“Welcome to the Richard E Grant era of Doctor Who. Blink and you'll miss it.”
Those words, spoken by its executive producer James Goss in the DVD documentary Carry On Screaming, more than adequately describe the reputation of Scream Of The Shalka. Originally produced with the intention of being the first story in a web based continuation of the then still canceled series, this animated Doctor Who “webcast” from 2003 has often been neglected, if not downright forgotten, by fans. With its long awaited DVD release last year, the story has been enjoying something of a much needed reexamination.
There is Richard E Grant's Doctor for example. Grant's Doctor (originally intended to be the Ninth before being “replaced” by Christopher Eccleston) feels like something of a cross between the Doctors of the Old Series and the New. There's an aloofness that brings to mind the First and Sixth Doctors while his rather abrasive attitude towards the military (and especially Major Kennet) calls to mind the Third's early dealings with UNIT. In other ways this Doctor has intriguing pre-echoes of the New Series Doctors that were to follow within just a couple of years. Grant's Doctor has a hurt quality to him with something and someone in his past haunting him which only the events in the story start to help him recover from while some of the dialogue could easily be delivered by the likes of David Tennent or Matt Smith. Like Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor, we get only a glimpse of this Doctor and it's something that makes judging his Doctor more difficult but there's certainly plenty of promise here.
The story also has a god cast, some of whom would go onto appearances in the New Series. Perhaps the most obvious connection to the New Series is Derek Jacobi as the Master, a role he would play in a different context in the New Series episode Utopia (and who also in 2003 played a version of the Doctor in Big Finish's Doctor Who Unbound story Deadline), though the character here has a rather interesting development. There's also Sophie Okonedo (Liz X from Series Five episode The Beast Below) as barmaid Alison Cheney, who is introduced as the Doctor's new companion and comes across almost as something of a template for the companions of the New Series. Hidden away in a cameo working at a warehouse is a pre-Tenth Doctor David Tennent who has only a couple of lines and a scream. The cast also includes noted character actress Diana Quick as the Shalka Prime, Craig Kelly as Alison's boyfriend Joe and Jim Norton as Major Kennet
What perhaps makes this webcast most intriguing in retrospect is the script by Paul Cornell. What this story feels most like is an attempt to take the classic series “alien invasion” formula and update it for the twenty-first century. From its six episode length to its opening scenes setting up the deserted streets of the Lancashire village of Lannet (which bring to mind the opening scenes of Invasion Of The Dinosaurs) to the story's somewhat eco-friendly message, there's some strong calls back to the Pertwee era. Even though UNIT doesn't appear, the military presence in the story certainly brings them to mind. The story makes that connection even stronger by its opening and closing titles which harken very much back to the Pertwee era title sequence.
Yet it also brings to mind the New Series that was to come. There's those aforementioned elements in Grant's Doctor and some interesting casting, there's other New Series elements that come into play as well. The story's opening scene for example set in New Zealand which feels like a pre-credit scene out of a New Series episode. There's the future companion in an unhappy relationship with her boyfriend whom she ends up leaving to travel with the Doctor for example. There's the Doctor using a cell phone and at one point using his sonic screwdriver in a fashion that wouldn't be at all out of place in the New Series. The DVD reveals that, like the New Series, seeds were being planted for larger story arcs that would eventually go into this Doctor's background and explain not just his state but also how the Master ended up as an android. In a way then, Cornell's script feels like something of a bridge between old and new that came at an unfortunate time and place before it could lead to more.
Something that made this controversial in 2003, and that also gives it distinction as well, is that it was the first licensed animated Doctor Who story. Despite having been originally produced with Flash animation for an era with much slower internet connects , it holds up rather well. There's some wonderful character designs including Grant's Doctor and the Shalka themselves (from the average worm like ones to their leader, the more humanoid Shalka Prime) that, while not hugely detailed, still allows for the characters to be emotional as well which helps the animation feel less artificial. There's some wonderful design elements as well including an impressive TARDIS interior and the underground lair of the Shalka as well as also boasting an atmospheric visual style full of shadows and silhouettes. Indeed the animation even looks good on your typical wide-screen TV thanks to its DVD release.
In the final analysis then, what are we to make of Scream Of The Shalka more than a decade later? It certainly deserves more than the obscurity it's languished in ever since. There's a Doctor that shares many things in common with the Doctor's we've been watching for the last few years as well as elements familiar from the New Series being done in a different way. With its appearance finally on DVD, perhaps the story will be seen as more than an obscure curiosity at last and as something far more than just another thing from the “wilderness years”.