Surprisingly, and despite its success, An Unearthly Child has rarely been used as a template for the many occasions when Doctor Who has needed to be relaunched. Perhaps the series had added too much more to the central premise of ‘something strange in a junkyard’ for it to have any meaning. These reboots has been plentiful over the years; Dr. Who and the Daleks, Spearhead from Space, The Leisure Hive, Timewyrm: Genesys, Doctor Who, Death Comes to Time, Rose all seek to reinvigorate the property and bring in a new audience. It’s interesting to see what key information they choose to reveal about the Doctor in those stories (two hearts, police box, um… half human on his mother’s side), but none seek to cultivate any substantial sense of mystery about the character (and it’s key to note that one of the main differences between the pilot and the broadcast version is how much more ambiguity was injected into the character.)
Mystery is at the heart of the show. The theme titles are, at their best, obscure. A strangling whirl of colour and image. As the show has gone on they have become more and more defined; galaxies, the interiors of watches, clouds and the imagined inside of washing machines all give a sense of motion and space. Who has become about setting and narrative. But early Who, with its flickering, vaguely incomprehensible images is about tone and mood and sense of seeing things you would never dream of seeing. Television is not a window to somewhere else, it is this strange electronic box that has to be covered up a lot of the time, and we settle in front of it as it reaches out into our living rooms.
Scream of the Shalka makes no attempt at strangeness, maybe because it was never designed to be viewed in living rooms. Its mysteries are the quite deliberate forshadowings found in genre television. In An Unearthly Child there is a sense that we will never find out who the Doctor is (we don’t), why he’s in London in 1963 (we have several somewhat incompatible answers) and what the deal with Susan really is (still unanswered – the great looming problem in the Doctor’s history – what are his values on parenthood and why has he abandoned his family?) In Scream of the Shalka there is a very definite sense that we will find out the answers to our questions (why has he regenerated, what is the deal with the Master etc.) somepoint soon, probably in a typically overblown season finale.
In 2003, Doctor Who was fractured into many different pieces. I had fallen out of love with Who during my teens ironically because I thought there wasn’t any new Who – if only I’d known about the stacks of books and CDs and comics that were all continuing the narrative in some way or other. There was more Who than ever… just not on television. Animation had been seen as a compromised way to bring it back – nobody was going to love it enough to spend the money needed on it to make it look good – so cartoons were going to be the answer.
In a halls of residence with a lot of time, a fast internet connection for the first time in my life, and a pervasive sense of nostalgia, I explored the history of Who and a new animated reinvigoration that was online. A few days later and a visit to HMV took place to waste a student loan on a copy of The Three Doctors. The rest of history wrote itself.
There’s part of my mind that thinks that Scream of the Shalka is a waste of my time. It’s a meaningless dead-end. But it was, for a very short time, a reality. This was new Who. We can’t watch An Unearthly Child with any true understanding of what that was like in 1963; we know that that man has two hearts etc. Shalka represents lost memories… those times when friends would ask you if Davros was responsible for Bad Wolf, and the text you received when Doctor David started to regenerate in The Stolen Earth. Those moments are lost to us because we know what happens next. The fact that a story, featuring an abandoned ninth Doctor made with piss-poor animation for an internet that no longer exists, is still is around it a testament to all those times we’ve lost.
There are nice things in it (the Doctor downing a glass of wine), things that the TV show eventually incorporated (Derek Jacobi’s Master), things that seem to be potent in our memory of Who (Edwardian costumes, the rural atmosphere of the story that was replaced by a far more metropolitan setting on TV) and things that are utterly hopeless (the opening scene is limp and baffling and close to incomprehensible – strange things happening to characters unrelated to the story has been part of the fiction since The Stones of Blood, but this take on it is frustratingly pathetic.) But the story has the worst excesses of audio – constant expository narration by the lead character – and a shocking sense of space, largely down to the highly simplified animation style designed for viewings that avoided buffering. Doctor Who has always turned the technical limitations it has faced into strengths – a theatrical filming style leads to a series heavy on dialogue rather than action – but here, scenes clunk together and characters bob up and down.
In 2003, Doctor Who had belonged to the fans for a long time, and most attempts to make the show accessible to others resulted in streamlining the few parts of continuity that they didn’t agree with. It’s lovely that Doctor Who was cared for by so many creative and talented individuals, many of their visions of Who are brilliant, but Doctor Who is for everyone. There’s no other drama series like it. It’s why Americans don’t really seem to understand it. It’s why the term ‘Whovian’ is abhorrent. It’s why scheduling it against Coronation Street is dumb – because Doctor Who is meant to be something that everyone can watch. Where the stories contained within it are unashamedly populist. Everytime that it has been made into something smaller, we have limited what it is capable of. And a shoddy animation series was just a little too small.