TARDIS File 03-02: The Shakespeare Code

TARDIS File 03-02: The Shakespeare Code

The Big Idea: The Doctor takes Martha back in time to meet William Shakespeare, but a group of alien witches are literally flying about the place — witches that need to have a word or two from Shakespeare.

What’s So Great…

  • Christina Cole playing Lillith. Particularly if you like stories with sexy villainesses. Cole portrays arguably the sexiest villainess in Doctor Who since Lady Adrasta wore all that leather in the 1979 Tom Baker story The Creature from the Pit. Although Lillith is the first female villainess to actually use sex appeal as part of her arsenal of weapons, including an attempted seduction of the Doctor.
  • You don’t have to like Shakespeare’s work to like this episode
  • …but if you do, there’s lots of great in-jokes to many of the Bard’s finest works, including the idea that Martha was the “dark lady” who was the inspiration for one of his greatest sonnets
  • The CGI version of 1599 London is superb, as is the set design.

Some Quick bits of trivia: Writer Gareth Roberts freely admits that he fudged a lot of historical details for dramatic expediency. In particular, Love’s Labour Won, the ‘missing’ Shakespeare play was performed in 1598, a full year before construction of the Globe Theatre’s completion in 1599. (Also, in ye olden times, theatre was performed in the afternoon in the days before electric lights.) On the acting front, look for a quick cameo by Stephen Marcus mid-way through the episode. Marcus is perhaps best known as playing Nick the Greek in the film Lock, Stock and Two-Smoking Barrels. He also played the Cowboy whose hat Rimmer pukes inside of in the Red Dwarf episode “Gunmen of the Apocalypse”.

Things to Geek Out About…

  • This is the second time William Shakespeare has appeared in Doctor Who. The first was on the Time/Space Visualizer (essentially a time television) in the 1965 William Hartnell-era adventure The Chase. However the Doctor also claims to have met Shakespeare before, in the 1979 Tom Baker story City of Death, the Doctor claims to have written part of one of Shakespeare’s plays, recognizing his own handwriting.
  • The Carrionites are the first all-female group of adversaries the Doctor has faced since the 1965 William Hartnell story Galaxy Four where he meets the Drahvins. However the Drahvins did have a male gender in their race who are referred to as playing a menial role in Drahvin society. The suggestion in The Shakespeare Code is an all-female species, perhaps the first we’ve seen in Doctor Who since the Cryons in 1985’s Attack of the Cybermen.
  • One of Lillith’s mothers is named “Bloodtide” — which is the name of a Doctor Who New Audio Adventures story released in 2002 when the series was off the air, at a time that The Shakespeare Code‘s writer Gareth Roberts was also writing scripts for the audio range. A deliberate nod?
  • There is a reference in this episode to the “Eternals” — a race of beings seen in the 1983 Peter Davison story Enlightenment.

Not to Complain But… the story’s resolution is a bit on the weak side. Somebody shouting a bunch of words to defeat the enemy is original but isn’t likely to go down as one of the most exciting ways to defeat an evil villain in Doctor Who‘s history.

All Things Considered… The Shakespeare Code is this season’s “Let’s go back and time and meet a famous historical character” episode, carrying on the early-season tradition started with The Unquiet Dead (Charles Dickens) and Tooth and Claw (Queen Victoria). These stories have typically have taken place after the TARDIS crew have visited the far future, this time the story takes place before that. The story is arguably the most visually impressive of the three “pseudo-historicals” in question, with the series getting permission to film at the Globe Theatre in London and making the most of it. As is usually the case, the BBC’s set design and costume department help convince the viewer that the TARDIS has actually landed in the 16th century.

The script is fast-paced, with the plot moving rapidly - always a good approach to take with a story set in the past lest the younger members of the audience find history boring in general (as a lot of kids do). Somewhat surprisingly, this is the first Doctor Who adventure to do a proper take on the “wicked witch” type story, keeping in line with the previous two “famous-people historicals” which dealt with other tried and true horror subjects — ghosts for The Unquiet Dead and werewolves for Tooth and Claw.

Two things stand out most prominently in this story. Dean Lennox Kelley’s interpretation of Shakespeare (and the way he is written by writer Gareth Roberts) is unique from any other portrayal of Shakespeare that I’ve seen, portraying him to be an almost perverted loud-mouth. At the same time, once again the famous historical character is demonstrated to very intelligent and remarkably perceptive, sometimes moreso than the Doctor himself. This makes for a fascinating guest character to base an episode around, whether you are a fan of Shakespeare’s written work or not.

The other is Christina Cole, who would be a lock for best guest actress award for the Third Series if it weren’t for the equally brilliant performance by Carey Mulligan in the tenth episode of the season. Much of the drama in the episode comes from Cole’s ability to play a sexy villainess and a witch without going over the top (or being allowed to show too much skin), and Cole is up to the task.

David Tennant is as brilliant as ever and Freema Agyeman is seen in this episode as comfortably settling in to her role as Martha. But Kelley and Cole steal the show along with the excellent re-production of 16th Century London. A Doctor Who story set in the past has never looked better.

Line of the Week: “When are we?” “Sometime before the invention of the toilet.”

Index of TARDIS Files

TARDIS File prepared by Gian-Luca Di Rocco

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