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.
The Forgotten Doctor by Matthew Kresal 15/9/14
"Welcome to the Richard E Grant era of Doctor Who. Blink and you'll miss it."
Those words, spoken by its executive producer James Goss in the DVD documentary Carry On Screaming, more than adequately describe the reputation of Scream of the Shalka. Originally produced with the intention of being the first story in a web based continuation of the then still canceled series, this animated Doctor Who "webcast" from 2003 has often been neglected, if not downright forgotten, by fans. With its long-awaited DVD release last year, the story has been enjoying something of a much needed re-examination.
There is Richard E Grant's Doctor for example. Grant's Doctor (originally intended to be the Ninth before being "replaced" by Christopher Eccleston) feels like something of a cross between the Doctors of the Old Series and the New. There's an aloofness that brings to mind the First and Sixth Doctors while his rather abrasive attitude towards the military (and especially Major Kennet) calls to mind the Third's early dealings with UNIT. In other ways, this Doctor has intriguing pre-echoes of the New Series Doctors that were to follow within just a couple of years. Grant's Doctor has a hurt quality to him with something and someone in his past haunting him, which only the events in the story start to help him recover from, while some of the dialogue could easily be delivered by the likes of David Tennant or Matt Smith. Like Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor, we get only a glimpse of this Doctor and it's something that makes judging his Doctor more difficult but there's certainly plenty of promise here.
The story also has a good cast, some of whom would go on to appear in the New Series. Perhaps the most obvious connection to the New Series is Derek Jacobi as the Master, a role he would play in a different context in the New Series episode Utopia (and who also in 2003 played a version of the Doctor in Big Finish's Doctor Who Unbound story Deadline), though the character here has a rather interesting development. There's also Sophie Okonedo (Liz X from Series Five episode The Beast Below) as barmaid Alison Cheney, who is introduced as the Doctor's new companion and comes across almost as something of a template for the companions of the New Series. Hidden away in a cameo working at a warehouse is a pre-Tenth Doctor David Tennant, who has only a couple of lines and a scream. The cast also includes noted character actress Diana Quick as the Shalka Prime, Craig Kelly as Alison's boyfriend Joe and Jim Norton as Major Kennet
What perhaps makes this webcast most intriguing in retrospect is the script by Paul Cornell. What this story feels most like is an attempt to take the classic series "alien invasion" formula and update it for the twenty-first century. From its six-episode length to its opening scenes setting up the deserted streets of the Lancashire village of Lannet (which bring to mind the opening scenes of Invasion Of The Dinosaurs) to the story's somewhat eco-friendly message, there are some strong calls back to the Pertwee era. Even though UNIT doesn't appear, the military presence in the story certainly brings them to mind. The story makes that connection even stronger by its opening and closing titles, which harken very much back to the Pertwee-era title sequence.
Yet it also brings to mind the New Series that was to come. There are those aforementioned elements in Grant's Doctor and some interesting casting, and there are other New Series elements that come into play as well. The story's opening scene set in New Zealand, for example, feels like a pre-credit scene out of a New Series episode. There's the future companion in an unhappy relationship with her boyfriend whom she ends up leaving to travel with the Doctor. There's the Doctor using a cell phone and at one point using his sonic screwdriver in a fashion that wouldn't be at all out of place in the New Series. The DVD reveals that, like the New Series, seeds were being planted for larger story arcs that would eventually go into this Doctor's background and explain not just his state but also how the Master ended up as an android. In a way then, Cornell's script feels like something of a bridge between old and new that came at an unfortunate time and place before it could lead to more.
Something that made this controversial in 2003, and that also gives it distinction as well, is that it was the first licensed animated Doctor Who story. Despite having been originally produced with Flash animation for an era with much slower internet connections, it holds up rather well. There's some wonderful character designs including Grant's Doctor and the Shalka themselves (from the average worm-like ones to their leader, the more humanoid Shalka Prime) that, while not hugely detailed, still allows for the characters to be emotional as well which helps the animation feel less artificial. There are some wonderful design elements, including an impressive TARDIS interior and the underground lair of the Shalka, as well as also boasting an atmospheric visual style full of shadows and silhouettes. Indeed, the animation even looks good on your typical wide-screen TV thanks to its DVD release.
