The Shakespeare Code
|Production Code||Series Three Episode Two|
|Dates||April 7 2007|
With David Tennant,
Written by Gareth Roberts Directed by Charles Palmer
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.
|Synopsis: Martha's first trip in the TARDIS is to meet famous flaywright, William Shakespeare.|
A Review by Daniel Lister 10/4/07
The newfound confidence in the production team really starts to assert itself here, except when it occasionally overflows into overconfidence. Apart from the unhealthy obsession with J. K. Rowling, this is a very good episode and, like a Shakespeare play itself, is brimming with great lines.
Leading up into The Shakespeare Code I had absolutely no idea what to expect. However, despite this, I had a certain apprehension that I couldn't explain away, some non-understandable fear of this episode's fate, maybe because I can remember the excitement of Tooth and Claw last year and could spot the similarities. And, apart from that, I've always had a fear of the unknown. It's in my nature.
Anyway, enough rambling about me, I'll get straight to the point of this. The Shakespeare Code strikes me very much as what Tooth and Claw would have been done right. Actually, even a little like The Unquiet Dead done right. Nearly everything falls into place beautifully, with great pacing, great atmosphere, beautiful effects and of course some hilarious comedy. For the first time perhaps, it feels like a spot-on, old-school outing.
One of the minor complaints I have actually hits the viewer in the face right at the beginning, and it's a classic case of a little too much confidence. It's nowhere near in the same league in Tooth and Claw, but it must be said here that the villains are, if anything, a little too old-school, with some cackling evil laughter that is horribly misplaced, and that it shows nowhere more than in the pre-credits teaser. Thankfully, this means that the episode only gets better from here on, which secures the viewer's enjoyment.
It also get better, quite rightly, because the Doctor and companion arrive, which is as it should be. This indicates that the show is back the way it should be, with the main characters the portal for the viewers' wonder, and the story hinging around their experiences. Tennant continues to cement his Doctor as much improved, carrying the story with confidence and relish. Although his Doctor is perhaps less central than in the previous episode, he plays off Shakespeare with glee, clearly enjoying his every moment, feeding off various lines to the bard and showing no insecurity in his wonder of the Bard's intelligence and skill.
This leads me to the more obvious of The Shakespeare Code's attractions, our "celebrity historical character". Okay, this is very easy to get cynical over, but all in all Dean Lennox Kelly gets it brilliant from the start, his obvious crude manner contrasting excellently with his obvious intelligence and skill. His emotional depth doesn't jar at all here, as well, as it feels completely natural, in no small part due to Kelly's performance. He gets some great comedy, as well, and all in all when he saves the day it actually feels completely right, as does the way the episode treats him as almost an equal to the Doctor.
Despite this, one of my few complaints would be that the Doctor is occasionally a little too behind. It seems a little silly that it took him so long to realise the witch's game during their confrontation, not to mention the fact that yet again his bivascular circularitary system saves him, and his constant harping on about Rose is a little annoying, much as I've come to expect it. That said, I loved his utterly tactless comment about Martha's novice standard (something which is utterly disproved by the end of the episode).
What's really great about the episode, though, is the marvellous improvement on pacing: for the first time since the show's return, it doesn't feel rushed and out of breath, nor over-fast and energetic, it feels just right, with so much thought and skill put into the direction that it's completely engaging, and the viewer connects completely. Despite the fact that the episode journeys through an impressive scope, has several climatic peaks and allows time for at least two breathers, its climax is both satisfactory and iconic. Marvellous.
In conclusion, The Shakespeare Code is a gold comedy romp. It's hardly deep, but it's great fun and also very funny. Not to mention endlessly quotable. Murray Gold even puts out his best score yet, something I actually managed to enjoy and, for the most part, not notice more than I needed to. The only real bad points are the cliched villains, who perhaps display a little overconfidence on the writing team's part, the Harry Potter lines and some trivial niggles too unimportant to list a second time. And the final scene is classic Doctor Who comedy, sending the episode off with a bow.
All in all, the only bit I truly despised was this line:
"It's a bit Harry Potter, isn't it?"But then again, I would, wouldn't I? 8/10
"Wait till you read book seven. I cried."
What's in a name? by John Nor 16/4/07
With each of the three new seasons of Doctor Who so far, Russell T. Davies has structured them so that new viewers get a flavour of the time-travelling format of the show with the first three episodes: one is set in the present, one in the far future, and one in the past. This episode is this season's "celebrity historical". Compared to the lives of Dickens and Queen Victoria, not much is known about the actual details of Shakespeare's life so Gareth Roberts is allowed to have a little fun.
Apparently Shakespeare was the Liam Gallagher of his day. He certainly has the cocksure swagger and stage presence, and offstage he has the measured wit of the other Oasis Gallagher brother Noel. Other Manchester Gallaghers are conjured up partly as Dean Lennox Kelly (playing Shakespeare here) is most famous for playing Kev, from British TV comedy/drama Shameless. Dean Lennox Kelly does not play Shakespeare as Kev however. His Shakespeare is a complex creation with a flamboyant public facade, a rake's charm when alone with Martha, and a penetrating intelligence when conversing with the Doctor.
The plan behind the Russell T. Davies concept of "celebrity historical", is to generate a general audience's interest with a figure that it is likely they will have some knowledge of. (Hence The Girl in the Fireplace is not seen as a "celebrity historical".) It is to be applauded then that the fabled sequel to Love's Labours Lost, Shakespeare's "lost play" Love's Labours Won, is central to the plot. Other more populist but less rewarding routes could have been taken that would be more immediately appealing to a broad audience. References to plays more well known than Love's Labours Lost are woven in, however (the balcony in Romeo and Juliet, the witches from Macbeth).
The episodes begins with a pre-credits teaser which establishes the three witches. The teaser ends with Lilith "doing a Morgus" (from Caves of Androzani) or as theatregoers from 1599 might recognise it, performing a short soliloquy describing her thoughts and intent directly to the audience alone (e.g. the television camera.)
The witches (or "Carrionites") recall the Faeries from the Torchwood episode Small Worlds, mainly through their method of dispatching Lynley, (forget The Deadly Assassin, if Mary Whitehouse were around today to have witnessed this scene she would have had a fit!), though also from their supernatural associations and their being from "the dawn of time". One of them says at one point that they have some history with the Eternals (from Enlightenment.)
After meeting Shakespeare (and witnessing "witchcraft") the Doctor and Martha visit bedlam to try and find some answers. A subtle scene has Shakespeare speaking of his grief over his son who died, but he quickly masks his grief by joking about the phrase "to be or not to be". There are quiet parallels here between him and the Doctor, and in another scene the Bard remarks about the Doctor's constant performance (echoing Florence's remark in Smith and Jones about the Doctor laughing to hide the darkness.) Another scene has Lilith seemingly reading the Doctor's mind, searching for his name, with the intriguing line "Why would a man hide his title in such despair?"
