The Shakespeare Code
Shakespeare: The Doctor may never kiss you, Martha. Why not entertain a man who will?
Production Code: 3.2.
Doctor Who Season: S29 (Ep2).
Story Number: 180.
With each of the three new seasons of Doctor Who so far, Russell T. Davies has structured them so that new viewers get a flavour of the time-travelling format of the show with the first three episodes: one is set in the present, one in the far future, and one in the past…
This episode is this season’s “celebrity historical”. Compared to the lives of Dickens and Queen Victoria, not much is known about the actual details of Shakespeare’s life so Gareth Roberts is allowed to have a little fun.
Apparently Shakespeare was the Liam Gallagher of his day. He certainly has the cocksure swagger and stage presence, and offstage he has the measured wit of the other Oasis Gallagher brother Noel. Other Manchester Gallaghers are conjured up partly as Dean Lennox Kelly (playing Shakespeare here) is most famous for playing Kev, from British TV comedy/drama Shameless. Dean Lennox Kelly does not play Shakespeare as Kev however. His Shakespeare is a complex creation with a flamboyant public facade, a rake’s charm when alone with Martha, and a penetrating intelligence when conversing with the Doctor.
The plan behind the Russell T. Davies concept of “celebrity historical”, is to generate a general audience’s interest with a figure that it is likely they will have some knowledge of. (Hence The Girl in the Fireplace is not seen as a “celebrity historical”.) It is to be applauded then that the fabled sequel to Love’s Labours Lost, Shakespeare’s “lost play” Love’s Labours Won, is central to the plot. Other more populist but less rewarding routes could have been taken that would be more immediately appealing to a broad audience. References to plays more well-known than Love’s Labours Lost are woven in, however (the balcony in Romeo and Juliet, the witches from Macbeth).
The episode begins with a pre-credits teaser which establishes the three witches. The teaser ends with Lilith “doing a Morgus” (from The Caves of Androzani) or as theatregoers from 1599 might recognise it, performing a short soliloquy describing her thoughts and intent directly to the audience alone (e.g. the television camera.)
The witches (or “Carrionites”) recall the Faeries from the Torchwood episode Small Worlds, mainly through their method of dispatching Lynley, (forget The Deadly Assassin, if Mary Whitehouse were around today to have witnessed this scene she would have had a fit!), though also from their supernatural associations and their being from “the dawn of time”. One of them says at one point that they have some history with the Eternals (from Enlightenment.)
After meeting Shakespeare (and witnessing “witchcraft”) the Doctor and Martha visit bedlam to try and find some answers. A subtle scene has Shakespeare speaking of his grief over his son who died, but he quickly masks his grief by joking about the phrase “to be or not to be”. There are quiet parallels here between him and the Doctor, and in another scene the Bard remarks about the Doctor’s constant performance (echoing Florence’s remark in Smith and Jones about the Doctor laughing to hide the darkness.) Another scene has Lilith seemingly reading the Doctor’s mind, searching for his name, with the intriguing line “Why would a man hide his title in such despair?”
As Martha and the Doctor try to foil the witches’ plans, Martha asks a question similar to that posed by Sarah Jane in Pyramids of Mars and Rose in The Unquiet Dead. Unlike the Doctor’s chilling response in both of those stories, the Doctor uses Back To The Future to explain the dangers. This was the one moment of real disappointment in a great episode as this just felt wrong to have the show’s mysteries of time-travel explained away so crassly.
Similarly, I was slightly unsure of using JK Rowling as the punchline to the climactic scene where Shakespeare has to summon up powerful words, although this pop-cultural reference seemed less intrusive than the Michael J. Fox film. (Also, the earlier Harry Potter reference was funnier.) References to the works of Shakespeare himself flowed freely, and the running gag about Shakespeare quotes was very good, finishing nicely by including the Sycorax from The Christmas Invasion.
One interesting motif reappears here following Smith and Jones: that of blood. I wonder if this will be continued throughout the season? I have also noticed the production design so far seems to be introducing a blood-red colour to compliment the ongoing bronzes, greens and blues.
Martha being black is referred to several times: once upon arrival as she wonders how someone of her appearance will be viewed in these times; once where Shakespeare uses a variety of synonyms to describe her blackness, which sound vaguely offensive to her and our modern ears; and perhaps most subtly when the Bard tries to seduce his “Dark Lady”, as he calls her, with a sonnet; the writers are referencing the mysterious “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. A throwaway joke where Shakespeare seem to channel the spirit of Captain Jack and imply bisexuality, prompting the Doctor to mention something about academics celebrating, is another reference to the ambiguous sonnets.
In the sonnet scene with Martha, like Captain Jack in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, this amorous Shakespeare is used to highlight the companion-Doctor relationship and to question whether the Doctor “dances”, as Steven Moffat would say. An earlier scene where the Doctor and Martha chastely share a bed explores similar areas, but the Doctor is too caught up in reminiscing about Rose to even notice Martha, much to her disappointment and hurt. Another scene has the sexy Lilith apparently trying to use her feminine charms on the Doctor, about which he remarks they will not work with him.
Whether these scenes with the Doctor reflect an attempt to “dial down” the sexual side of the Doctor after Moffat’s episodes of the past two seasons is an interesting question. I hope though we see a thematic trilogy when Moffat’s episode appears later in this season!
Compared to the previous “celebrity historicals”, The Shakespeare Code seems less beholden to the traditions of the Classic Series that influenced The Unquiet Dead and Tooth and Claw, and is all the better for it. Also, the impressive location work at the Globe gives the story a particularly epic feel. All of these historical episodes have stood out as particularly entertaining stories since Doctor Who returned, but I would say that The Shakespeare Code is the finest of the three.
2012 thoughts: That last paragraph mentions three “celebrity historicals” – while I still think all three are four-out-of-five for their Doctor Who story rating, I think now I like Tooth and Claw the most.