Monday, April 09, 2007

Doctor Who - The Shakespeare Code

I can't decide whether I loved The Shakespeare Code or not ... I know that may seem strange, but like Love & Monsters I've just got a feeling that it may split the audience. I have heard people saying they were disappointed by it, and others raving ... well I wasn't disappointed, and there are certainly some things to rave about ...

We're in London in 1599 and there are witches abroad (no, not in France ... in London!). These are classic stock witches. Ugly, hook-nosed, and they cackle a lot. And one of them is just so drop dead cute and stunning ... That would be Lilith when not in witch mode, and actress Christina Cole is bloomin marvellous. She has presence and really seems to enjoy herself. The other two, imaginatively named Doomfinger and Bloodtide, are really just there as cyphers for Lilith and we never see them as anything other than hideous crones.

The Doctor and Martha arrive ... and the immediate problem is that no-one seems to notice them. Not a single person looks at them, wonders about their modern clothes, or the fact that the TARDIS has just materialised apparently in the middle of a busy street ... it all seems strange somehow. The Doctor decides to go to the Globe to watch a bit of Shakespeare and it seems that Love's Labour's Lost is playing. At the end, Martha calls for the Author, a cry which is apparently taken up by the rest of the audience, and the Doctor muses that this is where the tradition started - but why did the chap who looked a bit like Edmund Blackadder standing by Martha not even glance at her before he took up the cry? Again, seemed strange.

So conveniently Will Shakespeare was backstage and comes out to take the applause and to announce - prompted by Lilith - that his next play will be Love's Labour's Won. Another problem - the Globe is completely packed, and yet Lilith has what appears to be a royal box all to herself ... yet she works as a servant at the Inn ... so she has access to money and priviledge to get the box (via various witchy means I guess), and yet no-one spots her or questions that she is also a servant? Seemed strange.

Later, at the Elephant Inn - I would have expected this to have been the Anchor (which is closest to the Globe), or possibly The George ... never heard of The Elephant! - the Doctor and Martha meet Shakespeare and Will is quite taken with Martha's beauty. A nice touch here is when Martha starts to speak mock-Shakespeare to Will, and the Doctor tells her not to, very reminiscent of the similar scene in Tooth and Claw where Rose starts to speak mock-Scottish. Will is also not fooled by the psychic paper ...

Enter the Master of the Revels who will shut the play down as it has not gone through his office for approval. Lilith is not happy with this at all, and so snips a piece of the Master's hair and, using it with a little voodoo-type doll, causes him to drown in the street. This is a very effective sequence, and quite scary. Unfortunately the editing makes it look as though the actor just has a mouthful of water which he spits on each shot, rather, as revealed in the Confidential episode, being a complex rig of piping which means he can constantly spew water ... shame the effect wasn't better realised in the edit. But then Martha knows his name - Mr Lynley - even though he never gave it and no-one else mentions it on-screen. Historical pointer here ... according to Wikipedia, the Master of the Revels from 1579 until 1610 was a man named Edmund Tylney.

So now the witches put the next stage of their plan into action, and using a potion, control Shakespeare to write the last lines of his new play so as to perform a summoning spell. This is a nice scene, and I liked the puppet used to control Will a lot. At the end of it, Lilith kills the landlady, Dolly Bailey, and escapes on a broomstick! Talk about ostentatious. The Doctor, Martha and Will decide to visit the Globe as the Doctor is suspicious of the 14-sidedness of the building and feels there is a connection there ... all to do with the power of words. They go visit the architect, Peter Streete, who has been driven mad and is in Bedlam (which Martha, strangely, hasn't heard of). In the real world, the Globe opened in Autumn 1599, and was designed by Peter Street (without a final 'e'). However Street also designed and built the Fortune Theatre in 1600, so he was neither mad nor killed in 1599. Has history been changed? Was the Fortune Theatre therefore never constructed?

The Doctor uses a sort of Vulcan mind-meld on Peter and gets him to admit that the Globe was built to the witches' design and not his. Also that the witches were in All Hallows Street in London. But then Doomfinger appears and kills Streete. The Doctor figures out that she is a Carrionite and she vanishes in pain when named. The Doctor realises that this is all a plot to allow the Carrionites back to Earth, and that the right words spoken in the Globe will achieve this.

This does lead me to wonder why all the fuss then? As the words were given to Shakespeare by Lilith, and as the Carrionite witches can transport themselves anywhere, why don't they just go to the Globe one night and speak the words themselves?

