Scream Of The Shalka
Shalka's an odd one isn't it? When it was first announced, those of us with a less cynical nature believed it might be a brand new start for Who, a bold new direction, and probably the best we were going to get as well. Then came the bombshell, something newer and bolder, and Shalka became something to fill the gap between then and the airing of the new series (which is two weeks away as I write this.)
Which is appropriate really, as I'm using the novel to fill the gap between The Eight Doctors and The Dying Days, of which I still haven't managed to swipe a copy.
Since we now know that Richard E. Grant is not the ninth Doctor, I consider his incarnation to be unbound. Scream of the Shalka is currently the only unbound story featuring REG, although it has appeared in two different formats - novel and webcast animation.
It's been a while since I watched the webcast, so although I knew essentially what was going to happen, there were still occasional aspects of the story that surprised me while reading the novel. However, one thing I will say is that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't shake the image from my mind that this was a cartoon Doctor. I didn't imagine him as REG the actor, but as REG the cartoon. Somehow, this served to remove some of the peril, as if the events weren't worrisome because they weren't real. Considering that Doctor Who isn't real anyway, I am somewhat at loss to describe the difference, but I'm going to put it down to suspension of disbelief.
I was hoping that the novel would flesh out parts of the webcast that were a little unclear - who was this Doctor? What were the skeletons in his closet? Why did he have an android servantile Master in his TARDIS? Unfortunately, although we do get a little more back story, it reads more like a novelisation than a novel.
As the story starts, the Doctor is troubled, grumpy, snide and arrogant. Not what we would expect at all. Initially then, he's unlikeable. But what this does is allow the Doctor to be influenced by the events of the story, to the point that he begins to retain aspects of his former personalities. More likeable aspects, I might add.
As a companion, Alison fulfils the role of bolshy go-getter quite nicely. She's every inch the modern companion, and quite probably the most prominent black companion we've thus far. I'm not going to get into a race issue here, but it's my firm belief that if Doctor Who is going to reach the widest audience possible, it needs to represent multi-cultural Britain more accurately, and this is certainly a good start.
It's a credit to Sophie Okonedo that I could visualise/auralise her take on Alison perfectly, but it probably helps that the character of Alison is the best thing about the story other than the Shalka.
Ah yes, the Shalka. In my opinion one of the most memorable monsters ever to appear on/in Who. The Shalka are essentially living rock with a group mind, fearsome technological prowess and a scream that can melt rock, control the human body and very probably direct traffic. It's a great weapon, and they pose a credible threat, not least because the Doctor blows two of them to chunks and they reform.
Fascinating fact about the Shalka - they inhabit 80% of the planets of the universe, converting the atmosphere of the most self-destructive ones. In a way, they're like Stephen King's Langoliers, except the Shalka feed on the worthless, rather than the past.
Logically, this means the Earth is worthless in their eyes. They consider humans to be lower beings, not really alive, and so they have no qualms about wiping us out and using our mudball as a bit of prime real estate. They plan to do this by assembling humans at strategic locations around the world and using their screams (channelled through the humans) to change the air into something more palatable to the Shalka respiratory system. One such location is Lannet, Lancashire, which is where the first half of the story is set.
Then there's the Master, and what's this? He's helping the Doctor? Well, I suppose the Doctor did give him a new (robotic) body, presumably an upgraded version of the technology he tested with Antimony (Death Comes to Time.) We know that the Master isn't entirely happy with the situation however, as he tries to hypnotise Alison, presumably to use her to escape in some way, although we never get to find out how, as he's interrupted by the Doctor.
I found the Master's inclusion to be an interesting subplot, as like the Doctor, we didn't know what he was really doing in the TARDIS, or indeed what his motivations were.
The other characters tended to get pushed into the background somewhat. If it wasn't for the webcast, I get the impression I wouldn't have given them much thought. They're more or less plot devices - Kennet and Greaves providing the army liaison, and Joe existing to serve Alison's accumulating desire to leave Lannet.
Essentially then, Shalka is a decent romp, with standout monsters, a couple of good characters and subplots, and some pretty good set pieces. It's an entertaining tale, I just feel it could have been so much better. It would have been nice if our knowledge of events from the webcast version had been expanded on, the back-story enriched with interesting details etc. It's pretty obvious to me that Shalka was intended to be the first of a few stories featuring the REG Doctor, which I assume would have provided the details I feel it is lacking. Still, I'm not complaining, we got something far better instead.
Review by Tom Hey