Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Shakespeare 4 Kidz

Doctor Who
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."
Still, The Shakespeare Code has some good ideas of its own.  It's based on an intriguing mystery in Shakespeare's life, Love's Labour's Won, the apparently non-existent play.  (And also the fact that the Globe Theatre is a rather unusual shape.)  Much like Queen Victoria's odd obsession with cutting down the Koh-i-Noor, it's a nifty springboard for a plot.  The villains are suitably creepy because let's face it, mad old women are scary and the idea of a technology based on words is an elegant way to mix superstition, science and theatre, and make it so William Shakespeare can personally wrap it all up.  Also, David Tennant's a little bit fond of Shakespeare.  If you've got a time machine, you'd be mad to keep them apart.

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.
None of this helps the Doctor, who's incidentally not at his best.  Precisely no one wants to see him acting frostily indifferent towards his companions, but then I doubt people enjoy seeing him do the old don't-do-that-oh-you-did-it-anyway routine, which happens twice here.  There's another boring old mind-meld, still on loan from Star Trek, though we're spared the sonic screwdriver for a change.  And there's some irritating contradictions in his behaviour.  Martha's worried she'll be carted off as a slave, and the Doctor encourages her to just strut about like she owns the place, because "That's what I do."  Yeah, but you're not, y'know, black.  The issue of clothes is never brought up at all, even though Rose got in trouble both times she visited the past, and neither of those trips went this far back.  Martha, it should be noted, is clad rather scantily here.  (Not that I mind.  I'm only human.)

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."


  1. Oh my god, THIS.

    "Martha's worried she'll be carted off as a slave, and the Doctor encourages her to just strut about like she owns the place, because "That's what I do." Yeah, but you're not, y'know, black."

    Or a woman. Martha is really badly treated by this episode - she has some quite legitimate concerns here, and the writer just hand-waves them aside, She's demonstrating her intellect and worthiness as a companion, and the Doctor's blase responses just completely undermines all that. And yeah, this is the start of the irritating obsession with Rose that comes to dominate this season.

    I really hate this episode - for the reasons you've outlined above (not least the Bard's sleaziness) and for the casual disregard it shows for actual history. The lighting and cinematography are appalling, the writing is - as you've noted above - lazy, and the whole thing comes across as so much self-congratulatory theatre wank. And on top of it all, the story even undermines its own point about Shakespeare's unique genius by not only insinuating that the frankly mediocre prose of JK Rowling is somehow on a level with that of the Bard (in that it is Rowling who provides the crucial word to banish the evil Carrionites at just the right moment), but that he wasn't even solely responsible for his creations, being merely a puppet of a trio of kooky interstellar harpies. So yeah, just... yeach.

    BUT I will say that despite how poorly she's treated by the episode, Martha still comes across really well, on the whole. And the joke at the end about the mystery of why the Queen hates the Doctor is fantastic (of course, we have the answer to that now, post-Day of the Doctor, and I for one am happy with the pay-off). But moreso, this episode, for all it's faults, is actually intimately bound up with the new series mythology and the way it all pans out for the Tenth Doctor.

    The theme here is the power of words - Professor Yana is transformed back into the Master by the WRONG words at the wrong time in Utopia, leading to disastrous results for the world, and how do the Doctor and Martha bring the Master down in the finale? With the RIGHT word, the word 'Doctor', spoken by every person across the face of the Earth at just the right moment. 'The Shakespeare Code' establishes the narrative logic that will provide the solution for banishing the Big Bad at the end of the series. But this episode's influence goes beyond even the series finale to the end of the Tenth Doctor in the End of Time - let's not forget that this is the most 'magical' episode in the series so far, and that 'magic' is here described as science of a different sort. The Master is resurrected in The End of Time through what is, essentially, magic, performed by a 'coven' of modern witches, using potions rather than words. And here in 'The Shakespeare Code' the Tenth Doctor quotes from Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" - what does he do when confronted with his own death, but RAGE against the dying of the light? They're only thematic parallels, but they're there. So unfortunately, much as I detest 'The Shakespeare Code', it really can't be separated from the Tenth Doctor's big narrative arc.

    At least we've got Gridlock to look forward to :)

  2. I hadn't considered the stuff about the power of words, re the finale, and how that ties in with this one - but then it's been a while since I've seen them. I'm trembling at the prospect.

    You're right about J.K.= Shakespeare being a hideous insinuation. I suspect Davies (whose imprint is so much on this episode, it's difficult to distinguish Gareth Roberts's "voice") believes she'll be as much admired through the ages as he has been. I mean, we don't know, do we? But to put her contributions, as they stand, on a par with his, is ludicrous. I mostly just hate the Doctor having a clue, though. "Good old J.K.", like he belongs to the ruddy fan-club. HE'S AN ALIEN. Oh, what's the use...

    Gridlock has proved an interesting one. I doubt I'll have so much trouble dissecting Daleks In Manhattan! Just need to find a thesaurus, and lots of funny variants of a few four-letter gems...

