Image courtesy the BBC
Erin and I have been debating which new Doctor Who episode we like better. She prefers last weeks Smith and Jones, while I think The Shakespeare Code was better written. In the end, what we’re really debating is a photo finish between two episodes and the race isn’t over yet. Certainly these past two weeks bodes well for the season. Doctor Who is at the top of its game, with script writing, acting, directing and production values meshing together to produce what is the best television show currently in production (sorry Galactica fans).
The Doctor fulfils his promise to Martha to take her on a quick jaunt through time, by landing the TARDIS in London in 1599. And the confidence of the Doctor and Martha marching through the streets of Elizabethan England could be a metaphor of the confidence of the production crew at this point. The TARDIS lands in the middle of a busy street, the Doctor and Martha parade about in modern clothes, and nobody notices — not even the audience, really, as we’re just swept along by the pace of the story and the wittiness of the script. Freema Agyeman gives us a delightful performance of Martha soaking in the wonder of her experience like a sponge, and we’re right there with her. This is a night on the town like no other — a night to go to the THEATRE!
After all, you could hardly go back to late Elizabethan England and not take in one of William Shakespeare’s plays, can you? It’s like going to Stratford with unlimited funds in your pocket and avoiding the Festival Theatre. But this being Doctor Who, it isn’t long before there’s mystery afoot. Shakespeare is manipulated to announce the debut of a new play — Loves Labours Won — the next day. This play is completely unknown to modern scholars.
Because of this, and because it would be cool to actually meet Shakespeare, the Doctor and Martha introduce themselves. They’re soon swept up in a web of intrigue and witchcraft (or, rather, science so advanced it is indistinguishable from magic) as forces go as far as to kill in order to make sure Loves Labours Won is performed, with a special code inserted into the script. The play’s the thing, and all that.
The Shakespeare Code is a triumph of writer Gareth Roberts; he’s new to the revived series, but this author has been no stranger to Doctor Who fans since the early 1990s, given his many well-written, popular books. Gareth brings forward a skill in plotting and a deftness in dialogue combined with a genuine love of theatre in general and Shakespeare in particular to put on one heck of a performance. Oh, there are some questions about the Carrionites’ motivations (why does Loves Labours Won have to be performed on that particular day and not next week as Shakespeare had planned?) but nothing stops you in your tracks. Portions of the story are a little overwrought, but deliberately so. The Shakespeare Code has the bombast of Richard III in full swing; even the three witches at the core of this piece talk in iambic pentameter, with one making an aside directly to the audience.
The acting is worth noting. The deliberate over-the-top performance of the two mother witches may grate on some viewers (not me), but they are balanced off by Christina Cole’s Lillith, who is sexy, scary and dangerous, able to hold her own against David Tennant’s Doctor. Her confrontation scene with him wherein she stops one of his hearts is well done, combining just the right amount of character nuance, joviality and threat.
Dean Lennox Kelly does a wonderful turn as the young (35 year old — just before the golden age of his plays) Shakespeare — a loud, obnoxious womanizer (or anythingizer — watch for a neat little throwaway line which puts him on the level with Captain Jack Harkness) who is also an indisputable genius. He practically sees the Doctor and Martha for who they are from the get-go, and the chemistry between him and the Doctor is the friendship of two brilliant minds, even if Shakespeare does get knocked off his pedestal once or twice. His attempt to stop the performance of Loves Labour Won doesn’t inspire confidence (though it is in character for a man who is used to being the star of the show), but it’s a funny moment and, besides, such intrigue is something that would more typically be found on the written page than off it.
But I think the anchors to this production are actors Jalaal Hartley and David Westhead, playing actors Dick and Kempe respectively. For those who might not get the Shakespearean style of this episode, they provide a critical peak behind the curtain. Witness how Kempe continues speaking the magic spell with perfect actor elocution, even though he clearly has no idea what he’s saying. Not only is this an important reveal in the plot, it’s a reveal in the stylistic underpinnings of this episode, a reminder of how Shakespeare works, and encouragement for anybody lagging behind to get with the program.
Director Charles Palmer does a wonderful job as well — not as standout as he was in Smith and Jones, but only because Gareth Roberts steals the show. You still have to consider the care and the attention to detail that went into this production, however. The reconstruction of the Globe Theatre is remarkable, especially considering academics today are just making their best guesses over how it was configured. The Shakespeare Code was, by far, the most expensive production Doctor Who has yet undertaken, and it shows.
But beyond all the pomp and circumstance, there are some good character moments as well. Witness the scene where the Doctor and Martha share a bed, and how Rose is clearly still on the Doctor’s mind. “Rose would know,” he says, when asked what to do next, referring to his former companion’s ability to point out those blatantly obvious things that he tended to overlook — which, incidentally, is what he’s doing right there, right in front of Martha, to the sounds of several fans’ hands slapping their foreheads.
Ultimately, The Shakespeare Code is a play about words (a play about words, a play ON words, all sorts of combinations of plays and words). Cameron, who really should post his reviews on his blog for everybody to see, but if he insists on giving me good lines to quote, says it best: “Have you ever stood on an empty stage in a theatre? I’m atheistic and sceptical by nature, and I tell you, I’ve stood in an empty Rotunda with nobody else around and I’ve smelled the infinite potential there, hanging so strongly in the air that I half expected sparks to shoot out of my fingertips. This story tells you that the theatre is magic, that words have power to change the world, and that one of the cleverest and most human people who ever lived was a writer. Hooray for books that get children to read, now here’s a TV episode that could get children to read. Yeah boys.”
Hear, here! And it’s no accident that the resolution of this play involves Harry Potter.
Remembering Where I Came From
I spent a fair chunk of this weekend revisiting and revising the Trenchcoat/Ninth Aspect website, after I discovered that the e-mail link no longer worked, and that I was still receiving questions about the fanzine series by visitors who had the initiative to follow more of the links and finally get to a page where they could contact me. I also took the time to update the material and added a few of the book covers.
It was interesting revisiting this part of my life, which should if nothing else keep me humble. However adept I get at writing, the reminder of where I’ve been is still in print. Hey, we all got to start somewhere.
Go ahead and check out the revised site. And thanks to Matt Grady for his tireless work on it.