In 2003, Doctor Who fans were desperate for a comeback of their favorite program… and so was the BBC. After the 1996 pilot failed to launch a series, the franchise began to appear as a multi-media project. Starting with ‘Death Comes to Time’ starring Sylvester McCoy as Doctor #7, the new webisodes combined limited animation and radio drama-style performances from some big names in UK entertainment including Stephen Fry.
The announcement that Richard E. Grant would be the Ninth Doctor struck many fans as both good and bad news. REG is a big name actor who has pull on both sides of ‘pond’ and had already played the part (kind of) in the comedic benefit ‘Curse of Fatal Death.’ A charismatic actor known for a variety of roles both dramatic and humorous, he could be the perfect fit for the part and the ideal choice to revive the program. However, REG also had a penchant for over the top performances which worried some fans that he may play it up as the Doctor.
The follow-up announcement that Doctor Who would be returning as an animated series rather than live action was a lead boot falling on the hopes of fandom. BBCi not only announced in the Summer of 03 that Doctor Who would be returning as a multimedia online animated feature but that it was the official 9th incarnation of the Doctor, following Paul McGann’s Doctor #8. This is significant because even the new Doctor Who series took its time to connect up to the classic series, in fact it was not until David Tennant took on the role that he was established as the Tenth Doctor… something that led to much confusion as there had been the animated Richard E Grant Doctor and televised Chris Eccleston incarnations before Tennant’s Doctor.
The story goes that after a failed pilot in 1996 and numerous misfires at a feature film, the BBC felt that a live action revival of the beloved icon was very unlikely. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the program, the animated series was announced and aired on November 13th. Fan favorite author Paul Cornell (Human Nature) was assigned as the writer and things started to look up. After the letdown of a cartoon series rather than a ‘real’ one settled, fans grew quite keen to see the result.
More of a Captain Pugwash animated product than a Bruce Timm production, the cartoon nevertheless was very moody and atmospheric. Lending much to the early Tom Baker ‘Hammer Horror’ episodes and the early Jon Pertwee UNIT stories, this version of Doctor Who felt very modern yet also quite safe in the confines of what you would expect from the program. The modernization of the program was quite jarring at the time, hearing the Doctor speak in slang made me do a double-take. Scream of the Shalka also introduced the first companion of color with Sophie Okonedo as Alison (beating the introduction of Martha Jones by several years).
The Doctor appeared almost vampiric in appearance yet he retained enough of the alien/English gentleman to make him recognizable as the character fans clamored for. The inclusion of Sir Derek Jacobi as the Master was a major boon until it was established that this was not really the Master but really an android facsimile… very odd. The story involved a rather reluctant and somewhat petulant and full of himself Doctor saving a small English village from the invasion of a reptilian race known as the Shalka. Nearly the entire village is struck by petrifying fear of the invaders except for a strong-willed barmaid named Allison. The reliance on a bug-eyed menace must have been a safe choice at the time, but it is still very similar in many ways to the 2005 opener of the new Doctor Who series, ‘Rose.’
Bereft of his usual gadgets, the Doctor nevertheless used a cellular phone via which he could command the TARDIS remotely, something that was quite clever if very limiting as it made the adventure firmly a product of the modern world rather than a timeless adventure. There were numerous missed opportunities in the animated adventure but it is still a rather fun piece of entertainment. A six part story, the web transmitted episodes evoked that long lost experience of watching Doctor Who on a weekly basis. Keeping in mind that the series had been off the air since 1989, a weekly Doctor Who program of any kind, even animated and on the net, was something to be thankful for.
While news of a sequel production or continuation of this new Doctor’s journeys through time and space failed to surface, there was another shoe left to drop.
A scant two months after it was announced, the wind from this new BBCi Doctor Who project was stolen by major news. Perhaps the biggest oddity of this Ninth Doctor was that no sooner had Richard E Grant been announced as the ‘official’ new Doctor Who than the BBC had granted Russell T Davies the go-ahead to produce a new televised series that would bear no relation to Scream of the Shalka at all. In a way this was akin to two holiday presents at once for Whovians worldwide but it also left many confused at what had just happened. It would take two long years for those questions to be answered and by then the animated feature had become a distant memory.
In the years since the Scream of the Shalka cartoon screened online, it has been theorized off-screen that this Ninth Doctor was one of three possible paths that the Doctor could have taken (the other two being the 2005 televised version and the spoof version played by Rowan Atkinson). It has since been accepted that the Richard E Grant Doctor doesn’t ‘count,’ but given that the latest series under Steven Moffat’s reign has been referred to as a brand new program… it may not be as throw-away as many have grown to believe.