Review by Matthew Kopelke
I've always been extremely hesitant to view fan films that attempt to re-create a past Doctor / companion team. In a lot of cases, one can end up with a final product that is dragged down by the over-riding need by the production team to extract particular types of performances from the regulars, while at the same time appease the fans watching who will expect certain conventions of that particular era to be obeyed. In the case of the Federation's latest fan film, the attempt is made to re-create the look and feel of Doctor Who circa 1985 - and to a good extent it manages such a feat.
Before we proceed, however, we need some
S P O I L E R S P A C E
(plot synopsis from the official web site) After picking up a strange transmission the Tardis materializes on Acheron Base, a research facility on Pluto, in the year 2103. As the Doctor and Peri begin to investigate they run into Fiske, one of the base crew, who demands to know who they are. Fiske is naturally suspicious since he and his associate, Blake, have just returned from an expedition to Pluto's moon, Charon, to find the base completely deserted. The Doctor soon discovers that the key to the disappearance of the base personnel may have something to do with a mysterious artifact that Blake found on Charon. However, since his return, Blake has become unstable, and to make matters worse has made it impossible for any of them to summon help.
Before long Peri starts seeing ghosts, and the commander of the base turns up, despite Fiske having said that everyone had vanished. It soon becomes apparent that not everyone on the base is who he appears to be; yet the Doctor must work with them if he hopes to uncover the truth behind Blake's discovery on Charon. However, he soon begins to realize that he and Peri are facing a terrifying force that is as old as Time itself.
From the opening seconds of this production, one thing that really struck me was the attention the production team had made in trying to do something which is rarely attempted in fan videos - to set something entirely on a remote outpost. This kind of setting is found quite a bit in the Colin Baker era of the show - look no further than the Varos complex in Vengeance on Varos, or Dastari's laboratory in The Two Doctors, but I suspect the main reason one avoids such locations in fan films is because they are incredibly difficult to realise with no budget.
Therefore, it is a testament to the Federation that they manage to pull off this interior location so convincingly. Although you can occasionally see brick walls in some shots (and it is highly unlikely an artificially-created science station on a rocky planet would be made of bricks) these are only minor niggles when compared to what the team have managed to create - by carefully choosing shots and angles and working in a very good interior location, Director Robert Warnock has managed to turn a humble office location into an atmospheric & deserted space research laboratory. One thing that surprised me was how much more atmospheric these interior settings were when compared to the aforementioned Colin Baker stories. It just goes to show that it's not budget that makes a good film - it's how you use what's available to you that counts.
Another wonderful production element that really appealed to me about this particular fan film was the attempt by Robert Warnock to inject extra atmosphere into the visual picture by meddling around with some nice lighting effects. This is another avenue usually avoided by fan films, due mostly I feel to the complexity of achieving such a vision. However, Shadowcast again proves itself to be something out of the ordinary by not only attempting some light / shadow contrasts, but it does succeed. This is what helps the interior locations to appear so realistic. So, a big thumbs up from me to the team for managing this element!
However, in terms of the visual nature of things in Shadowcast, there is one small fly in the ointment. That is, the model shots. Now, given that the story is book-ended by some lovely CGI titles, it was a bit of a shock to see some wonky model work appear in the piece. Now, don't get me wrong - the actual models are rather nice. Mostly it is down to the fact that I felt with so much visual loveliness apparent in the rest of the film, it was such a step down to see some models which, although wonderfully evocative of the Colin Baker era itself, it just seeemd to jar with such lovely locations and lighting. I suppose this raises the question, should the pursuit to achieve a re-creation of an era from 20 years ago be at the sacrifice of gloss? Perhaps so for the production team, but honestly I'd have gone for CGI sequences, because they honestly would have suited the rest of the film so much better. Having said that, I must applaud some of the very ambitious visual effects sequences - the lunar surface sequences were very well done, and the video effects were top notch.
