The Shakespeare Code
Series Three, Episode Two
Here we go again.
There's nothing actually wrong with the whole travel-in-time-and-meet-a-famous-person idea, but do we have to do it every single year? Isn't there more to history than battling classic horror monsters, and telling famous dead people they're really great?
While it makes some sense to do it all again, because this is Martha's inaugural trip and the Doctor wants to show off (and it worked last time), that doesn't make it any less trite. Instead of Charles Dickens or Queen Victoria, it's William Shakespeare. Instead of ghosts or werewolves, it's witches. Standard jokes include the Doctor saying "Don't do that" and the famous person saying "That's good, I'll have that", like on Quantum Leap. You could assemble episodes like this with a cookie cutter.
|"I could do that."|
"Yes, David, FOR THE HUNDREDTH TIME, WE KNOW."
It hangs together well. I can't find anything especially irritating about the plot, wherein the witch-like Carrionites are using Shakespeare's talents to free their race from incarceration. There's a sense of campy fun about it, perhaps inevitable from the hoary Hammer-Horror-ness of cackling witches with rubber noses. The script is witty, particularly if you've never seen an episode of Quantum Leap, or the previous Doctor Who episodes of this sort. That accounts for at least some of the audience, every year. The setting is well realised – so in other words, everything's brown – but I could do without lines like "London never changes", and "Elizabethan England. Not so different from your time!" Guys, relax: the audience won't run away just because you set an episode in a different time.
Probably my favourite thing about it is Martha. Smith And Jones set up what kind of person she was, but it was a showcase for the character, not so much the actor. Freema Agyeman takes all that and runs with it here. She's believably smart, asking what makes the TARDIS go and whether it's possible to change the future; she's believably funny, with exchanges like "When you get home, you can tell everyone you've met Shakespeare!" "And then I can get sectioned!"; and she's believably pissed off with the Doctor. Which brings me to probably my least favourite thing about it.
Rose is gone, and she's not coming back. (Or not in a regular capacity.) Most viewers, surprisingly enough, are okay with this. Doctor Who thrives on change and moving on – after all, it's not as if we spent all of Series Two mourning for Christopher Eccleston. So what gives? Why must the Doctor put Martha down when she fails to spot something, and say "Rose would know"? What was the point of The Runaway Bride, which devoted a significant amount of time to coming to terms with the Doctor's loss, if you're just going to continue dragging it out? All it does is make the Doctor look like a complete arse, and suggest you should be more interested in what the show gave you last year than what it's given you this year. Which is frankly a bit of an own-goal. On top of all that, Rose was obsessed and clingy and the Doctor wasn't all that keen on her anyway. As for Martha failing to spot things, would Rose know that a sonnet had 14 lines? Would she heck. The whole thing serves crestfallen Rose fans and nobody else.
|Rose, schmose. At least Martha knows First Aid.|
Worse than all that, though: when asked about changing the future, the Doctor says you can, and that it works literally like it does in Back To The Future. Now, that's probably the greatest movie ever made (oh yes it is!), and I'm happy just hearing its name, but this is yet another contradiction on how things work in Doctor Who. You can change time in The Unquiet Dead, you can't change time in Father's Day, but now you can again? Which is it? Back To The Future is also yet another pop culture credential for the Tenth Doctor. Speaking of which, he cried at the last Harry Potter book. Remind me, isn't this guy supposed to be from, like, another planet or something? (Thank goodness we've got external characters to clumsily point this out to us. That's two weeks in a row where people glance at the Doctor and tell him he's a bit moody and mysterious. I don't care if Shakespeare is a genius, that's not how you do it.)
Oh well: David Tennant has lots of fun, particularly fan-servicing Shakespeare. There's all sorts of dialogue about how "perfect" he is, though it's all a bit unnecessary. When Charles Dickens got the same treatment, it was to help alleviate his depression, and Simon Callow did a great job of seeming genuinely moved by their feedback. Shakespeare's such a confident rock star in this that it comes across as desperately crawling for marks on your English essay. Encouraging Dean Lennox Kelly to act smug and randy at all times, because it's hilariously not what you'd expect, makes him more of a caricature, not less. Dialogue like "Hey, nonny, nonny!" doesn't remotely help.
As for throwing in smoochy kisses to J. K. Rowling as well, that's a nice way to bring the story home for younger viewers, but good grief, is it really necessary? Has anyone not heard of William Shakespeare? Still, since we almost got an episode about Rowling's imagination coming to life (vetoed because even David Tennant thought that was an iffy idea), I should probably be grateful they limited it to an embarrassing shout-out.
This episode works pretty well at a glance. It makes just enough sense and it's good fun, and Martha is really, properly brilliant. Let me count the ways! As for the rest? Best not to look twice at it. As the Doctor says to the Bard, "Don't rub it, you'll go bald."