returning to television screens and suddenly, the future of an animated form of the show seemed to be more than a little passé.
It would be nice to say how good Richard E Grant is in this role, but it's more than a little difficult, as most of the time, he just sounds bored, almost as though he is wondering what to have for dinner after getting home from the recording studio or what on to spend the money he was getting from this easy gig. Like a promiscuous coprophillic sewerage worker, Grant was just going through the motions. RTD himself is quoted as saying “I thought he was terrible. I thought he took the money and ran, to be honest. It was a lazy performance.” Grant is able to take some of Paul Cornell's witty dialogue and just bludgeon it to death with a sack of doorknobs fashioned from pure indifference. In all fairness, Grant's performance starts off terribly stilted and detached from the situation, but near the end, he seems to perk up a bit, sadly by then, it's all too late and the initial impression is the one that seems to remain in the minds of those who watched Scream of the Shalka.
The big question is (or it certainly WAS at the time this was originally unleashed) would it have been better to have had an existing Doctor in the story, rather than creating a new one? It's rather difficult to say, as Sylvester McCoy would have been pretty good and Paul McGann would have been great at delivering Mr Cornell's dry quips, but this was an attempt at a new era of Doctor Who and a fresh start was probably the best option.
What is more than apparent whilst watching it is that there are numerous parallels with Scream of the Shalka and New-Who, the most notables ones being that The Ninth Doctor has landed on contemporary Earth all morose and without a human companion, having felt the lasting effects of some catastrophic incident that he refuses to talk about. He meets up with a young woman, who has a somewhat rocky relationship with her hapless boyfriend, and after everything is over, she chucks him to go travelling with The Doctor. At one point, The Doctor says “I'm sorry” in a heartfelt fashion – all it need was to have “I'm SO sorry” as a suffix and would have been classic Russell T Davies New-Who.
Sophie Okonedo is engaging as Alison Cheeney, the short-lived companion for this short-lived Ninth Doctor, displaying the necessary amount of "what is it, Doctor?"-ness required for the part, but also bringing a degree of spunk to the part in a manner that would be frequently seen when Doctor Who returned to television a couple of years after Scream of the Shalka. Okonedo's star status rocketed the following year, when she starred in Hotel Rwanda and subsequently needed a TARDIS in which to comfortably store all of her plaudits and awards, so it would have been unlikely that she would have continued with another Doctor Who project at that time. Though Okonendo would appear in New-Who a couple of times (as the intensely irritating Liz Ten), it would have been nice to have seen Alison make a return appearance - she would have made a great foil for David Tennant's Doctor
It's nice to hear the familiar tone of dependable character actor Jim Norton as Major Kennet, a sort of substitute Brig, though more successful than Major Beresford in The Seeds of Doom; Norton is probably best known for playing Bishop Brennan in Father Ted. It would have been amusing to hear Major Kennet snap “don't call me Ken, you little bastard!”, but sadly, it didn't happen...
Derek Jacobi once again demonstrates precisely WHY he was the second-best Master in Doctor Who's history, turning in a wonderfully wry performance as a robotic version of The Doctor's arch nemesis (and possible sibling). Jacobi's turn as The Master in New-Who's Utopia was so tragically short, that it's great to be able to see more of him doing his thing, even if it is only in animated form. The dynamic of having The Master as The Doctor's companion, travelling around time and space together is a pretty delicious one and it's a great pity that it couldn't have been explored further.
There is also a brief appearance from a then little-known actor who just happened to be in the studio next door and managed to enthusiastically barge is way in and get a part in this production – what WAS his name? Something Tennant, we think...
Paul Cornell's script is smart and witty, but does have the odd piece of self-conscious, knowing dialogue, such as “I'm The Doctor – I know monsters!” Well, if Steven Moffat can constantly shoehorn the words “Doctor Who” into his scripts, then Mr Cornell can be forgiven for the odd bit of self-indulgence.
What Cornell CAN be praised for is writing a script that has the protagonists and the antagonists presenting arguments as to what should happen to Earth. The Shalka are a race who supposedly only move in and conquer/plunder worlds that are in what they consider to be their death throes, whereas The Doctor argues that some of the planets that the Shalka have devoured were not quite as moribund as they thought and were essentially finishing off civilisations that still had a fighting chance. This sort of ethical debate can be interpreted on various levels – one of the most obvious and emotive ones being that of terminal illness, but the ecological levels is probably the one that Cornell had in mind whilst writing this and it all ties in nicely to some of the Earth-bound eco stories during the Jon Pertwee era. Speaking of the Third Doctor's tenure, there are several instances of the Doctor briefly name-dropping someone of historical importance – we like to refer to these as “Tewwy-isms”.
