Scream of the Shalka

Written by:
Paul Cornell
Directed by: Wilson Milam
Starring: Richard E. Grant
Year: 2003
Audio Availability: See The Official BBC Website

In the purest spirit of "episode-by-episode" I intend to review each of these web broadcasts if not on the date of release, then the same week of first availability. So why have I not started the review of episode one until the 23rd November, 10 days after it was first available for downloading? All I'll say is take the option of downloading the current version of Flash (a link is provided on the site) and if you're, like me, not watching in broadband, then don't be bloody thick and make sure you watch it in Low Bandwidth.

Now I've finally got to see it, let's make some headway. If you haven't got a clue what I'm talking about or what Shalka is, then it's a specially commissioned audio story for the 40th Anniversary, with animation by Cosgrove Hall. I doubt if anyone reading this site hasn't heard of it, and it's to the BBC's credit that they've been plugging it heavily, including prime-time adverts for it around the Eastenders slot.

Since the termination of the series back in 1989 fan culture has began to take over the series somewhat, with non-professional authors forming the majority of the staff for the book ranges, and minority concern audio plays being released every month. What troubles with all this is that, while some of them are very good, it takes Doctor Who away from its populist roots and into a cult ghetto where it never belonged. Paul Cornell was one of those book authors I spoke about, and the one I've read the most of (four of his - to date - seven Who novels). From what I recall, some of them are good (Love and War) others decent, but overrated (Human Nature, Timewyrm: Revelation) and others pretty ropy (No Future). His snappy lines and fresh take on the series can be engaging, but all too often come across as an undergraduate retooling. Some readers of this site have mistaken my politics, particularly those not equipped to deal with irony. Or attempted irony, at any rate. For the record, I'm a liberal, though like anything I feel that it dilutes the worth of something if it's constantly thrown in your face. Paul regularly does this, negating the use of metaphor in favour of Benny (his own novels creation) suggesting the Doctor wouldn't like a "wrinkly racist" in Human Nature. Yet the same Doctor whom Paul suggests would turn his nose up at an Irish joke was yelling "Welsh imbecile!" in The Web of Fear. Such right-on musings conjure up Alison Cheney, the Doctor's first black assistant. (Unless you count Sharon, from the Meep the Beep comic strip, but that's another story…) I've nothing against such a thing in principle at all, and indeed Sophie Okonedo is excellent in the role, but it's symptomatic of the same kind of right-on drum-beating that Paul always does. It's tired in context, if not in execution, and when you get a Doctor that wants to drink in a pub and check out the jukebox it's a fanboy's wonderland. Yes, yes, yes, Pertwee drank, Billy drank - whatever. A few months back I got so rat-arsed I was accidentally sick all over my own feet but that doesn't mean I necessarily want to see it in Who. I say "necessarily" - I have no objection against it per se, it's just that it's so artificial and contrived in these sixth form hands.

Richard E. Grant is expectedly wonderful in the title role, though the script lets him down. Having to utter contrived lines about nine lives and paraphrasing both The Brain of Morbius and The Daleks it sounds outrageously artificial. The warning signs should have been there when Paul first graduated to audio, and gave us the appalling Shadow of the Scourge. What may have read as witty on paper sounded stagy and angsty on tape and was frankly embarrassing to listen to. This applies here, with lines like "Volcano FM. Cool - rock by day, lava by night" dropping to the ground like a dead bird. Even the title is fannish and devoid of any of the melodramatic grandiosity that made the TV stories so loveable.

Yet I give it nearly an average mark. I personally have fundamental problems with it, and doubt any "casual" fan or general public member would give it more than a few seconds of their time. But the revamped theme is fine for the play (though not for a TV series) and the menace of the aliens and setting has a nice 28 Days Later feel to it. Plus, as said, the cast (other than those in the prologue) are on decent form. Don't let Paul near the TV show proper, but this is okay so far…
* * ˝

When I reviewed Time and the Rani some time ago, I used the mention of Elvis in episode four to take the piss out of Paul Cornell. Here we are, eighteen months later and Paul's only gone and fulfilled my prophecy by having the mobile phone using Doctor reveal that he once read poetry as a support act for Mr. Presley. Dear Christ, save us! And while the story felt refreshingly different, at least, we now get Derek Jacobi as the Master. It's strange not hearing the role being played by a third-rate ham, and (so far) it doesn't quite work. Jacobi is possibly too good an actor to make such an uninspired role come off, though here we have a Master who goes around saying things like "empty vessels make the most noise." There's not an actor in the world who could make that line work.
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Story-wise things aren't really going anywhere now, and I do miss the deserted England setting, but in essence this is probably the best episode so far. Or should I say "least worst", as there's just not as many minuses attached to it?