The film was captured using a wonderful Canon XL-1, and delivered to me on DVD. This is only the second fan film I have seen on DVD, and I have to admit that I love the medium for fan films. With rapid advances occuring in the realm of digital video work, it just goes to show that fan films are starting to reach the stage where they look better than the show they are homaging. If lumped in with the Colin Baker era, this is easily the best looking story, and that's saying something - because it does have the smallest budget. I know 20 years makes a lot of difference, but it is when one sees wonderfully realised fan films such as this that one realises that the BBC's assertions that Doctor Who needs a big budget to return really is nonsense - it just needs dedicated people at the healm, and there's no denying that Shadowcast is a pure labour of love.
The actual script is a rather solid piece, with some wonderful lines of dialogue and a solid plot. OK, so the plot is ever so slightly cliched, but this isn't a film that sets out to re-define the film genre - mostly to tell a solid tale with some wonderful production values and some lovely moments of tension. This is one thing that struck me about this film - it actually manages to create tension, and maintain tension without the audience loosing interest. Well, I didn't loose interest, at any rate - but that could also be down to the fact that the writers chose wisely to restrain themselves, and go for a short and punchy 50 minute serial broken up into 2 25-minute episodes. Nicely paced, as well.
Now we come to the tricky part of acting. As I said above, re-creating a certain era of the BBC TV show can lead to all sorts of complications. Therefore, it is great to see that the film's biggest success is the performance of Steve Hill as the 6th Doctor. Nicely evocative of Colin Baker's performance circa the 1980s, but sadly lacking some of the more recent characterisation from the Big Finish audio dramas. However, given how well Steve has done thus far with mimicking Colin Baker, I am sure it is only a matter of time before he takes into account the Big Finish additions to the character. Jennifer Adams Kelley gives a solid performance as Peri, but sadly isn't up to Steve Hill's level of mimickry. Robert Warnock gives a slightly stilted performance as Fiske, but I found myself upset when his character died towards the end. Just goes to show that the performance was definitely working on some levels. Wil Roysdon's Blake is sadly rather poor in the "madman possessed by something unearthly"-type character, but thankfully when he snaps out of his trance, he shares a beautiful scene with the Doctor in what appears to be a cell of some kind. From that point on, his performance picks up considerably - that is, until his demise at the end of the episode.
The stand-out performer from the guest cast is Bryan Gruszka as base commander, Dexter, who delivers a charged performance which I found rather compelling. It was wonderful to see his dynamic range as an actor on display - his performance here is as far as you can get from that of Bill Filer, UNIT Operative! Well done to all involved, I suppose, for proving that fan films are not the home of wodden acting!
I must admit that I am slightly biased in this next point, but I found Rob Warnock's incidental music score very compelling, and the soundtrack CD has become one of my most prized possessions in the CD rack. Rob has a wonderful ability to compose extremely creepy and evocative scores, and are about as far away from your Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner scores as you can get - and that ain't no bad thing! Rob's score is a delight to all the scenes it accompanies, and I found myself being dramatically enticed by it every step of the way.
About the only slight complaint I have about the musical side of things is the rather poor theme tune that accompanies this DVD. Although technically very competent, I just couldn't find myself getting into it as much as I have other recent renditions that I have heard. Sorry Rob!
Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed Shadowcast. On the one hand, it manages to re-create both good and bad elements of the Colin Baker era it emulates (with a great performance from Steve Hill, model work that reminds me of the 1980s, and a wonderfully atypical script) but it also manages to embellish on them in some wonderful ways (a great interior location and some wonderful lighting effects, not to mention some very ambitious visual effects sequences). The props and costumes were wonderful (it was nice to see good uniforms being just that - uniform!), and it all held together really well.
I look forward to the next Federation outing, and I highly recommend this DVD to all and sundry.
Overall Score: 4 / 5 (Good)
© 1998 Steven W Hill and The Federation. The Federation is a not-for-profit organization. "Doctor Who Fan Club" logo created by Steven W Hill © 1987.
"Doctor Who" is a trademark of the British Broadcasting Corporation © 1996. No attempt is made by the Federation to profit from the use of BBC trademarks.