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Apr 07, 2007

Sigh No More.

I was watching an early 80s BBC Shakespeare production of The Tempest this morning.  Michael Hordern plays Prospero (after the producers totally failed to grab John Gielgud) and in between the fake rocks and ship acting is Warren Clarke playing Caliban in a fur suit, David (tv's Ford Prefect) Dixon half naked and covered in gold paint as Ariel and Nigel Hawthorne and Andrew Sachs getting pissed together (although they may have been acting). 

I'm telling you this, not just to recommend you see this 'masterpiece' because it offers the chance to hear the word 'Sycorax' in its original context (more on which late) but the demonstrate that I'm the kind of person who wakes up on a Saturday morning and watches an early 80s BBC Shakespeare production of The Tempest.

" I've got multiple recorded productions - I've versions of Macbeth I don't think I've even worked my way around to seeing yet. "

I'm as much of a Shakespeare fan as a Doctor Who fan.  No really, my Shakespeare collection might actually be larger than the one have for the timelord - as well as numerous print copies of the plays in various editions, I've got multiple recorded productions - I've versions of Macbeth I don't think I've even worked my way around to seeing yet.  It's an academic interest, certainly but also some of the recognizable fan genes we all recognize have been transferred to the Bard. 

If there was a monthly William Shakespeare Magazine I'd be in WH Smith's on every fourth Thursday (or so) to buy a copy.  I have a Hamlet weblog where I'm essentially stripping down as many interpretations of the Dane as I can, noting references in other works along the way.  Hell, I even have an ongoing project to put the plays into chronological order (here's the most recent rumination - how do you deal with The Merry Wives of Windsor?  And I'd thought UNIT dating was a nightmare).

If there was anyone who was predisposed to loving this episode it would be me.  I mean its Doctor Who meets William Shakespeare!  I know it's happened on audio and in the novels, but here it is on television for the first time in forty years.  A chance to see the Tardis landing in Elizabethan London, The Doctor plus one standing in the Globe Theatre cheering the Bard on during one of the performances, the mud, the beer, the grime, the bit with a dog.  So why did I pop out the other end feeling just tiniest bit disappointed?

"Why did I pop out the other end feeling just tiniest bit disappointed?"

I'm willing to entertain the idea that my expectations were so high that nothing less than Shakespeare In Love meets The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy with the combined wit of Tom Stoppard and Douglas Adams would satiate me, something which impossible really, even from a great Who writer like Gareth Roberts.  I mean the idea of placing  Love's Labour's Won at the crux of the matter was really clever (even if the resulting play had a slight wrongness to it).

I've seen elsewhere complaints that the story was too linear and perhaps that's exactly it.  Instead of the traveling companions getting mixed up in a faux-Shakespearan plotline we had instead what amounted to a Fear Her-style procedural which just happened to be taking place in 1599 London, with a fairly generic story progression and ending in the expected confrontation with the alien at the end.

"Did there really have to be another race against time to stop a giant special effect from taking over the planet again?"

Perhaps too it's the choice of witches as the villains of the peace.  Is that to the celebrity quasi-historical format every year?  Dickens meets ghosts and poltergeists, Victoria meets a werewolf, Reinette and the body snatchers, now Bill and witches, and like Charles he's presumably inspired to include them in Macbeth later.  I like that in the rational Whoniverse they are aliens and magic is simply advanced technology, but it just seems a bit predictable to have witches

Russell suggested afterwards on Doctor Who Confidential that he knew it had to be fairies or witches and they went with the latter (presumably because the former had already turned up in Small Worlds) but my question is why?  Nothing wrong with their performances which were pitched to just the right side of pantomime, and Hex's Christina Cole sizzled, but did there really have to be another race against time to stop a giant special effect from taking over the planet again?

But that leads straight into the positives, which I have to emphasise outweighed the negatives by some margin.  Said special effect was destroyed by Mr Shakespeare through the power of words.  I think the secret of the episode is that it took that fairly generic storyline and hung on it quite a thematically deep meditation on the importance and power of words and the role of the Bard the foundation of our language.

"The secret of the episode is that it took that fairly generic storyline and hung on it quite a thematically deep meditation on the importance and power of words and the role of the Bard the foundation of our language."

In probably the new series most Reithian moment yet, the episode was laced with soundbites from throughout the canon and even couple from elsewhere in literature (Dylan Thomas!), with the potential that kids watching might go off and find out which plays they're from and the context. 

These references weren't entirely gratuitous and their sense of thematic intent mirrored the story or character beat in which they were being used.  Even Sycorax, worked in situ here because in that play, she's the witch that Pospero apparently battled to gain governance of Caliban.  I shivered when I noticed the connection - if I was a kid I think I'd find it really extraordinary. 

The episode had the potential to make at least some kids passionate about Shakespeare and literature and it has to be applauded for that.  Some might begrudge the intrusion of pop culture references - primarily the inclusion of Harry Potter, Shakespeare using Rowling's words at the end to finally vanquish the demon instead of his own - but it all helps to draw in viewers who even until that point might still care less about Shakespeare.

