Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Shakespeare Code written by Gareth Roberts and directed by Charles Palmer


This story in a nutshell: The Doctor, Martha and Shakespeare...investigating witches?

Mockney Dude: 'I've only got one heart working! How do you people cope?' There's a giddy joy to the Doctor and Martha's adventures in this story that is quite infectious to watch. Now the season is long past it marks itself even more given the jet black path the season would take in its second half (the run from Human Nature to The Sound of Drums is unquestionably bleak). At this point they are simply enjoying themselves and because this is packaged as a one-off trip for Martha they are both making the most of it. If there is one thing that the Doctor can't resist it is a mystery and as soon as Loves Labours Won is mentioned they are there for the long haul. The Doctor cannot resist slipping in the odd quote but with Shakespeare's thieving brain on the case he has inadvertently created those quotes in the first place. Don't think about it too much, your head might burst. The Doctor is such a thoughtless bugger, utterly unaware that when taking your latest companion for a spin and sharing an intimate moment with her that you don't start highlighting how much better your previous companion was at this. Sometimes he just doesn't get human emotions at all. It sounds like an insane notion to have the Doctor, Martha and Shakespeare investigating witches from another dimension but somehow it works wonderfully well thanks to the chemistry between Tennant, Agyeman and Kelly and the witty script. He's moving with the times, not explaining things in educational terms these days but indulging in pop culture references to get his point across to his companion (Back to the Future). Seduction is one form of magic that definitely wont work on the Doctor. Watch the scene of Martha starting the Doctor's second heart and then tell me these two don't work together. What on Earth could the Doctor have done to have upset Queen Elizabeth I so much? Maybe we'll find out one day...he certainly looks eager to enjoy that adventure. When Tennant is on form and enjoying himself this much, it's very easy to get dragged along with him.

Doctor-in-training: Martha asks a lot of smart questions about travelling in the TARDIS. How is the ship powered? Do you have to pass a test to fly it? Can she change her own history? Will she be carted off as a slave because of her colour? She's a bright lass, this one. She's had worse than crap being thrown at her working late night in AandE. She's got an eye for the Doctor but it's clear that he doesn't reciprocate but she is still willing to hold out, even turning down the Bard himself (especially since his breath stinks). Martha's attempt to subdue the Carrionites is hilariously bad and I love her little dash of pop culture at the climax. She's working out just fine.

Alas, Poor Yorick: Do these celebrity historicals do more harm than good by offering up an idealised version of the historical figures? I certainly don't think so. The sad truth of the matter is that for the young of today looking at the past is a mugs game and the innovations of the future is where all the excitement is. As such you have to offer a little incentive to entice children in to learning about our history. By all means teach them about Nero and the great fire of Rome but offer up a hysterically funny, horny version of the character that children can laugh at. H G Wells' was a man who was touched by genius when it came to writing science fiction but if you want to explore his impact on the genre shove him into a colourful story on an alien world that is full of dazzling ideas that inspire his writing. The new series has followed the trend; Queen Victoria being menaced by a werewolf, Agatha Christie on the hunt for a giant wasp, Vincent Van Gogh fighting an invisible demons whilst trying to grapple with his psychological ones too...  I have been moaning about the lack of a pure historical for an official yonk but I can see why we have to make a trade off by adding a science fiction element to secure the interest of the children. One of Sydney Newman's initial remits was to educate but the whole method of teaching has changed since the sixties.  You can't ask kids to chart Marco Polo's journey through China in their free time these days...you would have to add in a couple of monsters to sweeten the pill. The Shakespeare Code offers up the most idealised version of a historical character yet. Rather than the stuffy, collared academic you might imagine gracing the screen, this version of Shakespeare is young, charismatic, sexy and a terrible flirt with ladies and gentleman. He's the height of cool and he's written some damn good plays too. This was a very sensible approach if you ask me - this is a Shakespeare that kids can relate to and whilst they are basking in his presence a little history can be fed to them at the same time. The truth of the matter is that there is relatively little documented evidence about what Shakespeare was like or even what he looked like, it is his plays that have been examined in great depth and many conclusions about his character drawn. This almost gives Gareth Roberts, Russell T. Davies and Dean Lennox Kelly carte blanche to create whatever sort of man they want. And the one they choose to whip up I find rather intoxicating. He's introduced as a celebrity of the time, playing up to the crowd ('Shut your big fat mouth!') and stirring up anticipation for his next piece. Like a lot of men, his trousers do a lot of the decision making and as soon as he claps eyes on Martha he welcomes her and the Doctor into his world. He's a man of many vices but speaks of a tragic past that could explain away his flaws, losing his son and doing a spell in Bedlam. It could also be why he pours himself into his writing, to travel on a sea of storytelling and forget his woes. Shakespeare finds the idea that he isn't the cleverest man around invigorating, the sign of a great learner. The only aspect of this interpretation of the character that really got on my nerves was how Shakespeare figures out the Doctor was an alien who travelled through time. Vincent Van Gogh and Robin Hood both had the same uncanny ability to read the Doctor and in both of those cases it made no sense either. Shakespeare is left in the presence of the Queen pretty much the exact point where their association began. I think his future is bright, for the time being at least.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Do people shout that? Author, Author!' 'They do now...'
'Whoa Nelly! I know for a fact that you have a wife in the country' 'But Martha, this is town...' 'Come along we can flirt later' 'Is that a promise, Doctor?' '57 academics just punched the air...' - great banter between them all.
'I never think much of sequels. They've never as good as the originals.'
'Let us out!' 'That's not gonna work...the whole building's shouting that.'

