21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Shakespeare Code

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Or shall I compare thee to something what the cat just dragged in?

Forsooth! It's celebrity historical time again! Following the visits to Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria, the Doctor decides to go further back in time to meet William Shakespeare, with an awestruck Martha in tow.

You know the drill by now. Somehow the famous face from the past gets embroiled in a fiendish alien plot to either kill lots of people off and/or take over the world.

Maybe that's one of the reasons why The Shakespeare Code feels stale. One of the great things about what some folks call 'Classic' Doctor Who is that the run of stories in each season never followed a set pattern. Yet in the 21st century, for the first four seasons, the order of the first few stories normally goes something like this: Present day action adventure; Historical romp; futuristic wonder (feel free to switch the order at any point). Bearing that in mind, the celebrity historical already feels a bit predictable because it's part of a rather inflexible formula.

Visually, The Shakespeare Code is a triumph, but for some reason, the story ends up getting on my nerves. In theory, it should be an exciting, thrill-a-minute horror story. There's a band (well, three anyway) of vicious witch hag things called Carrionites who wish to make the Earth a planet of blood, bones and pain. They're not above ripping some poor sap to pieces in the pre-credits teaser, and they then proceed to kill off a few comedy stereotype grunts in typically oddball Midsomer-esque fashion.

Behind the scenes, there's also great promise. Writer Gareth Roberts will go on to scribble some wonderful tales such as The Unicorn And The Wasp and The Lodger, two good examples of how to achieve the perfect balance of humour and drama. Director, Charles Palmer had just come good with his previous assignment, Smith And Jones. David Tennant and Freema Agyeman have all the makings of being a dynamic new TARDIS team.

All encouraging signs. But for me, the end product is little more than a bland trudge around a comedy 16th century village populated by men in stupid wigs and rubbish witches who look like they've escaped from the set of a Jackanory play. The script mines the lowest depths of smugness and naff pop culture in order to get down wiv da kidz. Factor in a bullying, unlikeable Doctor and a companion who's already too busy making unrequited cow eyes at the Time Lord and you're left with a comedy of what feels like a million and one errors.

Talking of, the main running gag of The Shakespeare Code isn't funny. When presented with a possible title of a play or an inspiring quote, Shakespeare clicks his fingers and announces: “Ooh, I must write that down!” It's a joke that's just about tolerable the first time, and then after that becomes irksome very quickly. Furthermore, it portrays Shakespeare as a lazy con merchant. Judging from the evidence, he's the sort of sneak who visits pubs armed with a quill and parchment to listen in on conversations. If he hears something he likes, he'll quickly scribble down these brilliant turns of phrase. What a cheat, eh? Judging from this meeting, the Doctor should have avoided Shakespeare like the plagiarism.

In order to make Shakespeare more accessible to newcomers, the production team wanted him portrayed as a Liam Gallagher-style showman, full of over-confident swagger and designer stubble. While Dean Lennox Kelly is actually very good (and the best of the guest cast), it's such an obvious parallel with the Oasis frontman. Just for the record, I'm not one of those stuffy pompous academic types who thinks that Shakespeare should be all prim and proper and historically accurate to the letter. I couldn't care less if Shakespeare was played in the style of the lead singer of Napalm Death – just as long as it's done with a little integrity. Instead, Shakespeare comes across as a lazy, stereotypical cut-out, who has less depth or background than Dickens or Victoria. The outcome of this is that Shakespeare feels like the weak link in the celebrity historicals.

Although I do like the quip about the wig.

Let's turn attention to the Carrionites. Never for a moment do they convince as a terrifying force of evil. Instead, they come across as silly, cackling figures of fun who seem mysteriously able to come and go as they please. The pre-credits teaser act sets them up as memorable monsters, when they rip apart the poor young scamp who's smitten with dull head witch Lilith. Frightening stuff, but the clumsy make-up and the fact that they only tend to talk the talk about how powerful they are plummet their stock at a rate of knots. We're regularly presented with shots of them cackling away ten to the dozen, or making pompous, overblown threats (“Now begins the millennium of blood!”). Clichéd and dull, the Carrionites must surely rank as one of the least convincing baddies in modern Doctor Who.

It doesn't help that the performances are either too broad or too vanilla. Amanda Lawrence and Linda Clark opt for the obvious choice of playing Doomfinger and Bloodtide as cackling, babbling crones. Christina Cole, on the other hand, mooches blandly through proceedings with all the menace of a PR girl delivering a Pinpoint presentation on marketing statistics to a half-asleep clutch of trainee juniors. It's never explained why Lilith can change her face into a normal human being, while the other two can't. Nor why whenever Lilith shows up on screen, a woman starts crying in the background.

Ah, right, that's a lone refugee of Murray's Pompous Choir attempting to sing – gotcha. 

While the acting for some of the other characters is much better (including Matt King, Angela Pleasance in a memorable cameo wrap-up and Andree Bernard – Nervous Nerys!), there's no attempt at reality. There are the two comedy yokel actors. The buxom serving wench. The huffy Master Of The Revels. The Shakespeare Code isn't interested in presenting half-believable characters, instead dishing out comedy stereotypes whose sole function is to propel the plot forward.

