Tag Archives: animation

Random extra: Completion, conflation and Shada (2017)

shada

In its long and patchy history, Shada has gone from being not important enough to finish to being too coveted to leave unfinished. Abandoned part way through production in 1979, it wasn’t auspicious enough for the BBC to remount the following year. If it had been the end of a season arc like The Armageddon Factoror a Doctoral farewell like Logopolis, it would surely have been finished as soon as possible. Instead, it was deemed no more special than any other Doctor Who story and everyone moved on.

In the years since, as its mystique rose in proportion to the fortunes of its brilliant author, Shada has proved too tempting a property to leave on the shelf. It’s been released in more formats and more regularly than many extant stories. That’s partly because our appetite for Doctor Who isn’t sated by the hundreds of complete episodes we have. We want to see every scrap of the show, from the rejected pilot episode to orphaned clips of missing episodes to blooper reels and unused scenes. Given such hunger, of course an unseen Tom Baker story, even one only 50% complete, is going to get offered up for sale. And so it does, periodically and usually towards the end of releasing the marathon catalogue of Doctor Who on any given format.

It also gets a run because even 50% of a Douglas Adams story is worth a bob or two. I wonder though if we would have seen the panoply of Shadas – the VHS reconstruction, its DVD release, the webcast, the audio drama, the novelisation and now this live action/animation hybrid – if Adams hadn’t died so early. The 1992 VHS release was, famously, only green lit after Adams absent mindedly signed a release form he wouldn’t have had a bar of, had he been paying more attention. When he spoke about the story itself, he was always critical of it, downplaying its appeal. You got the sense he was happy for it to remain unfinished and unexamined.

I can see why has was so cautious. Adams’ media output, which spawned from, but is not restricted to, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is big business. It’s not something to be blithely jeopardised and the release of an early, unfinished work, shot on a budget of a quarter of what it needed and later cannibalised for other, better-formed works, could have undermined the whole operation. It’s generally good creative practice to not show works in progress, and certainly not ones you were a bit iffy on to start with.

If Adams was with us today, would he have revisited Shada? Perhaps the success of Doctor Who’s revival might have prompted him to do so. If so, I think he would have started from scratch, rather than reheat the leftovers from 1979. Perhaps it could have become a David Tennant Christmas special, rewritten by or co-written with Russell T Davies. Or perhaps he may have finally been persuaded to novelise the story, once the show had the commercial heft to deal with an author of his earning capacity. With no disrespect to any of the contributors to the 2017 Shada, I doubt Adams would have sanctioned this jigsaw of existing footage, animation and new FX shots. In part because I don’t think the jarring collision of formats would have appealed to him.

Also, I think he’d have wanted to do more work on the script. The story’s first half is a whimsical adventure through the picturesque sites of Cambridge, full of wit and verve. Had it made it to broadcast, it would have been a visual tonic to the tacky aesthetics of the rest of Season 17 (its Parisian sojourn excluded). But the second half is much more standard late 70s Who; a leapfrogging chase from spaceship to spaceship to sci-fi prison, with a grandiose villain and some shambling monsters. It takes a long time to get to a fairly pedestrian climax: a battle of minds between the Doctor and Skagra (Christopher Neame) with some explosions thrown in.

The role of kindly old Professor (finally! From an actual university!) Chronotis (Denis Carey) needs some clarification too. He is killed mid story, then resurrected without adequate explanation and his eventual reveal as notorious Time Lord criminal Salyavin has no impact on the story. His crimes remain undetailed so we get no sense of why the Doctor shouldn’t lock him back up in Shada at the story’s end. Perhaps if he actually played some part in Skagra’s defeat, he’d have a redemptive story which would justify his slinking back to Cambridge to serve tea and crackers. If he really is a badass, we get no proof of it.

Without Adams to tighten up Shada, what approach does this new version – a conflation of elements old and new – take to his scripts? The answer is, from what I can tell by a quick comparison, a pragmatic one. Scenes are kept, cut or edited to minimise the need to impersonate deceased members of the cast and to reduce the total number of minutes needed to animate. It’s a completely reasonable approach, although it means we miss a few of Adams’ zingers.

Less understandable is the decision to remount the show’s final scene, in the TARDIS control room with Tom Baker, now an octogenarian. Churlish as it is to argue against the great Baker’s return to his most glorious role, his scene’s an awkward, unnecessary addition. Making the scene work requires contrivance upon contrivance: it needs a body double (face hidden), a voiceless K9 and an unseen Romana (Lalla Ward) allegedly delivering her lines from the TARDIS loo, or something. (It reminds me of that episode of Blake’s 7, where the actor playing bad guy Travis injured himself before shooting, and the whole episode is concocted around his absence: dialogue delivered off-screen, gloved hands thumping on tables and so on.) It’s also narratively nonsensical. Just because that last scene contains an arbitrary line about the Doctor as an old man, there’s no reason for him to suddenly turn into one. It’s the sort of liberty taken with Adams’ work that reminds you why he was so protective of it.

With the inclusion of an onscreen return for Baker, it becomes clear that completing Shada is not the only aim here. It’s also to reignite a particularly middle-aged nostalgia and play at making Doctor Who ala 1979. It’s a self-knowing acknowledgement that this whole exercise is for us fans; fans who are so desperate to relive the show’s glory days that we’ll call an old Doctor back in from retirement and build a painstakingly correct control room around him, just to hear him talk to himself and smile down the camera, one more time. We don’t just want to finish Shada, we want to twist it and reshape it, until it provides the maximum fangasm possible.

