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…

Episode 1: Smith and Jones

Well, that was quite fun, wasn’t it?

Each year’s season opener has had the thankless task of reinventing the show in a new format (though New Earth had that burden slightly lessened by The Christmas Invasion), and this is always going to hamstring a writer going for an inventive plot. With the focus of new Who being so much on the companion character, the introduction of a new one means that the storyline must take something of a back seat to the character. This, if anything, was the biggest problem with the solid but unimpressive Rose.

Smith and Jones showed a marked improvement on either of the previous season openers in these respects, doing a good job of introducing a new character and also backing up it up with a well-written, logical, and often quite inventive plot. While Rose was a straightforward runaround and New Earth was a campy, plot-hole filled irritant, this episode was actually quite impressively offbeat. The settings, concepts and characters involved were far enough removed from the norm to impress, and the characters, while often rather derivative and/or two-dimensional got some great dialogue and convincing motivations (unlike, say, Cassandra’s inexplicable volte-face at the end of New Earth… I promise I’ll try to lay off criticising that soon).

The key to the story is, of course, the introduction of new companion Martha Jones. I must confess that throughout the second series, the smugness of Billie Piper’s Rose had become incredibly annoying, and I was really looking forward to a different kind of companion. Martha’s certainly that. While Rose was, to be fair, a very ordinary girl trapped in a very boring life, Martha is bright, immediately resourceful and obviously going somewhere. Freema Agyeman didn’t get a great deal of detail to work with but has obviously been given enough background for the character to give a rounded, convincing performance. Russell’s dialogue for the scenes between her and the Doctor fairly crackle with chemistry, but of a different kind to the Doctor/Rose relationship. While Rose was a girl, Martha seems more like a young woman, far more self-assured. Her reaction to being invited for a trip to the TARDIS is very much that of someone with her feet on the ground – “but I’ve got bills to pay.” As seems to be mandatory in the new series, her relationship with the Doctor is obviously going to be based around some form of romance, but Russell was cleverly playful about the nature of it. Martha’s clearly attracted to him – her reaction to that kiss showed that- but equally clearly in denial about it. Conversely, the Doctor is apparently oblivious to it; or is he? This will-they/won’t they flirting game has been played out well before in shows like Moonlighting and The X-Files, and Russell’s a good enough writer of character and dialogue to pull it off. It’s refreshingly different to the obvious mutual worship between the Doctor and Rose.

On the slightly more negative side of the show’s reformatting, Martha comes equipped with a large, unruly family, none of whom at present has more than the flimsiest of characterization. Her sister and brother seem fairly featureless, despite some good performances, but her mum, her dad, and particularly her dad’s blonde bimbo girlfriend are irritating soap-style characters already pregant with subplots to come. It’s worth remembering at this point that the initial characterizations of Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith were no better, and they may improve. But it gives me a sinking feeling to see that Russell obviously believes this soap opera aspect to be integral to modern Who. He has a point in saying we should examine what impact the companion just buggering off with the Doctor would have, but the whole Rose’s family thing came to dominate the last series in a way that made the Doctor more like some kind of family guidance counsellor than an intergalactic hero. There is a positive to it, though; the Radio Times episode guide shows that this year, there’s only one other story set on contemporary Earth. So the Jones clan hopefully won’t come to dominate the show…yet.

But what of the Doctor, I hear you say? Despite his more restrained performance in the Runaway Bride, David Tennant seemed back to his more manic, previous self. But there was a difference. The manic outbursts of thinking to himself seemed more considered, more judged. Tennant has obviously looked at his performance in the previous series and made a plan for how the character should go. So his solemn, sinister intonations are balanced by moments of high energy mania; not unlike, in fact, the great Tom Baker. If Tennant can keep a rein on his performance – and it looks like he can- there’s no reason why his occasional lapses into hair-pulling barminess can’t all be part of the fun. And indeed his hair was all over the place this episode, pushed and pulled hither and yon during moments of particularly frantic thinking. The TARDIS plainly has quite a supply of gel in it somewhere. Nice to see him get a new blue suit, too; we don’t want the characters lapsing into John Nathan-Turner style uniforms, do we? Still, by the end of the episode he was back in the brown pinstripe. Perhaps he’d been having it dry-cleaned.

Having a story set in a modern hospital is a good idea, and one that I’m surprised the series hasn’t done more often. There was the Bi-Al Foundation in The Invisible Enemy, but that’s hardly Casualty, is it? Oh and that one in New Earth. Best forget about that really. Then to have the whole hospital shifted to the Moon was a stroke of genius, the impact of which was slightly lessened for me by the memory of a contemporary church being similarly shifted to the Moon in Paul Cornell’s New Adventure Timewyrm: Revelation. I wouldn’t consider it a wholesale rip-off; new Who has very smartly taken many of the impressive aspects of Virgin’s well-regarded book series to its heart, and is the better for it. In any case, the hospital setting was used well, exploited to serve the plot in a convincing and logical way. The sets were hugely impressive, though the NHS-alike RHT logo puzzled me somewhat – is there no NHS in the Whoniverse, or could they just not get the rights to the logo? The inclusion of the gift shop was a nice throwaway gag, too. On the negative side, just where was the hospital? The long shot appeared to show it opposite Parliament, but showed no sign of the shops we’d earlier seen near it. The close shots made it appear to be somewhere else again – but that’s really just quibbling.

The plot was of necessity fairly lightweight, and riffed on the old Who standard of an alien fugitive being chased by another bunch of aliens, with the Doctor and co being stuck in between. The Judoon were a nicely realised alien race, their comic bureaucracy and casual brutality obviously owing a debt to Douglas Adams. They were given a nice sense of real menace to counterpoint the humour by disintegrating that poor bloke who hit them with what appeared to be a bedpan, but the kicker for me was their presentation of a voucher for compensation to Martha; none too bright, but doing things by the book.

Their target, the plasmavore sinisterly known as Florence, was played to the hilt by the marvellous Anne Reid, last seen in Who as Nurse Crane in The Curse of Fenric. Very much a stereotypical villain, she got some rather hilarious OTT dialogue, pausing before drinking someone’s blood to proclaim, “I’ve got a straw.” A 2D character, to be sure, but an entertaining one. Her two henchmen, the “Slabs”, brought nothing to mind more than twin negatives of Top Gear‘s The Stig. Not a bad thing, but you couldn’t help wondering when they were going to pile into a Lamborghini Gallardo.

Of the rest of the guest cast, it seemed rather a shame to get a terrific character actor like Roy Marsden and then kill him about ten minutes in without even really giving him much of a character. It’s a tribute to the man’s skill that he took some fairly uninteresting dialogue and played the part as a believable but slightly comic consultant in the mode of the great James Robertson Justice. Mind, he also got some toe-curlingly purple dialogue just before his big death, and I’m impressed he pulled that off with a straight face: “What use are names when some nameless creatures are approaching… on the Moon?” or something like that. Bad Russell. Though not as bad as the Doctor’s “shaking out the radiation” business. Not Tennant’s fault, he didn’t write it! Anyway, it made rather a nonsense of the Doctor’s previous susceptibility to radiation in stories like The Daleks, Destiny of the Daleks… but I digress.

So, a solid if not classic start to the new series that’s actually one of Russell’s tighter scripts, a real improvement on the calamity that was New Earth (last time I’ll dis it…for now). The good stuff – liked Martha, Tennant on good form, nicely realised aliens and some impressive FX. The bad stuff – the Jones clan, a few bits of excruciating dialogue… and that’s about it. Not a bad result for a Russell T Davies-scripted season opener. And glad to see a few, oblique references to the enigmatic Mr Saxon already appearing, though his election posters are rather drab. Perhaps he should hire Max Clifford…

New series of Doctor Who! (Warning – spoilers!!!)

So, the time is almost upon us again. A new series of Doctor Who begins tomorrow, and the BBC are already trailing it heavily with a minute and a half clipshow on their red button interactive service.

And it looks good. A shorter trail than last year’s, we get to see some provocative glimpses of exciting alien worlds, weird villains, and trips into history. David Tennant, whose performance seemed rather uncertain and uneven last year, seemed to have finally nailed the role in the Runaway Bride, and this year promises to stretch him a little further. It’s already common knowledge that Paul Cornell’s written a two-parter based on his celebrated New Adventure Human Nature, which features an amnesiac Doctor living a life as a human schoolteacher in pre WW1 England, and quite unaware of his true nature. The trail shows some tantalising glimpses of this, as a tweed-clad Tennant angrily proclaims “I am not the Doctor!” Meanwhile, a scarily intense looking Harry Lloyd (Will Scarlett from Robin Hood) appears to be the leader of the “Family of Blood” that gives the second part its title.

