Scream of the Shalka
Written by Paul Cornell, directed by Wilson Milam
Transmitted 13 November – 18 December 2003
One lonely night long before the return of Doctor Who to TV, there was a strange announcement on the web. Doctor Who was back… as an online streaming cartoon starring Richard E. Grant. Many fans, myself included, were very perplexed as to how to react. On the one hand I was so excited that this would be the Ninth Doctor (something that even Davies was reluctant to approach in the 2005 relaunch), but… a cartoon? Really? The images that were unveiled made him appear vampiric and strange, completely unlike any version of the character that we had seen. The upshot of casting a high profile actor such as REG was all but moot after seeing how he would appear.
In any case, when the streaming cartoon premiered, I was stuck to my monitor, over-excited to see a mish-mash of the 1970 opening credits and the later 1974 version, complete with a signature tune that sounded almost appropriate (without the drum machine). The style of the program was moody and weird, the monsters bizarre and the tone was very new. It was modern as well with a street accented barmaid as the companion and pop culture references aplenty. Yes, there were downsides to the new Doctor Who that stemmed from a script that tried terribly hard to keep up with its numerous edits and pressing production schedule while evoking something old and delivering something new.
The Doctor’s TARDIS lands in the obscure village of Lannet where the terrified populace is being held captive by an unseen threat. The Doctor, appearing to be in an ill temper and uninterested in adventuring, reluctantly devotes himself to investigating the situation after encountering one young woman, a barmaid named Allison, who refuses to give in to the mysterious alien masters. This alone stirs something in him and soon arouses the mad adventuring monster fighter familiar to millions. His TARDIS stolen, the Doctor teams up with the U.N.I.T. military forces (whom he openly mocks and berates) to face down the morphic lava creatures known as the Shalka with a kind of dizzying glee bordering on giddiness.
Yet all does not go well. Allison is captured and used as ploy for the Doctor’s obedience. In no time, the wind falls from the Doctor’s sails and he admits defeat, placing them both at the Shalka’s mercy (because of guilt the Doctor carries over a death that happened off-screen).
After failing his new friend Allison and being thrust into a black hole, the Doctor vows to give up his lifestyle of action and adventure forever, declaring himself a threat to others. He even calls the head of U.N.I.T. and leaves an apologetic voice mail about it… Yes, he has a TARDIS mobile phone. Honestly, there has seldom been a Doctor with greater mood swings in the program’s history (though the Tenth incarnation was clearly influenced by Richard E Grant’s version). After finding that Allison is in fact alive, though in the throng of the Shalka as a part of a zombie army, he changes gears again and decides to honestly solve the problem with U.N.I.T.
All of this back and forth occurs in just six very short segments.
The very scream of the Shalka is both hypnotic and destructive to the very atmosphere of the planet, and the Doctor has very little time to reverse the situation. The Doctor is depicted as a gifted problem solver, able to think on his feet and stare in the face of any creature no matter how deadly. Grant’s depiction gets decidedly camp at times and, partnered with Jacobi’s Master, there is an uncomfortable and inappropriate ‘did they/didn’t they’ aura around the pair. It’s like someone misunderstood the relationship between the Doctor and Master and decided to make them quite catty toward each other. The Robo-Master even rolls his eyes when he realizes that Allison will be joining the Doctor in the TARDIS as she is just like ‘all the others.’
Along with the animated project (which suffers greatly in its transfer from the iPlayer format to one more suited to DVD players), there are a few eye-opening special documentaries that explores the state of the Doctor Who nation and the role that the internet played in the late 20th and early 21st Century. Additionally, the frustrations faced by the production team are numerous from the BBC’s unwillingness to help to production woes and a lead actor whose performance changed from episode to episode and seemed (from what I can gather) less than enthused to be involved in a Doctor Who cartoon. By sharp contrast, a young actor was more than overjoyed to take part on a moment’s notice in a bit part, a man named David Tennant whom some fans may recall from other roles he played in Doctor Who.
James Goss is one of the chief architects of this project (along with many others). As the senior content producer of Doctor Who’s presence online, he had great experience with the burgeoning potential of the web and the new avenues of storytelling using a new technology called the iPlayer that could stream sound and vision as animation, something that had previously been impossible. Previous attempts at online streaming projects such as Death Comes to Time and Real Time were interesting attempts at using the web as a new venue for the program, but Scream of the Shalka was something altogether different.
As the project grew in its ambition, it became a monster in itself. It is clear that the script was a mess as nothing makes any sense from the Doctor’s behavior to the Shalka’s motivation or the opening scene in New Zealand and… WHY IS THERE A ROBOT MASTER TRAVELING WITH THE DOCTOR!!??
The revelation that the Master is just hanging out in the TARDIS is weird enough. Hearing the villain voiced by Sir Derek Jacobi is a treat (and he does the role well, obviously enjoying the part). But… why is he there? The short answer is that there was a thought that there needed to be a connection to the classic program. Initially the thought was a defense program hologram based on the Fifth Doctor (because that makes perfect sense) but suddenly Cornell hit upon the Master as the Doctor’s companion and fell in love with it. He still is! And it so appealed to Davies that he included a reference in the TV series in which the Doctor proposes that he and the Master just muck about in space and time… as if proving how this idea makes no sense at all!
For a new beginning, Scream of the Shalka is almost totally impenetrable to new viewers and seasoned ones alike. There are references to previous off-screen adventures and some kind of personal loss that has made the Doctor unlike himself, but none of this is ever explained. Likewise, the Doctor begins the story by railing at unseen forces but the Time Lords are not name dropped or even properly explained.
In short, it’s a mess.
However, and this is the saving grace of Scream of the Shalka, there are so many good intentions to make a brand new Doctor Who program with almost no resources that the hard work put into this story, specifically by the animation team at Cosgrove Hall who would go on to work on the Invasion animated segments, is outstanding. There are some absolutely superb moments in this story that make it so much fun, so inventive that it is almost a crying shame that shortly before it was even streamed live online, Doctor Who was confirmed as returning to the TV screens, making this little oddity just that, and worse still… out of continuity.
Viewed today, this is one for only the most devoted of Whovians, frankly. It stands up well to the test of time and has several qualities that echo the decisions made by the BBC Wales team in 2005 (some good, some bad). Fans have it easy nowadays with the near constant updates, DVD releases and on set video uploads. But back in 2003 there was this weird time when the Doctor was back and it was a very different take on a familiar concept. Scream of the Shalka on its own may not come highly recommended, but the DVD for all of its insight into what happened around the production is downright necessary for the full-blooded fan.