Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Code

By Jim Smith on 09 April 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The second episode of the twenty-ninth series of ‘Doctor Who’ takes the Doctor and new companion Martha Jones into an immaculately staged 1590s London and a meeting with the man the Doctor describes as both ‘the genius’ and ‘the most human human’ of all; William Shakespeare, played here in a robust, cartoonish but entirely plausible manner by Dean Lennox Kelly.

Screenwriter Gareth Roberts knows his subject well. Appropriately enough for a story about the power of words, the script is thick with references and allusions. Direct quotations from Shakespeare’s own work flow thick and fast (“Ooh, I’ll have that” murmurs Will more than once on hearing the Doctor quote a play he hasn’t written yet) and the plot revolves around the premiere of ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’ one of Shakespeare’s “lost plays” the very name of which is little more than an academic’s footnote. Best of all though is the moment when, having been on the end of a flirtatious remark from Shakespeare the Doctor deadpans “Fifty Seven academics have just punched the air”. The sonnet usually numbered LXII is one of the more blatantly homoerotic of the sequence. It’s a nice touch and even more obscure than having the Doctor quote Dylan Thomas and then tell Will that he “can’t have that, it’s someone else’s.”

The setting of the story is well conveyed through judicious location work (mostly done at the recreated Globe Theatre and also the Lord Leyecester Hospital in Warwick unless my eyes deceive me, which they don’t) and pretty CGI and there’s some smart subversions buried in the script too. Shakespeare’s pragmatic, cold-hearted approach to the mistreatment of the mentally-ill contrasts nicely with Martha’s medical student idealism but his opinions don’t make him bad or stupid, they make him a man of his time, no matter how extraordinary a man he is.

Another nice subversion concerns the society’s attitude to race; one of the conceits of Roberts’ script is that Martha is, is some sense, one of the addressees of Shakepeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets, the love poems explicitly addressed to black women (in an odd coincidence one of them was recently aired on TV by being shouted at David Tennant by Catherine Tate on ‘Comic Relief) and the script uses this, and the director employs some cutaways, to drive home the fact that the England of 1599 is a much more racially integrated (and outright less racist) society than the America of two hundred and fifty years later which the Doctor and Martha will, the FA Cup permitting, be visiting two weeks from now.

New regular Martha provides many of the episode’s best moments; played by the jaw-droppingly lovely Freema Ageyman, Martha already looks set to become one of the most successful companions the show has ever had. She’s different from Rose in that she’s more book-smart and more ‘grown up’ but also has a child-like enthusiasm and energy that Rose, the troubled teen, lacked. Ageyman is great, not just at asking the right questions in the right way but also in the ‘flirting with Shakespeare’ subplot and her spiky relationship with Tennant’s alternatingly ADD and moody, sulking Doctor. The scenes of the Doctor and Martha lying in bed together somehow find a middle ground between Mulder and Scully and Morecambe and Wise that I didn’t think was there.

A solid, learned, funny script, astounding production, on-form regulars and strong guest actors; what more could you want? Oh, great monsters? Yeah it had them too. Full marks.

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