In the final analysis then, what are we to make of Scream of the Shalka more than a decade later? It certainly deserves more than the obscurity it's languished in ever since. There's a Doctor who shares many things in common with the Doctor's we've been watching for the last few years as well as elements familiar from the New Series being done in a different way. With its appearance finally on DVD, perhaps the story will be seen as more than an obscure curiosity at last and as something far more than just another thing from the "wilderness years".
Scream of Frustration by Robert Smith? 8/4/18
It was supposed to be the brave new hope for Doctor Who. A webcast that wasn't just another audio but was a full animated six-part story, showcasing the forward-looking BBCi investment in Doctor Who as its feature product. With television and radio trailers. Featuring the ninth Doctor, the Master, a companion for the 21st century, an updated UNIT and impressive aliens. Scream of the Shalka was clearly just the first in what would hopefully become a long-running series featuring the ninth Doctor, Alison and the Master.
The cast list was out of this world: Richard E. Grant as the Doctor, fulfilling so many fan wishlists at once (although probably few of them involved a mobile-phone-wielding Doctor). Craig Kelley, who'd played just about the only Doctor Who fan given any respect whatsoever on Queer as Folk. Written by Paul Cornell, popularly acknowledged as one of the best NA writers and the Doctor Who author from the nineties who'd most demonstrably "made it" outside the series. Oh, and featuring Sir Derek Jacobi (yes, really!) as the Master. Could it get any better than this?
The best thing about Scream is the Master, who is nothing short of fascinating. Having a robotic Master be the Doctor's sole companion is a stroke of sheer genius. Not one writer in a thousand would have thought of that, and yet it's completely plausible and even ties into the TV movie. Having him tapped inside the TARDIS doesn't hurt his appeal in the slightest. Sir Derek imbues every line with a subtle intensity that makes for unmissible viewing. Every scene he's in had me straining closer to the screen, boggling with astonishment at what a "mere" webcast had achieved.
The second best thing about Scream is its Doctor. For once he actually gets to undergo a character arc within a story, moving from the cold, bitter Doctor at the beginning to one who regains some of his humanity thanks to Alison. There's a fascinating backstory that's barely alluded to... which works in a way that an info-dump simply wouldn't. The only thing that keeps the Doctor from being the very best thing of all is the unfortunate profusion of awkward lines surrounding him that no actor could possibly save: the line "Yee haw! Take me home, big boy!" is astonishing for the fact that it isn't worse than it is, and the line given to Major Kennet to describe the Doctor "...while you get to be superior and eccentric" just feels forced.
The Doctor's attempts to act eccentric are a bit hit and miss - the line about him singing showtunes to the Shalka doesn't really work - but these are actually a strength, not a weakness. They show us a damaged Doctor, one who's no longer capable of being the character we once knew but who desperately wants to be. It's heartwrenching to watch and helps us immediately empathise with a character we might otherwise have spent half the story getting to know. Compare this to the telemovie and weep.
And then it all went to pieces, when the last thing anyone expected happened: we got a new series.
I'll say that again. we got a new series. On television.
In retrospect, Scream's biggest mistake was to explicitly tie him down to being the ninth Doctor (although the comparison with a cat's nine lives is delicious). They almost get it right, with no regeneration and just throwing the new Doctor into the action, complete with complex, hinted-at backstory. If only they'd cut the references to which Doctor this was, Scream would have a more timeless quality to it. Instead it's relegated to a bit of an historical oddity, almost as soon as it got out of the gate. Which is a real shame.
The Shalka themselves are appropriately visual, showing the strengths of the animation. Cosgrove-Hall did wonders with Danger Mouse and other televised animation series, so it was quite a coup for BBCi to get them. Previous webcasts had featured a few stills with Death Comes to Time and Real Time and pictures with limited movement for Shada.... but there's just no comparison. The difference between Shada's juvenile, Pugwash-esque movements and Scream's fluid and atmospheric visual storytelling is astounding. I'm not sure I could stay sane if I watched the cartoon K9 and the comedy motorcycle jerking their way across the screen again.
