Doctor Who #755: The Shakespeare Code

"You should never meet your heroes."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Apr.7 2007.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor and Martha meet Shakespeare and they fight witches together.

REVIEW: On first viewing, I remember being deeply annoyed by the episode's cheeky portrayal of Shakespeare. On repeat viewings, I realized I wasn't fair to the material because of my love of the Bard and started enjoying for its humor and irreverence. Watching it with a critical eye for these reviews, I'm afraid the pendulum has swung the other way again. It's not so much that the script is disrespectful of the greatest writer in the whole of the Western Canon, but rather that there are some disturbing trends developing in RTD's Doctor Who, which find expression in this episode. Simply put, while The Shakespeare Code is full of Shakespearean references, and thus more literate than most, it also dumbs down the material and speaks down to its audience. One of the ways it does this is by making it clear the past is just like the present, there is no "alien" point of view to grasp, contrast with our own, and accept. The Doctor even makes a speech about it, justifying why Martha won't be harassed for her race (which is fine as far as shortcuts go, all historical stories can't be about this topic), and making jokes. But then Shakespeare behaves like a rock star and you get a whole lot of anachronistic stuff, the most egregious being the script equating Shakespeare with Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling. Having Harry Potter's magic words spoken by Shakespeare and essentially saving the day on the basis (if I read the subtext correctly) that they are his equivalent, i.e. the famous authors of their day, insults my literary sensibilities. The visit to Bedlam at least attempts to draw a real difference between the past and the present. The same strategy is used for the future, where society is even more like today's thanks to less outlandish fashions, so Bedlam's treatment of patients is no more bizarre than the extremes seen in the year 5 billion. It's all the present with some aspect exaggerated or gone wrong. I'm finding that homogeneity counter to what Doctor Who's format actually offers. I believe in the universality of human nature, but depriving the show of the differences in human CULTURE makes it poorer.

The way the show treats History isn't the only example of dumbing things down for the audience. Referencing Back to the Future to explain how time paradoxes work is a cheap shortcut when Doctor Who itself has a longer tradition of working with time travel. Now everything must have a pop reference attached or the audience won't get it? I guess it's a good thing Doc Brown doesn't say "It's like Doctor Who, Marty!" or things would get very loopy indeed. I'm not a big fan of Dean Lennox Kelly's performance as Shakespeare either. He can do the banter well enough, but too often goes over the top with silly expressions, zoning out with crossed eyes when under Carrionite control, for example. It's already a comedy, it doesn't need to go into panto to get that point across.

So what does the episode do RIGHT? Still plenty. Production-wise, using the actual Globe (just as Shakespeare in Love had done) adds incredible value. (Though I wonder if they thought about setting it earlier at The Rose, since the former companion's absence - whether you like it or not - looms large.) The Shakespearean references are generally fun, going from obvious quotes to plot points that will later inspire Will (MacBeth in particular, what with the three witches), to jokes for the scholars (Martha as Will's "dark lady of the Sonnets" or his debated sexual orientation). The Carrionites feature an interesting take on magic, using words the way the mathematicians of Logopolis use numbers. Words that reshape the world, much as I personally believe great writers have, is a great notion. Trying to solve a literary mystery is a good idea too, one Gareth Roberts returns to in his much more successful Agatha Christie spoof. Speaking of mysteries, the one about Elizabeth I hating the Doctor starts here (and ends in the 50th Anniversary Special, so a long wait). And there's lots of humor, strong banter, amusing cuts to the reverse of whatever line's just been spoken. Even Martha's crush on the Doctor provides amusement, and though the Doctor compares her unfavorably to Rose (which I do find annoying), she does prove to be a strong companion doing exactly the things the Doctor relied on Rose to do, i.e. saying the right thing at the right time. Plus, she's not as squeamish or judgmental as Rose was, taking things in her stride, and look, restarting one of the Doctor's hearts again. Literally, just not figuratively.

SECOND OPINIONS: My original review, They had me at Shakespeare, but lost me at Code, expressed my disappointment, but doesn't go as far trying to explain why.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - A perfectly fine episode, funnier than most, but it falls to grating caricature.


Timothy S. Brannan said...

I consider myself a fan of Shakespeare as well. I mostly ignored the irreverence to the man and to his legacy mostly because I think Shakespeare (the topic) is too big for most writers to handle properly.
In a way this is like Falco invoking Mozart in "Rock Me Amadeus".

That all being said I think I enjoyed this one a bit more than you did. I can hand wave the "past is just like the present" bit because I think the larger theme is really "people are largely the same".

But I was bound to like any Doctor Who with Christina Cole as a witch fresh off of her turn on Hex as a witch.

It is nice to finally have the payoff for "Liz 1".

Siskoid said...

I admit I keep going back and forth on this one. I'm entertained, but any close analysis reveals things that bug the heck out of me.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this will smooth out the episode a tiny bit for you? The way I saw it, Shakespeare was such a genius, he could take a J. K. Rowling nonsense word and do actual magic with it.

That said, I can't excuse the "Back to the Future" reference; appeals to popular culture just don't work on "Doctor Who". In 50 years, nobody's going to understand the Anne Droid; in fact I bet there's a whole batch of new fans who don't get it.

Siskoid said...

Doctor Who did this a lot less back in the day, but even Hartnell watched the Beatles on his time screen. I don't know who they are, but he sure seems to think they're groovy.

jdh417 said...

I'd fall into the "you're being too hard on it" camp. Another fun episode. Kinda like watching the movie Shakespeare in Love, you shouldn't go into it expecting a history lesson.


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