As Martha and the Doctor try to foil the witches' plans, Martha asks a question similar to that posed by Sarah Jane in Pyramids of Mars and Rose in The Unquiet Dead. Unlike the Doctor's chilling response in both of those stories, the Doctor uses Back To The Future to explain the dangers. This was the one moment of real disappointment in a great episode as this just felt wrong to have the show's mysteries of time-travel explained away so crassly.
Similarly, I was slightly unsure of using JK Rowling as the punchline to the climactic scene where Shakespeare has to summon up powerful words, although this pop-cultural reference seemed less intrusive than the Michael J. Fox film. (Also, the earlier Harry Potter reference was funnier.) References to the works of Shakespeare himself flowed freely, and the running gag about Shakespeare quotes was very good, finishing nicely by including the Sycorax from The Christmas Invasion.
One interesting motif reappears here following Smith and Jones: that of blood. I wonder if this will be continued throughout the season? I have also noticed the production design so far seems to be introducing a blood-red colour to compliment the ongoing bronzes, greens and blues.
Martha being black is referred to several times: once upon arrival as she wonders how someone of her appearance will be viewed in these times; once where Shakespeare uses a variety of synonyms to describe her blackness, which sound vaguely offensive to her and our modern ears; and perhaps most subtly when the Bard tries to seduce his "Dark Lady", as he calls her, with a sonnet; the writers are referencing the mysterious "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets. A throwaway joke where Shakespeare seem to channel the spirit of Captain Jack and imply bisexuality, prompting the Doctor to mention something about academics celebrating, is another reference to the ambiguous sonnets.
In the sonnet scene with Martha, like Captain Jack in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, this amourous Shakespeare is used to highlight the companion-Doctor relationship and to question whether the Doctor "dances", as Steven Moffat would say. An earlier scene where the Doctor and Martha chastely share a bed explores similar areas, but the Doctor is too caught up in reminiscing about Rose to even notice Martha, much to her disappointment and hurt. Another scene has the sexy Lilith apparently trying to use her feminine charms on the Doctor, about which he remarks they will not work with him.
Whether these scenes with the Doctor reflect an attempt to "dial down" the sexual side of the Doctor after Moffat's episodes of the past two seasons is an interesting question. I hope though we see a thematic trilogy when Moffat's episode appears later in this season!
Compared to the previous "celebrity historicals", The Shakespeare Code seems less beholden to the traditions of the Classic Series that influenced The Unquiet Dead and Tooth and Claw, and is all the better for it. Also, the impressive location work at the Globe gives the story a particularly epic feel. All of these historical episodes have stood out as particularly entertaining stories since Doctor Who returned, but I would say that The Shakespeare Code is the finest of the three.
Unsatisfying - and Pointless by Hugh Sturgess 20/4/07
But first, a word on The Runaway Bride. I can't really be bothered to review it all, so I'll just say this: anyone who includes the word "bovvered" anywhere in their review, in any connection to The Runaway Bride, should be shot. It's annoying, but there it is.
But back to The Shakespeare Code. After the inconsequential but fun Runaway Bride and the cherishably strange Smith and Jones (what other show could have a London hospital transported to the moon only to come under attack by rhinos looking for an old lady?), we are given this sadly lacklustre effort in 1599 London. Witches, Shakespeare, Bedlam and unconvincing queens are all involved in a plot to release demonic creatures from their imprisonment and remake Earth as a world of pain and despair.
Sadly, this episode is profoundly unsatisfying and, by the time you reach the "throw-forward" to next week, there is the uncomfortable taste of corn in the mouth.
But the good points first: Dean Lennox Kelly is excellent as Shakespeare, and says what we were all thinking when we studied Shakespeare at school when he summarises the endings of his plays as "the boys get the girls". (I would add that there is another stock ending of his: "it's curtain, everyone fall down".) He makes Shakespeare a real person, just as Pauline Collins and Simon Callow did for their respective celebrities. His pursuit of Martha is sweet, though his apparent bisexuality towards the Doctor is so badly done is seems like a joke.
Similarly, the Carrionites and their science of words really is fascinating, and is almost Lawrence Milesian in its emphasis on words altering reality and so forth. The Carrionites themselves are one of the worst parts of the episode, unfortunately. They are presented as creatures even the Eternals feared, who have only one real wish: the creation of an empire across the entire universe, an empire devoted to the generation of pain and glorification of despair. They are presented as enemies of the Doctor's science just as the Beast was. However, they are a bunch of dotty old ladies who look like they've had strokes and cackle like witch and ride around on broomsticks. Trust me, if you want to show witches, make them scary. Witches are the ultimate predators. Humans are the top of the food chain, and yet witches feed on humans. Predation is, by definition, the most terrifying thing a being can comprehend, so witches are the most terrifying things human can comprehend. Like cannibals and vampires, they feed on our primal fears of being hunted. However, endless generations of fairy stories have turned them into camp old ladies who would frankly only scare a snail with lumbago. We are told that they will begin "the millennium of blood" and turn Earth to a world of "blood, bones and pain", yet they speak in rhyming couplets, and anyone who speaks in rhyming couplets clearly missed the last five hundred years of child-scaring terror. Come on, people, make them pale, almost sickly hags in black, chitinous robes, like cockroach shells, like demon-goths from Faction Paradox. Instead... well, take a look for yourself.
The stuff in Bedlam is nice, but it's also about as disturbing as finding a pink plastic toy free with your breakfast cereal. Bedlam is the epitome of terror and fear. It's what we all think of as the stereotypical "hell house". This is a place where lunatics and madmen were whipped and tortured into "sanity", where the sound of people screaming and wailing was so great that it would supposedly drive a sane person out of their wits. And yet here it comes across a dress-up party. The Doctor again rents the moral highground on his opponents, telling a warden that the patients might get better if he "didn't whip them, now get out!" Sorry, but the guy he's abusing is an illiterate peasant from the sixteenth century. I'm just as horrified by the brutal abuse of patients before the mid-twentieth century, but I wouldn't criticise a warden for doing the only thing he knows how to do. It's like attacking soldiers from the Vietnam War for being baby-killers (unlike you damn pro-commie Brits, as an Australian I'm a lot more familiar with the Vietnam protests), even though being soldiers is their job. I'm the first one to say that not every opinion has a right to be expressed, but I'm also the first to say that people can't be blamed for what they have been taught to do. This argument is just too easy to have and too tedious to endure on both sides, so all I'll say is that the Doctor comes across as a smug, self-righteous bully and nothing else. (Incidentally, I'll say, for myself and every other reviewer both in this site and all around the world, that the Doctor's annoying "we're modern and it's great" references to Harry Potter - "wait until you read Number Seven" (yes, really) and "good old JK!" - really don't bear thinking about.)
Martha, played just as well as she was in Smith and Jones, is sadly not given the same chance Rose was in The Unquiet Dead. It's the Vicki phenomenon: the writers don't want to waste time going over old ground and so the character just goes "It's big in here, innit?" and gets on with it. Going over old ground is undoubtedly bad, but you could try a little harder and let Martha say some things about time-travel or the TARDIS that Rose hadn't. She does, of course, but the Doctor cuts her dead on every occasion. "What makes it go?" is met with "You really don't want to know", "what if I step on a butterfly" is shot down in flames with "don't step on a butterfly" and the grandfather paradox depth-charged with the Doctor's mock-innocent enquiry "are you planning to [kill your grandfather]?"
