...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Day 2288: DOCTOR WHO: The Shakespeare Code


HURRAY for the power of petitions! After last week’s EXCESSIVE rhino intrusion, I have given Dr Who a stern talking to, and lo and behold this week he stays in a pub called THE ELEPHANT. Things are definitely LOOKING UP! I think I will let my daddies carry on watching this show after all.

For my NEXT petition… I think Dr Who needs a SOFT TOY as his assistant!
Well, Shakespeare was never like that when I was at school.

The Power of Words is one way that we often refer to Doctor Who’s seventeenth season, with its recurring theme of books and learning that obviously builds up to “Shada”. And season seventeen is, in some ways, where Gareth Roberts came in, after a couple of successful New Adventures, really finding himself in capturing the light-as-a-bubble relationship of the fourth Doctor and second Romana (not forgetting K-9) in [Graham Crowden voice] three! I have seen three! Missing Adventures: romantic adventurers in every sense.

Not that this feels like a story from season seventeen. It looks too expensive, for starters. But that same love of language is richly woven into this adventure of the Doctor, the quintessential scientific adventurer, meets Shakespeare, the genius of the arts, as they bat aphorisms back and forth each sizing up the other and approving.

Shakespeare, as they say, is all quotes. And here Gareth uses that, the very fact that Shakespeare’s words have entered the language as common currency, to have a running gag that also, you would hope, might encourage some people to open a book and find where those quotes came from. “Ooh, that’s good,” says the bard from time to time. “You should write that down,” notes the Doctor, or “You can’t have that, it’s someone else’s.” The punchline “that’s one of mine!” is all the funnier for knowing that so were all the rest.

Taking the cue rather more from “A Knight’s Tale” than “Shakespeare in Love”, here we meet a bard who is the rock god of his Elizabethan age, Dean Lennox Kelly playing him with panache, sparkle and quite a lot of chest hair. It’s rather fun and again, one hopes, will break down the image of the balding bloke from Stratford. The in-jokes do not intrude; who can fail to get something like “no autographs, no you can’t be sketched with me, and please don’t ask where I get my ideas” even without knowing that it’s an author caught by fans at the Tavern? But it is also an admiring portrait, with Shakespeare seeing through the psychic paper (Russell T claims this is a first, but we recall Dr Ragesh Singh saw through it too in “Army of Ghosts”; perhaps that was just Torchwood’s superior training.)

Of course, the Doctor has met Shakespeare before. Only just not yet. “City of Death” (guess what, season seventeen) reveals that the original “Hamlet” is written in the Doctor’s hand – Shakespeare having sprained a wrist writing sonnets. No, it’s not rude. But this is 1599 and only at the end does Shakespeare think it is time to write the play that will deal exorcise his dead son, Hamnet Shakespeare.

The Doctor also mentions to Sarah having met the Bard; says he was a lousy actor, but that could be in the future too.

(And we’ll draw a delicate veil over “Time of the Daleks” and “The Kingmaker” which appear to have Shakespeare meeting the Doctor at the beginning and, er, the end of his life. The missing adventure with the first Doctor “The Empire of Glass” features Shakespeare too, but he does at least get his mind wiped of the adventure; mind you, that Shakespeare remembers a Tom-Baker-like younger brother of the first Doctor helping him with “Hamlet”.)

With Will as guest hero for the week, the villains are – to be “in period” – the three witches. Okay, so they turn out to be three Carrionites, aliens from the dawn of time, once banished into the darkness by the eternals. (Is the name Carrionite derived from “carrion”, or from demented killer psychic “Carrie”, do you think?) The Carrionites use a science based on words instead of numbers – says the Doctor – hence the magic spells, incantations and power of “true naming”.

Now, far be it for me to suggest that there’s some more Lawrence Miles in here, but the central theme of his first New Adventure, “Christmas on a Rational Planet”, was that the Millennium of Blood and Magic was overthrown by Rassilon and the Time Lords imposing their Age of Reason on the universe and now the powers of Magic would rather like to return to the old ways.

The reference to the eternals is interesting too – one of several, including in “Army of Ghosts” the eternals referring to the void as the “howling halls” – are these really the same beings encountered in Enlightenment, or is Russell building a new mythos for the new series?

It is a little bit naughty to suggest that their magic works just because they have used words instead of numbers as the basis of their science. Mathematics only enables us to make a model of the universe; outside of Logopolis, we can’t use the numbers to change the world directly – an aeroplane doesn’t fly by the pilot sitting at the front and chanting “2, 4, 6, 8… now let us degravitate!” And I don’t think there’s any combination of numbers that will let you fly on a broomstick.

But that’s really missing the point isn’t it. This is really about the power of words in its literary and metaphorical sense. Words can and do change the world; the Doctor’s own magic here is that he inspires Shakespeare to undo the witches’ work.

