Monday, July 16, 2007

“Good old J.K.!”: Doctor Who

Generally the period episodes of the revived Doctor Who do not excite me as much as the others. Actually there have so far been very few instalments actually set in the past, and those few are all worthy stories (‘The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances’ and ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ are both exemplary, ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ and ‘Tooth and Claw’ are entertaining and ‘The Unquiet Dead’ isn’t half bad) yet still I tend to dread these offerings. Perhaps it’s because they always seem to be trying too hard in their attempts to ‘jazz up’ period settings and make them exciting. In this regard ‘The Shakespeare Code’ is no exception – even its title comes off as a teensy bit desperate. However, thanks largely to the surprising depiction of Shakespeare and the ever-growing chemistry between Tennant and Agyeman, I enjoyed ‘Code’ very much.

Perhaps sensing that trying to imbue every one of Shakespeare’s lines with genius would be something of an impossible task, the Shakespeare of ‘Code’ is instead a blokish womanizer who shouts at his theatregoing crowd ‘Shut your big fat mouths!’ At points he even becomes the comic relief – for instance, his amusingly OTT physicality when the witches take control of his body. David Lennox Kelly has fun in the role while maintaining a sense of underlying sadness (Shakespeare briefly mentions his recently deceased son at one point) that I wish had been explored a little more.

But this is Doctor Who, and there’s no place for morbidity. Instead – witches! Three of them, in fact, fulfilling every witch cliché one could think of, from hook noses to a lot of high-pitched cackling. Perhaps it’s just me, but as long as writer Gareth Roberts was sexing up everything else about Elizabethan England, couldn’t he have updated the witches a bit as well? For me they were bland and all the scenes involving them were unforgivably dull. They really ruin this episode for me.

Thankfully, everything else going on is much better. The Doctor and Martha’s scenes together are top stuff and should sell anyone on what a compelling pairing they make. Rose’s presence is still felt – the Doctor heartlessly disses Martha by saying that if Rose were there she’d know what to say. He also continually stresses that he’s only taking Martha on one trip, and then returning her home. And while the two talk out some of their issues by the end of the episode, a lot still goes unsaid. All this cements Martha’s status as an imperfect companion – not because there’s anything wrong with her, but because the Doctor has her along mostly for the sake of it and not because he really sees something in her.

All the many references to Shakespeare’s work are cleverly worked in, and the nods to Harry Potter are very funny. Shakespeare’s infatuation with Martha is amusingly played, especially the idea that she was his inspiration for the ‘Dark Lady’ of his sonnets. Plus Queen Elizabeth I’s little appearance (“Off with his head!” “What?”) had me with a big grin on my face. ‘The Shakespeare Code’ may not be one of the better season three episodes, but it has some fantastic moments and has grown on me over time.


Todd VanDerWerff said...

The English lit major/nerd in me really loved this episode, despite its shortcomings.

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