Episode 2: The Shakespeare Code

“Upon this night our work is done
A muse to pen Love’s Labour’s Won!”

Masterpiece theatre!

That was terrific, everything I ever expected from a Gareth Roberts Doctor Who episode. A basically light and fluffy romp, much in the style of the Douglas Adams-guided 17th season which we know to be one of Gareth’s favourites.

Granted, the plot was basically the usual “big bad from the dawn of time trying to get back to our universe”, but it was done with such panache and excellent dialogue that it was a vast improvement even on last week’s pretty good season opener. Loved the witches, the spot on depiction of Elizabethan England, and the excellent use of the Globe. Dean Lennox Kelly made a charismatic Shakespeare, his only “period” dialogue the leering “hey nonny, nonny!”, and his two hapless colleagues were a terrific pair of comic supporting characters. Dropping in that comment “I can’t understand half of what he writes” must have had many a schoolchild across the country hooting with delight. As a depiction of Shakespeare, I could give it plenty of license, eyewitnesses to the man’s character are thin on the ground and he never wrote an autobiography. Who’s to say he wasn’t a 16th century rockstar with a big mouth, bigger ego and penchant to draw obvious comparisons to the modern age like “autographs” and “sketches”? Certainly not the “57 academics punching the air” as he flirted with both Martha and the Doctor in virtually the same breath.

The dialogue started out light and fluffy, and the Doctor’s exchanges with Martha at the episode opening were reminiscent of nothing so much as Tom Baker and Lalla Ward’s gabbling at the beginning of City of Death. Indeed, the later conversation in bed with Martha, where the Doctor not only failed to register her interest but unthinkingly compared her unfavourably to Rose, also recalled Tom’s deliberately alien persona. It’s beginning to look like Mr Tennant’s been watching a lot of old Fourth Doctor stories as homework! It shows in his more measured, controlled performance this year.

Martha seemed to accept the trip to 1599 surprisingly readily (unlike, say Steven in The Time Meddler or Ben in The Smugglers). Still she’d already had her entire hospital whisked off to the moon; I guess that’s a bit of an eye-opener. Freema’s already beginning to display a real chemistry with Tennant, their “Avengers”-like vibe repeating with the “Mr Smith/Miss Jones” exchange. I was glad to see that the writer didn’t just ignore the issue of being black in the 16th century either; in fact the whole “blackamoor” exchange with Shakespeare was a hoot, especially the Doctor’s “political correctness gone mad!” comment.

Some great visual effects in the depiction of Elizabethan London, especially those shots of London Bridge. The Carrionites too were well-realised, though as they swept around the Globe I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Angels of Death from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The recreation of the celebrated Bedlam hospital was also excellent, with Martha’s revulsion showing the true horror of the place and its casual cruelty. As for the Elizabethan people and their environs, this is probably the only historical drama (excepting Blackadder, which isn’t really a drama) to draw attention to the fact that they emptied their crap out of the window, had terrible teeth and generally would have smelled appalling. Martha’s embarrassed admission that Shakespeare had terrible breath did fall a little flat, though, in the face of the fact that all the major characters looked altogether too well-groomed and hygienic. That’s a pretty minor quibble, though.

The dropping in of Shakespearean quotes as a running gag was a delight, especially keeping up with which quotes had and hadn’t been written by that point. There was even a bit of iambic pentameter in there, and a rhyming couplet or two. Loved the dropping in of a bit of Dylan Thomas too; I can’t complain about the show’s reliance on pop-culture from hereon in, now can I? On that front, though, the reference to Back to the Future was very well-judged, as were the Harry Potter ones. Wonder how much they had to pay JK Rowling for “Expelliarmus”?

One final thought: while I laughed as loud as anyone at Queen Elizabeth’s unexpected utterance “The Doctor! Our mortal enemy!”, isn’t it a strange coincidence that episode 2 of both series 2 and 3 end with a well-known female monarch annoyed with the Doctor? Perhaps it’s a new story arc…