The Good:
* Has London ever been captured quite this beautifully in a Doctor Who story before? Certainly not to my mind. The luxurious, cinematic CGI rendering of the city in Elizabethan times is one of the places where the new series reveals that it can knock spots off the original, under funded, run. How gorgeous is that opening shot? The moon dazzling off the lapping river Thames, ships sailing past and inviting lights glowing in windows. Whilst it is perhaps too sumptuously lit, Bedlam hospital is unpleasantly brought to life with prisoners scratching at the bars, screams echoing through the halls and a menacing CGI shot of the asylum dominating the sky. Check out the moments when the physical location work is combined with the romantic CGI backdrops - it is pure cinema. Huge crowds of people are added to the Globe in order to give it the riotous feel of the time when this was the most popular form of entertainment.
* Doctor Who has tended to avoid the rather obvious nasties of fairy tale mythology in the classic series, offering up science fiction versions of classic bedtime chillers. Primords rather than werewolves, that sort of thing. It has never touched upon the notion of evil witches before, probably fearing that the idea would be taken too far and played for laughs. Whilst all the trappings are there (the bubbling cauldron, the flying, the cackling), the Carrionites and played for real. The first thing we see them do is tear a man to shreds whilst laughing their heads of...a man lured who was lured to his death by his libido (there is a message there, I'm sure...). Forcing a man to choke to death on water in dry land, vomiting up great mouthfuls of seawater is quite unpleasant to witness and the Doctor is stabbed through the heart via a stuffed doll. Their quite a vicious bunch on their own, imagine the carnage their entire race would cause if let loose upon the Earth?
* Political correctness gone mad, indeed. I've read academic examinations of this episode that seem to have missed the point that it is supposed to be entertaining and gone straight for the race card claiming that it makes some very ugly assertions about minorities. Tommy rot. The truth of the matter is that racism has always existed and people have always made judgements. It's a sad truth but an undeniable one and pretending as though it never happened hardly paints a realistic view of history. Shakespeare's comments might be near the knuckle but he's so intoxicated by Martha that his poetic talent is spun into overdrive. I see very little to object to here and the arguments that have sprung up strike me as critics who are trying to delve a little too deeply into something that is essentially supposed to be a bit of fun. Sometimes you can examine these things too deeply and forget the original motive for watching.
* The joining of witchcraft and the power of etymology is dazzling, this isn't Doctor Who simply dabbling in magic but inventing a creative new science that has evolved around words. And why not? Logopolis did precisely the same thing with numbers, which was more scientifically accurate perhaps but no where near as imaginative. To me words are the most powerful tools in creation, they give us the ability to communicate, to build meaning into our lives; to challenge and debate, to tell wonderful stories and go on incredible adventures and never leave your armchair. Knowledge is power and the basis of knowledge is words. You have to make the leap from that to a language which can manipulate the fabric of reality but this is Doctor Who we are talking about. Imaginative leaps are a necessity. Words stir emotions in us all the time and harnessing those emotions and using them to effect others is a bold concept that I can buy into because words have a profound effect on me. I liked the use of the power of a name, an old idea that stretches back into fairytales. When you think about it, when somebody knows your name that does give them a certain power over you. The whole your identity in their hands. This is an extension of that idea, that somebody can harm you with your name.
* I find the climax of this adventure quite stirring. The rules have been laid down about words and their power, we've been informed of how the shape of the Globe can be applied to harness that power and the Carrionites have been said to have been tied away by the Eternals. Which means the use of certain words in a play can unlock their prison and release hell on Earth. Narratively speaking, it makes absolute sense. Then you have the astonishing visuals of the Globe on fire with spectres which genuinely looks as if chaos has been unleashed. The shots of the Carrionites spreading their wings and flying out into Elizabethan England are extraordinary. I'm not always keen on how practically every episode tries to pull off an ambitious, cinematic climax but in The Shakespeare Code it feels very right. Add in a dash of Harry Potter to keep the kids happy, allow Shakespeare to prove his worth with words, trap the monsters in a crystal ball and explain away where Loves Labours Won vanished to and you have a hugely enjoyable, satisfying resolution.

