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Apr 08, 2007

The Play's the Thing

Bubble bubble, toil and trouble…

The Shakespeare Code

No arguments from me this week - this was superb. From the rather saucy opening to the Doctor’s amusing escape from a Queen Elizabeth he hasn’t upset yet, ‘The Shakespeare Code’ was forty-five minutes of wide-grin television. Anyone who’s read any of Gareth Roberts’ multifarious fan novels will know that this man writes Who with a tongue firmly in his cheek; so it comes as no surprise to find his first bona-fide TV episode is as witty and charming as this show gets.

Like the Doctor himself, I’m tempted just to quote great big chunks of the script rather than write any sort of cohesive review. But I’ll have a go anyway. Okay, the plot has to do a lot in the running time - as so many of these standalone episodes do - but for once (and rather like only Steven Moffat manages to this great an effect) the story isn’t just a washing line to hang various self-indulgent ideas about politics and campery on like mixed-up ideas (hello there, RTD!). No, it actually all makes sense after a fashion. Creatures from the dawn of time use the greatest genius of 1599 to recode their species along the lines of the Krillitanes in last year’s ‘School Reunion’. Or something. Frankly I don’t really care seeing as the window dressing is so good that worrying about the intricacies never springs to mind.

if Shakespeare’s not your thing, then JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books at least get an honourable mention.

But what is good - not to mention highly laudable - is Roberts remembering Doctor Who’s original mandate for edu-tainment. Words as power have never quite been so potently used; and if even one child watching sees how Shakespeare (and reading in general) isn’t such an uncool thing that all his or her ASBO-earning, hoodie-wearing mates will beat them up at school the next day, then I think Doctor Who has once again achieved something quite remarkable. And if Shakespeare’s not your thing, then the next best thing to it these days - JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books - at least get an honourable mention.

There’s also a nice paralleling between the theatre of late sixteenth century London with the modern television experience itself. Entertainment for the masses could even be the most apposite description of Doctor Who’s current status as crown jewel darling of the Saturday schedules. And it’s hard to deny (even given my own occasional reservations regards certain aspects of RTD’s reboot) that our show is about the most perfect example of cross-demographic goodness that you can currently find. Take this story alone as an example: scary monsters for the kids, witty repartee and sexual frisson for the adults and a few in-jokes for the Doctor Who and Shakespeare cognoscenti. Put it all together and you’ve got a sure-fire ratings and critical success whose steam-rollering of the opposition looks unlikely to run out just yet.

pretty much the perfect slice of pseudo-historical Who

Following on from ‘Smith and Jones’, Freema Agyeman continues to do little less than impress with every scene she’s in; her flirtatious relationship with the Bard himself providing a charming (not to mention unexpected) element. In fact not a single player puts a foot wrong; with even Tennant demonstrating what a superb Doctor he can be given the right script and less reliance on shoe-horned goofery. When he does dark - as he does on a number of occasions here - it really sends a chill down your spine; and with the prospect of Paul Cornell’s ‘Human Nature’ on the horizon (not to mention a certain ‘rematch’ with an old enemy) then I think we’re gonna see a lot more ‘David Tennant is the Doctor’ postings on this website come the end of June. But before we forget, let’s hear it for the Bard himself and Dean Lennox Kelly’s completely leftfield yet totally appropriate reinterpretation of the archetypal writer as Rock God. And it’s also a nice touch to find that - like Dickens before him - Shakespeare’s experiences with the Doctor inform his later work.

While we’re on the subject of casting, how refreshing for once is it to find a nemesis for the Doctor actually fitting the title. The fact that she’s a great, sexy villainess to boot certainly helps - excusing at least for me the fact that she maintains her less witch-like visage while her compatriots are old crones throughout - but that would be to unfairly ignore the charisma and sheer panache that Cristina Cole brings to the part of Lilith. Her sinister machinations with voodoo dolls give the story a macabre bent much belying the 7.00pm timeslot, while both the death by drowning of Linley and the whole heart-stopping methods of the witches are suitably twisted. And the sexually-charged scene she shares with Tennant is yet another of the highlights of this episode as a whole.

Put it all together and you’ve got a sure-fire success whose steam-rollering of the opposition looks unlikely to run out just yet

But as so often in Doctor Who, it’s the moments that stick in the mind longest. The lovely chemistry between Tennant and Agyeman which already has this viewer wondering Billie Who? Roberts’ very amusing likening of Elzabethan England to the obsessions of the modern world (recycling, water-coolers, global-warming) and the gentle digs at fandom when Shakespeare says he doesn’t do autographs or ‘sketches’ with obsessive fans. Then there’s the one-liners (‘Men dressed as women…nothing in London changes’; ‘I hate starting from scratch’), the running gag of the Doctor supplying Shakespeare with his most iconic lines (which, unlike last year’s ‘We are not amused’ joke in ‘Tooth and Claw’, never runs out of steam) and how Rose this year is shaping up to be the invisible side of an eternal triangle. And that’s without even mentioning the very effective direction from Charles Palmer (given the type of opportunity here that Torchwood never came close to managing) and in particular the scene where Lilith quite literally has the Bard dancing to her tune like a puppet on a string.

All wrapped up in some glorious CGI effects from The Mill - somehow seamlessly convincing a handfull of extras as the thousands filling the Globe’s rafters - and you’ve got pretty much the perfect slice of pseudo-historical Who: a traditional science vs. sorcery tale with all the post-modern cleverness television audiences demand. After the slight stumble of ‘Smith and Jones’, Season Three is finally cooking gas!

Next time: the Doctor and Martha visit Fifth Element world and the Face of Boe spills his guts at last.

(The Bumper Book of Made-Up Doctor Who Facts has this to say about The Shakespeare Code: Shakespeare fan-site ‘Behind the Codpiece’ were up in arms regards the ret-conning of their hero in this episode)


The sauciness you mention that began the episode was a running theme throughout, sometimes involving the Doctor and/or Martha.

It was interesting to see writers other than Steven Moffat explore this area, which I hope he continues to do with his episode this season!

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