Even in potentially threatening moments, it's impossible to feel anything for the characters, since they have no background or even personality. Lynley, for example: beyond the fact that he doesn't want Shakepeare's new blockbuster play to go ahead, we don't know the first thing about him. When he starts doing Kenneth Williams-style gurning as he's asked to splutter quick bursts of bottled water in a badly shot and edited death scene, I'm just shrugging and going “So what?”. Other minor characters in NuWho such as Scooti, the Programmers on the Game Station or even Mr Stoker get more depth, so their untimely demises hit harder. Here, it's the novelty of Lynley's death that's the more important. Although oddly, the Doctor claims that he's never seen a man drown on dry land before, evidently forgetting about poor old Professor Kettering in The Mind Of Evil. No excuse for such a lax memory.

But then the Doctor's too busy carrying on like an arse to worry about such geeky trivialities. Blimey, he's really keen on letting Martha know that he doesn't want her around, isn't he? He's either still blathering on about how she's only getting one trip in the TARDIS, shouting at her, or tactlessly musing on how Rose would miraculously come up with a solution to the Carrionite problem. When in fact Rose would probably say something sarcastic and then get herself captured by snoozy PR robot, Lilith.

Already, the unrequited love storyline's kicking in with a vengeance, and this story is one of the worst offenders. Martha's infectiously joyous enthusiasm (I love the “Author! Author!” bit) is tempered by the fact that she's asked to look forlorn whenever the Doctor barks at her or whenever he keeps going on about Rose. It's a shame that Martha can't act as a fully functional companion in her own right. All that promise built up in Smith And Jones has been chucked out of the window in favour of a storyline that will ultimately go nowhere. That said, David and Freema still deliver excellent performances, and handle the regularly ropey material well.

The least appealing example of which is the non-stop pop culture references. When he's trying to explain the mechanics of the infinite temporal flux, for some odd reason, he uses the analogy of the Back To The Future films (yes, the films, not the novelisation, as the Doctor sarcastically points out to Martha). Fair enough, the similarity's there, but it's such a naff, dumbed-down explanation – only outdone by the denouement of the story in which the Carrionites are finally defeated by...

JK Rowling.

Good old JK (as the Doctor calls her) crops up in The Shakespeare Code quite a lot you know. “It's a little bit Harry Potter,” muses Martha at one point, to which the Doctor crows: “Wait until you read Book Seven – oh, I cried!” I cried too – but only at the thought of having to read 10,000 or so pages. Besides which, Book Seven's old news right now, given that most people know how You Know Who gets his comeuppance. But if that's not bad enough, the hordes of Carrionites are banished with a bellow of “Expelliarmus!”


Talk about a cop-out resolution. What next? The Third Doctor defeats the Master with a moral-ridden Oompa Loompa rhyme? The Fourth Doctor overpowers Styggron with a quick tale of Noddy and Big Ears?

There's no urgency, drama or tension in The Shakespeare Code. Characters seem to walk around in a daze around a slightly grotty little 16th century village. Despite the big budget visuals, the thing lacks scale. Even potentially grim scenarios like the Bedlam scene turn into bland mush. The Doctor starts on in his usual patronising, hectoring manner at the jailer for just doing his job (“I think it helps if you don't whip them – now get out!”) in the primitive 16th century way, which of course, was the norm back then. I never once got the feeling that the Doctor, Martha and Shakespeare are walking around some awful “madhouse”. The script doesn't offer any such opportunity, and the confrontation scene between the Doctor and Doomfinger (“I name you... Carrionite!”) reduces any potential attempt at drama even further.

One element in The Shakespeare Code's favour is the swanky visuals. The episode has a high-budget feel to it, with plenty of authentic costumes and interior designs. The BBC always comes up trumps with period drama, and The Shakespeare Code is no exception. There's a tangible feel of 16th century life in the air, with its smoky taverns and packed-to-the-gills theatres (good use of split screen techniques here to boost the extras' numbers).

Charles Palmer, flushed with success from his Smith And Jones assignment, acquits himself well again. There are some notably good shots, such as the foregrounding of the skull, the floating Lilith and the climatic shot of the Carrionite swarm. Even if the story's resolution is lame, at least Palmer has the loaf to disguise this with some excellent direction, worthy of the big screen.

But when it comes down to it, The Shakespeare Code doesn't work for me. Like Time And The Rani, you can have flashy visuals galore, but they mean nothing if the script's lacking. Many of the issues hark back to last season, suggesting that it's the fault of the production team rather than Gareth Roberts, who will come up with far superior stories in the future.

It's hard to try and pick out the greatest fault of The Shakespeare Code. Is it too smug for its own good? Does it try and fail to be funny? Does the complete lack of terror bring the tale to its knees? Or do the pop culture references smother the action? Well, yes to all four, but sadly, The Shakespeare Code also suffers from being ordinary in the extreme. We could have had some weird and wonderful experience with terrifying witch-like monsters and a real sense of threat, but this is Doctor Who by numbers, a check-list of stock clichés, each of which is ticked off one by one in the most unimaginative way possible. Not even a furious Queen Elizabeth The First can save this one.

Much ado about nothing, really.

* Lots of words on 1970s & 1980s Doctor Who? Ooh, I must write those down...


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US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B077K8MN2P


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US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DBBSSW9