The Shallow Bit: Freema Agyeman is so delectably gorgeous you could almost believe that she was hired for her visual sumptuousness rather than her acting talent. Her smile is so bright it could light up any room. Dean Lennox Kelly isn't traditionally handsome but he attacks the part with such charisma it was impossible for me to resist.

Result: Given its humble ambitions as an early season bit of fluff, it's hard to imagine how this episode generates such a dramatic response, both in its favour or not. I've heard people tear it to pieces and suggest it is the nadir of the show since it's revival and I've read glowing appraisals saying it is precisely how the celebrity historical should be handled. Whilst I don't think it is one of the all time greats, I find there is so much to enjoy in The Shakespeare Code that I settle into it's world of wordsmiths and witchcraft with incredible ease. Essentially this is a case of 'Doctor Who and Shakespeare team up to take on witches' but to sum it up so starkly does the story and the production a disservice since both have been crafted with a lot of care. It takes a lot of effort to pull off something as entertaining as this and certainly to do it this stylishly. To my mind Gareth Roberts has been on a path of diminishing returns when it comes to Doctor Who. He's a witty, intelligent writer but often seems lumbered with the weakest slot of the season. The episode after the opening spectacular, the mid season graveyard slot, the pre-finale wake...he never seems to get the chance to prove himself like he did on The Sarah Jane Adventures where he often secured the most dramatic position of the season. His work under Davies was strong (especially The Unicorn and the Wasp) but under Moffat he's working to a formula that has been repeated three times over and getting weaker with each attempt. When he can conjure up something as intoxicating as Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane what is Roberts doing wasting his talent on The Caretaker? The Shakespeare Code was his debut script and you can see that he is bubbling over with glee at the chance to write for the series. The dialogue sizzles, the ideas are imaginative and he offers great scope for director Charles Palmer to fill the screen with classy imagery. It's a story that features a strong Doctor and a sassy companion landing in history, forgetting all about the TARDIS and story arcs and simply having a rollicking good time investigating a mystery in Elizabethan England. That sort of unpretentious storytelling is so rare in the series these days it should be applauded and once you add in the cinematic visuals and the wit you have massively entertaining episode. I haven't even mentioned Christina Cole who gives an absolutely stellar performance: 8/10

3 comments:

Gus Fallon said...

You mean Christina Cole as opposed to Lily Cole.

Gus Fallon said...

Great review as ever though!

Joe Ford said...

Not the first time I have made that mistake, thank you.