Doctor Who complete reviews: The Shakespeare Code
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
On the plus side, the Beeb knows how to get the period detail looking good...
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Or shall I compare thee to something what the cat just dragged in?
Forsooth! It's celebrity historical time again! And following the visits to Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria, The Doctor decides to go further back in time to meet William Shakespeare, with an awestruck Martha in tow.
You know the drill by now. Somehow the famous face from the past gets embroiled in a fiendish alien plot to either kill lots of people off and/or take over the world. Maybe that's one of the reasons why The Shakespeare Code feels rather stale and lifeless. Doctor Who doesn't really work when it follows a set pattern, and yet in the 21st century stories, the order of the first few stories normally goes something like this: Present day action adventure; Historical romp; futuristic wonder (feel free to switch the order at any point). So the celebrity historical already feels a bit predictable because it's part of a rather inflexible formula.
And overall, The Shakespeare Code is bland. Actually, rewind that back: Bland and annoying in the extreme. Visually, it's a triumph, but I still try and avoid this story like the plague simply because it gets on my nerves. In theory, it should be an exciting, thrill-a-minute mini horror story – after all, we've got a band (well, three anyway) of vicious witch hag things called Carrionites who wish to make the Earth a world of blood, bones and pain. They're not above ripping some poor sap to pieces in the pre-credits teaser, and they then proceed to kill off a few comedy stereotype grunts in typically oddball Midsomer-esque fashion.
"The script mines the lowest depths of smugness and naff pop culture – in order to get down wiv da kidz"
So that's a great set-up. But the problem is, that tension never comes through at all. What we end up with is a bland trudge around a comedy 16th century village populated by men in stupid wigs and rubbish witches who look like they've escaped from the set of a Jackanory play. Not only that, but the script mines the lowest depths of smugness and naff pop culture – in order to get down wiv da kidz. Factor in a bullying, unlikeable Doctor and a companion who's already too busy making unrequited cow eyes at the Time Lord and you're left with a comedy of a million and one errors.
Except that The Shakespeare Code isn't actually that funny.
I mean, the title itself is a weak play on the then-trendy Da Vinci Code book. It's the sort of pun that might crop up in a weak sitcom, but for me, it doesn't really work as a Doctor Who story title. What annoys me even more is the seemingly non-stop running gag of Shakespeare mumbling “Ooh, I must write that down” whenever The Doctor says a random phrase from one of his plays. Presumably, I'm supposed to think that this is clever writing, but it's a joke that's just about tolerable the first time, and then after that becomes irksome very quickly. Furthermore, it kind of portrays Shakespeare as a bit of a lazy con merchant. Judging from the evidence, he's the sort of sneak who visits pubs armed with a quill and parchment to listen in on conversations, and then quickly scribble down turns of phrase that he likes. What a cheat, eh? Judging from this meeting, The Doctor should have avoided Shakespeare like the plagiarism.
Of course, Shakespeare never really comes across as an intelligent playwright, more a bloke who's been watching too many Oasis videos. In order to make Shakespeare more accessible to newcomers, apparently, the production team wanted him portrayed as a Liam Gallagher-style showman, full of over-confident swagger and designer stubble. The problem is, it's just not a very good performance, especially since Dean Lennox Kelly alternates between monotone mumbling and in-yer-face roaring. Just for the record, I'm not one of these stuffy pompous academic types who thinks that Shakespeare should be all prim and proper. I couldn't care less if Shakespeare was played in the style of the lead singer of Napalm Death – just as long as it's done with a little integrity. Instead, we're just left with a crass stereotypical cutout, who's neither interesting or likeable enough to create a lasting impression. There's none of the depth or background that Dickens or Victoria had, and so Shakespeare feels like the weak link in the celebrity historicals.
Although I do like the quip about the wig.
"Clichéd and dull, the Carrionites must surely rank as one of the least convincing baddies in modern Doctor Who"
Same goes for the god-awful Carrionites. Never for a moment do they convince as a terrifying force of evil. Instead, they come across as silly, cackling figures of fun who seem mysteriously able to come and go as they please. The pre-credits teaser act sets them up as memorable monsters, when they rip apart the poor young scamp who's smitten with dull head witch Lilith. But this is never returned to – we never see their power again. Instead, we're regularly presented with shots of them cackling away ten to the dozen, or making pompous, overblown threats (“Now begins the millennium of blood!”). Clichéd and dull, the Carrionites must surely rank as one of the least convincing baddies in modern Doctor Who.
It doesn't help that they're poorly played either. Amanda Lawrence (Doomfinger) and Linda Clark (Bloodtide) divide their time between shrieking and babbling in crone-like voices. Christina Cole, on the other hand, mooches blandly through proceedings with all the menace of a PR girl delivering a Pinpoint presentation on marketing statistics to a half-asleep clutch of trainee juniors. It's never explained why Lilith can change her face into a normal human being, while the other two hags can't. Nor why whenever Lilith shows up on screen, a woman starts crying in the background – ah, right, that's a lone refugee of Murray's Pompous Choir attempting to sing – gotcha. Mercifully, all three are shunted off into a crystal ball at the story's end, although personally, a bit of burning at the stake wouldn't have gone amiss for these wretched harridans.
