Retrospective: Doctor Who – Scream of The Shalka (2003)

Written by Cavan Gilbey


2003 saw the celebration of Doctor Who’s fortieth anniversary, but the show was still off air with only the audio dramas, books and occasional animation on the website to satisfy the demands of fans. Luckily enough it was announced that year that Russel T Davies would be bringing the show back to television with Christopher Ecclestone and Billie Piper headlining the series, but to just slap the cherry on top of this sweet pie; 2003 would see the first completely animated Doctor Who serial called Scream of the Shalka.

Now barely anyone actually talks about this story, mostly because it’s one of the more niche bits of Modern Who history but it does seem to get a hell of a lot of love despite its status as a strange bit of non-canon material. Although it probably now is cannon given the reveal seen in The Timeless Children from a couple of years ago. But putting that garbage aside for a second, Scream of the Shalka is genuinely delightful and is a superbly written story that never overstays its welcome but instead leaves you wanting more, but the only other material we have from this Doctor is a novelisation and a short story (which is pretty good by the way).

So without further ado let’s delve into what makes this story so good, naturally all opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Instead of bringing back a classic doctor like previous webcasts had, the BBC went with a brand new Doctor to sell this new story. Who else was cast but Richard E Grant, Withnail himself was playing the Doctor in a casting choice that should be hailed as one of history’s greatest castings. Grant’s Doctor is spikey and arrogant, carrying across this brilliant sense of tiredness in the first two parts as he seems to be a Doctor who is wary from adventure but he slowly mellows and becomes bouncy and energetic come the later episodes.

I mean you can’t picture any other actor shouting “ride ‘em big boy” and taking him completely seriously. Our companion for the piece is Sophie Okendo’s Alison, she’s typically strong willing like every other modern companion but she seems far more willing to sacrifice herself to save the rest of the human race, her volunteering to lead the charge against the Shalka would be a good idea. However I will say that she doesn’t get that much to do over the brief one hour run time, which is a shame as she’s a great character.

Possibly the most noteworthy member of this cast is Derek Jacobi taking up the mantle of The Master in a performance that is as pitch perfect as one would expect, you can easily see why Russel would cast him later on down the line and why Big Finish gave him his own series. The rest of the cast are all great as well with Jim Norton’s Major Kennet, a decent enough fill in for the Brigadier and Diana Quick’s brilliant turn as the villainous Shalka Prime; she’s genuinely intimidating and manages to be more engaging than your typical cackling villainess.

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One thing that always struck me about this story is how bleak most of the first part is. We have the Doctor turning up completely unwilling to help, complaining that the time-lords have forced him into this mission and thus establishes the key theme that the story plays around with; the fear of being controlled or manipulated by unseen forces.

The scenes in the bar and Alison’s flat where everyone is just so terrified to make any form of noise really sets up the Shalka perfectly as this powerful background threat which strikes fear into people simply by being there. The description that Alison gives of how one of her friends died further makes the Shalka so threatening, and when we see that old woman die in front of the Doctor shows just how brutal they truly are. I also like the little touch of the Shalka making the bleed with a sound based attack, makes our hero seem far more vulnerable.

However the darkness in this story never stops it from having the occasionally hilarious moment. Given that our Doctor is more openly sarcastic than others it is only fitting for him to be armed with a deep arsenal of dry wit and humour. I love the little jukebox remark in the pub or his complaints regarding the TARDIS valuing a sign over an actual entrance while he plummets through a black hole.

Sure the comedy isn’t awfully frequent, but it helps lighten the mood in what is a fairly moody tale. Paul Cornell has a writing style that is just so snappy and so we end up with an hour and bit long story that just flies by. There’s plenty of action, all of which never feels forced or unnecessary. The presence of a UNIT like military organisation allows Cornell to give this story a real Pertwee vibe, which it manages to carry perfectly as we have a more active Doctor thanks to the medium of animation, no need for stunt doubles so we can have a few more dangerous situations like the Doctor riding atop a giant alien slug.

Finally I think its worth talking about the actual animation itself. Now personally I love the Cosgrove Hall art style for Doctor Who, especially with this story and The Infinite Quest. While it may seem a bit choppy by today’s high standards set by the likes of The Macra Terror and The Faceless Ones animations, but for 2003 and given the tiny budget they had I think this story looks great. The colours are really nice and dark, giving a really moody atmosphere that feels like it perfectly fits in with the style that the TV Movie had with its use of dark oranges and blues. The TARDIS interior here is easily one of my favourites, it feels so vast and spacious, that central console stands out as this grand centrepiece.

The fact that barely anyone talks about Scream of the Shalka is absolutely criminal as it is one of the best specials that the show ever received. In fact it’s the best anniversary episode in my opinion as it seems to celebrate the style and tone of every classic era in some way, making it feel like a true celebration of the show’s history. With a stellar cast and excellent writing, Scream of the Shalka is the biggest hidden gem of all televised Who.


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One thought on “Retrospective: Doctor Who – Scream of The Shalka (2003)

  1. It’s suddenly interesting how many unofficial Doctors could now be potentially canonized by the Timeless Children twist imposed on Doctor Who by Chibnall. Even so, Scream Of The Shalka has chiefly earned my respect for how actors like Richard E. Grant, David Warner and Trevor Martin can have fun with the role of Doctor Who outside the officially main franchise. So many are now inspired in this regard via the fan film Whoniverse. Shalka is certainly one of the best specials in the history of Doctor Who and I’m glad that it got a DVD release for the 50th Anniversary. Thanks very much for your review.

    Liked by 1 person

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