Review: Gareth Roberts/Douglas Adams, Shada

Charles Dickens has The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. Bruce Lee has Game Of Death. And for Doctor Who and Douglas Adams, the great unfinished story is Shada. A six-part serial scripted by the Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy author while he was screenplay editor for the venerable science-fiction TV series in 1980, Shada was meant to be the grand finale of Doctor Who’s 17th season, but strikes at the BBC halted filming halfway through, and scuttled the story. Since then, it’s grown to mythological proportions in its own absence, with a reputation as a tantalizingly incomplete fragment of unfulfilled potential.

Like a ghost, Shada has refused to stay quietly dead, popping up in fragmentary or much-reworked versions over the years. Most famously, clips of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward in character as the time-traveling Fourth Doctor and his companion Romana were used in the 1983 anniversary special “The Five Doctors,” and in 1992, Baker provided linking narration when the surviving footage was released on video. In 2003, Paul McGann starred as the Eighth Doctor in a rewritten, partly animated audio version.

Adams himself cannibalized Shada for his 1987 novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, after which he washed his hands of it, saying the episode was “not that great” and refusing to put his name on the video release, which he claimed had been authorized by mistake. (“Whoever it was had forgotten that I wanted Shada sat on.”) His sudden death in 2001 sunk any lingering hope that he might eventually write a proper novel version, and it became, instead, unique among Doctor Who’s sizable array of missing adventures, as the only one from a writer of Douglas’ caliber not at least available as a novelization.

Now Shada is back in another regeneration, as a novel authorized by Adams’ estate and penned by Gareth Roberts, a frequent writer for the current TV series. It’s a respectful, even loving adaptation of the original scripts, and Roberts takes pains to try to recreate the spirit of the Adams era of Doctor Who, when it was often something like a cosmic screwball comedy. And other than fleshing out the underwritten side characters, he sticks very closely to Adams’ plot, which—ironically enough—revolves around a lost book.

Originally published June 25, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Ribos Operation

“The Ribos Operation” (season 16, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Sept. 2-23, 1978)

At its heart, “The Ribos Operation” is playing for relatively small stakes in comparison to the kind of thing you usually get with Doctor Who. It’s a story about a con game gone wrong between two hard-luck grifters and a fallen aristocrat who thinks they’re his route back into power. Though it’s set on a faraway planet with connections to a vast interstellar empire, mainly it’s just about the con, and how the Doctor’s own little quest gets in the way of that. But wrapped around “The Ribos Operation” is a much broader story of literally cosmic scope, and it’s there that we should start.

By Doctor Who’s sixteenth season, the show had run into a problem inevitable for any series that lasts that long—it was outgrowing its own founding mythology. The seemingly all-powerful Time Lords had been a lingering background presence for years, first as the unknown people the Doctor was running away from, then later a persistent source of unwanted control. But by this point, the question was: What do you do when your hero finally defeats the one foe he was never supposed to be able to defeat?

Originally published June 24, 2012 on Read the complete article.

R.I.P. Caroline John, Doctor Who’s Liz Shaw

British actress Caroline John, best known for playing scientist Liz Shaw during Doctor Who’s seventh season in 1970, died June 5 at age 71. Her death was reported by the BBC, after her funeral was held yesterday. The cause of death was not made public.

The daughter of an actor and a dancer, John trained at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama before joining Sir Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre in the 1960s, where she played Ophelia in the professional debut of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. She joined Doctor Who—alongside Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor—in “Spearhead From Space,” at a time when the show was seeking to reinvent itself as a more serious sci-fi adventure program that confronted its hero with contemporary social and political problems as often as it did alien invasions. Liz Shaw was a reflection of that, being consciously conceived as more than merely an assistant to the main hero but a smart and capable professional in her own right, and someone who could stand up to the frequently petulant Doctor and tell him when he was wrong. Though Shaw was not the first strong female character on the series, John’s grounded, sympathetic portrayal helped push the boundaries for women in science fiction and TV drama, and she was an important precursor to the likes of The X-Files‘ Dana Scully and Fringe‘s Olivia Dunham. (It’s almost certainly deliberate homage that Noomi Rapace’s Prometheus character is also named Elizabeth Shaw.)

