Doctor Who - The Shakespeare Code
Just as dense and enjoyable as last weeks episode, The Shakespeare Code continues the trend of Series Three Who being really very good indeed. It's this years "celebrity historical" episode, an idea which I like - Ancient Romans or Early Blues Musicians next time, please. Where The Doctor has always said things like "Ooh, these shoes were a present from Gunga Din in gratitude for a sketch I did him of a meerkat" or "I remember well the time I went punting with the prophet Mohammed" these meetings with momentous figures are now a staple of the show, and it feels bizarre that they weren't more common previously, as they're without fail amongst the best of the series so far.
Gareth Roberts, whose previous experience with New Who was that interactive "Attack Of The Graske" thing last Christmas (I apparently played it to completion twice, but I was off my tits on Spanish brandy and champagne and can't remember a thing after about 5pm), provides a script packed with literary allusions which provide a logical framework for Shakespeare's involvement as well as much of the episode's banter. There's a clear amount of touching reverence for The Bard - while he is a mucky Northern womaniser he's also a convincing intellectual equal for the Doctor and much is made of his insight and charm. Russell T Davies commented afterwards on Doctor Who Confidential that it was notable Shakespeare was the first character on the show not to be fooled by the psychic paper. Except for Doctor DS Vik Singh off The Bill about what, three episodes ago? Written by oh, Russell T Davies. Have a dog biscuit, Russell! The theatre scenes are convincingly bawdy and drunken, bringing 1599 or whatever year it is to life in a convincingly grimy fashion.The impact of the episodes events on the rest of Shakespeare's life (his exposure to Three Ugly Witches and coming to terms with the death of his son Hamnet) and in particular, two of his better works, are amongst the pleasing details. That said, the bit where he goes "I've just written a poem, right this moment, about you, Martha Jones!" and it's one of his really famous ones might be a step too far.
With a main plot as complex, audacious, wordy, frenetically paced and thematically layered as the show has ever had it's a surprise that there's time for much else, but the relationship between The Doctor and Martha continues with an enjoyable tension between them ensuring the relevant scenes are not a rehash of any of Rose's storylines. Martha is a completely distinct character from her predecessor and her relationship with The Doctor feels totally fresh, which is an achievement when the companion characters usually play such a minor, interchangeable role in the plot (get kidnapped, scream a bit, leg it about), and also given the influence Rose still exerts over the series - for the third episode since her departure, she's mentioned in the script. They also fit in references to Shakespeare's sexuality, touch on race issues, a visit to Bedlam and reference The Eternals (it always gets me a bit excited when weighty concepts like that are being thrown around, even though the umpteenth reference to "The Dawn Of Time" makes it sound like a bit of a loony-alien free for fall).
There's not been an episode where the dialogue was just as interesting as the plot since ooh, Steven Moffat's ones or School Reunion. Martha continues to have a completely excellent arse, which I would like to touch both with my hands and my downstairs handle. The Doctor does drop in one or two modern references (to Harry Potter and Back To The Future) but they don't clang as much as they may have previously due to his just being so bloody really how Doctor Who should be the rest of the time. Last year's chirpy mockey best-mates-with-everyone pill-head has been totally eradicated as both the scripts and actor have gotten used to the role, and Tennant is now as convincing saying things like "just walk round like you own the place, works for me" or spurious technobabble about time vortexes as even Tom Baker. He IS Doctor Who now, and the character has a clear line of descent from the role's previous incumbents. Every episode now just feels so much more full of ideas and cracking lines than previous years - even the better episodes were still bogged down with the likes of stupid face Todd "Sarah-Lou, I'm gay!" Grimshaw off Corrie or Murray Gold trying to figure out how his keyboard worked or that fucking stupid bit where they were all on gameshows. And there was always a bit at the end with The Doctor and Rose making cringeworthy banter while the Tardis de-materialised. "DYOO FINK VER QUEENS A VAMPIRE IS THAT WHY PRINCE CHARLES GOS HUNTING LOLZARDS HO HO HO?" etc.
Visually the episode is a sumptuous buffet of eye-food to stuff into your eyes, with lavish sets augmented by mostly tasteful CGI. The rich colours and dramatic lighting and the straw-haired retro sexiness of the main witch recall 60's Hammer Horror films, and even where corners have been cut it's done with great style - the witches faces are pretty daft and obvious makeup, but it looks great. I can't think of anything else to say, but it'll look stupid unless this paragraph is another sentence or two longer. I'm having a baked potato shortly, even though its twenty to four in the morning. Fancy!
After we got the measure of new companion Martha Jones in the series three opener, Smith and Jones, The Shakespeare Code gives us a smoothly-produced 'settling-down' episode. Martha gets her first glimpse of what life is really like with the Doctor, and feels uncomfortably like the rebound date...
Second episodes are always a bit tricky, especially if you've got a new character for the audience to get used to. Yes, it was all fun and excitement watching Martha run around inside the Royal Free Hospital, but can she tackle time travel as well as an unexpected trip to the Moon? Presumably they decided to balance out the potential impact of a new companion by setting this episode in a historical period familiar to many viewers (the ones over 13, at least); Elizabethan London in 1599, the height of Shakespeare's popularity.
Although The Bard is banged on about by English teachers up and down the land, it's never easy for the hapless students to really feel the power of Shakespeare's words 400 odd years on. After all, the English language has changed in so many ways, hasn't it? However, Gareth Roberts has a handy comparison up his sleeve for ver kids; Robbie Williams. To be honest, Robbie's career isn't looking that healthy nowadays, but it still only takes one line of Angels to get many people swaying from side to side and singing along like the song, y'know, meant something. In Robbie's case, his undoubtable charisma has outweighed any possible meaning to his lyrics, and Shakespeare is portrayed as charismatic, with that same common touch, as his insult to the groundlings in The Globe illustrates; "Shut your big fat mouths!".
Unlike Robbie, however, Bill's words had real meaning behind their power. In a time where most people were illiterate and god-fearing, the power of drama to help them understand the world around them was immense. This power is what the episode hangs on; the villians this week, the Carrionites, use the last line of a oft-rumoured Shakespeare play, 'Love Labours Won', to trigger an opening of a rift in time to enable the rest of the Carrionites to muscle their way into Earth, with plans to kill the whole human race. They don't like competition. As this is Elizabethan times, they come to Earth in the form of witches, giving the BBC the opportunity of showing off some excellent witch make-up. Naturally, the Doctor and Martha try hard to scupper the plan, but their plans come to nothing, and the spell is cast, with some rather impressive CGI showing the creepy-looking Carrionites flooding into the Globe Theatre. The Doctor, knowing the power of the Carrionites came from Shakespeare's play, gets Bill to use that power to make up a counter-spell on the spot. Rather implausibly, it works a treat, and the day is saved.
Still, that doesn't really matter. The Shakespeare Code is a mix of a modern interpretation of Shakespeare's genius with words (including some amusingly archaic racial slurs), Martha being unable to get jiggy with the Doctor due to his pining over Rose, and a nice witchcraft story. Add to this a rather amusing cameo by an annoyed Elizabeth I (she's not keen on the Doctor, but we don't know why), and you have an enjoyable second episode to get us used to Martha, Shakespeare's 'Dark Lady'. Now I want to see her get to grips with something really interesting...