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Doctor Who – The Shakespeare Code (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Shakespeare Code originally aired in 2007.

Goodnight, Doctor.

Nighty night, Shakespeare.

– talk about your British icons

The Shakespeare Code is the third season’s opening trip into British nostalgia, a celebrity historical where the Doctor journeys back in time to meet a famous character and to deal with alien menaces masquerading as something altogether more sinister. This time, the Doctor and Martha travel back to meet William Shakespeare. It’s a little on the nose, but perhaps that’s not a bad thing. After all, teaming the Doctor up with Queen Victoria in Tooth and Claw did seem a little cynical when the show opened with a gag at the expense of Margaret Thatcher.

The rather safe and occasionally quite “postcard-y” portrayal of British history aside, The Shakespeare Code is more interesting as a rather novel form of arc-building for the show. “Saxon” was the arc word for the show’s third season, but restricted to those episodes set in the present. However, The Shakespeare Code winds up offering major thematic foreshadowing of the season ahead.

Where there's a Will...

Where there’s a Will…

The Shakespeare Code feels like a rather shallow portrayal of British history. Sure, there’s the occasional complication or shading added here or there. We’re reminded a couple of times that the Black Death was in living memory. We discover how the mentally ill were treated in “Bedlam.” Shakespeare reflects on the death of son (and the episode implies he abandoned his wife). These are just small touches, though, and they serve to add a bit of historically accurate flavouring to what amounts to a nice run-around on some fancy sets with a British icon.

Of course, so little is known about Shakespeare that it’s really too hard to mind that The Shakespeare Code presents him as a fairly typical guest-star-of-the-week. After he makes a pass at the Doctor, our lead quips, “Oh, fifty-seven academics just punched the air.” Given that academics can’t always agree on a definitive list of plays written by Shakespeare and the public fascination with conspiracy theories about whether or not the man actually existed, it would seem a bit much to expect anything but a standard run-around.

Something's rotten in 16th century London...

Something’s rotten in 16th century London…

And it is fun. There have been much stronger Doctor Who celebrity historicals with much more compelling guest characters. There have also been many more explorations of Shakespeare in popular genre fiction. The Shakespeare Code doesn’t really seem like it measures up to the promise of putting the Doctor and Shakespeare together. Not that there’s anything wrong with what we get. The Shakespeare Code is a solid forty-five minutes of fun which checks all the boxes, but it’s missing a really meaty moment.

There’s nothing as touching here as the idea that Charles Dickens will die shortly after being reinvigorated by his encounter with a strange man in a leather coat, or an honest discussion about faith and hope in the face of personal loss from Queen Victoria. Shakespeare doesn’t get any big moments like there. There’s the suggestion that his genius brings him close to madness. “I’ve been mad,” he tells Martha. “I’ve lost my mind. Fear of this place set me right again.”

All the Globe's a stage...

All the Globe’s a stage…

While you could make a case that the writer’s interest in insanity might have served as an outlet for his own difficulties facing the loss of his son, it still feels like the rather simplistic (and misguided) “genius equals insanity” stereotype, which is hardly conducive to mental health awareness. It just all feels rather simplistic and shallow. There’s nothing especially profound offered about Shakespeare or his world.

The trappings are nice though. David Tennant is, as ever, great fun. He relsihes playing the tour guide to a historical version of Great Britain. “Oh, yes, and entertainment!” he boasts. “Popular entertainment for the masses! If I’m right, we’re just down the river by Southwark, right next to… oh, yes, the Globe Theatre!” There’s an enthusiasm and energy which carries a lot of The Shakespeare Code, even the overly-used recurring gag about the Doctor providing Shakespeare with his good lines.

Broom! Broom! She's making some speed on that thing...

Broom! Broom! She’s making some speed on that thing…

However, once you get past the fact that the episode’s premise is fun and shallow, there is some interesting stuff going on beneath the surface. Doctor Who is entering its third season since the revival. It’s just about a cultural phenomenon. Billie Piper has just moved on to greener pastures, and we’ve swapped out our first companion. What’s remarkable about The Shakespeare Code is that it tries not to take new viewers for granted. There’s a conscious attempt to make this third season a solid jumping-on point.

Martha, the new companion, serves as an effective surrogate for new viewers. She articulates a lot of the ground that the show covered in its first season about the mechanics of time travel. “The thing is, though, am I missing something here?” she asks. “The world didn’t end in 1599. It just didn’t. Look at me. I’m living proof.” It’s pretty much the exact same question that Rose asked the Doctor at the climax of The Unquiet Dead, and which is necessary for the audience to accept if they’re going to invest in the show.

Ye Olde London...

Ye Olde London…

That includes getting Martha acquainted with the various gimmicks and shortcuts the show has learned to use. “Psychic paper,” the Doctor explains at one point, after reintroducing the paper. Will can see it’s blank, but Martha reads what he wants it to read, so the audience can intuit its function. It’s a nice way of reintroducing these concepts in case any new viewers have tuned in to see what the fuss is about. For returning viewers, it’s used as a nice character beat, to remind us how new Martha is. “Er, long story,” the Doctor clarifies. Or doesn’t. “Oh, I hate starting from scratch.” It’s very clever writing.

At the same time, the show also takes care to distinguish Martha from Rose. Despite her colloquial language (“thing is…”, etc.), it’s quite clear that Martha is better educated than Rose ever was. Her questions about time travel tend to be more scientific and mechanical. “But how do you travel in time? What makes it go?” The Doctor replies by dismissing her query. “Oh, let’s take the fun and mystery out of everything.”

Drawing a blank...

Drawing a blank…

She’s aware of the concepts of paradoxes and time manipulation. “You step on a butterfly, you change the future of the human race,” she speculates early on. “What if – I don’t know – what if I kill my grandfather?” These are questions it probably never would have occurred to rose to ask, because she didn’t tend to think so rationally about things. That’s not to suggest that Rose was any less intelligent. She never asked about the implications of changing history, but she was smart enough to manipulate the Doctor into letting her save her father’s life. (Even if it wasn’t planned in advance.)

Of course, this is also quite clever foreshadowing. The Shakespeare Code actually works much better at setting the tone and suggesting a theme for the season than it does as a simple historical run-around. Martha’s more mechanical questions about time travel hint at the idea that things might get a bit – to quote a later episode – “wibbly wobbly timey wimey.” Even the brief appearance of Queen Elizabeth at the end of the episode, wanting to execute her “sworn enemy” for a crime he hasn’t committed yet, hints at the shape of things to come. “That’s time travel for you,” the Doctor remarks.

Mugging to the camera...

Mugging to the camera…

All of this does a good job priming the audience for the temporal mechanics of the season, where the Doctor inadvertently releases a threat in the third-to-last episode who travels back in time to Christmas and weaves his way through the season. To be fair, The Parting of the Ways also suggested that time travel can play havoc on “cause and effect”, but Mister Saxon is something altogether more complex. While Davies wasn’t always the strongest at structuring set-up and pay-off, he generally worked quite well in broad themes.

Of course, Martha is the show’s first non-white permanent companion. It’s a title which attracts a fair amount of controversy, not least because it downplays the fact that Mickey had been a recurring guest star who travelled in the TARDIS during the show’s second season, but the the media consciously pushed Freema Agyeman forward as the first companion from a minority background. Which is not a good track record for a show that was over forty years old at the time. Then again, some responses from fandom suggest that some of the show’s fans weren’t that much more progressive.

Any witch way but loose...

Any witch way but loose…

Even if you don’t subscribe to the idea that Martha was the first minority companion, the fact that one could make a convincing argument that she was in 2007 raises all manner of unfortunate questions. Then again, travelling into British history with a young black woman raises all manner of potential problems. The show is challenged in how to deal with the fact that some parts of British history were rather unpleasant for people who weren’t white.

The Shakespeare Code is the first time that the show has to deal with this potential issue. And, to be fair, Davies does raise the point. “Am I all right? I’m not going to get carted off as a slave, am I?” Martha asks. The Doctor responds, “I’m not even human. Just walk about like you own the place.” Davies has portrayed history in the show as being somewhat more multicultural than it probably was. Crowd scenes in historical episodes like The Girl in the Fireplace frequently featured a racially-diverse ensemble.

It's scream...

It’s scream…

It’s a bit of a minefield for the show to try to navigate. Is it better to be true to history or to try to craft some sort of accessible “I wish it were like this” version of reality. After all, if Davies did restrict the portrayal of non-white characters in episodes set in the past, this would often mean either excluding them entirely or forcing the Doctor to deal with the fact that he’s protecting a racist culture. Each and every time. I can see why this choice isn’t ideal, and I can understand why the show didn’t want to make Martha’s race a big deal every time she ventured into the past.

That said, there’s also a sense that we need to be honest about our history, particularly on a family with a relatively young audience. It’s grand to pretend that things were always tolerant and multicultural, but it also misrepresents the current reality. We don’t live in a culture that has fully resolved all of its issues with minorities and diversity, so it is a bit strange to see Doctor Who suggest that not only does equality exist now, but it always did.

Alas, poor Sycorax...

Alas, poor Sycorax…

The truth is that it’s not a question with a perfect answer, and I am sympathetic towards any writer trying to deal with race within the confines of a show like Doctor Who. I admire Davies for being willing to even address it. However, I think that Paul Cornell’s Human Nature does a much greater job about being up-front and honest about what British society was like for people who weren’t white, even within the last century or so. It’s doesn’t overwhelm the episode, but it is there and it is honest.

Still, it’s far too easy to get fixated on Martha and where she falls within the discussion of “Doctor Who and race.” It’s important, but it runs the risk of diminishing her as a character. Martha is more than just “the (possibly) first black companion.” She exists on her own terms, with her own characterisation and her own personality. I think that Martha got the short end of the stick of the “nuWho” companions, but it has nothing to do with her race. It has to do with her unfortunate position. She has the misfortune of following Rose.

