Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"The Shakespeare Code"

Doctor Who (2005) - Series Three
April 7, 2007
David Tennant, Freema Agyeman
Written by Gareth Roberts
Produced by Phil Collinson
Directed by Charles Palmer

This is Gareth Roberts's first official script for "Doctor Who", but he's been hanging around for a while before now. He wrote the 2005 interactive episode "Attack of the Graske", the online "TARDISodes" which accompanied each episode from Series Two, and he also co-wrote "Invasion of the Bane" with Russel T Davies for "The Sarah Jane Adventures" (which aired before this, but I haven't gotten around to covering it yet). He'll go on to write several more episodes of "Doctor Who" and a great many episodes of "The Sarah Jane Adventures". He originally got his start in the world of "Doctor Who" from the Virgin New Adventures, starting with "The Highest Science" in 1993. He wrote two subsequent New Adventures, four Missing Adventures (novels featuring prior Doctors), comics for "Doctor Who Magazine:, audios for Big Finish Productions, and two New Series Adventures prior to writing this script. If you only go by official television episodes, this is his debut, but he actually had almost fifteen years experience of writing "Doctor Who" by this point.

This episode is following directly in the footsteps of "The Unquiet Dead", presenting a new companion's first trip into the past with the aid of a famous historical character already familiar to modern audiences. The title is a play on "The Da Vinci Code", but the similarities end there. It's actually a story about aliens who look just like stereotypical Shakespearean witches, who are manipulating the great playwright for their own ends. It's a clever plan that relies on some goofy technobabble. This series makes great use of Clarke's Third Law ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"), which allows it to make wholesale use of fantasy tropes. This is something that "Doctor Who" has always done to some extent, but there's something almost shameless about how it's used here. There's a "scientific" explanation for the witches' magic, but it doesn't really make much sense. It's easy to say that the Carrionites use words to ground their science in the same way that humans use math, but what does that actually mean, and how does it result in "technology" that just happens to look exactly like witchcraft?

The main event is Shakespeare, a character who has been invoked often in "Doctor Who" before, going all the way back to "The Chase", when the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki viewed Shakespeare on the Time-Space Visualizer, and he didn't look anything like this guy. He looked much more like his portraits, in fact. This Shakespeare owes more to the 1998 John Madden film Shakespeare in Love than to historical accuracy. But like that film, the script incorporates much that is known of the real Shakespeare's life, even if it does completely re-imagine the character to suit the needs of a romantic adventure story. The script takes an interesting approach to contextualizing Shakespeare within his historical milieu. To us, Shakespeare is basically a symbol for high-minded drama. In his day, his plays were popular entertainments. This script splits the difference, de-mythologizing Shakespeare (his first line is "Shut your big fat mouths!") while at the same time preserving his genius.

The relationship between the Doctor and Martha also gets some attention, and the main theme is the complete mismatch between how the two characters view their relationship. One of the things that makes relationships quite tricky in real life (well, maybe I should only speak for myself) is subjectivity. Lots of conflicts are caused by two people seeing the same relationship very differently, and when one of those people is the Doctor, the problem is complicated. He doesn't seem to realize how he's jerking Martha around, inviting her to share a very small bed with him, but also frequently alluding to the fact that Martha is a poor substitute for Rose. He doesn't mean to be insensitive. But then, people rarely do. If the Doctor was more aware of Martha's perspective, he wouldn't behave in this way. But that's just another way of saying that he'd be less insensitive if he was more sensitive.

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