The animation from Cosgrove Hall (who would later be responsible for breathing new life into the the two missing episodes from the Patrick Troughton story, The Invasion) isn't bad considering the constraints they had on them. It looks very much like something you would see on some sections of the late, lamented BBC3 series, Monkey Dust (which was produced around the same time as this). Richard E Grant is recognisable, albeit with a somewhat austere look that really didn't do him in favours in terms of endearing his Doctor to casual viewers and there is some occasionally striking imagery to be seen, particularly in terms of seeing how other places across the globe are being affected by the Shalka, especially the Russian scenes, where the artwork is a mixture of what used to be seen on Soviet propaganda posters and German expressionism, where long shadows create a gloomy and terrifying mood. With Cosgrove Hall handling the animation duties, we were half expecting to see extended scenes that took place in pitch black, with only the whites of the eyes of the characters being visible...
This animated story understandably looks very clean on DVD; the colours are bold and the occasionally striking production designs are well-rendered here.
What should be mentioned is that there is a curious vertical line patterning that runs through the whole thing, and is particularly noticeable on some of the more yellow/orange hues. We played this disc on an LCD TV and a CRT monitor and it is visible on both – this is more than likely a stylistic choice rather than some sort of mastering error.
Presented in 2.0, the soundtrack is pretty impressive - as audio was the primary focus, the level of care put into it was pretty impressive and we are pleased to say that it’s arrival on DVD has stayed faithful to how it was originally intended. There is a pretty impressive range of fidelity here, with the high frequencies of the Shalka’s screams and the low thumps of all manner of stuff being faithfully reproduced here.
Richard E Grant has much in common with the actor playing the Eleventh Doctor who superseded his own, in that there is a distinct lack of his participation on the extras. Nevertheless, for such a small - and largely overlooked - project, there are one or two captivating extras included with Scream of the Shalka...
Audio Commentary: Just as you would expect for a live-action release, we are treated to a very revealing look at the story at hand with those closest to it, and writer Paul Cornell, director Wilson Miliam and producer James Goss really give the full guided tour on all things Shalka. Just to prove that they have treated this with all the reverence of a “regular” DVD, then it’s the presence of Toby Hadoke to keep the whole thing rolling along at a cracking pace. Strap yourselves in, as this commentary about the Shalka is going to be a scream. Aw, shit! We promised not to use that particular piece of wordplay, but it was inevitable, as puns are the toys of the manically depressed.
Anyway, as you might expect, producer James Goss is full of wonderful nuggets, including how the animated episodes of The Invasion came about, whilst revealing just how carefully the license fee is spent. “At the end of the year, the BBC basically flushes the money-toilet,” he colourfully illustrates, “…because there are various pots of money that have to be spent by the end of the financial year, and there was someone literally running up and down the corridors of my department going ‘who has a project that will cost X-thousands of pounds?’”. He’s not done blowing the lid on Auntie Beeb, as he strips bare the processes of how creative processes are stamped on at Broadcasting House: “The classic way of describing the BBC…where you go into a meeting at the BBC, and people find ninety-nine reasons to say ‘no’ before they find one reason to say ’yes’”. He even remembers that one of these particular meetings for a 40th anniversary project was almost torpedoed when one exec “very cattily” suggested that they do an animated Blake’s 7 instead!
Wilson Milam appears - in a first for the commentaries - from LA via digital magic, and has very warm memories of the experience, covering his lack of knowledge about the genre when he was recruited, having it plugged by a book with the synopses to every single episode, and just how the name Doctor Who was able to open doors when it came to getting the perfect cast together. He notes that all his hard work was worth the finished product, recall that he: “…was staggered when I watched it for the first time, I was amazed” It’s rather odd to hear a transatlantic voice on a Doctor Who audio commentary, but Milam really has a lot of nice things to say about his experiences at work and about the people around him, which helps to bring some warmth to this somewhat overlooked entry into the canon.
Along with the warmth given out by Milam, there is a good deal of humour, and not just the expected wit from Mr Hadoke, and any one who doesn‘t chuckle at Cornell‘s comment at the start of the final episode: “At this point, we were in full-on people-running-about …well, walking-stiffly-about” should seriously check their pulse! The writer’s tone is less humorous when he Russell T Davies’ rather thorny comments about Grant are brought up by Hadoke, quoting how the future Nu-Who producer thought that the actor “just phoned it in” in the way that thespians do when on autopilot. “I wouldn’t go that far,” defends Cornell. “I think he was uncomfortable… I think he wondered what on Earth he’d got himself into, and I remember him being very nervous at the press-call… and I think maybe he had initial enthusiasm, and it had gone perhaps when he saw the format”. Still, Cornell praises Father Ted star Jim Norton, wishing that not only had he appeared in the sequel, but been given the chance to be funny in it as well!
