douglas adams

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Cover art for the BBC Doctor Who DVD release Shada.

Would Shada be held in quite so high a regard if it were stripped of the trappings of beingĀ the famously incomplete Douglas Adams Doctor Who story, and was instead just another story from that era?

 

The DVD release of Shada was always going to be a difficult one.

We are, after all, talking about a story that was never originally completed due to industrial action that struck the BBC during the production of the story. And despite attempts to later remount the story, ultimately it was abandoned after having only been partially filmed. Everyone moved on, and Shada was left on the shelf, incomplete. The televisual embodiment of what might have been.

And unlike the traditional lost stories from the Hartnell and Troughton years, this isn’t a case of whole episodes being lost, but instead it is a case of assorted scenes from throughout the story, across multiple episodes, simply never having been shot. So the process of animating that lost footage would face hurdles that animating complete missing episodes would not. Namely it would mean that individual episodes of the story, in order to be complete, would have to continually switch between the live action footage that was shot, and newly made animated insert footage, and back again, and do so frequently, at the risk of such changes in visual content jarring the viewer. And unlike other lost stories, there would be no audio to work from to act as a backbone in order to create new content around either, instead there would be a need to create brand new audio for all of the missing, never originally filmed, scenes, requiring the participation of members of the original cast, or sound-alikes where that wasn’t possible. Additionally, anything that had not yet been visualised in the existing footage would have to be designed and created from the ground up, prior to animation, presumably based on script notes and whatever else could be scraped up in relation to the ill-fated production. And it would need to do all of this within a relatively minuscule BBC Doctor Who DVD release budget, while still allowing space enough in the budget for all of the other necessities that are a natural part of every Doctor Who DVD release.

Assessing all that would be required then, from an objective point of view, it is frankly little surprise that it didn’t happen. As even putting aside the aesthetic and creative challenges, on a purely budgetary and resource management side of things, it appears nigh on impossible to achieve all of that with such limitations in place. And with an end result that would likely be extremely divisive amongst fans and customers, given the way in which animation and live action would have to be forcibly blended and continually alternate throughout the story, as well as taking into account the limitations on the type and quality of animation that can even be achieved on such low budgets to begin with, it was perhaps wise to play it safe and try to make the best Shada release package as they could, short of actually creating the new animated linking scenes within each of the six episodes that would be required. Add to which, it is also important to note that, at best, only about half of the six episode serial of Shada exists, so that would mean the equivalent of three episodes worth of animation would be required in order to cover the missing footage throughout the story. And given that it has recently been said that producing two episodes of animated material for a release is stretching the budget of a DVD release to it’s limits, expecting three episodes worth, plus all new audio and design work, all edited as seamlessly as possible into existing live action footage, was always going to be a hill too far for the Doctor Who DVD range, given current budgetary limitations. They even appear to have intentionally left Shada’s release as late as they could in the hope that some miracle might come along. But when it didn’t, one can hardly blame them for releasing what they had in as best a manner as they could reasonably do.

“Was it to do with the voices?”

Which brings us to Ian Levine.

Levine has long been a divisive personality amongst Doctor Who fandom. So perhaps expectedly, when it was reported that he was undertaking his own Shada animation project before the DVD release had even been announced, it was bound to make a few waves. Not to mention raise a few expectations, perhaps even outright assumptions, in relation to just why it was being made, and where it would end up. And to his credit, he did complete his part animated Shada project, even managing to hire many of the key cast to record brand new audio for the animated scenes, Lalla Ward and John Leeson (replacing the late David Brierley) amongst them. Though arguably the most important voice, that belonging to Tom Baker, chose not to take part, and would be replaced in the animated sequences by someone doing a Tom Baker impersonation.

How good is Ian Levine’s Shada? Well, unless you are on the short-list of those that have seen it personally, that is rather impossible to judge at this point. The only review that we have is from an ardent and long-time Ian Levine supporter, so while interesting, said ‘review’ can hardly be called a credible or objective source by which to make any kind of informed or rational judgement by. Those in the pro camp tend to say it is great, those in the con camp tend to say it is a bit of a mess, and most of the rest of us will likely never know. But why won’t we know, I hear you ask. Didn’t Ian Levine offer the Shada animation for free to the producers of the Doctor Who DVD range? So he tells us, yes. And that is where the Shada DVD outrage and controversy amongst fandom truly kicked in.

As best as us mere mortals on the outside looking in can tell, it basically went down like this. Ian Levine met with the key stakeholders in charge of the classic Doctor Who DVD range in regards to them possibly using the animated Shada scenes that he had created, with the intention of adding them into the eventual Shada DVD release. They ultimately declined, for reasons we haven’t been made privy to. Ian Levine came out and publicly said he offered it for free, and inferred that they basically passed on his Shada animation out of nothing but sheer spite. Fandom went into standard meltdown mode, with a great many acting as if they had been robbed of something, without even having any idea of the actual worth of what it was that they had been apparently denied. And the Shada release, no matter what form it now took, was never going to be able to please a large proportion of now outraged classic Doctor Who fans, due to missing something it was unlikely to have ever had to begin with.