On reflection Grant does seem to be going through the motions, leaving Sophie to steal all the acting honours. Jacobi's role turns out to be an android, while the Doctor is without realistic frame of reference, a wise cracking asthmatic who leaves answerphone messages on the Tardis. It's okay, nothing more…
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You know, I'll be the first to admit that I haven't come to Shalka with an open mind. I still stand by my final ratings, as I don't think it's terribly good (and I didn't even mention those horrifically contrived WMD references in the last episode) but after years of reading Paul's books (which I do enjoy) and seeing the Doctor replace his stick of celery for a HIV ribbon and lead lesbians on a march for Martin Luther King I was just reading "right on" in everything. I don't mind this - I'm even developing my own story that involves the current political climate, coming soon to a rejection letter near you - but it's just the garish unsubtlety of the way that it's presented that troubles me. Doctor Who, as a science fiction programme, has much opportunity for metaphor and parallels. Many of the current writers never use this, Ben Aaronovitch a particular offender.

Anyway, just to check a few facts, I got this straight from the horse's mouth, as it were (with thanks to Outpost Gallifrey, the forum of which is where I asked it): "No, I didn't think about Alison's ethnicity, Muirinn [Lane Kelly, Producer] cast Sophie and there we were. And thank goodness she did, because, as you say, she's great." So there you go. No right-on, just a happy coincidence. And to those readers who have suggested I'm making an "issue" of Alison's race, then I'm not. If any other writer had done it, then I wouldn't have thought twice. But the thought of Paul writing about race is the equivalent of Terry Nation writing about people falling over, or Eric Saward writing about someone getting their brains blown out. Plus, this is just one small part of the writing that I have troubles with - it still leaves us with the rest of the Iraq referencing, booze-guzzling, jukebox-checking, mobile phone using snappy one-liner Doctor who talks to the homeless and plays support for Elvis. Oh, and on the subject of the Doctor being asthmatic, then according to Paul I've made an assumption there. "Possibly several". Well, it's an easy mistake to make, isn't it? I mean, there's the Doctor using an inhaler and all…

I realise at this stage that I've hardly mentioned the animation, despite some taking me to task for my description of it as an audio story with animation. Maybe it's just that I can't take it seriously enough to consider it an "animated story". (Who but a Who fan would even argue such semantics anyway?) I mean, it's hardly Akira we're talking here, it's largely static faces lip-synching to the soundtrack. Maybe I'm being disingenuous, but the previous BBCi productions have been audios with optional animation, and, despite the animation being marginally more sophisticated here, I don't really see that much difference. (and for completeness' sake, then I thought Real Time was okay, I couldn't make it to the end of Death Comes To Time and I haven't bothered to listen to Shada yet).

Anyway, forget the detractions, because this fourth episode's really rather good. For once it asks questions rather than following a tried rout (who really is the Master robot? What is its secret program? What's the Doctor's hidden motivation? Why is Derek Jacobi so underused?) and the funny lines are for once genuinely funny rather than self-consciously "smart". I liked the one about "forcing me to stop calling you sir" and the Doctor's last words being "low battery?!!?". This last one has an ingenious get-out for the Doctor, whereby he uses his mobile (which is part of the Tardis) to "dial up" the Tardis doorway so he can get in and escape being crushed. Contrived? Maybe, but it's also quite imaginative, the first real show of flair so far in the story. Sophie and Richard have again changed places, with Okenodo delivering a slightly stilted performance here, and Grant getting better by having a little more depth to play with. And while you could see the ending coming a mile off, it still works tremendously, aided no doubt by Russell Stone's strong incidental music.
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So far the third episode seems to be the most controversial, with those horrifically political comments of the Doctor's about WMD. Don't make him beat the drum, Paul, give us some ambiguity. However, also from the same episode was the answerphone on the Tardis. I've checked this out, and it links in to a competition on the BBCi website, whereby visitors could ring the Doctor's number (08707 874040 - the competition's closed now, but at date of writing you'll still get to hear the message) and the one leaving the funniest message would win a model of the ninth Doctor. Why Doctor Who hasn't used competition tie-ins as part of its narrative before is beyond me. Just imagine the possibilities - Marco Polo: "Which route to Cathay shall we take, Doctor?" "I'm not sure - send your answers in on a postcard and get the chance to win a T-shirt and a free goodie bag."

Anyway, the episode at hand. Generally a mess of noise and exposition, it sees Cornell spending his whole week jizzing one out as he assembles this mass of unholy fanwank. The Shalka are attacking the Earth because its ecology is failing, and are, by the Doctor's own admittance, the worst thing he has ever faced. (yeah, right!) Stone's music has gone all dancey, Grant is reading it from the sheet, and Okenodo - who did so well for the first half - is now found severely lacking. The only player who really holds his own is Craig Kelly, who supplies his wooden charms. Diana Quick is okay, but if Jacobi's presence isn't explained by the final episode it'll make the whole exercise such a pile of indulgent toss you might as well put John Peel's name on it and call it War of the Daleks.