The real problem with it all is that it's just terminally relaxed. Black Orchid is relaxed because it's supposed to be a lazy cricket game in the 1920s. This is relaxed because either Gareth Roberts or Russell T Davies has forgotten that romps are exciting because they're frenetic. This is supposed to be jolly-good day out in history, an all-action jape like Indiana Jones. Instead, it comes across as actors walking from one set to another. Everyone acts well (apart from the fat Master of Revels who is ultimately drowned on dry land, thankfully, and the belated appearance of Queen Elizabeth I, who is so wooden I think I've got a splinter), but the scenes aren't paced frantically enough or the direction tight enough to make it gel. The Unquiet Dead was exciting and energetic. Tooth and Claw was a minor masterpiece. This isn't anything. It's just flat. No, even that's the wrong thing to say. It's as if it's only half-finished, as if the editors forgot to tighten up those shots and have left it looking stagey and embarrassing to watch. Even the throw-forward looks flat.
This flatness even extends to its storytelling. The Doctor knows all about the Carrionites and how their science is built up around words, which is just so lazy as to be almost evil. In The Satan Pit, this "know-all" Doctor was used to pathetic effect: it's assumed that his comment that he has "no idea" who the Beast really was makes the demonic creature extra mysterious and thus extra dangerous, when it just comes across as one of life's mysterious the Doctor hasn't solved (you know, like famine and AIDS). He knows exactly how to deal with the Carrionites, and so thus makes you completely relaxed about the story. Why should we pay attention when the Doctor will deal with it anyway? The Doctor virtually leads by the hand through this story, and you're left feeling bullied and molly-coddled, paradoxically at the same time.
In the end, watching The Shakespeare Code, you're left feeling as though you've only heard about a great story, possibly one you'd quite like to see for yourself sometime.
The Second Episode Is Never As Good As The First by Benjamin Bland 15/5/07
If you've read my review last week on the subject of series opener Smith and Jones, you will no doubt have realised how highly I rated it and how much I was looking forward to this episode, The Shakespeare Code. Alas, things never go on a roll for long. Last year I enjoyed New Earth but was let down by Tooth And Claw, which I now think is rather good, albeit a year later; the same thing has happened this time. New Earth and Smith And Jones are fairly similar, poppy openers to a new series and Tooth and Claw and The Shakespeare Code are fairly similar, trying to make things more seriously but only succeeding so far as to worry me into submission on the quality of the rest of the series.
Gareth Roberts, the writer of this episode, has written Doctor Who before. He has been involved with the novels and the Big Finish audio plays so you'd have thought, as a classic as well as current Who fan, he would have a respect for continuity. A double-edged sword as it is, I do view it as important. Now, several times in his previous incarnations, the Doctor has claimed to have 'helped' Shakespeare write some of his plays. So it is reasonable to assume that this 'help' would have occured in one of the Doctor's past incarnations; are you with me so far? Yet on arriving, with Martha, in London 1599, the Doctor practically says he has never met Shakespeare and that is indeed his attitude throughout. Now, I may be making a blunder here, is it not impossible for him not to have met Shakespeare before now and yet still helped him write some of his plays? The Doctor does here, I won't get a spoiler in by telling how, but surely he can't have been talking about what his tenth incarnation does here in his previous incarnations. That just doesn't make sense. The next reviewer of this story can respond if s/he wishes, with any plausible answer to this rather embarassing conundrum.
Those of you who feel I am picky bastard when it comes to reviewing Doctor Who stories will probably expect that to be my only problem with the story and that I am now about to wave it away as average and 3 star. This time though, I have more evidence to present.
I was often led to understood that Doctor Who was meant to be a sci-fi show, a slightly silly sci-fi show, like Smith and Jones except without the NHS. This episode is slightly silly but the sillines is stifled; think The Leisure Hive and all of Season 18. It's there without a doubt, but it is very deliberately being kept under wraps. We are just treated to insignificant dialogue involving Martha and the Doctor quoting random bits of Shakespeare script and the Bard himself, excellently played by Dean Lennox Kelly of Shameless, trying to chat Martha up. There are also, like last week, rather excruciating moments where Martha just spends what seems like an eon staring at the Doctor as if she wants to sleep with him. The whole story, including 3 witches, is filled with slightly silly things but, due to the way they've been toned down, or just edited out, there is nothing noticeable.
This is the bit, don't worry I'm nearly finished, where I moan about the actual plot. It's all a bit simplistic and has been thought out in much the same way Rowan Atkinson thought how to play Mr Bean: very simply. The audience knows exactly what is going on all the way through. There is no atmospheric mystery, ther is no atmosphere at all. It could be a slightly odd episode of Casualty. It's not an average 3 star. It's a poor 2 star. 2/5.
A Review by Donna Bratley 26/6/07
How beautiful is that? Take a bow, Charles Palmer. Take several, the wizards of the Mill, the location managers, set designers and dressers. Who needs a time machine (not that I'd object) when BBC Wales can present the past, fortunately minus the smells, lack of flushing loos, and the Black Death, for 45 minutes on a Saturday night?
For once, it's not the actors who are the stars, terrific though they all are. It's the setting. Those aerial shots of Tudor London with the Carrionite whirlwind rising from the Globe is nothing short of stunning; the images of the old city over the Thames, ditto. And every street scene practically jumps off the screen with the clamour and stink of Ye Olden Days.
I know "the celebrity historical" isn't to everyone's taste, but where would I go if I had all of time and space to choose from? Certainly not back on some social history project to see conditions in the Workhouse. No, it'd be Elizabeth I at Tilbury.... the 1966 World Cup Final... actually, the Globe Theatre in the company of William Shakespeare doesn't sound too bad. If I were Martha Jones, I would be massively impressed.
Gareth Roberts does a good job of not overdoing the inevitable, tossing in just enough of the Bard's lines, but no more, and giving us a neat payoff with the Doctor's "Once more unto the breach!" and Will's "That's one of mine!" Is "to be or not to be" a bit pretentious? Showing off the writer's literary knowledge to the audience might become so, but doesn't. I was looking forward to the next throwaway quote. Bonus points to Mr Roberts for having one of the Three Witches (honestly, what other collection of villains could they use?) cackle about a blasted heath.
Like the Sycorax reference it's almost too subtle; in fact I missed that on first viewing, and I studied The Tempest at school. I get the feeling I'll be re-watching this one regularly once the DVD comes out, just to see what other sneaky little clues for future works the Doctor and Martha might have given. And Ms Jones is the mysterious Dark Lady, too! Move over, Emilia Lanier.