In fact, none of the supporting characters feel real for a moment – they come across as bleating caricatures. There are the two comedy yokel actors. The buxom serving wench. The huffy Master Of The Revels. The Shakespeare Code isn't interested in presenting half-believable characters – instead, they're all alumni from the Carry On school of crass comedy stereotypes. Even Lynley starts doing Kenneth Williams-style gurning as he's asked to splutter quick bursts of bottled water in a badly shot and edited death scene. And oddly, The Doctor claims that he's never seen a man drown on dry land before, evidently forgetting about poor old Professor Kettering in The Mind Of Evil. OK, so the story's not out on DVD yet, nor is it in colour – but that's no excuse for such a lax memory.
But then The Doctor's too busy carrying on like an arse to worry about such geeky trivialities. Blimey, he's really keen on letting Martha know that he doesn't really want her around, isn't he? He's either still blathering on about how she's only getting one trip in the TARDIS, shouting at her, or tactlessly musing on how Rose would miraculously come up with a solution to the Carrionite problem. When in fact Rose would probably say something sarcastic and then get herself captured by snoozy PR robot, Lilith.
Already the unrequited love storyline's kicking in with a vengeance, and this story is one of the worst offenders – Martha's infectiously joyous enthusiasm (I love the “Author! Author!” bit) is regrettably tempered by the fact that she's asked to look forlorn whenever The Doctor barks at her or whenever he keeps going on about Rose. It's a shame that Martha can't act as a fully functional companion in her own right. All that promise built up in Smith And Jones has just been chucked out of the window in favour of a storyline that will ultimately go nowhere. That said, David and Freema still deliver excellent performances, and handle the regularly ropey material well.
The worst example of which is the non-stop pop culture references. It seems that The Doctor's been watching too much Buffy The Vampire Slayer on his inbuilt TARDIS console DVD player. When he's trying to explain the mechanics of the infinite temporal flux, for some odd reason, he uses the analogy of the Back To The Future films (yes, the films, not the novelisation, as The Doctor sarcastically points out to Martha). OK, so the similarity's there, but it's such a crass, dumbed-down explanation, which is only outdone by the denouement of the story in which the Carrionites are finally defeated by...!
Yes, good old JK (as The Doctor calls her) crops up in The Shakespeare Code quite a lot you know. “It's a little bit Harry Potter,” muses Martha at one point, to which The Doctor crows: “Wait until you read Book Seven – oh, I cried!” Yeah, I cried too – but only at the thought of having to read 10,000 or so pages. Besides which, Book Seven's old news right now, given that most people know how the Duncan Goodhew baddie bloke gets his comeuppance. But if that's not bad enough, the hordes of Carrionites are banished with a bellow of “Expelliarmus!” What?? Talk about a cop-out resolution. What next? The Third Doctor defeats The Master with a moral-ridden Oompa Loompa rhyme? The Fourth Doctor overpowers Styggron with a quick tale of Noddy and Big Ears?
"The BBC always comes up trumps with period drama, and The Shakespeare Code is no exception"
So all told, The Shakespeare Code has all the sophistication and wit of an episode of Play School. There's no urgency, drama or tension in Gareth Roberts' début script. Characters just seem to walk around in a daze around a slightly grotty little 16th century village – there's no real sense of scale, despite the big budget visuals. Even potentially grim scenarios like the Bedlam scene turn into bland mush. The Doctor starts on in his usual patronising, hectoring manner at the jailer for just doing his job (“I think it helps if you don't whip them – now get out!”) in the primitive 16th century way, which of course, was the norm back then. I never really get the feeling that The Doctor, Martha and Shakespeare are walking around some awful “madhouse” - the script doesn't offer any such opportunity, and the terrible confrontation scene between The Doctor and Doomfinger (“I name you... Carrionite!”) reduces any potential attempt at drama even further.
One element in The Shakespeare Code's favour is that the visuals are pretty swanky. The episode does have a high-budget feel to it, with plenty of authentic costumes and interior designs. The BBC always comes up trumps with period drama, and The Shakespeare Code is no exception. There's a tangible feel of 16th-century life in the air, with its smoky taverns and packed-to-the-gills theatres (good use of split screen techniques here to boost the extras' numbers). Charles Palmer, flushed with success from his Smith And Jones assignment, acquits himself well again with a bold attempt to extract some sort of drama from Roberts' tepid script. There are some notably good shots, such as the foregrounding of the skull, the floating Lilith and the climatic shot of the Carrionite swarm. Even if the story's resolution is weak in the extreme, at least Palmer has the loaf to disguise this with some excellent direction, which is in fact, worthy of the big screen.
But when it comes down to it, The Shakespeare Code just doesn't work. Like Time And The Rani, you can have flashy visuals galore, but they mean nothing if the script isn't any good. It's hard to try and pick out the greatest fault of The Shakespeare Code – Is it too smug for its own good? Does it try and fail to be funny? Does the complete lack of terror bring the tale to its knees? Or do the pop culture references smother the action? Well, yes to all four, but sadly, The Shakespeare Code also suffers from being ordinary in the extreme. We could have had some weird and wonderful experience with terrifying witch-like monsters and a real sense of threat, but this is just Doctor Who by numbers, a check-list of Doctor Who's stock clichés, each of which is ticked off one by one in the most unimaginative way possible. Not even a furious Queen Elizabeth The First can save this one.
Much ado about nothing, really.
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