The Shakespeare Code
Originally transmitted 7th April 2007
I knew we were in for a treat. That Gareth Roberts! It's a marvellous tongue in cheek love letter to Elizabethan England shot through with a meditation on female sexuality, fairy tales and the power of words. Fairly unique for 7.00pm on a Saturday night.
From the opening gags on recycling, the 'water cooler moment' and global warming (one Roberts even dares to pick back up on right towards the end just to see if we're paying attention) through to the spit and cough Queen Elizabeth epilogue homage from 'Shakespeare In Love', the script is packed with one-liners, sight gags and physical comedy (the gurning witches - thanks Amanda and Linda - and the 'we're going the wrong way' bit).
David and Freema are really beginning to work very well here. Tennant in particular is fast becoming a riveting leading man, commanding the majority of the scenes he's in. The standout scenes must be the Doctor's bedroom tete a tete with Martha, the interrogation of Peter Streete (a lovely, twitchy performance from Matt King) and the joust with Lilith (the spectrally beautiful Christina Cole) where he uses Rose's name to give him the strength to fight back.
Freema is a revelation in her scenes with Tennant in the bedroom. For me, this is now the benchmark for the character of Martha and her feelings towards the Doctor. The crushing disappointment when he finds her lacking compared to Rose is sublimely played. He's so very cruel in that moment and it's written all over Freema's face. A lovely scene and one that I assume will now give the audience a better perception of the Martha/Doctor dynamic as the series progresses. And she's constantly seen asking the right kind of questions and thinking about the situation she finds herself in which is consistent character development.
Dean Lennox Kelly puts in a sparky performance and with the help of Roberts well researched and witty script manages to subvert our expectations of the Bard. The whole perception of him is a delicious conceit - the greatest English writer is nothing more than a clever Bernard Manning. He even starts channelling that erstwhile comedian's penchant for race relations in trying to chat up Martha.
References pile upon references - from the lines of his plays being dropped into conversations and showing him up for the magpie writer he might have been, to the cultural nods to Back To The Future (explaining temporal paradoxes), Harry Potter (magic isn't just for children) to the more obscure shot across the bows of academia during the 'flirting' scene. '57 academics just punched the air' indeed! The visual references echo everything from 'Shakespeare In Love' to the 'The Wizard Of Oz'.
It's a dizzying brew with assured direction from Charles Palmer. It may not be as flashy as Euros Lyn's work on 'Tooth And Claw' but it is still dynamic and colourful. The matte work and CGI by The Mill add a richness of tone to the proceedings and the work done to populate the Globe theatre was quite magnificent. The production team were pushing out the stops on this and it does show. It's a very handsome looking episode.
Woven through all of this fantastic wordsmithery is an interesting look at female sexuality, particularly in relation to its opposing/complimentary male counterpart. The three witches could clearly be seen as the the 'maiden, mother, whore' symbolic trinity using their wiles to re-fertilise a womb (male utterances to reactivate the crystal and open the portal).
This blind force of nature wedded to techno-magic is set in opposition to two men who lack or have lost an element of their feminine nature. Shakespeare is suffering from the death of a child, a symbolic loss of feminine/masculine creation and the Doctor has lost Rose, a woman he clearly loved and an essential part of his humanisation over the last two series. Both men must convert this destructive female power in order to retain their own humanity and creativity. It's again odd that Queen Liz marches in at the end and claims the Doctor as her sworn enemy - what is it with the Doctor and female monarchy?
There's also a thread running through this, often reflecting this battle of the sexes as it were, to do with the fine line between madness and genius. Shakespeare was nearly driven mad by the loss of his child but overcomes this through the act of writing, the Doctor can tip too far into darkness without the balancing aspect of Rose, Donna or, one would hope, Martha. And an architect is driven mad by witches demanding he builds a theatre to their specific dimensions. It's a fine line indeed.
The power of words and their meaning and double meanings, names as weapons and emblems of salvation are also symbolic of making the unconscious conscious and brought under rational control - hence the banishing of the Carrionite and the 'spell' to close the portal are interventions in dampening rampant female power. And let's not forget the power of names wherein Lilith is known symbolically as the primitive feminine principle, one that was rejected and repressed. She's often personified as the enemy of family life and children.
All this is subtly shadowing the riot of activity in the story and gives meaning to what might appear to be on the surface as a bit of jolly period flippancy and provides the driving force of the story. Clever man, Roberts!
Smashing. You can have a laugh, check off the cliches and still find enough substance to think about.
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
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- British Television Drama
- Cardigans & Tweed
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- Dirty Modern Scoundrel
- Doctor Who Appreciation Society
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- The Medium is Not Enough
- The Railway Arms
- The Thumbcast
- Thierry Attard's Double Feature
- from the north...
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