Friday, May 15, 2015

“Catspaw” For Doctor Who: “The Shakespeare Code”

The Good: Moments of concept, Performances
The Bad: Light on character development, Terrible villains, Awful mix of fantasy and science fiction
The Basics: “The Shakespeare Code” is a random bottle episode that creates one of the least compelling aliens of the week that blends fantasy into the usually strong science fiction series.

In the classic Star Trek, there is a Halloween episode that might have been fun when it first aired, but has aged incredibly poorly. That episode is “Catspaw” (reviewed here!) and while the Doctor Who episode “The Shakespeare Code” was not released as a Halloween episode, it suffers from many of the same problems. Doctor Who is solidly science fiction, as a time travel adventure through both time and space. Whenever one imports fantasy elements into something that strives for more realism than the fantastic, they are left wanting. “The Shakespeare Code” suffers for that reason.

Interestingly, “The Shakespeare Code” is enjoyable to watch, but pretty horrible to consider. The episode takes the usual time and space adventures of The Doctor and his new Companion from the prior episode, “Smith And Jones” (reviewed here!) and essentially tells a witchcraft story. The unfortunate aspect of this is that to buy the premise, the fantasy elements have to be blended with the science fiction and it gels poorly. In short: witchcraft is just alien powers. Bleh.

In London, 1599, a man is killed by what appears to be three witches. Living up to his promise to take Martha on one trip in time, The Doctor and Martha Jones arrive in London right after the murder. There, The Doctor takes Martha to the Globe Theater where they see Love’s Labour’s Lost. There, they see Shakespeare and are surprised when he promises the audience that the next day he will premiere Love’s Labour’s Won. Visiting Shakespeare in his chambers, Shakespeare gets smitten with Martha. Shakespeare’s maid is one of the “witches” and she dispatches of the local censor.

Shakespeare is being influenced by the “witches” to finish Love’s Labour’s Won, with lines that are essentially a spell which will open their portal to release another of their kind. While rehearsing the play while The Doctor, Martha and Shakespeare go to Bedlam to find the architect of the Globe Theater, the actors almost open the portal. The Doctor talks to Peter Streete, the architect, and does his mind meld with him to clear the architect’s mind. A “witch” materializes, kills Peter, and threatens the Doctor. The Doctor figures out that the witches are Carrionites, who are aliens who use words for power and who disappeared near the dawn of the universe. Together, The Doctor, Martha and Shakespeare work to stop the Carrionites.

Martha Jones almost instantly establishes herself as a smarter-than-usual Companion by asking all the right questions when she and The Doctor arrive on the streets of London. She quickly adapts to asking “when” they are, as opposed to simply “where.” She is concerned that she might be carted off as a slave and that her actions in the past might have serious ramifications. She is emotionally aware enough to be irked when The Doctor alludes to Rose again.

“The Shakespeare Code” falls back repeatedly on the joke of Shakespeare wanting to steal the lines of those who speak around him. The episode is notable in that it relies upon humor much more than most episodes of Doctor Who. While the appearance of Queen Elizabeth leads to perhaps the longest-running joke of the series, most of the jokes are repetitive and simplistic. Martha Jones is originally awestruck by Shakespeare and the whole interplay seems to be leading up to Shakespeare starting his famous sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” for her.

The humor notwithstanding, ”The Shakespeare Code” is problematic in that it is another episode where a “mythic” race is presented . .. but then has no real consequences. The adventure in Doctor Who do not, usually, involve The Doctor having long conversations with aliens he encounters. So, the idea that there is an alien race that has been lost since the dawn of time that The Doctor has heard rumors about seems almost as far-fetched as the idea that the Globe Theater was specially constructed as an amplifier for energy released by the resonance of specific words.

That is the start of the conceptual problem with “The Shakespeare Code.” Like all science fiction, “The Shakespeare Code” stretches to explain magic in a scientific universe. That’s fine and The Doctor noting things like DNA control mechanisms do a good job of justifying some of the magic in the otherwise realistic universe. But then the viewer has to accept that in Shakespeare’s grief, he released three Carrionites who then want to release the rest of their kind. How did the Carrionites possibly know the right words to feed to Shakespeare to get him (or the actors) to open the portal? Seriously, if the Carrionites ever figured out what the right words were, why would they have ever needed actors to open the portal?! The episode never truly addresses that.

The performances in “The Shakespeare Code” are pretty much all that make the episode watchable. Dean Lennox Kelly is great as Shakespeare. He infuses the character with energy and swagger that makes his credible as the popular author. That the name “J.K. Rowling” pops up so frequently in the Shakespeare episode is troubling, but Kelly manages to land the character. Kelly and Freema Agyeman have good on-screen chemistry. Agyeman and David Tennant continue to develop good chemistry for delivering their lines, despite how many jokes are in the episode.

The special effects in “The Shakespeare Code” are mediocre at best, but they do not drive the episode down too far. In fact, this is an episode that is plagued with concept problems and writing issues long before it was produced.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Third Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the second season of the Tenth Doctor here!

For other works with Matt King, please visit my reviews of:
The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret - Season 1


For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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