Enough raving over cleverness, what about plot? The Carrionites' schemes are neat, their methods suitably diabolical, and the centrepiece of the lost play and the power of words intelligently used. That they should be the only characters to use Shakespearian speech-patterns, once the Doctor has stopped Martha's hilarious "Egads!" attempts, threw me initially, but on reflection, I like it. As for their methods...
Poor Peter's fate is a shocker in the best sense. Bedlam is grimness itself, where the Doctor's compassion and Martha's modern outrage bounce off a custodian doing his job, and a Shakespeare hardened to the norms of his age. It's a place of horror enough before the appearance of a witch to betray her species' name. There's no shrinking from the nastier side of the past. Oh, and how I loved the Doctor's response to his companion's yells for release!
The Master of the Revels gets the most striking death yet, far more horrific than your bog-standard vaporising, and one which allows the Doctor a fine moment, using Tudor medical theory to stop any panic about witchcraft: on which subject, I can take all Martha's Harry Potter references, and her use of a J.K Rowling word when Shakespeare looks for inspiration isn't a contrivance. It's what makes a modern companion work for a younger audience. How many kids were yelling "Harry Potter!" when the whole witchcraft theme was brought up, and envying the Doctor for having read the seventh book?
One thing spoilt the episode; well, two, really. The references to Rose are grating and unnecessary. I never followed the "romance" line, and it pains me to see the Doctor actually pining for a departed companion. She would have known what to say, would she? Her name, a reason to fight? Oh, please! Don't demean the character with rubbish like this!
Otherwise, the Doctor is nicely drawn, from the flashes of irascibility to his inability to resist casting out a line. Thankfully, there's none of the OTT stuff of meeting Dickens in 2005, but he's properly respectful of a fellow genius, though quite how Shakespeare seeing through the Doctor's trick indicates his status above the brilliance of his plays, I don't know. Good to see the gadgets failing for the second week, mind. It's intriguing to see the Doctor actually defer to the Bard at the climax, allowing him to find the right words, never doubting his ability to pull off this one impromptu performance, but on hand to help if needed. The relationship with Martha is bubbling along nicely; she's an intelligent woman able to ask the right questions, and their exchanges, particularly with her anxieties about the course of history, are superb. Tennant and Agyeman have the makings of a great team. Martha is yet to get to grips with the niceties of time travel: she remains fascinated by the Doctor - attracted too, and small blame to her. But he's oblivious, as untouched by her charms as by the kind of "magic" Lilith tries during their confrontation.
Christina Cole veered dangerously close to parody in some of her blank verse lines, but became genuinely threatening at that moment. Like Dean Lennox Kelly, she's a definite plus to the show. Whatever I was expecting in a Doctor Who version of Shakespeare, that wasn't it. He's not the tortured genius; in fact, he's not a cliche at all, and that's the surprise. He's a real, credible person, the "most human human", with private tragedies, professional troubles and rotten breath. His first, heckling line in the bear-pit of the Globe sets the character's tone. Top marks to all concerned.
But for the obsessive Rose references, this would have been 10 out of 10; instead it gets 9.5. Like the man on stage said, "Everyone's a critic!"
By the Book by Mike Morris 14/7/07
Hasn't Series Three been fun? Up and down, but there's something giddying about that side of it. I've enjoyed it immensely, so I have, and if I wasn't so busy/lazy/out of practice these days I'd have been diligently reviewing every episode. As it happens, I'm going to try and make up for it now by starting with... oh, right, The Shakespeare Code.
Time's a healer. A couple of weeks after The Shakespeare Code, if you'd asked me about it I would have been very glum about where the series was going. This isn't to denigrate Smith and Jones, which was a marvellous season opener that did everything a season opener should. It was just that, for the fourth episode in a row, Doctor Who seemed to be doing a Doctor Who Thing, in inverted commas. It's easy to see Smith and Jones as an improved rewrite of Rose, and by the same token The Shakespeare Code feels very much like a rewrite of The Unquiet Dead.
This has, it must be said, been commented on. I've seen The Shakespeare Code dismissed as an inferior rewrite of The Unquiet Dead in a few places, which - in storytelling terms - is only partially true. It's a more efficient story than The Unquiet Dead (which does, it must be said, get worse the further away from it you get); where its predecessor could be uncertain and plodding, The Shakespeare Code never stops kicking along. And yet, the fact is that - even now that I'm feeling secure about Where It's All Going - I find The Shakespeare Code a terribly irritating story, and while my ire has faded the irritation remains.
Unfortunately, irritation is difficult to build an entertaining review around, and I find it equally hard to put my finger on what's wrong with it. The most obvious difficulty is an uncertainty in tone, which runs throughout the story: it doesn't seem to know whether it wants to be a fun historical romp or a horror tale. The pre-title sequence sums up the dichotomy quite nicely; what starts out as something disturbing lapses into cartoon cliche when the witches pop up, replete with Halloween costumes and dodgy prosthetics, and then tries - and fails - to recover some of that horrific impact at the climax. It just doesn't work.
However, it's not the realisation that really bothers me, even if it is stuck with that strange glossiness that can infect the Whostoricals from time to time (yes, it's my word and I like it). Nor are the performers bad. Christina Cole (or The Hot Girl From Hex as I've been calling her for some time now) does a perfectly decent turn as the villain, even if her character is terribly generic. Shakespeare himself is amusingly performed, and the "Hey nonny-nonny" line is laugh-out-loud funny. I do find it hard to take SuperHans from Peep Show seriously as a deranged architect, and the Bedlam scene is another which suffers from uncertainty - the attempt at grim and oppressive sits uncomfortably within the rest of the story - but overall, it's perfectly well-played. But...
Well, it's base-touching, isn't it? Probe beneath the surface for any sort of depth to The Shakespeare Code and you'll find nothing at all. Even the title suffers from this, a smug reference to a pretty poor novel that's nowhere near as funny or clever as it thinks it is. Instead you just end up with something that's just there, serving no purpose beyond itself. It's easier to say what the story isn't rather than what it is: it isn't a pastiche excursion into a time period, as is The Unquiet Dead; it isn't an attempt at out-and-out horror, as is The Idiot's Lantern; it isn't a structured-but-scary sci-fi tale, as is Tooth and Claw. Rather, it's just a load of stuff happening, with plot mechanics being replaced by an insidious smugness.
Lots of things don't really add up, they just drop into the storyline and vanish. There's an example in the pre-titles again: it seems to indicate that the witches like chomping on human flesh, but this isn't mentioned or hinted at anywhere else in the programme. (Presumably they eat people because, hey, that's what witches do. And why go to all the trouble of faking a romance with that one bloke? Why not drag a homeless guy in off the street?) The story also seems to want witches, and a sexy villainess, and hordes of big blumpy CGI-things; the result is that we get the Carionites (apparently that's the spelling, not "Carrier Knights" as I had assumed) portrayed as all three, without any explanation as to the difference. Nor indeed are we told how the three Carionites got to Earth in the first place, doubly odd since so much emphasis is given to their imprisonment - and what's more, they seem to swan around the place like royalty, with no real insight given as to why. Then there's just scenes which are nothing more than set-pieces with limited connection to everything else; we nip off to bedlam for no real reason other than to kill someone off, and even if it that drowning sequence were well-realised it would be pointless; as it is, it's a truly bizarre interlude which doesn't know whether it wants to be blackly comedic or genuinely horrific.