Just as engrossing and fun as a live-action commentary, which is also the case with the Information subtitles, and the hallmark of extras put together for Doctor Who with not a shred of prejudice that it is in animated form. Hadoke knows just how to pitch the thing to those in love with the show, and the individual who was brought in to do the best job he could. There is a lot of affection from on all sides, and this is a real hoot to stick on for an informative, amusing way to bolster your Scream of the Shalka experience. Those guys have done it again!
Carry on Screaming: It’s rather ironic that for all the live-action Doctor Who stories produced during turbulent times both sociologically and in production, it’s the story of an animated tale which is probably the most deliciously intriguing. Sure, some of the events which happened during the process have been mentioned during the main review, but there is so much juicy stuff here that the best way to experience it all is to get stuck in and watch it for yourselves. Can you think of a better way to ensnare viewers that to have producer and host of this documentary James Goss have his opening gambit be the almost Dickensian: “Let’s make one thing clear at the start. If we’d ever thought that the BBC was bringing Doctor Who back to Television, then we’d never have made Scream of the Shalka”.
Part of the problem with the time it was made is revealed by Executive Producer Martin Trickey, who found that the Beeb really had bugger all interest in either the show or its rich heritage, and that it was up to the faithful to come up with the both the ideas and the goods. “The more we all talked about it,” he fondly remembers, “…the more we enthused each other, and the more ridiculously over-excited we became about the whole thing”. It seems only fitting that those who wanted to bring the renegade time-traveller back found themselves triumphing over a lack of money. “It was just really surprising, how many times, with absolutely no resources at all, we’ve managed to do stuff that seemed to be pretty cool”. Welcome to Doctor Who!
You’ll hear how producer Jelena Djordjevic was brought onto the project for reasons of being the only person to successfully get an animated cartoon online, and left just as quickly when she was made redundant from the BBC, throwing the whole thing deeper into the shite. Good fortune occasionally smiled on the project, this being when Murinn Lane Kelly, an Irish woman with no experience of Doctor Who was brought in to produce it, with her newbie status giving a fresh, detached perspective to it all. We also find out from Cosgrove Hall Producer Jon Doyle that the award-winning animation style came about through considerations made to prevent downloading before watching, meaning a lot of eerie, atmospheric static shots whilst the livelier parts were discretely making their way through the dial-up system. Even the potential threat of having Robbie Williams as the Doctor is covered, and we’re sure that the entire body of fandom shuddered collectively when this particular announcement was made!
The juiciest nugget to come out of it all - and this was no easy task to narrow them down - is how the diligent work of researcher Daniel Judd found that the rights to Doctor Who were not as mired as everyone thought, or that Lorraine Heggessy leading to the commissioning of Nu-Who and the death of the Richard E Grant era of the Time Lord. OK, this has to be the subject of a coin-toss for most edifying titbit along with the PR disaster which Russell T Davies used as a stern guideline during his time on the show, where a journalist was literally locked in a cupboard during a press-gathering, the resulting write-up being particularly damaging.
Presented in a rueful fashion, Carry on Screaming is an honest look at the innovations and enthusiasm which became something very unique, and how you really should keep certain bits of information away from executives. Things are best summed up by Writer Paul Cornell, who clearly enjoyed the end result, but found himself with mixed emotions when Russell T Daives came along and beat them at their own game. “I’m glad we didn’t end up being proper Doctor Who,” he concedes, “…but I think we gave it a really good shot”. With more than a few turds floating in the Nu-Who punchbowl, there are more than a ready to turn the duties over to these guys.
The Screaming Sessions: For anyone with a hunger to really get into the spirit of Scream of the Shalka, this really a great opportunity. Complied from interviews recorded at the time, we get up close and personable with the main cast and crew, with only Richard E Grant and Derek Jacobi noticeable by their absences. The whole bunch sing the praises of the project, and it really comes through just how much fun they all had working on it, turning them loose in a medium where they can be as “big” as they want whilst still scoring performance bulls-eyes. It’s a blast to see Jim (Bishop Len) Norton clearly having a ball at work, where he describes the experience as: “…Like a big tea-party”, and the other actors relished tapping into their drama school exercises, with Diana Quick noting how she got to morph into various forms, particularly enjoying her lobster/jaguar combination, and we’d like to be first in saying that we see her more as a cougar, but we have smut on the brain - it’s like a tumour which causes priapism.
