The years from 1989 until 2005 are posthumously referred to as The Wilderness Years by many Doctor Who fans, seventeen years of uncertainty for the once popular and long running science fiction program. There were constant rumors of its return, rumblings in the darkness, whispers in the halls, but as we all know Doctor Who took it’s time in returning to our screens. But, it almost came back, via a very different screen, just in time for the 40th anniversary in 2003.
It was intended to be the official return of The Doctor, until the cast and crew found out about the not far off “official” official 2005 revival, but Scream of the Shalka was a valiant attempt nonetheless. Brilliantly casting Richard E. Grant as The Doctor, with Sophie Okonedo as Alison, and the incomparable Derek Jacobi as The Master, Shalka was a flash animated webcast for BBCi, the first ever Doctor Who cartoon. So much potential, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
– spoilers, sweetie –
Written by Paul Cornell (Human Nature, Family of Blood), this story, consisting six fifteen minute episodes, finds The Doctor transported to the village of Lannet, in Lancashire, against his will. Locked out of his TARDIS, he heads into town, only to discover it silent and all but deserted. He heads to the pub, where he meets many of the town’s frightened inhabitants, and one not so, Alison Cheney. From a homeless woman we find the town has been invaded by the Shalka, aliens dwelling underground until they’ve made the atmosphere suitable for their return to the surface.
At Alison’s home The Doctor lures a few to the surface and destroys them, and the home. He contacts UNIT and fills them in on the situation, all while making it known he does not want to be involved any further. Unknown to the Doctor though is that the Shalka have his TARDIS. He leads UNIT underground to confront the enemy, but once encountered the Doctor causes an explosion, severing his access to backup. He acts the idiot to lull the Shalka Prime into giving him information, but Prime sees past his ruse and threatens to kill Alison, who they’ve captured. The Doctor allows Prime into his TARDIS, where he de-activates the Master, an android all along. The Shalka decide his technology is inferior, and since he is no longer needed The Doctor is thrown into the black hole they use as a gateway. As he is plummeting toward his doom, he uses a cell phone to contact a now re-activated Master, who in turn pushes the Shalka into the black whole. The TARDIS scoops up The Doctor and saves the day, as Alison, for unknown reasons, is let go to the surface.
UNIT begins evacuating the townspeople, who are all complaining of a sore throat, when a soldier captures one of the Shalka creatures. The Doctor discovers that Alison survived, and that none of the survivors made it to their destination. While attempting to interrogate the creature it attacks a soldier, and The Doctor uses raw oxygen to put it down. The townspeople are walking, against their will to a warehouse in another town, when The Doctor and UNIT arrive in the TARDIS. The Doctor removes a tiny Shalka from Alison’s forehead, learning that it was controlling the townspeople, and that groups around the world are in the same situation. The sore throats have been caused by the people unknowingly emitting a subsonic scream due to the Shalka control. The screams being used to change the Earth’s atmospheric conditions. As the screams begin depleting the ozone layer, The Doctor and Alison confront Prime who informs them the Shalka inhabit 80% of the worlds in this universe, taking them over when on the verge of ecological destruction.
The Doctor swallows the Shalka from Alison’s forehead, bonding with it, and re-programming it to do his bidding, also using it to understand creatures and their screams. He engages Prime in a sonic duel, turns on the black hole gateway, sucking Prime to her death. He coughs up the Shalka and places it back onto Alison’s forehead where she can use it to defeat the last of the Shalka and turn off the screams. Inside the TARDIS the Master explains to Alison that The Doctor would like her as a traveling companion, but would never ask after losing so many in the past. Alison tells her boyfriend Joe that she is leaving him to travel with The Doctor, they kiss, and the TARDIS dematerializing cycle begins.
The story may be a confusing one, with some quite wonky bits and science fiction cliches, but it is an overall fun, sometimes quite exciting story. Richard E. Grant is wonderful as The Doctor, darkly manipulative one moment, wildly eccentric the next. He attacks the role with great abandon, and his performance is the best part of this far too short series. The rest of the cast is equally wonderful, though I wish Derek Jacobi had a bigger part, as he portrays The Master brilliantly. David Tennant even makes a brief appearance! The alien menace had a lot of potential, with a great back story, and a real reason to fear them. The only place where I felt the story fell a little flat was in the science. The Shalka opening a black hole inside the Earth without it being sucked in is just one of a few places where I didn’t feel the science worked. But do you know what? It’s Doctor Who. That sort of thing happens from time to time, so I got over it and just enjoyed Scream of the Shalka for what it is. A fun, non-canon Doctor adventure.
The DVD contains a few decent bonus features, including two documentaries, photo gallery, and even the soundtrack. As is usual with Doctor Who DVDs, the short making of documentary was a great little look into those years without The Doctor, and how hard people were working to bring him back in some form. It contains interviews with, and insights from many of the main behind the scenes players, and lots of background on what could have been. There is also a short documentary about BBCi, and how the BBC website kept The Doctor alive for fans during the wilderness years.
This DVD isn’t a must have for every Doctor Who fan, but I’m happy it’s officially available to those who would like to own it. Thank you BBC.