Sunday, 14 June 2009

Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Code


Doctor: 'Which house? Make that witch house.'

This is an episode which improves over repeated viewings. Sixteenth century London looks simply stunning: from its bustling streets, to the period magnificence of the Globe, to the rippling calmness of the Thames. Admittedly, someone throwing a bucket of piss out the window did dampen the mood somewhat (though thankfully, nobody's clothes), but it did little to faze Martha, who's seen far worse working night-shifts in A & E.

Martha mentioning the Butterfly Effect was clearly a tongue-in-cheek reference to the bane of all time travel stories: what happens if something you do in the past changes the future? The Doctor asking Martha whether she felt like killing her grandfather—although addressing the Grandfather Paradox directly—didn't really answer her question, although it was at least an acknowledgement that Gareth Roberts understands the issues. Damon Lindelhoff made the astute comment a few years ago that despite all time tourism tales being inherently paradoxical, this shouldn't stop anyone from using time travel as a mechanism to tell a good story. Imagine a world without Back to the Future. It doesn't bear thinking about.

So rather than offer any meaningful solution to the paradox, the Doctor just glossed over it with a joke. Which is cool. You don't expect the solution to an age old conundrum to just present itself on Saturday-night television—that's what documentaries are for— and this was less a story about answering life's big questions, more about taking the piss out of Shakespeare... which it did in spades. Robert's took just about everything commonly attributed to Shakespeare and either subverted it, ridiculed it, or gave it an alternate explanation.

I'm a little torn over whether I like historical stories starring noted public figures, as they virtually always come across as caricatures. Shakespeare was part quote machine, part gag setter-upper. Martha's observation that he looked nothing like his portraits, really emphasised a deeper point: namely, that he resembled Shakespeare in no way whatsoever. He was just a character on which Roberts hung the branding of a notable public figure in order to provide local flavour, poke fun at the eccentricities of the times, and have a sly dig at the scholarly speculation surrounding Shakespeare's life.

They also tried to side-step Martha being a black women in an age of slavery, by the Doctor telling her just to walk around like she owns the place. Despite it obviously working for him, he has the advantage of being white and human looking. If he were Judoon shaped or green, I dare say he'd have found it a whole lot harder to fit in. Not that it turned out to be a problem in the end, as the bard found Martha's form comely, and nobody else seemed to notice her skin colour. Shame the bard's breath stank and that his conversation was occasionally bollocks—otherwise both the Doctor and Martha seemed in with a shot at big Willy.

Not that any of this muted Shakespeare's genius: he seemed to have the Doctor and Martha pegged from the get-go. He knew that the Doctor was an alien and that Martha was from the future, and continuously seemed to impress the Doctor with his quick-witted deductions, which although stretching credulity at times, actually helped the story along by not bogging it down with tedious forced explanations. There was also the usual attempt to credit the Doctor with some of the Bard's most iconic sayings, and the occasional wink to Shakespeare's supposed sexuality. In fact, this felt like a script having great fun with its subject, without ever detracting from the story at its core. Even JK Rowling's 'Expelliarmus' raised a chuckle.

The Carrionites were something of a mixed bag. I thought their story was generally a decent one, but Robert's decision to have them resemble pantomime witches, did detract from the overall effect. I do like it when Doctor Who attempts to explain what is generally considered to be a supernatural phenomenon with science, but I'm not sure they adequately explained the crooked noses, witchy ensemble, and flying around on broomsticks. For my money, the story would have worked just as well if the Carrionites had been regular women—plus, we wouldn't have had to put up with the dreadful cackling and fourth wall breaking.

I'm guessing the theme of this season is going to be the Doctor pining after Rose, and while there's obviously some narrative mileage to watching the Doctor examine his own feeling of loss, I can't help but feel that the way they're currently doing it will end up impacting badly on his relationship with Martha. It's hard to believe that the Doctor would be so self-absorbed whilst lying in bed with her just inches from his face—who could be that oblivious to the presence of a beautiful women? He picked up immediately on Shakespeare's flirting, why can't be see the very same thing happening right in front of him? Is he going to spend the entire season blanking every advance Martha makes? If so, I can see Martha leaving half way through the season. Who needs that shit?

Quotes:

Martha: "Blimey! Do you have to pass a test to fly this thing?"
Doctor: "Yes, and I failed."

Doctor: "When you go home you can tell everyone you saw Shakespeare."
Donna: "Then I could get sectioned."

Doctor: "Psychic paper. Long story...oh, I hate starting from scratch."

Shakespeare: "How can a man so young have eyes so old?"
Doctor: "I do a lot of reading."

Doctor: "We can all have a good flirt later."
Shakespeare: "Is that a promise, Doctor?"
Doctor: "Oh, 57 academics just punched the air."

Shakespeare: "I hit my head."
Doctor: "Yeah, don't rub it, you'll go bald."

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