It's not that stories have to explain everything; it's just that they have to give an impression that they know what's going on. Similarly, I'd like some sort of attempt to actually create real people. Dean Lennox Kelly's ribald portrayal of Shakespeare make the character work, just about, and reminds you of what Gareth Roberts does so well in novels; broad, brash stereotypes that leap off the page and just sweep you along. Kelly's charisma effectively disguises the fact that we get no real background or depth to him (and the story overplays the "I must write that down" joke, which is nicked from Shakespeare In Love anyway). Christina Cole's a good presence too (for "good presence" you can read "ooh, I luvs her") but she's got no real character to play with. And... well, there's no-one else, is there? A few months later and I can barely remember another character, bar Queen Elizabeth popping up at the end in a manner that might be endearing had it been surrounded by something more meaty, but instead just comes across as smug. Compare this to Tooth and Claw, which gave everyone some moment of real humanity and showed lovely empathy with Queen Victoria's regret over her lost husband. The Unquiet Dead too; heck, it may have been plodding, but at least Mark Gatiss tried. As Lawrence Miles noted lately, that consultant doctor chap in Smith and Jones actually gets more background and humanity than anyone in The Shakespeare Code.
Much has been made of the annual "celebrity" historicals, which - some say - reflect our obsession with celebrity (you can't be interested in the past if there isn't someone famous in it). I find it interesting as an observation, but I can't say I find it an offensive development. Still, this is probably the most annoying manifestation of the trend; its only real purpose is to say "look, Shakespeare, isn't that great?" and everything else is both generic and rather random. If it's a celebrity, it's Russell Brand; loud, brash, pointless, annoying, and pretending to be subversive maverick when in fact being hopelessly, crushingly predictable.
When Rusty Davies toddles off, people are talking about Gareth Roberts as a possible replacement. This doesn't support the possibility - the script lacks everything that makes Rusty's stories great. It's got no heart, no insight, no empathy, no humanity. It's superficially entertaining, but at the same time it's terribly hollow. And it irritates me no end.
Never mind. I'll be nice about Gridlock shortly.
A Review by Joe Ford 20/3/08
Season three continues apace with this witty and stylish historical adventure. For some reason I am getting the impression that this is going to be the best season yet; there really isn't one episode that I am not looking forward to and if this is the standard of the filler episodes I think we are on very good form.
It is such an irresistible idea I am surprised it has taken the Doctor over forty years to come face to face with Shakespeare. Speaking as someone who adores the man's work, it thrilled me to see him portrayed with such intelligence and charisma, walking on stage to the same roaring applause Justin Timberlake would get now. Because we are in the uber-capable hands of Gareth Roberts, there are a great number of witty line drops, which are fired off with such ferocity and speed they make you chuckle rather than cringe. Dean Lennox Kelly is unrecognisable as Kev from Shameless and plays the Bard with a stillness and confidence that is hard not to be attracted to. Let's face facts, when David Tennant is on screen I am usually spellbound by his performance but in The Shakespeare Code, Kelly forces you to divide your attention, such is the strength of his presentation of one of Britain's greatest talents. The comparison between the popularity (I refuse to say genius because there is absolutely no comparison between the writer of Harry Potter and Hamlet) of JK Rowling and Shakespeare is a great point and with the magic element it makes the contrast even more intriguing.
When I heard that they would be doing a Shakespeare adventure, I thought it would be done on the cheap. All you need is a couple of sets and possibly a stage but instead we are treated to what is easily one of the most sumptuous and vivid productions of the entire series. The efforts that have gone in to creating Elizabethan London are astonishing and add another dimension to this historical. The glorious dressed sets, the delicious location filming, the CG shots of London... it all looks amazing. You can expect this amount of detail in a feature film but on a TV budget it is astonishing. Doctor Who really is the best-looking show on television at the moment and certainly the most imaginative in terms of style and production, I cannot imagine any other show pulling off a historical with this much verve. The Shakespeare Code looks more authentic than Shakespeare in Love, that's how good this looks.
Doctor Who and magic are usually mutually exclusive, if I am honest, so to see witchcraft and magic being used so blatantly was something of a shock until Roberts' genius idea of words being used as a science dismisses the whole idea. It's a brilliant concept, one of those fabulously imaginative ideas that Doctor Who thrives on. Slowly the Doctor is providing (or uncovering) a scientific explanation for everything in the universe, every myth and rumour, idea and superstition. How long is it before we discover God was some alien up to no good? What is especially good is that using words as power allows this script to ground its plot so effortlessly in Shakespeare's genius and centre the climax around his ability to create "magic" with words. This is how to impress the kids with the strength of Shakespeare's ability, leave them reeling with the power of his ability to create thrills with words. And the missing Shakespeare play allows Gareth Roberts to explain again one of histories mysteries (see also the amazing Missing Adventure, The Plotters).
The details are important. The casual sexuality, the effluence being chucked from the window, the whip being brandished in Bedlam, the chilling doll magic, the tiny people fleeing from the Globe as the world comes to an end, the Doctor's heart stopping, the flight from the window, Shakespeare's blatant racism... there are lots of special details that make this that bit more convincing and special.
The witches are not as over the top as you might think. The first scene could have been diabolical but, with a director of Charles Palmer's ability, it is creepy, especially the witch that swoops down from the ceiling and starts feasting. Yes, they cackle and have warts and fly on broomsticks but remember the details that help make this more intoxicating: the lovely music when the doll mimics Shakespeare writing, the explosive reaction to hearing their own name mentioned, the mention of the Eternals banishing them, stabbing the Doctor, the shot of them trapped in the crystal ball. This is the closest Doctor Who has come to fantasy since it has come back, it is a hugely romantic story (with its glorious visuals and stunning imagery) and the creativeness of witches up to no good in Elizabethan England is to die for.
Martha continues to impress and give the show renewed energy and vigour. You would think with a historical so near to her introduction, this would feel like The Unquiet Dead but the atmosphere is so different - exuberance rather than scares - that it does not feel like a repeat experience. Martha's smile as she explores this supernatural world is fantastic and helps to sell the magic of the experience. Freema Agyeman is very good at portraying Martha's joy at this whole new universe of possibilities opening around her; it helps you to fall for her character and her portrayal of the line "Hey Nonny! I know for a fact you have a wife!" is genius! The quiet scene between the Doctor and Martha on the bed is vital because it proves the Doctor is still not over Rose and shows the first hint of anger from Martha about that (justifiably, the thoughtless bastard).
Other points of interest:
Shakespeare and his "Dark Lady" by Steve Cassidy 27/4/08
We've all played the game at one point in our lives. If time travel were actually possible where would we choose to go?
