The Shakespeare Code. It’s a funny old title, isn’t it. There is nothing really Dan Brown about the episode, and a title that alludes to Harry Potter in some way might have made more sense, but it does call attention to what the episode is doing: exploring Shakespeare within the realms of popular culture. This is not about showing us any kind of realistic portrayal of Elizabethan England, but about showing a parallel between Shakespeare and JK Rowling. As such it rejects science almost entirely in favour of magic.
There is a new formula for Doctor Who historical stories, which is basically: famous person plus mythical monster. So we have had Charles Dickens and ghosts, Queen Victoria and werewolves, and now William Shakespeare and witches. But this makes the least attempt to rationalise the myth. It’s not just that there are broomsticks and voodoo dolls. The key to this is the “word-based science”, which of course is simply another way of saying “magic”. Because of course there is no such thing as “word-based science” and never will be… unless you embrace the idea of magic. Clarke’s Third Law will only stretch so far. The source of the Carrionites’ power is words, and naming them will banish them, but only once. Apart from being a useful way to keep the story from having a very obvious resolution, this makes clear the laws Doctor Who are working within this week, and science has taken a week off.
Never meet your heroes.
The Shakespeare Code is also a chance to turn the Doctor into a fanboy, in much the same way that The Unquiet Dead did with the Ninth Doctor and Charles Dickens. For classic series fans this is a contradiction, unless you accept the Doctor’s name-dropping as a bunch of lies (there was originally a line acknowledging that the Doctor has met Shakespeare before but Shakespeare won’t recognise him because he has regenerated, but it was cut. That’s probably for the best, considering Shakespeare is insightful enough that the psychic paper doesn’t work on him), but what it really does is allow a comparison with Doctor Who fandom, and as such the “never meet your heroes” stuff is gloriously cheeky.
No autographs. No you can’t have yourself sketched with me.
… which is of course a joke about fans asking for photos with celebrities, and that says it all about how much this episode is about showing Shakespeare as a part of popular culture, every bit as relevant and current as anything else. Historical realism is not even on the radar here. That spills over, basically by necessity, into the Doctor’s handwaving of Martha’s concerns about racism. Tackling that head on would have been a poor fit with the rest of the episode, and Doctor Who will eventually get around to it when Bill goes back to see a frost fair. It is unfortunate that this dismissal of Martha’s concerns coincides with the early days of the Doctor/Martha arc, which sees the Doctor still rejecting Martha because he is pining for Rose.
There’s something I’m missing, Martha. Something really close, staring me right in the face and I can’t see it. Rose would know. That friend of mine, Rose. Right now, she’d say exactly the right thing. Still, can’t be helped. You’re a novice, never mind. I’ll take you back home tomorrow.
A bit cruel, isn’t it. The Doctor and Martha’s relationship is developing in an interesting direction, with Martha trying to connect with the Doctor on an emotional level, while he shuts her out completely, wary of becoming emotionally attached again after the loss of Rose. It is a good thing that Rose was not forgotten straight away, but this is the third story since she left and the time has come to move on. Martha is a wonderful companion, and seeing her treated so badly is painting the Doctor in a particularly poor light. It’s fair enough for him to grieve, but showing the Doctor hurting somebody else because of his grief is problematic.
So this isn’t perfect, and if you are looking for much in the way of logic or realism from a Doctor Who episode then this really won’t be your cup of tea. Would any actor, faced with a script that ended with some meaningless gobbledygook, just learn it and say it on stage without even questioning it? Probably not, but if you want a metatextual commentary on how some actors have approached Doctor Who technobabble you’ve got one right there. RP
The view from across the pond:
Duck soup, you say? Why yes, that was one of the best Marx Brothers movies. Even my kids love it. What brought that up? Oh, maybe the fictional land of Freedonia, found in the movie Duck Soup, where “no one’s allowed to smoke or tell a dirty joke and whistling is forbidden”. Still, nothing? Well perhaps this will help: the Doctor introduces Martha Jones as hailing from Freedonia in The Shakespeare Code. Ah, now I’m getting somewhere!
Thankfully Rufus T. Firefly is nowhere in sight where Martha comes from; sounds like a depressing place. But then, so does London when Martha has to ask whether she might be sold into slavery because of her color or when people start throwing the biological wastes out of their windows. Maybe Freedonia isn’t so bad after all (I would not complain about the lack of smoking). Some of these things may have been real concerns in 1599 and Doctor Who does a great job addressing it without making a thing out of it but it doesn’t make one long for the good old days. (Sorry to all you old-timers who miss the “good old days”!) It gets a comment and moves on, not ignoring the fact, but not making a huge issue out of it either, preferring to get on with the story. More often than not, that’s all I want out of my shows: an acknowledgement of something, then we can move on.
Gareth Roberts writes the episode like a true prodigy of Steven Moffat, full of Moffat’s infamous timey-wimeyness. Think I’m kidding? The only reason the Bard writes some of his best lines is because the Doctor quotes them, and he would not have been able to quote them if he hadn’t read William Shakespeare’s plays. If that’s not the infamous Chicken/Egg scenario, I don’t know what is. (Maybe an explosion the size of Belgium? Anyone? No?) Even Sycorax, an alien race, Shakespeare tells the Doctor, he’ll “have”. And it does show up in The Tempest as a powerful witch. Sounds like we can identify where Shakespeare got that idea from!
This episode is carried almost exclusively by Shakespeare himself. Dean Lennox Kelly gives us a surprisingly modern interpretation of Shakespeare. He is centuries ahead of his time. His ability to see the truth of psychic paper and his ability to figure out who the Doctor and Martha actually are, are some of those marvelous moments that make a guest star stand out above and beyond the regular cast. While Tennant is always amazing, the writing is a little cold when this 900 year old man doesn’t realize how rude and hurtful he’s being to his companion as they lay on the bed together, pondering their current predicament. Somehow I think the Time Lord would have learned a bit about humans by now. Slow learner, I guess. And the thing is, Martha is beautiful. Yes, different from Rose, but no less lovely. Freema sells it too; she’s a girl out of time and experiencing something well and truly outside her field of expertise. And she’s coping with it rather well.
The villains were a little lackluster for me, but they give Shakespeare something upon which to base his plays and in that way, they work well. (I remember the first time I saw it, I misunderstood their name thinking they were called Carrier Knights. Oh, Carrionites! Like decaying flesh from dead animals. Lovely.) But this was Martha’s first trip. I guess we had to start out light.
There’s a lot of humor in the episode and a ton of great quotes, but, as the writer of a blog, my favorite has to be “oh, but there’s a power in words”. I hope my words had enough power to keep you reading. As a writer, that’s the greatest thing one can hope for.
“Fifty seven academics just punched the air!” ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Gridlock