  3. I look forward to it ;)

    Yeah, it's one of the things that really bugs me about NuWho, and maybe I notice it more with David Tennant's Doctor than Eccleston's or Smith's, but the fan-boying over whatever is currently popular with real-world audiences just reeks of base popularism and industry back-patting. I can understand the Doctor being a fan of Shakespeare, Dickens and Christie - time has proven them hugely successful authors and somewhat important historical figures. Shakespeare and Dickens wrote insightful pieces about the material realities of human existence in their time period, enabling their works to be 'time-capsules' that later scholars could use to piece together the past, but does Rowling? Too early to tell if she'll stand the test if time, but her Potter stories won't be able to reveal any interesting details for future historians because she deliberately removes her protagonist from the real world in every book, and even though the stories are set in 90s you wouldn't know it, as they are consciously styled on the earlier writings of people like CS Lewis, trading on a nostalgia for steam engines, ink pots and boarding schools that are outside the realms of her young readers' experience. Her prose is bland and functional, sprinkled with colloquialisms that already seem dated (everyone's obsessed with 'snogging'), and after three tightly-plotted, well-crafted books it all starts to fall apart in the fourth book, becoming unbearably sloppy in the fifth before getting back to the earlier high quality for the sixth book and finally struggling to make a conclusion of it all in the seventh. I don't think these books will age well.

    Which is not to say they're not enjoyable in their way, but they're by no means comparable to the works of Dickens and Shakespeare. They got kids reading again and so for that, if nothing else, they can be awarded some real praise. But I guess if any of the Doctors were to enjoy the Potter books, it'd be the Tenth - he's probably the most 'human' of the Doctors, in that he lacks that hard-to-define 'alien' quality that the other Doctors largely possessed. We have to be told, repeatedly, that he's ancient and terrible because he so obviously isn't - he's young, and hip, and utterly contemporary.

    Anyway, I'm drifting off-topic. I find myself wondering if the Capaldi Doctor will go visit a famous author, and if so, who? Eccleston got Dickens, Tennant got Shakespeare and Christie, Smith got a famous painter instead... If they do decide to retread this familiar ground, I think I'd like to see them avoid the obvious choices (Jane Austin, Oscar Wilde... can you imagine? Bland, PC garbage I bet) and maybe go for someone more interesting like James Joyce or Tolstoy :)

  4. You're right about Harry Potter being of an older style - I wonder if it had been published 75 years earlier, if it would have just blended in with the rest? Funny that you mention the problems of the fifth book, as I'm listening to the audiobook at the moment. It's the only book I didn't read - just too put off by the length of the bugger. And it's just morbidly overlong. So many tedious arguments. ("I want to go and rescue Sirius!" "But Harry, he might not be there! It's probably a trap!" "But I want to rescue Sirius!" "But he's probably not even there!" "Well I'm GOING to rescue SIRIUS!" etc.) And the actual plot, with the mysterious door and the Department Of Mysteries, feels like an annoying subplot to the general "isn't Umbridge a psycho-bitch" malaise.

    My main problem with the Harry Potters is the villains. I don't know if I've ever seen such a stock, unimaginative portrayal of evil. They're just so typically evil: they want to kill people, start a few fires and dress in black all the time. What FOR? What's the plan for afterwards - sit around and gloat a bit? It's not like any of them can really, truly believe they are ideologically correct (as the scariest villains do); they are torturing and murdering people left, right and centre. Any complete idiot could spot that they're on the side of the baddies.

    I hope Capaldi stays away from famous authors, but then, I hope they ditch as many "traditions" as possible. Shake the thing up.

  5. Harry Potter villains... Well, I think Riddle/Voldemort works - he's by far the most Dickensian-part of the whole thing, and the Horcrux arc, while a bit last-minute, provided a largely satisfying conclusion to the series. But his various fans and flunkies were all pretty one-dimensional. The fate of the Malfoys was satisfying, but Bellatrix is nothing but a caricature, Greyback was underutilised and failed to provide any real menace, it's imposisble to take Wormtail seriously as any sort of threat and 'Death-Eaters'? Come on... if you must have a magical KKK for your mooks can you at least give them a better name?

    And yeah, I hope the Capaldi era shakes things up a bit, although I expect we're going to see a stronger Third Doctor influence with more UNIT and the return of the Master. But my BIG wish is for the Cybermen or the Sontarans to turn out to be the Big Bad - the Cybermen have had their thunder stolen by the Daleks over and over again the last few years, it'd be soooo good to see them pull off some massive feat of bad-assery for once. And the Sontarans need taking seriously again too - they haven't really seemed like a proper threat since The Time Warrior, but there's a lot they can still do with them. I'd love to see them take on the Silurians or something.

    But you know what would make for an even better series finale? Something small and intensely personal, where the whole world/galaxy/universe/temporal vortex isn't at stake. Something more like, I dunno, some mercenaries in a series of caves about to flood with hot mud or something... ;)

  6. I'm listening to the Deathly Hallows audiobook at the moment, and I agree about the Horcruxes being neat. I even get a little kick out of there being seven of them, which mirrors the book series itself. But god, Bellatrix is awful, and to be honest I think Snape is well over the top through the whole series. (I'm still not sure what he really achieves in the end, besides passing on a memo from Dumbledore and watching a bunch of people get killed.) Probably the biggest elephant in the room in all of Harry Potter is that Voldemort has a right to be angry. Magical folk are pretty much forced to live on reservations. Who wouldn't resent the masses?

    Anyway, they (Doctor Who production team) need to sit down and figure out the Cybermen. Too many random additions (wtf, super-speed?), straying too far from what they are and why they're frightening. I don't know about the Sontarans, as I never found them particularly interesting even in the classic era, but anything's possible.

    One thing I like about The Big Bang is that, after the bluster of The Pandorica Opens, it *is* quite a small and personal finale. The plot doesn't make much sense, but I enjoyed its smallness nonetheless.