Scream of the Shalka
|Written by||Paul Cornell|
|Continuity||After The Telemovie.|
|Starring Richard E. Grant|
|Also featuring Sir Derek Jacobi, Sophie Okenedo, Craig Kelly, Jim Norton, Conor Molonet, Anna Calder-Marshall, Andrew Dunn and Diana Quick.|
|Synopsis: When the Doctor lands his TARDIS in the Lancaster town of Lannet, in the present, he finds that somehing is terribly wrong. The people are scared. They don't like going out onto the streets at night, they don't like making too much noise, and they certainly don't like strangers asking questions. What alien force has invaded the town? Why is it watching barmaid Alison Cheney? And what plans does it have for the people of Earth?|
A great 40th anniversary celebration by Michael Hickerson 18/12/03
With new Doctor Who still over a year away from our television sets, fans have had to turn to other places to get our new Doctor Who fix to celebrate 40 years with our favorite Time Lord. The BBC novels published a collaboration featuring the third Doctor and his UNIT friends by series legends Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks while Big Finish has offered the Unbound and villians serials, as well as their 50th release, the much anticipated Zagreus.
And while all of these are great fun and more than ample celebrations of what it is that we've come to love about Doctor Who in the past 40 or so years, they're not exactly what the traditionalist Whovian in me was yearning to celebrate 40 years of adventures through time and space. But leave it to the miracle of modern technology, the Internet to give us Doctor Who in a new way, but one that is so rich in the tradition of Doctor Who that it makes everything old new again. I'm referring to the BBC Interactive's on-line animated story, The Scream of the Shalka.
For six weeks, BBCI brought together fans from across the world to feel what it must have been like to experience a Who story during its heyday in the UK. We were given one segement of a story a week for six weeks, with each part getting better and buildling toward a stunning conclusion. We got some superb cliffhangers that left us stunned, eager for more and we got to expereince the wonder of a new adventure unfolding on our computer screens. Also, I don't know about anyone else but I quickly found that as the story unfolded each segment seemed shorter and shorter as I got more and more wrapped up in the story unfolding. If anything, it is this expereince that probably most sums up what it means to be a Who fan -- the waiting and wondering what will happen next together. Honestly, it's been years since I've experienced this wonder watching Doctor Who just because I've seen them all and it's certainly made me eager for this sense of anticipation and wonder to begin anew in 2005.
And if that were all this new Who did, it would be enough. But Shalka does a lot more and it does it well. The story, by NA fan favorite Paul Cornell, is pretty much a hybrid of the elements from The Claws of Axos and the Horns of Nimon. An alien race has come to Earth, seeing the damage we've done to our ecology. By enslaving humanity, they will cause the world's population to scream out, destroying the atmosphere and making our world uninhabitable to us, but a paradise for the Shalka. Enter into this the ninth Doctor who is very aloof and alien. He wants only to come in and put a stop to the initial wave of the Shalka invasion, without really delving into their more insidious plan. But he is slowly drawn in the situation by a military presense and his interest in potential new companion, Allison. (And by interest, I don't mean like Grace had in the 8th Doctor in the TV movie... this time around, you get the feeling the Doctor is motivated by guilt or regret at knowing what might happen to Allison should he not intervene). And as if that weren't enough, the Master is travelling with the Doctor as a companion, but he can't leave the TARDIS.
If that seems like a lot to pack into six 15 minutes episodes, it is. But Cornell pulls it off with style. The first episode is a bit slow, but then again it's setting up a lot of things that will pay huge divideds later. Just like the first episode of Curse of Fenric, it takes a bit of putting the chess pieces into place before the rest of the story can begin knocking them all down.
Of course, a lot of interest in this story was the new Doctor, here played by Richard E. Grant. His name has been linked to the role of the new Doctor and this story certainly could be a great auditon piece. Cornell's script paints the new Doctor as a bit of hybrid between Pertwee and Colin Baker's Doctors with just enough McCoy thrown in for good measure. This Doctor is sarcastic, passionate and alien all in the same breath. Grant swtiches from serious to sarcastic at the drop of a hat and always makes the character believable. I was genuinely interested to see more of this new Doctor -- and whether or not he continues to exist as an alternate universe Doctor, I guess we'll have to wait and see.