The three Carrionites themselves, lovely Lilith, Mother Doomfinger and Mother Bloodtide (oh, spotted another in-joke Johnny Morris’s Big Finish audio; he wrote the other famous season seventeen missing adventure, didn’t he?), appear very much as your traditional child’s view of witches: hooked nose and chin, wrinkled skin and hunchback. And what’s wrong with that? Doctor Who has always merrily revealed everyone from Egyptian gods to Minotaurs as one bunch of aliens or another. They don’t really resemble the ones that we see released at the climax very much though – those are much more spectral beings, with eerie gaping fanged mouths. Is it possible that Lilith and her mothers have taken possession of human bodies, better to secure their bridgehead here?

Lilith, who can at least pass for human – and beautiful – is a delicious villain, half diabolical mastermind, half pouting sexual predator (and don’t let’s even get into the reverse-Buffy psychology of “kiss the girl and she turns evil”). Pity poor Wiggins, the lutist lured to his death in the pre-title sequence. (And not the scholar of Shakespearean Drama and writer of Doctor Who DVD subtitles.) Christina Cole turns in a smouldering performance and it’s only a shame that she ends up imprisoned, Phantom Zone-like, in her own crystal ball at the end. Still, it looks pretty fragile and the TARDIS doesn’t half bounce about these days… maybe she’ll get out.

If there is a flaw, it is that we learn nothing at all about the play that is at the heart of the story. Yes, re-creating a lost Shakespeare masterpiece is probably a bit of a big ask, but it seems surprising that at no point does the Doctor ask any questions at all about the plot or writing when these things are clearly an important part of the Carrionites’ plan. To tie in with the Carrionites’ own history, something about the lovers being imprisoned in a “dark place” with the climax of the play being their release to “Dravidian light”.

(Word for today: “Dravidian” is a proper English word, meaning “belonging to a dark, long-headed, wavy-haired race of the Deccan [the southern peninsula of India]” or “belonging to a group of languages in Southern India”. And nothing to do with the Drahvins.)

The key magical phrase used to release the Carrionites – a string of numbers as “crystal activate” – does sound a little clumsy amidst all the carefully crafted couplets that the witches have been using for their spells so far.

I would, perhaps, have preferred something to say that the whole of the play, all its powerful words, was used to charge up the tetra-decagonal Globe so that the final trigger could unlock the Carrionites’ prison. That would have explained why only one creature appeared in the rehearsal, and why the whole play had to become “lost”. Else, why could not Shakespeare merely have changed the final scene?

The visuals were impressive and overwhelming, particularly the Globe exploding with Carrionites at the climax. Though I must confess, almost all of those awesome matte-paintings did look like paintings rather than genuine cityscapes. That’s not to be too critical, they set the scene perfectly. Though I did wonder if there wasn’t one shot with the Houses of Parliament in the background; Her Majesty’s New Palace of Westminster not having been built at the time. Alex suggests that maybe it was old St Stevens Hall, the oldest part of the houses. And did Bedlam look like Albion Hospital, or was it just the way the gate was shot?

Freema and David continue to make us love them as not so star-crossed lovers. Martha asks all sorts of bright questions on stepping out of the TARDIS – another New Adventures nod with her sudden Butterfly paranoia (though Millennium has explained in the past why the Butterfly Effect shouldn’t bother a time traveller; not that the Doctor takes it too seriously, either) – and later contributes the vital literally (in every sense) magic word. But there’s also the lovely, bittersweet bed scene where the Doctor is at his most “just doesn’t get it”. She thinks she’s pulled; he brings up Rose. The candle being blown out is a perfect full stop.

David Tennant continues to be ever more in control of the role now, being able to be sulky without being silly, be angry, authoritative or just plain adorable. The slapstick getting his second heart restarted could have been awful (and last year probably would have been) but this year he makes it work.

And the final coda, an appearance by Queen Elizabeth – a Queen of Hearts more Lewis Carroll than Princess Diana, I fear – which reveals the tenth Doctor seems to have a habit of greatly annoying British monarchs, particularly the female ones. It could be foreshadowing, but it works even on its own as a great Torchwood gag as, reversing the sense of the Doctor having met Shakespeare in Shakespeare’s future, the Doctor’s own future catches up with him. It’s inspired; a very different way of having the Doctor make his normal quick exit. A great ending.

Next time... the Doctor looks for Free Parking as he returns to New Earth, and the Face of Boe reveals the secret we’ve waited for since last year. Is it “Dial M for Ma…” Everyone is caught in the “Gridlock”.


Happy Easter everybody!


Onlinefocus Team said...

One of the pleasures of watching Dr Who thses days is thinking "I wonder what the Millennium Elephant will make of this, so I was glad to read your critique... so THANK YOU.

I enjoyed the episode and thought Mr Shakespeare was very good and showed his genius by working out where the Doctor and Martha came from . But I thought the aliens were absolute TOSH . They belong with Buffy, not with the Doctor!!!

I would have thought that Mr Shakespeare would have been a magnet for other time travellers too and maybe we could have a plot based around that rather than silly witches....

Andy said...

Of course, Loz's CoaRP is not the only thing of his I was reminded of here. More generally, the "power of words" as a way of governing the universe in place of maths owes quite a lot to his contrasting Faction Paradox's technology to the Time Lords in Alien Bodies - and some other aspects of the witches (the rituals, the voodoo dolls...) struck me as a bit Faction, too.