Sole good bit? The Doctor actually asking the army if they could organise bomb strikes all over the world within an hour and seemingly considering it. Do I like bombing countries and support the attack on Iraq? No. But do I like ambiguity in Who, and its writers not using the Doctor as a mouthpiece for their politic beliefs? Oh yes, absolutely. Paul was one of a trio of writers behind Classic British Television, a book which mocked Jon Pertwee's incarnation as the most shallow of all the Doctors. Rather ironic then, that Paul has created a Doctor for the new millennium who's two-dimensional in more ways than one...
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18th December and the final episode of Shalka is uploaded to the BBCi website… I bet Paul wishes he'd known about Saddam Hussein's capture earlier now, he could have made it part of the plot. (With that long ragged beard poor old Saddam even looked like one of Delgado's rubber mask disguises). Anyway, naturally with this webcast coming indirectly from the old NA stable this review's received more attention than most of the others, with a novel-writing husband-and-wife team insisting that the Doctor talking about WMDs in the third isn't political. (This from the same team who brought you the classic "the Sylvester McCoy years are better than Hartnell because Hartnell had a poor saucer effect in one of his stories.") I mean - keep off the crack! This is the Anorak talking, serving up the Gospel in a couple of tablets straight from Mount Sinae. You might not like what I have to say, but deep in your heart you know it makes sense. If you're reading this now and you actually think Scream of the Shalka is a decent addition to the Who pantheon then I'm sorry - you must be some kind of fanny. It's as simple as that.

A more observant fan pointed out that the reference to Pachelbel on the jukebox was an inference to Pachelbel's Canon in D, it being a play on the arguments of Canon surrounding the story. Very clever (!), but let's hope new series Who doesn't become like this. The Doctor steps in a turd, holds it up to camera and goes "is that one of my reviews?" You see, it don't matter how self-reflexive and intertextual these books and plays want to be, or try to be - fan wank is fan wank is fan wank, and this is the Scream of the Fanwank. Jesus, it's an unholy mess ("While I'm here, "Shalka" rules, I want to write for REG, and Paul Cornell is God." - the female half of that writing partnership. Christ up me arse, get some f****** self-respect!) I really feel like having a moan. In case you're not aware, then I do test out some of these reviews by posting them on Who forums before I upload them here. I mean, I've read some festering fanny ash in my time, from fans who claim you're not allowed to have a personal opinion on Who unless you're Robert Holmes (I'm not kidding) to those who spit their dummies over calling Colin "The Blimp". But I've never heard such putrefying, arse-clenchingly awful cackomy as I've heard over this one. I've tried to be nice, I've tried to be kind, but I can't take it any more.

It's been a hard review to write - even if I've done my episodic reviews over a period of time before, I've always seen/heard the relevant stories at least once before I tackled them. Writing this as I'm going along is difficult because not only am I making more u-turns than normal, but what bit of the work do you focus on? Do I mention the inhaler, only to find out it means nothing? The Master, UNIT the Army? Let's just clarify a few points, to get a genuine view that overrides anything I may have said earlier in this piece:
1. Despite my earlier claims of him being decent, Richard E. Grant really does sound like he's reading it from the script, except for this final episode where he's just over the top instead;
2. Sophie Okenodo is good for the first half, ropey for the second.
3. Craig Kelly is always wooden, but in a good way, and is the arguable star of the story;
4. Derek Jacobi is wasted;
5. The soldiers are awful.

Current rumours suggest that Paul has been enlisted to write a couple of episodes of the new series. I hope not. While, to be fair to him, he has now written for television (including Doctors, Casualty, Love in the 21st Century - ironically the episode entitled "Masturbation" - and Coronation Street) I really don't see his take on Who as up to professional standards. Hell, it isn't even up to Terry Nation standards. This final episode has the Doctor wearing his characterisation on his sleeve, chatting about being eccentric, while Sophie gets Godawful lines like "What happened to make him such an emotional island?" and "You're doing your best to keep all the plates from smashing". Characterisation is something that arises from characters talking and behaving naturally, that character arising from their reactions and involvement in situations. It isn't an artificially contrived construct, where people go around saying stuff like "pardon me, but I'm eccentric and I don't like the military but I do have pals in the army, so aren't I complex?" The only positive offshoot of this is Jacobi as some form of the Master, posing questions without giving anything away. I said I'd be angry if they didn't explain this plot device - and certainly it's an insult to non-fans who may have watched - but by alluding to the Doctor being on some form of exile and the Master on his last chance then it does make you yearn a little for future stories… which is probably what it was there for.

"Tell me honestly," says Grant, "am I irritating you yet?" To which the answer has to be, "Not f****** half!" He destroys the Shalka by singing to them, (no joke) and kicking the Prime Shalka into a singularity. Didn't Paul used to take the piss out of Pertwee stories? Compared to that resolution even Death To The Daleks comes across as sophisticated. He also sings from Cabaret, impersonates The Eurovision Song Contest, describes Andy Warhol as a close friend and suggests that England wanting to "conquer the Earth all over again" would be "bad". Compared to that, (and, while some of Jon's soapbox speeches may have grated, the Doctor was never a blatant political mouthpiece like Paul writes him) Sophie's wish that she could have rid Earth of all pollution is positively tame. This man must never write for the TV series… please, it's beyond my worst nightmares.
* * ˝

Not irredeemably bad, but Shalka is still pretty much all the worst aspects of Cornell's writing. The awkward and self-amused one-liners, the inappropriate politicising and the fannish indulgence in plot elements. Combine this with a shaky central performance and some wasted gueststars and you have something that's fun but only if you don't regard it as "real" Who. I'll say it again - don't ever let this man near the TV series.
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