The rest of the cast is quite good as well, with special recognition going to Derek Jacobi as the Master. Universally, the acting is quite good and very consistent over the course of the six episodes.
But is Shalka perfect? I have to say, unfortunately it's not. While it's a treat to see the story get animated, it still feels like a Big Finish radio play with some really great animation thrown in as an extra kicker. There are a couple of points that seem to be written for the audio medium more than the visual and that's a shame really. But I will give the animation this -- it does look superb and I am intrigued to see what will come of it when the story sees the light of day on DVD (which I've heard rumored will come out sometime in 2004).
Also, (and you can't count this as too big a criticism I guess, but I include it anyway) the story leaves far too many intriguing plot threads to be just a one-shot. Why is the Doctor so bitter? Why does he want to be alone? And how did the Master come to travel with him in the form that he does? Also, why the Doctor's special interest in Alison? All of these are intriguing and I wonder if Cornell might not be persauded to delve more into these -- if not in another web cast than a series of novels. I've read that Shalka is to be novelized in Febrauary and I can't wait to get it, just to see if it expands on just some of the issues that are raised here.
But what it all comes down to is that Scream of the Shalka is a fun, entertaining Who story that combines the wonders of modern technology with the sensibilities that made Doctor Who great for these 40 years. Honestly, outside of a new serial or two on television, I can't think of a better way to celebrate the 40th annviersary of the good Doctor than this highly enjoyable story. I guess the biggest indicator of how much I enjoyed is that now, six weeks later I find myself wondering -- well, what am I going to look forward to each week now without a new segment of Who to keep me going? I have a feeling that in between my Who videos, I may sneak in another viewing or two of Scream of the Shalka. After all, it's one Doctor Who story I haven't seen 20 or 30 times... yet.
A Review by Finn Clark 24/12/03
Dear Diary. I'm currently trying to get around to watching the complete Scream of the Shalka and maybe writing a review, but unfortunately so far I've only watched two episodes. It failed the "can't be bothered to tune in for part three" test, alas, though it's not actually bad.
All right, I watched my way through it eventually. :-)
Scream of the Shalka is... okay. It's hard to imagine anyone hating it, but it's hard to imagine anyone being blown away by it either. Its best feature stays in the TARDIS and its most prominent feature is underplayed and over-signposted, but it's always watchable. It's Doctor Who - no more and no less. That's its chief ambition, to give the Who-loving masses what they (presumably) want. It's a pilot for a prospective new series and it takes no risks whatsoever in its mission to recreate what we imagine Doctor Who to have been in the seventies. Watching Scream of the Shalka gave me a much healthier appreciation of the 1996 TVM.
I'm serious! Look at all the criticisms of what the TVM wasn't... it didn't have an invasion, it didn't have monsters, etc. It wasn't Who as we remembered it, basically. Scream of the Shalka is so busy ticking all those boxes that it doesn't have room to breathe. It's trying to be witty, but it's not. Whereas the TVM was a blast of fresh air and wonderfully entertaining from start to finish. In what way exactly is that not Doctor Who?
In many ways Shalka's script is quite good. Unfortunately it's up against a production team and lead actor that aren't quite on the same wavelength. Funny lines aren't funny. Worse still, self-aware lines like "while you get to be superior and eccentric" are delivered dead straight and just become embarrassing. The visuals don't help either. Cosgrove Hall's animation is lovely, full of atmosphere and dramatic imagery, but it's rather less impressive when anyone's talking. Hopefully it'll look better on the DVD. It's as if Paul Cornell's script was being directed by Ridley Scott but acted by a village amateur dramatic society - which isn't meant as an aspersion on the rather good actors providing the voices.
[In fact the production's funniest moment is purely visual, when the Shalka stop screaming to look at some dustbins. The jokes in the script, except for Derek Jacobi's, fall flat. But I haven't yet showered enough praise on the images; I loved the console room, the subterranean vistas and even a moment as simple as a leaf blowing in the alleyway where the TARDIS materialises.]