Although ancient Greece, China and Rome come close, my choice has always been Elizabethan London. It would be the place I would chose to visit. I would love to see what the city that I live in looked like back in the 16th century. When I stroll the streets of Cheapside, Lothbury and Lombard Street on my way to work, with its office blocks and glass skyscrapers, I often imagine what it was like in Tudor times. The highpoint of The Shakespeare Code for me is the recreation of 1599 London. A mixture of matte CGI, location shooting in Warwick and brilliantly evocative sets make the period come alive for me. There is a wonderful shot of crumbling London Bridge in the background (complete with Nonsuch House and the spire of Southwark Cathedral) and the Doctor and Martha running along the quays that is worthy of Hollywood. In fact, I'm not convinced that Hollywood would do a better job.
The feeling they give 1599 is very contemporary. You don't believe for a second that you are not there. A lot of this has to do with the reactions of the characters. There is a wonderful scene where they first meet Will Shakespeare where Martha is called a "Blackamoor". Her 21st sensibilities tell her should be offended but Shakespeare is using it as we would use the word "coloured" as a well-meaning, if offensive description. He goes on to list a number of other descriptions which in his world are positively enlightened. You get the impression he is doing his best to be delicate - and for all we know the terms could be PC back in 1599. In fact "colour" is dealt with adultly in this adventure. Despite postings on the net of those who were convinced that Martha would encounter racism in Elizabethan times. We now know this isn't the case, as there were Caribbean/African residents in the capital and not just as servants. London being an international port back in 1599 had an ethnic population - although perhaps not on the scale that it is today.
A lot of the attention to Elizabethan detail and character is down to the writer, Gareth Roberts. Russell T Davies made a good choice for him to write the period episode of season 3. Roberts penned one of my all-time favourite PDA's, The Plotters. A story set only six years ahead of this one. There he concentrated on Jacobean innkeepers, courtiers and serving wenches. Here, he pulls out all the stops to bring Shakespeare's time to life. And he gets the language right as well ("an imbalance of humours" and Peter Street's mad ramblings). The story has a usual alien twist, but seems to fit in with the times and genre. The whole theme of the adventure is the power of words. It's the big deal we give to Shakespeare. The connection between our world using numbers and formulas to split the atom and the villainesses doing it with words is terrific. It's a good, original idea and the adventure builds to an exciting climax. The adventure has menace, humour and excitement. It's a good script by Gareth Roberts.
A lot of it falls on the portrayal of Billy Shakespeare. Luckily, we have Dean Lennox Kelly, an actor who looks utterly at home in a doublet and hose. In fact, all the "actorly" scenes work, with the secondary actors pulling off their lines well. There is an utterly Gareth Roberts line near the end - "You must forgive our irksome Will. He's been on the beer and not feeling well." - which brings the house down. The house being the Globe theatre and in this adventure it is put to good use as a moneysaving location. The SFX jazz it up in the last five minutes with some wonderful shots of the defeated Carrionites and CGI crowds cheering on the production.
But it is in the portrayal of Shakespeare that this does well. First of all, Lennox Kelly has the acting chops and charisma to pull it off. Roberts doesn't write Shakespeare as a cliched genius. He writes him as a man of high intelligence and astuteness; his dissection of Martha and the Doctor at the end are keeping in character. Where the script does fall down is the continuous "jokes" about the Doctor giving him lines for future works. The first time it is funny but after a while it becomes as much of a clunker, as the "We are not amused" in Tooth and Claw. The maxim "less is more" could be used here.
The Carrionites are a good set of villains (even their name is better than most RTD creations - Toclafane anyone?). Witches are scary. The first scene with the paramour torn to pieces by two old hags is very creepy. We don't see his dismemberment as it is done in shadow, but it's still an effective scene. The use of the marionette in the plot works without seeming silly and there are scenes where they are genuinely menacing, giving some real scares. The Carrionites are a good invention and even given some backstory with the Eternals. Easily one of the best baddies of season 3.
The regulars do good work. Roberts writes the Doctor straight for the most part and Tennant comes across as very Doctorish. His relationship with Martha is still at an early stage but already the baggage of Rose Tyler is still hanging around his neck. I wonder if it isn't the Doctor pining for the previous companion but the producer? Putting Martha in Rose's shadow this early on really handicaps her, and the audience's sympathy immediately swings behind her in the "share the bed" scene. But, for the most part, Freema Agyeman/Martha Jones gets a good script from Roberts, exhibiting intelligence ("fourteen lines to a sonnet"), fear ("Let me out of here!"), courage ("I name you Carrionite!") and humour ("Shakespeare went into a pub and the landlord said... you're Bard."). She's shaping up to be my favourite companion for a long time.
The Shakespeare Code is NuWho at its best. The production is fantastic (the bedlam scenes are my favourite), the script is sharp (although the contemporary references jolt horribly; "Good old JK!" bleugh...), the characters interesting ("Hamnet? Did you say Hamnet?") and the plot exciting. It has great rewatchability and anyone connected with the production should get a pat on the back. For the commitment to quality, this is the best of the season and it is backed up by a healthy budget and excellent production design.
I think it will shape up to be one of my favourite Tennants and easily my favourite of season 3.
Ye Olde Junk by Andrew Feryok 25/11/09
I'm going to catch a lot of heat for this, but here it goes anyway...
I hate this episode and I have a hard time stomaching all the positive reviews I have been seeing of it. Now, I have been really kind to the new series. I know I will always like the classic series better than the new (I can't help it. I grew up with the old series), but I can at least allow the new series to entertain me and it still gives me that fannish thrill every now and then. But even the classic series was guilty of producing a story or two that fans were embarrassed about and unfortunately for me, this is now the story I hate the most of the David Tennant years. Don't worry, I'll explain why.
First, I think I at least owe it to this episode to at least state some of the things I DID like about the story. For one thing, I thought the idea of the Doctor confronting witches was a fantastic idea. It plays into the old Hinchcliffe-Holmes formula of taking a classic movie/literary monster and giving a modern Who spin on it. I also adore the setting of Shakespearian London. It is wonderfully brought to life in all its glory and buckets-of-dung-being-dumped-out-of-the-window-Black-Adder-style.
I must also give special praise to Dean Lennox Kelly who plays Shakespeare. He was perfect for the role, playing a young and confident playwright at the height of his powers. It's almost sad really that they play the story for laughs since I think he could have worked as a serious Shakespeare as well. His introduction is absolutely brilliant. The Doctor and Martha goes to the globe theater to see a Shakespeare play, the play ends and the man himself comes out to enormous applause. He opens his mouth, Martha is edging forward in anticipation of hearing what the greatest playwright ever is going to say and... he tells the audience to crudely piss off. Fantastic.
Such a shame then that I otherwise loathe this episode. Okay, here are my reasons, in no particular order.
Premise #1: The episode lauds Shakespeare as the greatest playwright who ever lived. He was gifted with words, particularly with finding the right word to perfectly describe whatever he was trying to express.