A number of the cast step up to deliver their take on who The Doctor is, with Jim Norton really capturing it well, and impressing just how much him being in the Whoniverse meant to his kids, being brought upon the show. It’s rather cool to see just how the animators chose to represent their cast, with some looking other-worldly as opposed to exaggerated humanoid depiction, whilst it quite amazing how close they stuck to Sophie Okonedo when transposing her to a digital medium, looking very much like her character Alison, whilst Graig Kelly admits self-defeat with the words: “Well, you can’t polish a turd”.
Director Wilson Milam seems well-suited to the job, as he is very animated himself, praising how Grant: “…brought a wonderful slyness and impishness” to the Doctor, but we think we’ll leave to actress Anna Calder-Marshall to have the last word on the thespian‘s brief tenure in the role, where her assessment of his is simply stated with: “I think he’s a wonderful Doctor, actually”. What might have been a grab-bag of hastily thrown together clips becomes a lovely snapshot of a very short-lived time when Doctor Who seemed to have finally found a niche after over a decade of cancellation, and shows that the much-held assumption that radio-folk have much more fun at work then their onscreen counterparts is absolutely true.
Interweb of Fear: When the BBC director John Birt decided that the BBC needed an online presence, it gave birth to the Cult website, and though it didn’t even make it to its tenth birthday, it became a Shangri-La to the chosen few that had graduated through the ranks of the Spectrum/Amstrad/Commodore up to owning a PC, and had the need to revel in the past. It is more than appropriate that we are afforded a loving look back at the site which still stirs strong feelings in geeks of a certain age, and all other areas which saw changes to the way license-payers’ money is spent. If you want to legitimise things, it cleared the way for BBC IPlayer and the Beeb’s entire online service, so good things can come from looking up just which celebrities make complete tits of themselves on The Adventure Game.
A host of faces are your guides through a time when the internet was a desert of poorly-designed, word-based websites, and the popularity of an oasis away from the crap is encapsulated by Internet Consultant Martin Belam, “The BBC’s Cult website was kind of a dumping ground for weird, quirky stuff that the BBC had done, so you had Bagpuss alongside Rent-a-Ghost, “the genial geek remembers, with a fusion of nostalgia and bemusment. “….it was a really weird hodgepodge of things, and really, really rather enjoyable to discover that other people liked these things - even if they weren’t terribly good”. Whilst there is a lot of love for the Cult page, it’s not just about how Radio 4 passing on the pilot of a continuing Doctor Who radio series became a catalyst for big things sci-fi, as it also rakes up pivotal events in the spotty history of the medium. The folly of the BBC live webchat experience, how a cock-up on September 11th, 2001 hammered home the flaws in the BBC’s online news pages and other missteps in the digital realm are covered.
Everything about web-related Doctor Who always seems to be about execs at the BBC being worried about ownership of a franchise they had little interest in anyway, something which Ann Kelly from the BBC Rights Group really hammers home in her assessment of the initial venture. “The first webcast of Death Comes to Time,” she reveals, “…I think, was more exciting than anybody expected, certainly in the Rights Group”. Cue lots of eggs being shat about repeat fees for artists and other such things which should be ramped up to induce heart failure in lawyers the world over to make life that much happier, something which Tommorow’s World + editor Ian Garrard probably concurs with. “There’s be meetings and more meetings,“ he almost sighs at the thought, “…and suddenly you found yourself in a little bit of a war zone”.
Russell T Davies pops up to detail how he used his powers as producer of Nu-Who to get the Doctor Who forum shut down, owing to homophobic comments posted about himself and rather nasty rants about the casting of Bingo - whoops - we mean Billie Piper, and if we have any reservations about the look at the forum, then its how the feelings of those in charge are left rather vague, with only BBC Cult head-honcho James Goss putting forward the notion that it was a “Godsend” that they were now free to spend money on making a more enjoyable website.
There is a torrent of honesty in this documentary, be it about some of the work produced by those involved, or about the popularity of certain things, but the award for frankness has to go to Ben Lavender, who goes into the birth of his revolutionary invention in hilariously casual fashion: “I didn’t set out to invent the Iplayer - I was just going through a messy divorce, I had some time on my hands…over Christmas”. When it comes to being up-front, James Goss rounds things off perfectly, encapsulating how the internet went from the sanctuary of the faithful to a corporate machine. “The closing of the Cult site was a marker in the BBC’s journey,” he muses, “…from being able to do anything from the wild-west of the internet to one where it had to have a much more closely regulated and accountable position”.
