The Doctor crossing paths with William Shakespeare is such an obvious gimmick, it seems an improbability that it’s never been portrayed onscreen before now. “The Shakespeare Code” seeks to rectify the omission by introducing wordsmith to John Smith and the adventure, written by Gareth Roberts, casts a potent spell and I dare say even old Bill himself would be both bemused and bewitched by the results.
Shakespeare: “To be or not to be..Oooh that’s quite good.”
The Doctor: “You should write that down.”
Shakespeare: “Bit too pretentious?”
As has been the tradition so far with Russell T Davies’ incarnation of Doctor Who, an early season adventure must feature the Doctor meeting up with an historical figure who’s unknowingly plagued by an intelligence of extra-terrestrial nature. Season One unveiled “The Unquiet Dead” with Charles Dickens and Season Two’s “Tooth and Claw” featured a run-in with Queen Victoria. Both were considered by many to be season highlights, but fan consensus doesn’t appear to believe “Code” is up to snuff. Me? Just the opposite. Of the three tales, the latest is easily my favorite. But then again, I love me some witches. Witches of all shapes, sizes and superstitions have been a big part of my imagination’s mainstay as far back as I can recall. “Code” boldly delivers the hot, the bad and the ugly in the forms of Lilith (Christina Cole of Hex), Doomfinger and Bloodtide. But also in true Who tradition, these witches are actually alien beings called Carrionites—and they live and die via the power of words.
The power of words!? Sure, that might be considered a load of hokum in some parts (“Whatchew a readin’ for?”—Bill Hicks recalling a memorable encounter with a redneck), but this story purports to introduce TV’s most engaging time traveler to history’s greatest scribe and then tops it off with a heaping helping of faux-witchcraft. The play’s the thing and words equaling power must be the most inspired, fantastic notion that could have been used to execute this story. The idea not only backs up the presence of the Bard, but it practically demands his involvement. “The Shakespeare Code” may be a pedantic, derivative title, yet the tale is anything but.
Gareth Roberts and Doctor Who go back a long way and like many of the new series writers given the chance to finally pen the real deal, he enters the ring with kid gloves left behind. What I enjoyed most about “Code” is the sheer amount of thought put into every word in the script and reference thrown into the proceedings—it feels like a pop culture Billy Shakes/Doctor Who explosion from the word go. I make no claims to be a Shakespeare scholar of any kind, but this should register as great fun for anyone into this sort of fare as long as stiff upper lips are traded in for senses of humor at the door. The episode has the Doctor explaining to Martha time travel concepts via Back to the Future’s plot and has the courage to use Harry Potter’s “Expelliarmus!” as a means to a resolution; if that sort of stuff doesn’t amuse, then this ain’t your bag, baby.
Martha Jones: “So, magic and stuff? It’s a surprise, it’s all a bit Harry Potter.”
The Doctor: “Wait ’til you read book 7. Oh, I cried.
Dean Lennox Kelley (The Secret Life of Words) plays Shakespeare with panache. This must’ve been a daunting role to take on due to the revisionist flair of this figure we think we’ve come to know. The guy just looks like he’s having fun, and this has become the hallmark of these types of Doctor Who episodes. Our lowered expectations are dashed when these characters are touched by the presence of the Time Lord. Shakespeare is uncommonly at ease with this peculiar Doctor and the beguiling “Blackamoor lady” traveling alongside him.
Martha (Freema Agyeman) is shown to be a tad sharper than Rose was at this stage of the time travel game, which makes it all the more tragic when the Doctor moans about wishing “...Rose was here. She’d know what to do.” Yes, the Rose of “The Satan Pit” might very well know what to do, but the Rose of “The Unquiet Dead” would be clueless. The Doctor’s blindness to Martha’s potential is on display here and it’s a dramatic thread you’ll see more of as the season unfolds. However, what’s beautiful about Martha is that she doesn’t let it get her down. She’s a strong, capable individual and hopefully the Doctor will learn as much sooner rather than later.
The Doctor: (screams in pain) “I’ve only got one heart working! How do you people cope?”
David Tennant again does some stellar work here, but what really sells this material is the gorgeous production design. The episode is allegedly the most expensive yet produced for the series, and when one really counts every factor involved in the production, the money’s up there onscreen. Creating a space station in the 51st Century? Easy. Elizabethan England, however, takes a hell of a lot more work.
NEXT WEEK: Another trip to New Earth, some nasty exhaust fumes and Father Dougal McGuire turns into a big pussy in “Gridlock”.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “Ghost Light”, starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred.