Season 29 Episode 2 – The Shakespeare Code, by Gareth Roberts

May 11, 2008

review by Martin Odoni.

There’s a term in showbiz writing, ‘ludicrously entertaining’. I think that kind of sums up the start of the current season of Dr Who. Both stories so far have been completely bananas, but at the same time a lot more likeable than the drossy rubbish we got for much of last year. There’s no doubt that the departure of Rose has given the series the reboot it sorely needed, and there are signs that the series is gradually weaning itself off of many of the bad habits of the previous two years (especially the dramatic cut-down on juvenile toilet humour).

And yet, it’s hard to rate this one much better than above-average. It’s likeable without being madly good.

Having had a fine debut, Martha comes across as slightly annoying in this at times; judging by some of her dialogue, I think her role here is a hand-me-down from Rose, although I’m not sure whether the episode was commissioned before Billie Piper announced she’d be leaving.

One annoying habit that still hasn’t been properly excised is the inane use of anachronistic characters. By this I mean that all the characters in a historical or far-distant-future setting seem to have very modern-day personality traits, and very modern-day-referential dialogue. Using other time zones to satirise the modern day is all very welcome, but it feels like much of the episode is buried in it. The luvvie-type dialogue of Shakespeare and many of his colleagues here is a case in point. It’s amusing to hear them using modern-day critical-analysis terminology – I can almost feel them rebounding on myself in a pleasing way in fact – but it carries on for most of the episode, and in fact it appears to be the only reason some of them are in the story at all.

Equally, the famous lines that the Doctor and Martha keep ‘feeding’ Shakespeare to include in his work are also overused. It was funny the first couple of times, but after the eighth or ninth occasion, you start wanting to grab the writer and yell at him, “We get the joke already! Get on with the bloody story!” Labouring a joke is another bad habit in new Who, especially, for some reason, in the historical pieces. Remember Rose repeatedly trying to get Queen Victoria to say, “We are not amused”? Meh.

All the Harry Potter references were clearly crowbarred in to appeal to the younger, modern audience, while the Back To The Future discussion is probably aimed at slightly older viewers. Pop culture references abound in new Who of course… and they shouldn’t. Again, an odd smattering of them is fine, but they really shouldn’t be laid on this thick.

On the subject of Harry Potter, the whole episode does feel like a bit of an excuse to tribute J K Rowling, as well as Shakespeare In Love. The closing scene with Queen Bess especially feels like it was lifted directly from the end of SIL. Oh, and the Doctor gives the impression that he’s never met Elizabeth I before. That’s weird. From past conversations he’s had, you get the impression that he’s met every other monarch in British history, especially the entire House of Hanover. And yet he hasn’t met Good Queen Bess, perhaps the most famous, certainly the most-celebrated (excessively so) monarch in English history? I ain’t buyin’ that, folks.

In the witchcraft context of this episode, I suppose it’s forgivable just this once, but the incantation solution is yet another ‘wave-a-magic-wand’ way of resolving the plot. If the writers really can’t think of an intelligent, reasoned method for the Doctor to defeat his enemeies, they probably shouldn’t invent such over-the-top scenarios for him to get stuck in in the first place. One of the great charms of Dr Who historically is that it usually stood by the principle that intelligence is more powerful than brute strength and aggression, hence the Doctor would always defeat the evil would-be conquerors with a stroke of genius that leaves the enemy completely bamboozled. Nowadays, he beats the would-be conquerors by casting a magic spell – literally in this case. It’s difficult for the audience to relate to that in the same way. It’s also morally-questionable, as it gives the impression that resolving your problems can be done with a snap of the fingers, without working at them, without need for sacrifice or for any amount of calculation.

Not for the first time, the new villains are explained away in a sudden and confused rush, rather than revealing aspects about them more gradually, which also doesn’t help the pace or structure of the story (a bit like the way the Krillitanes were introduced last year). And while the scene in the bed is well done, Martha’s jilted-lover role could get as tiresome as Rose’s ‘Lois-Lane-with-a-schoolgirl-crush-on-Superman’ routines if we have to sit through it in every episode. Another thing I hope we don’t have to sit through in every episode is the Doctor having a medical emergency which can only be resolved by him pulling silly faces and bouncing around on his haunches. It just seems an excuse to remind everyone that Martha’s a Doctor in her own right.

But, let’s not focus solely on the negative, because this episode certainly isn’t all bad news by any means. Firstly, the acting by some of the guests, especially Dean Lennox Kelly (didn’t he look like Obi-Wan Kenobi?) and Christina Cole, is top notch. Also, Dave Tennant’s performance is one of his finest, most controlled and most measured so far. Only on one occasion does he genuinely go OTT with one of his now-compulsory ‘the-Doctor-has-a-sudden-dramatic-realisation’TM moments. Other than that he was refreshingly contained, observing things he disapproved of with brooding skepticism, instead of more of the self-righteous ranting that he was prone to do last year. (The way he responded to Lilith’s taunts about Rose seemed forced, but at least it wasn’t over the top.) At last, he really is beginning to turn into the Doctor I always believed he would be if he would just stop trying so damn hard and play it naturally.

The episode also looked absolutely terrific. In fact, this is a candidate for the best looking Dr Who episode of all time, with wonderful, hypnotic skylines, and some magnificent, authentic Tudor architecture, which helped give the setting a real sense of place and time. I honestly thought they’d filmed the episode in York or Chester at first. It was also a refreshing change that the colours used in the CGI were predominantly orange-and-red, rather than sticking to the overused blue-and-green combinations that dominated the first two years. Orange and red are certainly far more in keeping with the traditions of witchcraft, nice touch.

I also thought the explanation for fitting witchcraft into a ‘scientific’ universe was rather neat; science as we know it is merely the science of numbers. Magic is the science of words. It’s still pseudo-science of course, and therefore bollux, but it’s a rather nice, abstract angle.

The story was again ludicrous, but also entertaining in a dizzy way. I can certainly see myself watching it again, if only because I’m a history buff and so I’m rather fond of historical pieces.

Also, I noticed no references to John Saxon, which is a blessed relief. If they don’t keep hammering us over the head with the running theme this year, I won’t mind it nearly so much, so I’ll give the episode a bonus point. 7/10.

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