The snakelike Shalka also show us the strength of animation over the TV series, books and audios. As Paul Cornell mentions in the "Making of..." essay at the back of the novelisation, snakes are one of the two things that every human is born with an innate fear of (the other being spiders). The TV series' attempts to do snakes have been woefully poor; it's something you'd never even contemplate in an audio; and the books proved that their strengths didn't like in evoking the "behind the sofa" experience of Doctor Who monsters. Scream shows that it's willing to use the format to carve out its own identity, mastering aspects that other media can't offer.
Then there's Major Kennet and the Royal Green Jackets, who so easily could have been the Brigadier and UNIT but aren't. It's a sign of the production's maturity that they chose to go their own way when they so easily could have had an updated UNIT and no one would have complained. The pre-publicity promised us only a smidgen of continuity, and that's exactly what we got. It's a symbol of just how much thought has been put into the story as just the first piece of a much larger, ongoing story. And the Doctor's last words to the universe on Kennet's answering machine are side-splittingly hilarious!
It's the Shalka's motivation that is the story's greatest weakness. The Shalka are cast as the limiting factor of the cosmos, the reason why civilisations don't spread everywhere. In the "Making of..." essay, Cornell argues this by pointing out that mathematical projections indicate that civilised alien life should have passed through Earth's stellar neighbourhood at least twice by now. The fact that they haven't is thus put down to the Shalka in the Doctor Who universe...
...except that in the Doctor Who universe, alien special passed through Earth's neighbourhood every Saturday at teatime, thus undercutting the point somewhat.
Furthermore, casting them as environmental villains, who only attack worlds on the brink of ecological collapse is a fine idea on paper... where it really should have stayed. Despite its many wonderful qualities, Scream nevertheless attempts to prove how special it is by having a universe-spanning threat and supposedly shocking us into realising that - gasp! - we've been buggering up the environment. Thanks for that. If it wasn't for an animated Doctor Who webcast, I'd never have realised the environment was in a bit of a pickle. Allegory should be a scalpel, not a brick.
On the other hand, there's the ninth Doctor's first companion, Alison Cheney, played by Sophie Okonedo. She'd really good, more than holding her own among the high flyers in the rest of the cast. Oh, and, believe it or not, she's also the first non-white actress to play a companion. The books had been way ahead of the game with Roz and Anji (and pseudo-companion Kadiatu). The audios had a non-white companion in Erimem... but sadly she's played by Yet Another White Woman. Yes, it's been almost 30 years since Talons, but it seems like no time has passed at all! Then there's the New Series, which forwent possible actresses like Carla Henry (who played Donna in the British Queer as Folk) in favour of yet another pair of white leads.
Scream's sole followup was a not-very-good short story published on the web involving an alcoholic Doctor meeting some vampires. Okay, he wasn't quite an alcoholic, but the story took the Doctor's occasional drinking in Scream (all for plot reasons) and tagged it to the character like a piece of celery in the shape of a question mark. Maybe we should be thankful this didn't end up going further, after all.
There's an alternate universe out there where Scream of the Shalka was the best thing to happen to Doctor Who in 2003. And while a series of animated webcasts featuring Richard E. Grant's ninth Doctor would be entertaining and probably quite good, there was something dangerous about the casting of Christopher Eccleston that shook things up in a way that Scream simply didn't. Comparing the costumes along is eye-opening: Grant's generic Edwardian Doctor costume is the sort of thing that, until the New Series debuted, we simply couldn't imagine the Doctor being without. I'll admit the prospect of a regular series of Doctor Who adventures co-staring Sir Derek Jacobi might have been enticing, but he probably would have been recast as soon as he wasn't available anyway.
At the end of the day, I'm not upset by the way things turned out. The New Series negating Scream's place in the grand scheme of things was somewhat tempered by Paul Cornell writing for it and all three leads eventually appearing in it. Scream of the Shalka is still pretty impressive, especially for a pilot. It's got an impressive array of elements that work and only a smattering of those that don't. It was nice to visit the world of animated Who for a while and see that it really could succeed. But... well... Scream's death gave life to a new TV series. Starring Christopher Eccleston as the proper ninth Doctor.
Yee haw! Take me home, big boy.