Oh, what's in a name!

Oh, what’s in a name!

I liked Rose. It feels strange that I feel the need to keep clarifying this, but the first season character ranks as one of the best companions in the history of the show. However, Doctor Who went on to run the character into the ground. During the second season, herself and the Tenth Doctor became these incredibly arrogant and self-centred time-meddlers, with Rose presented as something “special.” When she left, Davie made sure she got a kick-ass job and a new dad. He then brought her back so he could give her a replacement Doctor.

It’s nice that the show doesn’t just pretend that Rose went off to live on a farm or something. It’s nice that her departure has consequences. However, there’s also the fact that she is no longer a regular on the show. There is a point where Doctor Who should stop being about the person who left almost a year ago. Here, the Carrionites try to hurt the Doctor by quoting her name, prompting the Doctor to declare, “Oh, big mistake. Because that name keeps me fighting.” One wonders what would happen if they picked “Mel.”

Strange bedfellows...

Strange bedfellows…

To be fair, the show concedes that the Doctor’s attitude towards Martha is unfair – treating her as a surrogate for Rose. “No, there’s something I’m missing, Martha,” he explains, as he lies in bed with her, king of the mixed signals. “Something really close, staring me right in the face and I can’t see it. Rose’d know. A friend of mine, Rose. Right now, she’d say exactly the right thing. Still, can’t be helped. You’re a novice, never mind. I’ll take you back home tomorrow.”

The show seems to concede that the Doctor’s blindness and rudeness towards Martha is unfair, which makes it a bit more bearable that he is less than friendly towards her. He hangs the threat of shipping her home over his head, constantly reminding her that she’s there at his sufferance and that she won’t get to stay for long. “I promised you one trip, and one trip only,” he advises her at the start.

Theatre fans are just so unruly...

Theatre fans are just so unruly…

The show would eventually allow Martha to call him out on it in The Lazarus Experiment and give her the strength to walk away in The Last of the Time Lords. It doesn’t make his behaviour any easier to like, but it at least acknowledges that his fixation on Rose is a bit too much. I hope that it can also be read as an apology for the some of the excesses of the season, where it seemed like Rose had stuck around for a third season even if Billie Piper couldn’t be convinced to sign on.

The Shakespeare Code is arguably one of the more important episodes of the third season, from the perspective of the season’s mythology arc. Obviously, with Saxon existing in the present, his influence doesn’t carry over, but The Shakespeare Code is the episode which does a lot of the foreshadowing of the major twist in The Last of the Time Lords. Of course, it doesn’t do nearly enough to set up “glowing Tinkerbell Jesus Doctor”, but we might be expecting too much.

He's got paperwork waiting...

He’s got paperwork waiting…

Instead, it meditates on the importance of words. This sounds like a pretty basic thing for a piece of drama, but – given how the Doctor defeats the Master – it represents the most significant foreshadowing of the season. “Words and shapes following the same design,” the Doctor muses. “Stand on this stage, say the right words with the right emphasis a the right time. Oh, you can make men weep, or cry with joy. Change them. You can change people’s minds just with words in this place. But if you exaggerate that…”

Words can change the world. Words can shape it, mould it, bend it. This is even more literal in fiction. “Oh, but there’s a power in words,” the Doctor remarks. “It’s a weapon. The right combination of words, spoken at the right place, with the shape of the Globe as an energy converter!” Even the importance of a name is discussed here, and the name “Doctor” will become pivotally important at the climax of the season.

What light through yonder window breaks...

What light through yonder window breaks…

Sure, there’s a mumbo-jumbo technical explanation offered. “Well, it’s just a different sort of science,” the Doctor explains. “You lot, you chose mathematics. Given the right string of numbers, the right equation, you can split the atom. Carrionites use words instead.” However, it all boils down to the same thing. Words are powerful tools, especially when they run the risk of becoming something more. Dodgy special effects, concepts, actions – even ideas.

It’s hardly the most novel concept, but Davies cleverly structures the season so that this episode comes early on, setting up the idea of using word to change the world long before the finalé follows through on that set-up. It’s just as important as any reference to “Mister Saxon”, or the Archangel Network, even if it serves the same purpose. It’s dropping in an idea to see if the audience is paying attention, so that when Davies uses it later on it won’t come completely out of left-field.

Time's arrow...

Time’s arrow…

I admire it, even if it doesn’t work as well as it should. No matter how you set it up, “everybody thinks Doctor and the world gets better” is still going to seem like a cop-out ending, particularly when using it to write your way out of a pretty brutal cliffhanger. Again, it’s a nice touch that I respect, even if it doesn’t work quite as well as it might. I can see that Davies is making a genuine effort, and I respect that.

The Shakespeare Code is not the strongest of the season. However, it’s a nice bit of foreshadowing and set up, hinting at things yet to come.

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One Response

  1. Reblogged this on BookRepublic.

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