What the Episode showed: The episode shows Shakespeare to be the greatest literary thief of all time. I mean, the episode wants to try and show Shakespeare to be the greatest writer ever, and yet he is pinching all the best lines he ever wrote from the Doctor and Martha who are recklessly dropping the lines everywhere. So this episode is trying to say Shakespeare is original by showing him blatantly stealing lines that were inspired by the Doctor and Martha. Hmmm. It's also rather sad that the episode feels the need to equate J.K. Rowling with Shakespeare. I am sorry, but J.K. Rowling, as good a writer as she is, is nowhere near in the same league as Shakespeare! Charles Dickens, maybe. Agatha Christie, maybe. J.K. Rowling, not yet. She's too new. If her Harry Potter books still remain hugely popular fifty years from now, then we can start talking about possibly equating her, but even then it would be a considerable stretch. I realize that Russell T. Davies is trying to equate Shakespeare's popularity with someone the younger generation would recognize. But I am willing to bet that any school child does not need to have Shakespeare compared to J.K. Rowling to know how brilliant he is considered!
Premise #2: The witches have the ability to create magical incantations which the Doctor explains is a form of science. Just because we can't understand it doesn't mean it doesn't have a form of scientific basis behind it.
What the Episode showed: Okay, I have to admit that there was some precedent to this in the story Logopolis where raw mathematical incantations were used to hold the universe together so I guess my argument here is slightly weakened. But even still, this episode claims that there is a scientific explanation behind the witches' incantations, but it certainly makes no attempt to explain it. Exactly how does performing an incantation out loud have a scientific basis and why can't I simply say "Expecto-Patronum" and make a magical spirit appear? Well, the answer is that the scientific part was just thrown in there to make it sound like science fiction. In fact, what we have here is a very bad precedent for allowing pure magic to enter the series (just look at the end of Last of the Time Lords if you don't believe me). It trots completely over the premise established in the series that the Doctor believes in a rational universe where magic is nothing more than superstition with a logical explanation that he can readily explain. But this episode makes no attempt to give a scientific explanation. The Doctor says there is one, but instead we are simply expected to accept that there is one. I for one did not accept this and saw a bad attempt by the writer to hide pure fantasy magic in his story. I mean, if you can now say that speaking a magic word has a scientific basis behind it, then anything is possible now. We can have magic wands, wizards, and unicorns (oh wait, the Doctor already has a magic wand... I mean sonic screwdriver). Making magical incantations a reality in the Doctor Who universe opens up a whole can of worms concerning how far an author can go to create a dues ex machina explanation for his or her stories. The Doctor just has to wave a magic wand and everything will magically be right again.
Premise #3: "Do you remember that movie Back to the Future..."
What the Episode Showed: The series reached an all-time low when the Doctor uttered those words. Did RTD seriously just do that. He had the Doctor explain a complex science fiction idea involving time paradoxes by referring to Back to the Future? Does he really need to do this? I mean, the Third Doctor was perfectly capable of explaining what a time paradox was in Day of the Daleks, so why does the Tenth need to start dropping blatant pop references like this? Imagine for a moment if on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard suddenly turned to Riker and said "These creatures the Borg remind me of this twentieth century television show called Doctor Who in which he used to battle these things called Cybermen. He used to kill them by shoving gold dust into their chests. Do we have any gold to shove into the Borg's chest?" I mean it sounds completely silly and stupid and that is exactly what happens here. But the shameful pop references don't stop there. I already mentioned the use of J.K. Rowling above. How about the title itself: The Shakespeare Code! It's the type of title you might see on a Simpsons episode, not a Doctor Who episode. The difference is that the Simpsons is supposed to be a comedy. Doctor Who is supposed to be a sci-fi program, which happens to contain comedy in it. And the pun itself is really awful. I mean, how many times do we need to see The Da Vinci Code's title ripped off in pop culture? Odds are that most people years from now won't know what this is referring too, much like the references to the Spice Girls the 1990s book series.
On the whole, I find this episode shameful. It's trying to show how Shakespeare was an original and creative. But in the end we don't see any of this. Shakespeare is ripping off the Doctor, Martha, and even J.K. Rowling. There is no credible attempt to show why Shakespeare is such a memorable playwright. At least with Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, and Agatha Christie in The Unicorn and the Wasp, there was some sense of what they were good at and at least respected the integrity of their creations. Instead, we get Shakespeare turned into Harry Potter able to make magical incantations and doing battle with evil witches. Yeah, that's "really" what Shakespeare was all about. Not to mention we get more references to pop culture programs than anything Shakespeare wrote. It's almost as if the author assumed everyone knew what Shakespeare's works were, thought they were dull, and then started waving these shiny, newer examples of things that were much more exciting. A complete disappointment (with the above exceptions). 1/10
A Review by Finn Clark 8/12/09
The mystery with The Shakespeare Code is why it feels wrong. They spent money like water in recreating Elizabethan London. The cinematography is gorgeous, if not actually glamorous in all that orange torchlight. On a visual level, there's a good case for saying it looks better than Shakespeare in Love, which you might remember was set in the same period and won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. On top of all that, the story contains lots of authentically nasty insights into the period, from Bedlam to Shakespeare's son having died of the Black Death. The Master of the Revels threatens to have Shakespeare's play closed down. The Doctor lies about a murder for fear of panic over witchcraft.
Toilet pots getting emptied out of windows and Shakespeare's bad breath are the least of all these, although they make it a shame the BBC can't broadcast in smell-o-vision. Nonetheless, to me it feels like a plastic theme park version of itself. I believe the technical term is "Gareth Roberts", although for once he doesn't deserve all the blame.
The problem is that it's a jolly romp in which nothing really feels dangerous. To give the most obvious example, the scene with the Carry-On-ite in Bedlam should have been scary, but isn't for a moment. Think about it. The Doctor and his friends are locked in a cell with an alien with magical powers and a death touch. When Martha tries shouting at the door, the Doctor reminds her that she's in a building full of people doing the same thing. Nevertheless the scene drifts past without ever really touching anything that matters. That's not Gareth's fault, except in possibly the Douglas Adams sense in which a script perceived to be comedic might not be produced with the weight that, ironically, the comedy demands. You could shoot a much harder, nastier episode from the same script and I'd have probably liked that much more, although admittedly this would mean sacrificing the "what if Graham Williams had made a pseudo-historical" vibe. In a theoretical way, I respect this. Much of the Graham Williams era is disgracefully poor, but it's also unique in all kinds of ways and worth treasuring at least for the qualities it did give us. It's also worth admitting that lots of people liked this episode, including people who dislike a lot of New Who, so for them at least it was successful.
However for me, it doesn't feel as if the world is being treated with respect. It feels as if it's giving too much credit even to call the Doctor and Martha tourists. If I went on holiday to a strange country, I'd want to be more careful about myself than that. Does anything from 1599 feel dangerous? I'm not talking about the aliens, but about the native Elizabethans. Does it ever feel as if the locals matter for anything? Shakespeare's a rock star and everyone else is comic relief. This isn't a living, breathing world but merely background, a source of admittedly luscious historical detail. Even the comedy climax is merely a comedy climax, in which a threatened execution is treated with all the gravity of a water balloon fight. Weep at the thought of what would have happened if they'd done The Crusade like this, which is a story I have a feeling I find funnier than this one anyway. I'd have to go back and rewatch to be sure, but doesn't Hartnell have a few good lines or something?