The cast is good, with Jacobi and Jim Norton being the standouts for me. They're obviously having fun with the material - and I loved Norton's accent as Major Thomas Kennet. Craig Kelly and Sophie Okonedo do reasonable work with the fairly bog-standard roles of Joe and Alison, but unfortunately the big disappointment is Richard E. Grant as the Doctor. He's too one-note, playing it slightly angry much of the time and hardly ever allowing himself a lighter touch. Perhaps he was trying to play the character as written, but even so I think he misjudged. Check out his reading of "sorry about the house", for instance. There's not enough oddness and quirkiness. The script is trying its little socks off to forge an eccentric Doctor, but Grant keeps playing it dead straight. He's obviously a high-class performer and could surely make different choices if he ever returned to the role, but for his first 'real' outing as the Doctor I think he got it wrong.
However that isn't the Shalka Doctor's only problem. This being a pilot for a potential series of animated webcasts, Paul Cornell worked like a dog to establish its new Doctor. Unfortunately he's obviously trying too hard. I swear we hear the word "eccentric" more than during the show's entire TV run, which is wrong on so many levels. Someone who actually describes himself as eccentric isn't eccentric but putting it on. The script is full of such manifesto phrases... "Don't you ever offer me a gun again!" "I'm a homeless person myself; it's the first thing I am."
Then there's the characterisation of the Doctor. In some ways this is quite fun, and the only way in which the script betrays the hand of its author. Some of the Doctor's actions from episode three onwards are funky, almost like an attempted return to the selfish, less heroic Doctor of the Hartnell era.
Unfortunately this Doctor isn't really a bastard. He's angst-ridden because he did a bad thing. Hmmm, where have I seen that before... oh yes, the last four years of the 8DAs! This characterisation feels old. The 8DA Doctor's guilt over Gallifrey's destruction has seemed to drag on forever, but now the Shalka Doctor is singing from the same hymn sheet. Oh joy. What's more, at the end of the day we know the Doctor will intervene despite his attempts to bugger off, so arguments with Army Guy etc. just come across as formulaic posturing. To boil it down to essentials, a character who doesn't want to get involved in this week's adventure will either:
(a) not do anything.
(b) eventually swing into action after all, though only after much soul-searching.
(a) isn't an option, so I'm contemplating with some gloom the prospect of a series of very predictable stories all based around (b). I'd love to see more animated adventures, but I'm less enthusiastic about the Shalka Doctor and his backstory.
I should also say a few words about regenerating the Doctor into Richard E. Grant instead of casting McGann (or one of his predecessors). Personally I was never wild about the idea, but even I admit that the Russell T. Davies series announcement was an unexpected blow. That's awful luck. Nevertheless regenerating the Doctor was basically an attention-grabbing gimmick and it shouldn't surprise anyone that such gimmicks have the capacity for backfiring. Effectively this has become another Unbound Doctor in the year of the fifteen Doctors and I'd be slightly surprised if it ended up being regarded as 'canon', whatever that means.
But despite all these gripes, Scream of the Shalka is still Paul Cornell putting the Doctor at the heart of the story. Whatever way you cut it, that's good news. Our hero's first scene with the Shalka Prime is so good that even Richard E. Grant can't screw it up, and I love the bit where the Doctor asks Alison to sacrifice herself. As with Unnatural History's Dark Sam, even a mediocre character will shine if given plenty of important screen time by a quality writer. When that character's the Doctor, all the better.
Oh, and head-on shots of the Grant Doctor make him look as if he's wearing a purple bubble on his head.
I probably seem to be bashing Shalka, but there's quite a bit I admire about it. It has nice moments and fun scenes. However the best thing about it by a gazillion miles is Sir Derek Jacobi, who is FAN-bloody-TASTIC. Kudos to Cornell and Jacobi for that one. I could watch those scenes over and over, no matter that I'm a little worried about how this story element might continue in an ongoing series. Theoretically it could get repetitive fast. But for these six mini-episodes Jacobi's character is pure gold, every last moment, and well worth your time for him alone. I won't go into detail for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that it's a thought-provoking development of a notion one could arguably follow back through twenty years of Who (and far more interesting than the Shalka Doctor).
The Shalka themselves are okay. They're deliberately traditional Who monsters rather than Cornell villains like the Aubertides or Cavis and Gandar, so it could have been worse. They're nothing we haven't seen before, really, but at least they have an imaginative background and look cool. [They also have points of similarity with Giger's Aliens, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.]
