THIS EPISODE TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
TV EPISODES "SMITH
AND JONES AND
'THE COMPLETE THIRD
EXCLUSIVE DVD BOX
RELEASED IN NOVEMBER
THE DOCTOR TAKES
MARTHA TO ELIZA-
OF DEADLY WITCH-
7TH APRIL 2007
It’s hard to believe that in twenty-eight years of time-travelling television the Doctor and William Shakespeare never once crossed paths. Okay, so the Doctor has always claimed that he and the Bard go back a long way – “see you earlier!” - and we did see a short clip of Hugh Walters’ Shakespeare back in the 1965 serial The Chase, but
even then he didn’t actually meet the Doctor. And so other than that one fleeting glimpse, Shakespeare’s actual appearances in Doctor Who have been limited to non-televised adventures. Until now.
“Shut yer big fat mouths!”
Whilst little is known about the man himself, most people have a pretty firm picture in their mindsof a balding and austere Elizabethan playwright. But now, Gareth Roberts’ script and Dean Lennox Kelly’s slick performance have revitalised Shakespeare for the 21st century. Now we have Shakespeare the celebrity. Shakespeare the rock star. Cool Shakespeare.
And it’s always diverting to see the Doctor messing about in our history. This episode’s running conceit that he supplies Shakespeare with half of his best quotes is downright irresistible, as is his giving Shakespeare that trademark neck brace. The Doctor even
wipes a tear from his eye as Shakespeare recites Sonnet 18 for Martha.
The mutual respect that the Doctor and Bard seem to share is very well-played, but what I find most arresting is how Shakespeare almost instantly gets the measure of the Doctor
and Martha, divining that the Doctor is an alien and that Martha is from the future. He can even see through the Doctor’s psychic paper. He is, as they say, a genius.
“57 Academics just punched the air!”
It‘s also nice that Shakie doesn’t just automatically gravitate towards Martha. Obviously he
is attracted to this “Queen of Afric”, but he is equally enchanted with the Doctor. Lovely little lines like “57 Academics just punched the air!” demonstrate that, like with the best historical episodes, the writer here has really done his homework and thus squeezed in a little bit of extra historical flavour (be it truth or scandal!) which, along with the pungent smell described by Martha, only adds to the sense of historical realism. Similarly, the loss of Shakespeare’s son has the same effect, as well as offering an explanation for the playwright’s past (and, for Big Finish listeners, future) madness.
Furthermore, the legend of Love’s Labours Won was definitely the perfect place to start for
a Shakespeare episode. At first, I thought that the episode’s title was simply a witty homage to Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code, but it turns out that there is more to it than that. The Shakespeare Code is about a “different sort of science”; a science founded on wordplay, names and codes. Words, names and codes contained within the infamous lost play...
“Upon this night the work is done, a muse to pen Love's Labour’s Won.”
But every Doctor Who story needs a villain and – again quite incredibly – in twenty-eight years of television the Doctor has never come up against a good old fashioned Witch. And here we are treated to exactly that: magic spells, broomsticks, warts and all. Doomfinger. Bloodtide. Lilith. The façade of beauty. It’s all textbook stuff, executed magnificently by Roberts with his customary wit and poise.
Above all else though, The Shakespeare Code is about Martha’s first tripin the TARDIS. The questions that she asks and the way that she reacts to living history is very different to how Rose reacted to being transported back in time in The Unquiet Dead. Martha’s first thoughts are not about how beautiful the past is. They are about the Grandfather Paradox. About slavery.
“Ooh… I hate starting from scratch.”
I’m glad that Roberts didn’t go overboard on the exposition here. Whilst a certain amount of explaining had to be done for the sake of pragmatism, as an audience now even the newest of viewers are au fait with every Time Lord accoutrement from sonic screwdrivers to psychic paper. However, each and every explanation that is given is handled masterfully by Roberts – for instance, I’ve never heard the whole “time is in flux” lecture explained as succinctly as it is here. Back to the Future indeed…
And as for the ‘soapy stuff’ as my Dad calls it – once again, full marks have to be given to
all involved. The bedroom scene sums up the Doctor so very well; it even sums up Martha’s unrequited feelings and growing sense of rejection. “We’ll manage, c’mon. You gonna stand there all night?” says the Doctor, lying in bed. When she joins eventually him, he then rolls on to his side to look her straight in the eye. He says out loud that he can’t see what is staring him straight in the face. but he doesn’t mean the obvious. He’s not even in the room with her really. He’s off on a beach in a parallel universe.
“Now that’s one form of magic that is definitely not going to work on me.”
And to be honest I’m glad. As much as I like Martha, for the Doctor to suddenly fall head over heels for ‘the new girl’ would have not only been insulting to Rose, but it would have negated the impact of the entire new series to date. The Doctor loved Rose, blatantly. But he doesn’t feel so strongly about all his companions, and that’s part of the reason why the whole Rose saga was so damned moving. She was the exception, not the rule. And that is what Martha is beginning to learn in this series.
The episode’s finale is spectacular. The CG images of not only the inbound Carrionites but also of the Globe and of the town around it are absolutely outstanding. I’m sure that nearly every child watching loved the whole “Expelliamus!” bit too; the culmination of an episode’s worth of (wholly appropriate) Harry Potter references. The last-minute Queen Bess twist is also wonderfully endearing; the quintessential Doctor Who comedy paradox.
In all then, The Shakespeare Code is another triumph. I realise that I’m constantly flattering this revived series, but it really is becoming increasingly hard to pick fault with it. Here we’ve got David Tennant in the role that he was born to play, Freema Agyeman turning in another pristine performance, and Shameless star Dean Lennox Kelly as the definitive Bard.
This time last year, I was thinking to myself “the second series won’t be as good as the first”, but it turned out to be just as good, if not even better. And then just a couple of weeks ago I caught myself thinking “the third series won’t be as good as the second”, but here I am, two weeks in, lauding it as having the greatest start of any series yet.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2007
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
This isn’t the Doctor’s first meeting with the Bard. From Shakie’s point of view, he would meet the Doctor as a small boy in the Big Finish audio drama The Time of the Daleks (which presumably he doesn’t recall here); in this episode; in the comic strip A Groatsworth of Wit; and then again in another Big Finish audio drama, The Kingmaker, in which he meets an untimely end and - in an ironic twist of fate - is replaced by a time-travelling Richard III, who assumes the Bard’s identity thereafter.
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