Oh yes, the comedy. I don't find the episode particularly funny. It does raise a few laughs, such as "57 academics" and "other side". However most of the gags are just that... gags. They tend just to be wordplay, such as the one-too-many variations on "I might use that". I can admire their cleverness, but that doesn't mean it necessarily occurs to me to laugh, unlike genuinely funny stories like The Three Doctors.
I did chuckle at "expelliarmus", though. I don't even object to the SF language shoehorned into the end of his play, which needed to be obviously wrong and alien to Shakespeare's world. Maybe Gareth could have even taken it further? He's already playing with language, giving us a little Shakespearian dialogue, so it might have been fun to turn this into even more of a theme.
The best scene in the story, for me, is in the bedroom. Not coincidentally, that's also the bit where the characters become real and we actually get to see inside their hearts. While I'm on the subject, incidentally, both Tennant and Freema Agyeman are terrific in this story. Martha's charming! She's so happy and excited to be there that she just carries you off on a wave of enthusiasm. The following year would demonstrate the downside of Freema's range as an actress, but here with just the one note to hit, boy, does she hit it. She does much better enthusiasm and wonder than Catherine Tate, for example. Meanwhile, Tennant's Doctor is still great, although he does make some bewilderingly quick diagnoses. "His lungs are full of water." Eh? Really? "She died of fright." Have you got an autopsy report on that?
I'm a bit puzzled about the witches. I can see that New Who is trying to do non-anachronistic villains in their celebrity historicals, but I'm not sure they were a good idea. If they'd been played hard and nasty enough to seem like a genuine threat, then I'd have been all for them. However, as it stands, I'm wishing this story had swapped villains with Tooth and Claw. I suppose I should also mention Shakespeare himself, but it's telling that I almost forgot to do so. I like his introduction, but after that it's all much as you'd expect. The show's being achingly reverential towards him, of course, but at least he deserves it more than, say, Agatha Christie.
Despite all my grumbles, there's a lot to like. There's so much here that's wonderful and it wouldn't have taken much to make this a far stronger story. You'd start by sitting down the director for a chat, although I suppose it wouldn't hurt to give Gareth a quiet kicking too. Nevertheless, there are a lot of good ideas in this script. I like the gag of the audience at the end thinking it was all a performance. I like the mystical eerieness of the Doctor carrying away witches in a crystal ball, although I'd have liked it better had it been played up a bit more. I like the Queen Elizabeth I gag. The story didn't particularly grab me, especially the big flashing lights ending, but I don't think it's fundamentally broken. It's just not how I'd have done it, that's all. If you like Graham Williams, I dare say you'll love this.
Oh, and Witch #1 is cute.
I say to thee, Expelliarmus! by Evan Weston 24/12/14
This is now a trend. The third episode of the series is another historical that has a pretty good story surrounded by elements that do not work. Spoiler: if you're in this for the grade, it's going to get the same mark that The Unquiet Dead and Tooth and Claw earned. I think The Shakespeare Code is probably a little bit better than those two episodes, but the basic idea of the review is the same.
Here's the problem with The Shakespeare Code: it's a pretty good episode, but it thinks it's a lot cleverer than it is. This manifests itself in many ways, some obvious, some subtle. The most annoying and most clear example is the running gag in which the Doctor feeds Shakespeare a future line. This happens more than half a dozen times throughout the episode. It was worth a minor grin the first time, so imagine my annoyance when it keeps happening over and over. The story thinks it's clever by mixing it up. Ooh look, there's a line he's already written! There's one that's not his! Oh, Martha gave him the idea for Hamlet! There's lots of silliness with this gag, and it gets an eyeroll from me every time.
The more subtle (and, in my humble opinion, the far more serious) problem is the episode's insistence on working the time period and the historical figure of Shakespeare into the plot. This works to an extent - the sets look great and the inclusion of Shakespeare's words into the villains' plan was very smart, indeed - but often it comes across as overdone. The Globe Theater is 14 sides because the witches brainwashed the architect? The witches are actually aliens who use words to give themselves power? The Doctor basically invented modern special effects? The whole thing gets very look-at-what-a-neat-coinkidink-this-is, and it actively detracts from the story. The Carrionites are especially bad, especially the two older ones, who just groan and croak exposition the entire episode. Even Lillith, played by the beautiful Christina Cole, becomes annoying by the end of the story. Do the witches have to announce every single plot development as it happens? By the time we reach the Globe for the climax, they are literally delivering play-by-play. It's embarrassingly unnecessary.
Wow. Very negative start for a B story. Let's talk about some good stuff! David Tennant continues the good acting he found/stumbled upon in the final third of Smith and Jones and delivers a fun, energetic performance. His confrontation with Lillith in the attic is emotional, and then three minutes later his resuscitation is effectively played for laughs. Hand Freema Agyeman the assist, though she's still basically doing exactly what Billie Piper did in Series 2. This is something that will largely continue until The Lazarus Experiment, but it does work thematically. Guest star Dean Lennox Kelly makes a fine Shakespeare, playing the Bard as a young rogue in love with his words, and with justification. The whole episode works as a nice tribute to Shakespeare - heck, his name is in the title!
The story itself is a bit on the dry side, but when it's not obsessed with showing us how damn clever it is, The Shakespeare Code is pretty good. The mystery is ruined a bit by a) the fact that the witches get more screen time than the protagonists and b) we know the nature of the show means they must be aliens. It's the same problem that plagued Tooth and Claw's werewolf, but there the alien nature of the beast was explained quickly. Here, it's supposed to be a mystery, and it plainly isn't. However, the scenes in which the Doctor, Martha and Shakespeare share the screen are mostly electric, with the actors bouncing off one another, Agyeman especially flashing that trademark smile and enjoying herself. The aforementioned attic sequence is really wonderful and worthy of a better episode, and Martha gets to prove herself right after Rose's name is invoked by Lillith. The drowning-from-the-inside death also deserves mention as both extremely creative and quite disgusting. Well played, Mr. Roberts, well played.
The sets look terrific as well; this is definitely 1599 London. The historicals have always looked good on new Who (The Unquiet Dead was of particular note), and The Shakespeare Code matches those standards nicely. Charlie Palmer is a bit less assured directing than he was in the finely handled Smith and Jones, but he does a nice job keeping things moving nonetheless, especially when you consider how little actual plot there is. Roberts obviously thinks he's a better writer than he is, but he's still got a way with dialogue, and his Doctor-Martha scenes crackle.
The Shakespeare Code is what it is. Add it to the list of somewhat above average Doctor Who historicals with some deep flaws and other deep strengths. However, while Tooth and Claw ended up in the top half of Series 2, The Shakespeare Code (perhaps a better episode) will assuredly be on the bottom side of the ledger for Series 3. This is just a sign of much better things to come.