The race is on. Shakespeare returns to the Globe and tries to stop the play, but the witches are there with their little voodoo doll of him and he is knocked unconcious. The Doctor and Martha go to All Hallows Street to try and stop the Carrionites, but Lilith is waiting for them. She takes some of the Doctor's hair and using another doll (or DNA replicator as he identifies it) stops one of his hearts. He recovers and with Martha races off back to the Globe. I loved the sequence here where Lilith mock-seduces the Doctor - I wonder how tempted the production team were to add in a snog between them - and then flies backwards out the window to hover in mid-air. Very effective indeed.

The three witches cackle as the play reaches its conclusion and the Carrionites are summoned. They appear in a spiral, floaty things which look nothing like the three witches ... strange and more like the Dementors from Harry Potter. The Doctor revives Will and tells him to reverse the spell, to improvise words to stop the summoning. Shakespeare does this (with a little help from the Doctor on some coordinates) and the creatures are returned to the crystal globe in which they were trapped, along with Lilith, Doomfinger and Bloodtide. The audience applauds, thinking that the performance was all special effects. Surely this would have been noted at the time by diarists? Another piece of historical fudging perhaps ...

Anyway, it's all over, and Will tries for a last time to seduce Martha (she rejects him as his breath smells), and the Doctor takes the witches' globe to store in an attic in the TARDIS. But then Queen Elisabeth I arrives, and, much to the Doctor's suprise, recognises him and denounces him. He and Martha race for the TARDIS and away before she can carry out her threat of beheading him. This is a lovely and unexpected cameo from Angela Pleasance, well known film actress and daughter of horror-film great Donald Pleasance.

The cast as a whole is worthy of special plaudits. Dean Lennox Kelly's Shakespeare is really rather good, if being perhaps a little too modern and with-it. I mentioned Christina Cole before, stunningly superb as Lilith as well as being totally gorgeous and watchable. The other cast members were all equally good in their own right, each giving convincing and believable performances.

I loved the music as well. For once, Murray Gold has not swamped the visuals and dialogue with way too much, and the subtle cadences and choral arrangements for the Carrionites was brilliant and complimentary to the story. The CGI was also good, except that there is one distant shot of the Globe where the river Thames is no-where in sight! The original Globe was not on the bank of the Thames as the current version is, but back a couple of streets, even so, the river should have been in shot. The Carrionites were puzzling. Were they all like the witches? Or like the floaty things? They can change their appearance from hag-like women to beautiful ladies, so maybe the floaty things are their true form? The CGI of them was okay, but I would have perhaps liked to have seen more of them.

Overall, as I said at the start, I found much to enjoy in The Shakespeare Code, and not very much to fault - and on the whole the problems are with historical fact, which can perhaps be glossed over for the sake of the production - and generally speaking it's a great little tale. Very reminiscent of Tooth and Claw I thought.

Next week seems to be back to the future and New New York for Ardel O'Hanlan as a cat-man, lots of flying cars and something nasty in the sewers ...


Colin W said...

I fully agree with your comments that there was plenty to like about this episode but I too felt that something was missing. It was like having a lot of good ingredients to bake a cake but the cake was rubbish because it was lacking eggs. I can’t quite put my finger on what eggs are in this case but they are an essential ingredient and they were definitely missing. So there you have it the Shakespeare Code was good but it could have been so much better if it had eggs!

Karen Funk Blocher said...

Hi, David. It's good to finally stumble on your blog!

This episode bothered me slightly on first viewing (perhaps it seemed a touch too contemporary), but has grown on me since. A few minor points to which I'd like to respond:
1. My minimal research shows attestation for both spellings of the architect's surname (Street and Streete), much as Shakespeare's own name is spelled several ways in contemporary accounts.
2. The Carrionite "spell" may have required an audience to give it enough power to open the portal. Part of the point of the theatre, as the Doctor seems to indicate, is the interplay of play, performance and spectators. Also, despite the "dictation" by Lilith, Shakespeare may have contributed a few words to those final lines, giving them added power.
3. Historical discrepancies between the real world and the Doctor's reality can be explained in either of two ways: his history is not our history, clearly; and, if the McFly analogy holds (I love Back to the Future, but how I wish he hadn't said that!), then, as you say, the Carrionites may have wiped out the building of the Fortune Theatre.

I'm off to add your blog to my sidebar. Keep writing! I look forward to your comments on Daleks in Manhattan.