This little beauty has it all and shows it all, including a demonstration of just how crap Death Comes to Time sounded through the dubious virtues of RealPlayer, and the descriptions of the aural quality will strike a chord for those who experienced it first time around. One thing, though: we have fond memories of the Doctor Who section on the Cult website where you could narrow down which particular story you had vague memories, which was retained when Nu-Who came about. Up until then, it was called the "Silly Story Finder" (with the prefix “Ooh, ooh - it‘s the one about the…”), but once things became "respectable", it was suspiciously renamed the "Story Finder". Oh, and speaking of such things, it's more than a little irritating that the original series is now relegated to an almost hidden section on the BBC Doctor Who website, the same embarrassed relegation to the past occurring on the 8th Anniversary show coming this November. Sorry - we meant 50th. Rants aside, this documentary is terrific stuff, and just what you wouldn’t expect on a release many have mistakenly regarded as “second-string”. Recommended thoroughly to both fans of all things Time Lord and anyone with even a vague interest in technology.
Production Subtitles: From the moment we heard whispers that Scream of the Shalka was being brought out, the first thing we pondered was if the disc would compromise of extras merely because it was an animated title, and we feared that the first thing for the chop would be the achingly-researched fact-tracks which have been the crowning glory of just about every other DVD release. We needn’t have bricked it, as we are pleased to report that every single scrap of effort afforded the live-action releases has been put into the one to grace this edition, and just when you think that the Carry on Screaming documentary covered absolutely everything, this little beauty whips out its todger and practically urinates golden information into the fountain of knowledge!
There is everything here you would rightly expect, including the variations in the differing pitches, outlines and drafts, not to mention cataloguing all of the ad-libs which took place during the recording sessions. There are a number of visual moments where it seems apparent that even though they were written into the script, the trouble of animating them saw such things hit the sawdust later on, including things like having characters gesticulate and convey emotions in the same manner. This track is so complete that it even fills in a few of the captions which were supposed to appear onscreen, as well as the more expected elements like recording dates and the like.
There are shorter stories from the original series of Doctor Who, but this information track rattles off the facts at a pace which we can honestly say leaves most of the other releases in the shade. The factoids are always intriguing, opening up the whole process and conveying just how much effort was put into it by those who wanted to see the 40th anniversary done right, and it’s to Paul Scoones that we must (once again) offer our congratulations on a job damned well done for a buffet of information without the buffering!
Soundtrack Album: Presented here for your personal enjoyment is the music score from Scream of the Shalka. Beginning with the rescored version of Ron Grainer’s classic theme, this selection of music - composed by Russell Stone - is synth-based, but does a very agreeable job of providing suspense and underlying menace, setting the mood and establishing character through recurring themes. Running for 26 minutes, there are no overblown orchestral pieces, nor are there any Welsh choirs to dictate what to feel and when to feel them, this is just simple and effective incidental music, including some lovely five-note piano pieces that serve to bring feelings of desolation to the story.
Photo Gallery: This short, two minute look at images from the production of Scream of the Shalka begins with a series of group cast pictures (Sophie Okonedo looks genuinely pleased to be there, some of the others distinctly less so…) and then moves on to images from the recording sessions and also includes what appear to be pictures of Richard E Grant and one or two others for reference purposes, before moving on to poster designs. There’s not much here, but it’s nice to see some behind-the-scenes images nonetheless.
Coming Soon: Those “wonderfully blobby” folks are back - for the second time this year, actually - as the Zygons commit a reign of terror with something horrific swimming about in Loch Ness. If you didn’t take out a mortgage on the Fourth Doctor Time Capsule, then you have the much more affordable way of enjoying one of the cherished stories with a cracking Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Oh, and you actually get extras this time!
There are many people who are dismissive of Scream of the Shalka. The style of animation takes a while to get used to and it certainly acclimatising to Richard E Grant's initially frosty take on The Doctor doesn't happen immediately, but if you can get past these two fairly prominent hurdles, then you will be rewarded with a story that straddles both Classic [/I]Who[/I] and New Who in a manner that will probably never be seen again.
There are some welcome - and one or two fascinating - extras on this disc, with the rather frank documentary about the making of Scream of the Shalka making for compelling viewing. Though many may see the DVD release of this story as something of a cynical cash-grab by the BBC as the Doctor Who range draws to a close, bringing out Richard E Grant's brief semi-official stab at being The Doctor brings a sense of completion to the range. Now, if only a deal could be worked out to release The Curse of Fatal Death on DVD...
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 16th September 2013
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Carry On Screaming, The Screaming Sessions, Interweb of Fear, Production Subtitles, Photo Gallery, Soundtrack Album, Coming Soon Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Wilson Milam
Cast: Richard E Grant, Sophie Okonedo, Jim Norton
Length: 79 minutes
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