Sunday, 29 September 2013

Doctor by Doctor (Sidestep 3)

Cheer Up Goth


Richard E. Grant, 2003



In 2003, Doctor Who was celebrating an anniversary. A number of special audio productions, novels and non-fiction books were released to celebrate the series' fortieth year. When 2003 began, the Doctor had eight official incarnations. By the time the year was out, he had acquired a ninth – but not the one most fans are familiar with.

Once again, some historical background. In the absence of a TV series, BBCi (then the name for the BBCs internet presence) had begun increasing Doctor Who's official internet presence, culminating in several webcasts, brand new Doctor Who for the twenty-first century. First there was Death Comes to Time, an abandoned 2000 radio pilot which was reworked for online streaming with some limited animation as an accompaniment. The first episode's success led to the production of a full, five-part serial, the animated illustrations becoming more vital to the following of the plot as it progressed. This peculiar story took an epic approach to Doctor Who, relaunching with Sylvester McCoy's seventh Doctor and eventually killing him all over again. Something of a curate's egg, it was popular enough to convince the BBC to try again with another webcast (and introduced the Minister of Chance, for which we should all be grateful).


Teaming up with Big Finish, the BBC created a second serial, this time starring Colin Baker as the sixth Doctor. 2002's Real Time pitted the Doctor against the Cybermen, and again utilised basic animations as a way of illustrating the audio scenes. With Doctor Who's online presence improved significantly by the dedicated 'BBC Cult' site, the way forward for the series seemed to clearly lie in online streaming. For the fortieth anniversary year, the BBC and BF once again teamed up, resurrecting the unfinished 1980 serial Shada as another enhanced radio production. When Tom Baker declined to return to finish his lost serial, Paul McGann was invited to take part, the story being rewritten for the eighth Doctor. With Shada another hit-rate success, the way forward seemed clear: relaunch Doctor Who properly, as an online series.

For the more ambitious fourth webcast, the Beeb moved from Big Finish to respected animation house Cosgrove Hall.They created Scream of the Shalka, a fully animated webcast written by celebrated author Paul Cornell, featuring a brand new incarnation of the Doctor. Voiced by, and physically based on, Richard E Grant, this new Doctor was described in press releases as the official ninth Doctor. Then the BBC announced the coming of the new TV series and by the time Shalka was broadcast, the new Doctor had been overwritten by the upcoming new ninth Doctor - played, in due course, by Christopher Eccleston. The ninth Doctor of Scream of the Shalka had been consigned to a strange, tangential version of Doctor Who before he even had a chance to make an impact.

Scream of the Shalka was formatted as six episodes of roughly fifteen minutes duration each, presented
with Flash animation and nice, long loading breaks between each scene. At the time, of course, it seemed terrible advanced. As well as Richard E. Grant, always a popular choice for fans' dream-casting, it starred acclaimed actor Sophie Okenedo (now known to Who fans as Liz 10, but around this time filming her Oscar-nominated appearance in Hotel Rwanda) as new companion Alison. Also on the bill were Diana Quick and Sir Derek Jacobi.

It was a strange false start for the revamp of the series, and it's fitting that in such an unusual situation we get a strange version of the Doctor. Physically, the new Doctor is cast much as an archetypal Doctor – tall, slim, dressed in Victorian, rather Sherlock Holmes style clothing. While he is physically based on Grant, for reasons known only to themselves, the animators decided to draw the handsome, rather swarthy actor as a pallid, gothic individual with bags under his eyes. The swept back hairstyle has a touch of the first Doctor about it, but otherwise the overall effect is Dracula-like.

Cornell seemed to have made an effort to make him different from the Time Lord we knew. So, while there are elements that are familiar, there are also several previously unseen quirks. He is snobby, aesthetic, eager to his show superiority to lesser mortals. Yet he is most comfortable talking to a homeless old woman on the streets. He immediately focuses on Alison, his soon-to-be companion, since she is capable and the only person not scared by the strange events in her home town, but refuses to allow himself to become too close to her. Once his work is done, or appears to be, he insists on trying to leave, calling in the military to take care of matters. He seems to have no problem with getting soldiers to do his dirty work, as long as he doesnt have to socialise with them; he has a problem with the army on a personal, not ethical level.

This is a Doctor who continually analyses himself. He seems obsessed with trying to justify his actions, to himself and his associates, and is acutely aware of the contradictions in his own nature. “I say I do not kill, but then I exterminate thousands, he says. It's almost as if he's an imposter, playing the Doctor. “I'm just off to do something eccentric,” he says, rather than actually behaving in an eccentric way. He is clearly working for some greater power – presumably the Time Lords, although this is never made clear – and is answerable to them. How many other Doctors would leave a last message to the universe when facing their death, welcoming, however briefly, the promise of oblivion? As an aside, his use of a TARDIS mobile phone caused a good deal of interest at the time but now, since the television series was revived, it seems sensible and obvious, barely worth remarking on.

Most oddly, he now travels with the Master, or at least an android representation of him a sort of robotic footman. It seems that this Doctor needs someone to keep him in check. The Master has been programmed to look after the Doctors emotional well-being. Some terrible event has had a lasting effect of the Doctor. It may have had something to do with his regeneration; we dont know how this came about, but its strongly hinted that it cost the life of his last companion. This, more than anything, has left him damaged.