“If you will not give me the information voluntarily, I will deduct it from you. I am sure there is much else in your mind that will interest me.”

But why didn’t they use Levine’s Shada? After all, he apparently offered it for free!

Well, I doubt we’ll ever have an absolute and definitive, unbiased answer on that one. However I will say that Ian Levine’s claims that he offered it for free, and so it wouldn’t have cost them anything to include, and thus intimating that they only chose not to do so out of some kind of petty personal spite, is all a bit of a fan-baiting smoke and mirrors act, really. I mean let’s run down just a few points to consider, shall we?

Tom Baker would only record his voice for Ian Levine’s Shada project for an eight grand up front fee, and that was at the time when this was still being advertised to all involved parties as a strictly personal non commercial project. Levine passed, and got a sound-alike, who even most in the pro-Levine camp admit isn’t altogether convincing. One would imagine that Tom Baker’s fee to BBC Worldwide in order to record dialogue for a worldwide commercial DVD release of Shada would be considerably higher than the fee requested of Levine for what had been billed to him as a personal pet project. Plus, even if they didn’t get Baker to loop the missing dialogue – which could potentially raise its own share of legal and rights issues – they would still, at the very least, have to get Baker’s permission and pay Baker an agreed upon fee for using his likeness in the animation, and possibly also for the rights to even use a sound-alike, due to the complicated ins and outs of how BBC licensing works in regards to Doctor Who. In the case of the latter they could potentially also open themselves up to possible legal action on the grounds of misrepresentation as well, unless the Shada DVD clearly and explicitly stated that the animated sections were being voiced by another party that was not Tom Baker. And that’s just Baker’s voice. There are all sorts of little legal mines all over doing partial audio reconstruction that would need to be addressed and taken care of legally and contractually, and usually before such a project was even attempted, rather than after the fact.

Ian Levine didn’t pay for all of this out of his own pocket, as it is often made to sound like, but instead he took money and other contributions from other Doctor Who fans in order to create and complete his Shada animation project. Even more critically, he sought absolutely no rights for doing any of this ahead of time, from either the BBC or from Douglas Adams estate, but instead produced it by himself on the grounds of it being a purely non-profit, non commercial and private fan project.

Levine did not have the contracted clearances from all those involved in order to sell and distribute the work as part of a commercial entity and on a worldwide, or even domestic UK, basis. Therefore
every single person involved who were initially hired on a work-for-hire, or even voluntary basis, and again, for what they likely believed to have been a private, non commercial fan project, would now need to sign brand new clearances and be officially re-contracted. A rather expensive process, even in the unlikely event that no one actually wanted additional money for the use of the fruits of their individual participation. And if a single person couldn’t be contracted for any reason whatsoever then all of their work would be rendered legally unable to be used in said project. The after the fact fees associated with tracking down everyone involved, attaining all of the required rights, clearance issues, contracts, and so forth would hardly be anywhere approaching cheap, again, even if all the people involved didn’t want any (extra) money. And if you think that the likes of
John Leeson and Lalla Ward wouldn’t want to be properly paid for their part in a (now suddenly) commercial for-profit official release, well, you’re a far more optimistic person than I am.

Ian Levine reportedly made the creative decision to match certain things to the original script, rather than what was actually shot, as confirmed by certain people who have seen the Shada animation. Therefore there are parts of the animation that would likely be needed to be (slightly?) reworked to limit such discrepancies, as well as in order to make the apparently already somewhat jarring transitions between live action and animation more fluid, and attempt to have them better sit into the live action material in general. From all accounts, Levine allegedly refused to allow any such changes when the viability of using the animated Shada footage was under discussion, taking his usual my-way-or-the-highway bull in a china-shop approach. Plus, unlike traditional animated reconstructions, where each episode presented has an overall sense of consistency, here, as mentioned previously, you have individual episodes that would switch frequently between live action and animation and back again, which even in the absolute best case scenario, has to be at least somewhat jarring to the viewing experience.

And then we come to the real crux of the matter, the overall quality of the animation that has been produced. I’m not just talking about does it look good enough, though there is always that question, I’m talking more along the lines of has it been created in such a way as to allow for it to be transferred in optimum quality at appropriate size and ratio to the DVD format. Because fixing animation content after the fact to release quality standards and requirements can be a very tricky and expensive thing to do, sometimes even nigh on impossible. As a quick aside, I was once tangentially involved in a low budget animation project that screwed that up, and it was going to cost so much to fix it that the entire project was ultimately shelved instead, as that was the only truly viable option. Now in regards to Ian Levine’s Shada, I don’t know the answer to this one, having not seen the footage myself, and I don’t mean to cast aspersions here, but it is yet another consideration that could, once again, add considerable cost to the project.