Scream of the Shalka comes across as Paul Cornell doing the Pertwee era. It's got the Pertwee logo, the Pertwee titles, a Pertwee-like Doctor dressed in Pertwee-like clothes and a script that constantly seemed to be asking "What would Barry Letts have done here?" But despite everything I've said, I'm still keen to see more animated Who. I don't mind what it is (hell, I'd get excited about animated reconstructions of lost stories), but we've barely started exploring the potential of the medium and given time it could blow our socks off. I'll certainly buy the DVD and the novelisation when they come out. For once fandom's opinions matter. Scream of the Shalka is a pilot for future stories, but whether or not they happen will depend in large part on the reception of this one. Watch Shalka. Tell your friends to watch too. The follow-up webcast will probably be even better.
Mr Lava Man Episode I by Andrew Wixon 8/3/04
I suspect that, in years to come, when you open the Illustrated Dictionary and look up 'sadly overtaken by events', the accompanying picture will be one taken from the webcast of Scream of the Shalka. If, a year ago, you'd've told me that a new 75ish-minute animated DW 'toon complete with new Doctor written by Paul Cornell and heavily promoted by the Beeb would not be the most exciting thing to hit DWdom since - oh, I don't know, that Mark Gatiss sketch with Peter Davison - I'd probably have given you a very funny look.
And yet it looks like Scream will go down in the annals as an interesting oddity, no more, no less - it'll be interesting to see if the new TV series alludes to its existence in ('ware the dread C-word) the canon, but I somehow doubt it's going to happen. Is this a bit unfair to the story given its quality? Well - dunno, really.
The most immediately arresting thing about Scream is the slightly odd approach it takes to introducing the Doctor to a new audience. Now the obvious way to do this, I'd've thought, would be to just kick off with a brand new tabula rasa Doctor in the old-school manner - not exactly ditching the barnacles of continuity, just not making a big deal out of them. Scream doesn't do this - it lumbers the Doctor with a new and rather ostentatiously mysterious back-story so that it's not just the new viewers who are a bit baffled, the sad ones are too. As a strategy I'm rather dubious about this - it's main appeal for Paul Cornell seems to have been the opportunity to load the Doctor up with angst and send him off on some sort of character arc.
Given Cornell's form this shouldn't really surprise us - and all the other regular tropes and themes are here too: everyone is basically deep-down a really decent and nice person, except for the monsters, who don't count cos they're actually allegorical. The way to beat the monsters is to basically have a great big group hug and all think positive thoughts. I'm probably sounding more cynical than I mean to, here, I mean, I admire Paul Cornell's optimism about the world, and to be fair to the guy he does seem to practice what he preaches (on the one occasion I've met him he was really quite unnecessarily open and pleasant to a stranger who, on the balance of things, was probably a monumental pain in the arse). But it does give this story a sort of warm and fuzzy vibe that's a bit at odds with its superficial bleakness.
This aside Scream is a very old-school sort of story, nicely paced and structured with some interesting ideas. The plot is in places a little reminiscent of the BBC's Invasion Earth series from a few years back but I suppose all these 'aliens turn up and try to take over' are fishing out of the same pool anyway. A TARDIS-based gag from No Future gets reused, but apart from that I can't think of too many specific references to past stories. It's quite solidly cast and performed too...
The only main performance that didn't really impress me was that of Richard E Grant as the Doctor. For years this man has been hailed as a prime choice of future Doctor yet this is the second occasion on which he's failed to get to grips with the part, being much too arch and theatrical and too often being caught acting. The only reason I can think of why people keep saying 'Cast Grant! Cast Grant!' is because he has a track-record of playing these flamboyant eccentric characters, performances which normally have more than a whiff of the pantomime dame about them. Casting someone as the Doctor simply cos they're a bit eccentric is like casting someone as Sherlock Holmes simply cos they're thin and prissy, it misses the fundamental point of the character. The Doctor is not defined just as being a bit eccentric, the core of the character is his unswerving moral compass and his grand compassion for all life. Now Grant gets close-ish to both these things but his involvement seems mainly to be a case of casting the right haircut (to appropriate Paul McGann's analogy) and not worrying about the actor underneath it.