John left Doctor Who after only one year, due to a combination of her pregnancy and the producers’ desire to return to more traditional companions. Afterwards, she worked frequently on the stage while also appearing on television programs like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, The House Of Elliott, and (with Fourth Doctor Tom Baker) 1982’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles. She also had a non-speaking cameo in the 2003 film Love Actually. John eventually returned to the role of Liz Shaw in the 1990s, both in the obscure direct-to-video Doctor Who spinoff P.R.O.B.E. and later in audio dramas produced by Big Finish, recording her final appearance as the character this past January. She’s survived by three children and her husband Geoffrey Beevers—another Doctor Who vet who played the Doctor’s rival The Master in the 1981 episode “The Keeper Of Traken,” and had a smaller role as a UNIT soldier opposite his wife in 1970’s “The Ambassadors Of Death.”

Originally published June 21, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, Resurrection Of The Daleks

“Resurrection Of The Daleks” (season 21, episodes 11-14. Originally aired Feb. 8-15, 1984)

On most TV dramas nowadays, the head writer and the executive producer are usually the same person—which makes a lot of sense, because that way there’s one unifying vision of where the show is headed. It’s been true of Doctor Who since the 2005 relaunch, with Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffatt in turn holding the reins, but that wasn’t how it worked during the 1963-1989 era, which instead divided the job between a producer in overall charge of the series and a script editor who oversaw just the writing. The producer was the boss and guided the show on a broad scale, but script editors had day-to-day, hands-on control of the stories, arguably making them more important in creating the tone and personality of the series in any given period—and also more important than the actor playing the Doctor, who might have been the public face of the series but didn’t actually tell the stories.

And so it’s also often been true that when the script editor wrote a Doctor Who script himself, as opposed to reworking some other writer’s earlier draft, that story captured the pure spirit of that period of the show better than the others of its season. It’s certainly true of the current series, with both Davies and Moffatt handling the season finales and other crucial episodes themselves, and it was true in 1970s Doctor Who with shows like Robert Holmes’ “The Deadly Assassin” and Douglas Adams’ “City Of Death,” among the best the series ever did.

And then there’s “Resurrection Of The Daleks,” another script-editor’s script, which holds down the middle of Peter Davison’s final season as the Fifth Doctor. To be sure, it’s a pretty pure crystallization of what Eric Saward and his boss, John Nathan-Turner, were going for in season 21—the gritty and dark atmosphere, the attempt at complex plotting, the choice to forgo a heroic conception of the Doctor in favor of a fallible and even weak protagonist, and the wholehearted embrace of the show’s long history as a living part of the series. But it’s also a painfully clear example of how Saward and JNT consistently screwed up the potential of any of those elements to create great TV storytelling, and indeed often failed to demonstrate basic competence at anything beyond cheap spectacle. “Gritty and dark” too often meant merely that the characters were bitter and unpleasant, “complex plotting” that there were too many characters and subplots and no real idea of where any of them were going, a fallible hero often was merely a passive and kind of boring one, and embracing history meant merely rehashing iconic moments from older episodes without any particular understanding of how they worked or why they were so well remembered in the first place.

Originally published June 10, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Interview: Walker Kong

If the Twin Cities has an answer to the literate, charmingly tuneful pop songcraft of Belle And Sebastian, or the Kinks songs that populate Wes Anderson movie soundtracks, it’s surely Walker Kong, which enlivened the Minnesota music scene with four albums of breezy indie-rock in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The band took a long break after releasing the stellar but underheard Deliver Us From People, in part because bandleader Jeremy Ackerman and his wife, backing vocalist Alex Ackerman, moved to Wisconsin, where Jeremy is a high-school art teacher. But over time, a new album began to piece its way together, and the group is now set to re-emerge with the new Phazes Of Light. Optimistic and elegiac by turns, Phazes reflects on the journey through life from childhood to adulthood and beyond, a theme inspired in no small part by the untimely death of founding member Sara Vargas in a traffic accident in 2009. In advance of Walker Kong’s upcoming shows June 2 at Bryant-Lake Bowl and June 22 at Amsterdam Bar, Jeremy Ackerman talked with The A.V. Club about the new album and the new phase of Walker Kong.

Originally published June 1, 2012 on Read the complete article.

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