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29 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 728: Scream of the Shalka, Episodes One and Two

Dear diary,

So, for the first time since the marathon began almost two years ago, I’ve resorted to watching two episodes a day, instead of the usual one. The reasons for this are simple: Scream of the Shalka has episodes which are only 15 minutes long, and there’s no way I’d be able to find enough to discuss for six whole days on this story!

Truth be told, Scream of the Shalka was never going to be a part of this marathon. I was going to go from the TV Movie to Rose in one fell swoop. But then this story was released on DVD last year, and I started to think about maybe including it somewhere. Scream of the Shalka has always been something of an ‘also-ran’ in the worlds of Doctor Who. Released after the announcement had been made heralding the return of the show to television, its purpose quickly became somewhat redundant, which is a real shame because it’s something incredibly unique, and much like Downtime, shows how the Doctor Who format can adapt itself to survive under any circumstances.

And the idea fascinates me in its own way. Doctor Who was always a testing bed for new technologies, so it makes sense that it should become one of the BBC’s very first ventures into online video, and creating content exclusively for the web. There’s a little voice in the back of my mind which loves the idea that there may have been a whole series of these adventures made - somewhere out there is a parallel universe in which Richard E Grant was the Ninth Doctor for a decent length ofd time, and had lots of travels throughout time and space… all in animated form on the BBC website.

So what of these first two episodes themselves? Well… if I’m being entirely honest - and there’s little point in doing anything but - then it’s a slow-burner. There was a point, about five minutes in to the first episode, where I seriously considered switching off and skipping straight on to Rose. Had it not been for the fact that I’d already told you all that I’d be watching this one, then I think I might well have done. It’s also confession time: this isn’t the first attempt I’ve made to watch Scream of the Shalka. I’ve tried once before on the website itself, long before the DVD was released, and got about as far in to it that time as I did this time.

Because it’s not the most exciting of openings, is it? I mean, the actual first scenes, in which a meteorite crashes to Earth are fun enough, but then it slows right down to a snail’s pace. The TARDIS arrives, and the Doctor moves very slowly through a couple of scenes as he starts to piece the story together. The lack of any incidental music for large chinks of the tale didn’t help either, because it left the scenes feeling more than a bit empty and a struggle to pay attention to. Thankfully, as that first episode went by, I found myself getting more involved with things. By the time we’re blowing up buildings in the second episode, there’s lots more holding my attention.

It’s a pity, in a way, because the Doctor that we’re presented with in those early, slow-moving scenes is rather brilliantly in character as the Time Lord we know and love. The way that he assesses the situation in the pub, and puts all the pieces together without being given any information by the other characters is lovely, and then the extraction of information from the homeless lady in the street is a great example of the way he’ll interact with anybody. I’m hoping that we get more scenes like this now that the story seems to have picked up the pace a bit, because they probably deserve to be enjoyed more than they were!

I’ve heard lots of complaints over the years about the way that Grant ‘phones in’ his performance in this story, and I can’t help but sadly go along with that for now. There’s no real urgency to the performance he’s giving… but the same can largely be said for everyone else in the story, too. You very much get the impression that these people are standing in a booth reading their lines from a script, as opposed to really getting caught up in the story itself. It’s certainly not up to the standard of a Big Finish audio recording, for example. I think that’s contributing to the fact that I just can’t excite myself too much about these scenes that should be really working for me. If the Doctor doesn’t care enough to find the energy, then where am I supposed to get it from?

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