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 13/8/04
In my Scream of the Shalka book review I wrote:
Having internet access is not all it's cracked up to be, especially when your download time is monumental, and the speakers don't work. Suddenly this wonder of modern technology is a liability, and extremely irritating. I have the internet, therefore can sample reviews to my heart's content, but I couldn't watch the webcast. I could watch the pictures of course (after a massive wait), but with no sound is there really any point! Thus I await the DVD release for Scream of the Shalka.The DVD has not materialized since, but it is no problem for me now, as I have access to a better computer! Thus considerably after the original webcast, I can finally watch the way that Doctor Who was going, before Russell T Davies came along, that is!
Having already read the story I came to it like I came to most DW TV stories. This TARGET afficionado didn't own a video till he was 30! I can now confirm the book is true to the webcast - and it really is a fine story, by an author capable of the very best kind of Who - Paul Cornell.
The animation is effective, if rather basic. The colours are bold, and the images presented are excellent. The movement isn't quite as fluid as cartoons in general, but it had a style all of its own - one I rather liked. My imagination must often be on a BBC Budget, because I actually imagined the webcast far simpler than it appears here - but that's probably the fault of the previous BBC webcasts. I knew that Richard E Grant and Sophie Okenedo looked like though - and they are both excellent in this new direction. Richard E Grant was rather more theatrical than his book persona though.
We will never know what would have become of this 9th Doctor. As he now shifts to an alternative Doctor, I hope (like with Bayldon) we will see him again. It's a darker, edgier portrayal. Yet he is capable of remarkable silliness and eccentricity. I expect one day we will find out what has caused this Doctor such anguish - a death of a dear friend perhaps. But Alison fills that void in his life - and you can't help but feel positive about the new beginning the end of Shalka creates.
The Master robot as a companion is less comfortable. Having now seen the webcast, I am still not convinced, even though Derek Jacobi gives him style and presence. This Delgado-like Master should stay as a baddie - but I suppose it could create tension amongst this TARDIS crew.
Shalka is a solidly told tale, rather reminiscent of the Pertwee years. In its reliance on soldier types, English setting and alien invasion, it could fall between Seasons 8 and 10 rather well. Grant's Doctor has that debonair sense about him too - further exaggerating the connection.
At six 15 minute episodes Shalka also works out about the right length for this reviewer. The story doesn't feel rushed, and there is plenty of time for contemplation - the wonderful pauses where the Doctor explains things - and character is the main focus.
I have to concur with my Shalka book review, when I said that it's a wonderful, straightforward alien invasion, adventure story. Just the kind of straightforward DW story I like most of the time. A glance to the past, but a definite road for the future to travel on. Having now seen the webcast, as well as read the book - I can totally endorse Scream of the Shalka.
Good, dependable story telling, of the kind DW does best of all. 9/10
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 5/11/04
The Scream Of The Shalka is notorious for introducing a new albeit (thus far) one off new Doctor, complete with animation by Cosgrove Hall, that has split fandom. Despite this, writer Paul Cornell has turned out a very traditional story of alien invasion, which is largely entertaining for the most part. The opening episode is particularly strong, with the deserted town depicted well thanks to the clever use of animation.
The Doctor himself here is more of a reluctant hero, not wanting to involve himself, but unable to help himself from getting involved. Much has been made of the fact that he drinks and carries a mobile phone; however he barely passes similarities with his Third persona; Jon Pertwee often drank wine and indeed used a radio on occasion for communicating with UNIT. Richard E Grant`s portrayal is initially a revelation, but he does seem to be going through the motions as the tale progresses.
The character of Alison Cheney is a sympathetic one in that she longs for adventure, through being stuck in a town, working as a barmaid. Sophie Okonedo`s portrayal is enjoyable if somewhat unremarkable. The plaudits should go to Derek Jacobi, who now as the Master (inhabiting a robotic body and acting as both companion and TARDIS defender) gives a suave account as the Doctor`s nemesis. The titular Shalka are themselves your average Doctor Who monster and like so much of this tale wouldn`t feel out of place in the Pertwee era. If Paul Cornell was ever paying homage to that era then it's in this tale.
With a new series on the way it is unlikely we`ll be seeing any follow ups in the immediate future, which is a shame as the Doctor here certainly seems to have an interesting backstory to tell; but in the absence of this here's hoping for a DVD release to do the story the justice it deserves.