There’s nothing wrong with that. As Adams might have said, it’s mostly harmless. But I can’t help find myself experiencing Shada fatigue, hoping that we’ve reached its ultimate iteration.

On the other hand, I note the impending release of Tom Baker’s first season as a blu-ray box set. If it turns into an ongoing range, what happens when they get around to Season 17? Will there be yet another Shada variant to absorb? Maybe, we’ll never be done finishing it.

NEXT TIME… normal service is resumed with The King’s Demons.

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Random Extra: Old, bold and The Power of the Daleks (2016)

powerdal2

Of all the missing stories, The Power of the Daleks is the one we seem most desperate to piece back together. There have been photonovels and reconstructions and now an animation. I saw this latest version in the same cinema where I’d watched The Day of the Doctor nearly three years ago. That was an experience jam packed with new fans. Power was for a die hard audience of about 20. And it soon became apparent why.

I’ll get to that in a bit. First though… lights dim…   DumdaDum, DumdaDum… Ah, but there is something great about hearing that theme music in cinema quality sound. So exciting when it starts up and that smoky old title sequence looks great on the big screen. It does nothing to help you get over the fantasy that the actual episodes might have magically turned up and the whole animation thing’s been an elaborate ruse. But then the animation starts and you’re watching talking cartoons again. Ah well. Keep looking Phil.

I’ve talked about the animations before. They are labours of love and again the people behind them have worked immensely hard under a punishing timeframe. Power is one of the better efforts but as with all which have gone before, it’s clear that there’s never enough time or money awarded to these things. Glitches have inevitably crept in. Hats, jackets and whole outfits sometimes appear and disappear between shots. At one stage, Lesterson’s arm is sheared by a sharp vertical line. In some shots, Janley’s head doesn’t match up with her neck. And on the whole, faces, limbs and bodily movement are restricted to a few variations on templated norms, and thus regularly show up the limitations of the piece.

It can’t seriously compare with the standards of broadcast animation you’d expect on TV, let alone in the cinema. But it does have an advantage in the Daleks. Their geometric design and their smooth, gliding motion are made for animation. When it’s just them on screen, the whole thing bristles with greater confidence.

But even those animation friendly Daleks can’t help the problems involved in matching up to a 50-year-old mostly missing adventure. Yes, we have scripts, telesnaps and publicity photos to help animators fill the gaps, but seeking for verisimilitude with the original doesn’t always help. Power, like most good drama, has regular moments of silence. In the original, these which would have been filled by actorly and directorial flourishes. But in the animation, these moments often feel static and awkward.

There are numerous instances of this, but by way of, um, illustration, here’s one. In Episode 1, the Doctor walks across Lesterson’s lab and into the Dalek capsule. In the original, Patrick Troughton and director Christopher Barry would have conspired to make those silent seconds suspenseful and intriguing. Here, it’s just a cartoon figure wobbling from one side of the frame to another. It’s dull and it goes on too long. And that drag in pace happens over and over again. So many close ups held too long on a solitary face. Too many two-shots stretched out until the next line of dialogue. Too many shots with nothing happening, then something briefly happeningthen nothing happening again.

It happens because the production team has made no edits to the original audio, which they might have been tempted to do to pick up the pace (not to mention to give them a few less minutes to animate). Fine, many will say. We want Power to be complete as possible. But can’t we trim a slow scene a little here? Can’t we top and tail a few seconds of incomprehensible silence there? Can’t we take out that telltale sound of Dalek casters rolling on wooden rostra, and let them float in eerie silence? Can’t we – just as a general rule – edit the audio to make this an easier experience to watch?

(The funny thing is, the strict commitment to re-presentation of the original audio, doesn’t extend to the pictures. Director Charles Norton says on the supporting featurette, Destination: Vulcan, that the finished result is about a 50% shot-by-shot recreation of the original. So it’s surely the less faithful 50% which includes visual references to Magpie Electronics, from the 21st century’s The Idiot’s Lantern. It’s a fun reference. And it shows that the animators aren’t wedded to absolute adherence to the original pictures. So why the audio?)

I can guess the response from the purists, though: where do you stop? Start trimming the story back, and why not edit out some of the duller scenes? Why not add a subplot or other characters (perhaps even a third female character)? Why not, gasp, rewrite the whole thing? You’d have to recast the voices, but that’s possible… right, Big Finish?

It would be heresy to some. But do we want a version of Power which is only of interest to purists, like the 20 die hards in the cinema with me? Or do we want one which a general audience might warm to?

I’ll stick my neck out: we need to be brave. Let’s cut these old stories up. Remix them. We weren’t always so precious about these things; look at the sixties Dalek movies. New versions of old stories in new mediums for new audiences. We’ll reimagine Shakespeare and the Beatles… why not Doctor Who?

If they’re going to recreate further missing Doctor Who episodes, be they animated or live action (and frankly, the latter could make a cracking digital only series for the BBC), I hope they will be bolder. If they stick with animation, the obvious candidate is The Evil of the Daleks with Doctor and Dalek character designs already done. Rassilon knows, there’s a story which could do with a little restructuring. If they do turn to Evil, I hope they make the best version they can, not the most reverent version they can.

After all, that’s exactly the approach Russell T Davies took. When reinventing the program, he didn’t treat Doctor Who like it was made of glass. He knew it wouldn’t break. The same rule could by applied to missing episodes, and if they aren’t coming back, they’ll have to be remade to be seen. Which would be great for us long term fans but also for new fans – because these are at heart, great stories. But make them new. Just like the best Doctor Who, such as The Power of the Daleks, always was.

NEXT TIME… normal service is resumed with The Faceless Ones.