There are similarities with the real ninth Doctor. Both act aloof, alien, reluctant to associate with humans. Both hide a vulnerable, damaged soul behind a hard, toughened fa├žade. Both have a streak of defeatism, and are brought out of their shell by a young woman who reinvigorates them. Yet this Doctor is even more of a contradiction, swinging from sullen alien objectivity to show tunes and screaming “Take me home, big boy!” to a giant alien monster. It's the sort of thing one can easily imagine of Matt Smith's eleventh Doctor, but seems bizarre and out-of-place when coming from this vampiric individual.

The presence of the Master is an odd element, but again, it is not entirely against the notions of the revived TV series. Some years later, the tenth Doctor offered to keep the Master in his TARDIS, as a sort of captive companion. Is this perhaps the same sort of deal? Perhaps what's left of the Master after his ignoble fate in the TV movie has been housed in this android body, on the understanding that this is the only chance he will get. He's even voiced by Derek Jacobi, who went on to appear as the Master in Utopia before explosively regenerating into John Simm.




Russell T. Davies later slammed Grant's performance as lazy. It's hard to disagree. Little of the actor's trademark manic charm is present. Grant had, after all, played the Doctor before, in Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death, a comic skit for the 1999 Comic Relief telethon. After regenerating from the waspish Rowan Atkinson incarnation, the new Richard E. Grant version was vain, overconfident and sexy. This version of the Doctor, however, is withdrawn, barely sharing any chemistry with his costars. However you may feel about Grants performance in the role, it has to be said that the Shalka Doctor was a most unusual, intriguing version of the character.

Well never know just how he may have been developed had the webcasts continued, but its fascinating to speculate. We can imagine him softening over subsequent adventures, with a more human side becoming prominent, in the manner of the first or sixth Doctors. He may have followed the other ninth Doctor's trajectory, coming to terms with the tragic events in his recent past as his adventures played out. It's hard to imagine him remaining quite so aloof and distant for long if he was to have a future in what should be a fun and popular series. The mysterious tragedy to which Shalka alludes would surely have been further explored, and the Doctor’s character along with it. The only further adventure for this Doctor was the short story 'The Feast of the Stone,' still available on the archived 'Vampires' magazine on the BBC's 'Cult' site.

Nonetheless, this Doctor, known to fans as the Shalka Doctor or the REG Doctor, is not entirely forgotten. After a ten year delay, Scream of the Shalka has just been released on DVD, and interviews with its creators have revealed more information on both the proposed future for the webcasts, and the new Doctor's background. It seems that yes, it is the Time Lords who employ him as their agent, following a terrible disaster that had led to the death of his lover and the destruction of Gallifrey, leaving the entire race as echoes in the computer Matrix. The Doctor, it is implied, was at least partly responsible for this event, and serves the ghostly Time Lords as penance. Again, not so different from the background of the new TV series. The following adventure was planned to be Blood of the Robots by horror novelist Simon Clark, with such impressive names as Stephen Baxter and James Swallow lined up for further serials. This was not to be. Scream of the Shalka was the final BBCi webcast featuring the Doctor.

The REG Doctor was overshadowed by the announcement of the new TV series, but not immediately forgotten. As well as a novelisation of Shalka, the REG Doctor had a chapter to himself in the BBC's official fortieth anniversary celebration book, Doctor Who: The Legend. (In the updated reprint, two years later, he had been reduced to a footnote.) The mysterious version of the Doctor that appears in the novella The Cabinet of Light holds a resemblance to Grant's Doctor in his description, apparently entirely by coincidence. And of course fan fiction featuring this Doctor abounds, revelling in the chance to fill in the blanks.

While the REG Doctor has been relegated to a sideline – made 'Unbound' in Big Finish parlance – there are, potentially, ways of reconciling him with the rest of the Whoniverse. He never states that he is the ninth incarnation, although he hints at it once or twice. Perhaps he is a future version of the Doctor, having rescued the Master from oblivion in the time-locked death of Gallifrey. Or perhaps he lies in a parallel universe, split from the main timestream by the catastrophic events of the war? Many fans wondered if he really was the ninth Doctor, existing between the McGann and Eccleston versions, forcibly forgotten for some terrible crime (a storyline that now seems to be in use for John Hurt's mysterious incarnation). The appearance of Richard E. Grant as Dr. Simeon/the Great Intelligence in the most recent TV series perhaps offers another answer. Perhaps the Intelligence's infiltration of the Doctor's timeline has led to is sprouting alternative incarnations that look like Simeon – a dark, warped ninth incarnation and a cocky, vain tenth – living in closed off, anomalous timelines?


Today, after eight years of hugely successful Doctor Who television productions, Scream of the Shalka is little more than a curio. Nonetheless, we can wonder where this most mysterious of Doctors may have taken us in the distant parallel world where the series never returned to TV; a world where we instead had an internet-based cartoon series led not by a Northern bloke in a leather jacket but by a prickly, sullen Victorian.


Stuff:
This is an expanded and updated version of an article that originally appeared in Panic Moon.
As well as being available on DVD, Scream of the Shalka is still viewable for free on the BBC Doctor Who website if you have an archaic enough version of Flash. The Feast of the Stone is still available on the 'Vampires' page. The artwork heading this piece is taken from that site and is by Daryl Joyce.
For fan fiction featuring further explorations of the Shalka Doctor, try listening to E.G. Wolverson's Wolfshead and All of History's Heroes, or reading my own A Spoonful Weighs a Ton.

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