Let us also consider the fact that each DVD release has a set, and rather tight, budget, and that any money that was spent on the animation in order to address any of the above mentioned, or any other such issues, would have to come from somewhere, and that is before even taking into account just how difficult a person Ian Levine is to work with, and how many bridges he has burnt in regards to the BBC, BBC Worldwide, Big Finish, Theta Sigma, and the Restoration Team, to name but a few current or potential stakeholders. And I also mention that because things tend to get more costly, and budgets tend to blow out even wider, when working stakeholder relationships are so difficult, and potentially even adversarial in nature.

So my main point is that implying that Ian Levine’s Shada animation would cost the producers of the classic Doctor Who DVD range nothing, or even very little, and so they have no real or legitimate excuse for not including it on the DVD release, other than the personal, is, frankly, at best extremely misleading, and at worst, a blatant miss-truth on Ian Levine’s part. Fact is, even with what Levine created provided for free, because of the way that he did things, the cost to try and use any of that on a commercial worldwide release now would likely be a pretty huge chunk of the budget, or conceivably, still potentially price it outside of the budgetary range altogether, and that is even before giving due consideration and budget allocations to other extant and/or newly created material for the release in question.

Also, let us not forget that part of the reason why BBC Worldwide can now potentially stretch to include animation for a couple of missing episodes is because not only do they already have all of the audio owned and available to them to use, but everyone involved and anything newly created is paid for and contracted appropriately before the project kicks off. So they know the exact cost breakdowns and can analyse what can be done and what can’t ahead of time. Ian Levine on the other hand tried to do everything backwards and very much his way, and in turn ended up doing it in, unfortunately, about the least commercially friendly and viable way humanly possible. And if you have the intention of ever trying to turn that kind of fan produced material into a commercial project, then sadly that just wasn’t a very smart way to go about such things. So, regardless of the quality or lack thereof that the Shada animation may itself represent, the fact that it all kind of blew up and wasn’t viable to use as part of the official Shada DVD release is really no one’s fault but Levine’s own due to just how he went about things. And that will remain true regardless of what spin he tries to put on it all, or how much fan outrage he tries to spark.

“I told you you’d got the time wrong, Doctor.”

Now with all that said, sure, I still would have liked to see it, despite the fact that the constant switch between animation and live action during episodes I still believe would be pretty jarring to watch. And even though I think he goes about things the wrong way far too often, I do give props to Ian Levine for actually being passionate enough to try stuff like this. I just think it is a great shame that his own nature, and certain extreme personality traits, as well as a refusal to work co-operatively with other people, so often gets in the way and messes such things up. It often seems to me that he’d be a great ally to Who fandom if only he could take his ego out of the equation a little bit, and stop blaming everyone else for his own mistakes.

Thing is, I suppose I just have enough faith to believe that if it was in any way viable to include the animation on the Shada DVD, then it would have been included. And I simply don’t buy into Ian Levine’s conspiracy theories as to why it wasn’t, especially as there are a great many legitimate reasons as to why it may not have been practical, or even possible, to do so. And as far as the actual Shada DVD release we did get, I sincerely believe that the producers of the classic Doctor Who DVD range have done themselves pretty proud all in all. It is not a perfect release, but it’s Shada, so no matter what they did it was never going to be a perfect release.

However for the price of a standard Doctor Who DVD we got the entire Legacy boxed set, which is three discs worth of material, with two of those discs dedicated to Shada itself. We received the 90’s VHS version of Shada with linking Tom Baker narration cleaned up to the usual Restoration Team standards, and which, pre-Levine animation, is all that most fans would have reasonably expected for us to get. We also got some pretty comprehensive extras detailing the tortured history of Shada. Plus the More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS documentary on it’s own disc, and a fair smattering of other assorted extras to boot. And while this release will certainly appeal more to hardcore fans, rather than casual viewers, just by it’s very nature, it’s still nothing to sneeze at.

Because Shada itself is always going to be an incomplete story, it may not feel like the most satisfying release, but I still contend that it has been done about as well as we could reasonably expect, and actually represents quite good value for money on a pure content basis, even if some of that content may seem a touch random. If I had one bugbear it’s that I would have liked the flash animated McGann Shada to be DVD playable, rather than merely being a DVD-Rom extra on the disc, but given the limited nature of the animation itself that may not have been possible to achieve to DVD quality standards. After all, as we have discussed, animations not specifically designed for TV/DVD standards can be tricky beasts at times. Oh, and a commentary track would have been nice, too.

Still, call me crazy, but rather than bemoaning a version of Shada of indeterminate quality that, for whatever reasons, we seemed destined never to have anyway, I instead choose to enjoy the version of Shada that we did actually receive on DVD, in all it’s imperfections. And while Levine’s animation enhanced Shada might have been a nice curiosity, it is this version of Shada that reflects most accurately the history of Douglas Adams ill-fated script and it’s abortive journey towards our screens. Which, to me, is surely the whole point in having the original production of Shada on DVD to begin with.

No, it isn’t perfect. But then, that’s Shada for you.