"The episode had the potential to make at least some kids passionate about Shakespeare and literature and it has to be applauded for that." 

I was watching Cash In The Attic, the bizarrely addictive daytime antique auction programme in the week and there was a woman selling a very nice boxed Complete Works because her son wouldn't like that, he's more into Harry Potter, y'know.  I thought about that kid during that sequence, this whole episode in fact and wondered if he'd be turning to his mum and asking if she still had those Shakespeare plays in the attic.  Or cupboard.  Or wherever she kept them.

Plus it's a different idiom, a different time.  You have to balance out the English lessons with something else.  Such as Back To The Future being used to explain why history can still change if The Doctor and Martha don't keep their wits about themselves and whilst that doesn't quite have the mystery of Blinovich it grounds the series in the now (well the mid-Eighties) and makes it comprehensible.  Similarly the approach to characterization of the inhabitants of Elizabethan London was exceedingly contemporary, the TARDIS translator apparently contemporising their English, the only verilys in evidence coming from Martha's lips.

No complaints here about Shakespeare as rock star, perfectly logical especially at that point in his career.  One of the problems which always crops up when characterizing this man is that he has to seem capable of doing all of that whilst still retaining his essentially humanity.  Partly its in the writing, but mostly its in the acting as Dean Lennox Kelly certainly had just the right amount of charisma to make you believe.

"No complaints here about Shakespeare as rock star, perfectly logical especially at that point in his career." 

He proved an excellent foil for an on-point Tennant and if the episode didn't refer directly to past or future encounters, their chemistry hinted as to why the Doctor would keep returning to his company.  The opening meeting dealt with all that because The Doctor lacked that first time meeting excitement we've seen elsewhere - he knew were Shakespeare was and how to get hold of him.

Another criticism might be the Rose callbacks but again I think that's just a shock of the new, something unexpected in a franchise were a companion dies and they're barely mentioned two episodes later.  Plus, the Doctor's obviously playing a few mind games, trying to tease out of Martha the companion elements he's looking for, testing her, making sure she can fulfill his needs.  Freema continues to surprise and perfectly played up the 'everything's brilliant' attitude we all have when we visit a new place.

"On reflection, then, it looks like I enjoyed The Shakespeare Code far more than I thought."

On reflection, then, it looks like I enjoyed The Shakespeare Code far more than I thought - and like the Cybermen episodes last year will enjoy it much more on subsequent viewings without my exponentially high expectations, relishing the various nuances.  The sense of history was perfect, the painterly backdrop capturing the time with the same spirit as the opening few scenes of Olivier's film rendition of Henry V.  And The Globe looked absolutely gorgeous.  I have to go there.  Now.

And that coda - for once, no big emotional crescendo, an actual joke, and the potential for a sequel.  Quite what he's done to get the Queen riled up in that way wasn't clear but it's going to be fun finding out.  Anyone remember if he's already met her in a previous incarnation (an UnBound not withstanding)?

Next Week:  New Earth.  Cat people.  What could possibly go wrong?

Comments

Did you ever see or hear of documentation that the producers were trying to get Gielgud for that production of 'The Tempest'? I ask because it was generally conceded at the time that Hordern "owned" the role of Prospero; it was his Shakespearean specialty.

I enjoyed it, though you are right, expectations were probably impossibly high.

The Back to the Future reference was the only real moment of disappointment to me. Compare and contrast to similar siutations: Fourth's chilling response to Sarah Jane's question in Pyramids of Mars, and to Ninth's impassioned warning to Rose in the Unquiet Dead.

The cosmic mysteries of time travel feel lessened by referencing Marty McFly!

The rest it of was it was great though, and explored Shakespeare's life more extensively than Dickens's or Queen Victoria's.

Even the sonnets got a look-in, with Marsha referred to as the "Dark Lady" and with the moment where Shakespeare appeared to be channeling the spirit of Captain Jack!

All in all, the best Tom Stoppard-influenced story since Warrior's Gate!

And Martha continues to shine!

Great review, Stuart, with just one goof — you wrote "Liz I" when you meant "Vicky I". (Or should that be "Vicki"?)

Gosh, yes, you're right. Thanks.

Stu:

For another take on Shakespeare from a sf/fantasy angle, I would thoroughly recommend the graphic novel The Sandman: Dream Country. (If you haven't read it already.)

One of the four stories,"A Midsummer Night's Dream," won Neil Gaiman the World Fantasy Award for best short story.

(It is Tom Stoppard-meets-Paul Magrs if that sounds more impressive!)

Don't be put off if you are not a big fan of graphic novels, if you are a fan of Shakespeare it is well worth reading.

(Neil Gaiman also returned to Shakespeare's life near the end of The Sandman series, on the theme of The Tempest.)

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