We’re also promised a return to New Earth, setting for last year’s decidedly lacklustre season opener. As the look of the planet itself was the best thing about that episode, one can only hope that Russell T Davies has come up with a more solid script to set there this time.

The Beeb are not keeping any secret this year about the return of the Daleks, in the bizarre setting of 1930s New York. There’s some cool shots of them flying about, firing on a woodland camp (though that could be the product of some clever editing for the trail). The brief shot of some dancing girls complete with red feathers in a Busby Berkeley style musical number also makes me wonder if there’s a bit of a nod to the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!

I’ve been fairly vocal about my dislike of the show’s constant falling back onto trashy pop-culture references, as if making a laboured attempt to match Joss Whedon’s effortlessly cool dialogue from Buffy. Apart from anything else, the constant references to things like the Weakest Link, Big Brother and Eastenders date the show almost instantly. As I’ve said to friends (ad nauseam), while the original series inspired me to read Shakespeare, the new one is unlikely to inspire any reading more complex than Heat magazine. As if to redress the balance, this year we get an episode set in and around the Globe theatre in 1599, and I think it’s safe to say there may be some influence of Shakespeare there. What’s more, it’s written by the splendid Gareth Roberts, who writes brilliantly funny and authentic dialogue for this period, as seen in his Virgin Missing Adventure the Plotters. Plus, it’s got the Dan Brown-baiting title of the Shakespeare Code!

Elsewhere, we see that Mark Gatiss, not having written an episode this year, appears in one instead, and some pretty high profile guest stars include one Derek Jacobi. Captain Jack’s back too, and John Barrowman will have to do some explaining to justify Torchwood! But the new star that dominates the trail is Freema Agyeman as new companion Martha Jones. Beyond being obviously older and initially a little smarter than Rose Tyler, the trail gives little away about what she’ll be like. It’s fair to say that her relationship with the Doctor will have to be very different from the intense and overtly romantic one between him and Rose, and despite my enjoyment of Camille Coduri, Shaun Dingwall and Noel Clarke, I do hope the show comes to rely a little less on having the soap opera aspect of a supporting cast from the companion’s family and friends.

For both the previous seasons, Russell introduced the loose story arc concept that tied the episodes together. The “Bad Wolf” motif in the first year was intriguing, and did eventually make perfect sense within the deus ex machina used to end the series. As Rose had come to transcend space and time, it made perfect sense that she should be able to scatter notes to herself throughout history (though why be so cryptic?). Year two, however, gave us a laboured, crammed in reference to Torchwood in almost every episode that was just gratuitous and didn’t make any sense beyond simple coincidence. Torchwood, after all, cannot travel through time and space, so any reference beyond its founding and the 21st century setting was implausible at best, and hardly constituted a storyline. Some fans have suggested an idea whereby the Doctor’s encounter with Queen Victoria led to an alternate history in which Torchwood exists; an intriguing idea unfortunately never really explored.

The other basic story premise for each season so far has been the return of a crowd-pleasing villain from the show’s past around the middle of the run, their apparent defeat and then reappearance in force for the final two-parter (viz, the Daleks and then the Cybermen – and the Daleks!). If they do that again this year, though, it will be way too predictable. So let’s hope Russell has come up with an overarching storyline that makes sense to be set all through time and space, and follows a different structure to the previous two years. If the rumours circling around are true (and I try to stay clear of spoilers but some always get through), the shot of the always excellent John Simm as the mysterious Mr Saxon, the House of Commons looming large behind him, may give us something of a clue. The title of the final episode, Last of the Time Lords, is also tantalisingly suggestive…

Last year, I tried to give a capsule review of each episode on Outpost Gallifrey, often while still rather blinkered by the enjoyment of the episode and unnecessarily apologetic for its flaws. This year, hopefully, I’ll do a rather more in-depth review of each episode here, and link to it from OG. That’s the plan, anyway. Watch this space…