Stand on this stage, say the right words with the right emphasis at the right time. Oh, you can make men weep, or cry with joy.
In many respects this is an episode that’s quite well tailored to my interests – if not aged 8, certainly now, when I’ve got into literature a bit more. (Or, more accurately, studied it in depth a bit more.)
Certainly, the basic ideas are all ones that I quite like; language shaping and influencing reality is a great concept, particularly when tied into Shakespeare and the obviously iconic witches. In some respects, this central conceit just about writes itself. It’s undeniably effective; while a lot of details are sketched in shorthand, they can afford to be, because a lot of the imagery it’s trading on is so iconic. There’s a sense of atmosphere that’s created easily and conveyed effectively, carrying across the story and defining its tone quite well. I’d have liked it more, admittedly, if it had gone a little deeper on the Shakespearean aspects though; while what we got what was fun, it was also in some respects just superficial iconography. Maybe some deeper thematic allusions, or writing the entire episode in iambic pentameter (though I freely acknowledge that’s an absolutely nonsensical demand to make).
Still, though, this idea very much works within the conceit of Doctor Who – it’s the power of stories. (In that regard, it might be more in line with the thematic interests of the Moffat era, really, with his focus on story and memory, but I’m getting ahead of myself there.) It’s great to see the show embracing this, but again, it’s something I’d have hoped to see explore in more detail – it’s a concept with so much potential, you can really dive into this. (One day I’ll bring the Carrionites back, don’t worry.)
This feeds into my largest quibble, admittedly: the “expelliarmus” line. It’s nice in theory, but I am inclined to question the structure of it from a dramatic point of view – surely the solution should grow from Shakespeare, using a word he invented? Admittedly, something like “assassination” or “zany” or “skim milk” does lack the potency of “expelliarmus”, but then perhaps it shouldn’t have been structured in that way at all? I suppose it casts JK Rowling and Harry Potter in the same tradition of great literature, and would probably enthuse children towards Shakespeare by comparing them, but something about it still feels a little bit off.
Haunting the narrative, though, is the story of Rose. She’s still being set up as this ideal to compare Martha against (even as Martha repeatedly proves her competency, again continuing this idea that she’s the model companion) and it… well, it’s not great.
Most obviously, when putting Rose on a pedestal, it warps everything else around her. You can understand this in the general terms – Rose was the story of Doctor Who in those first two years – but I can’t help but feel like it’s been overdone here. Arguably from a story perspective, it makes sense, because the Doctor would miss her, but it’s being done too overtly, too openly. This should really be relegated to subtext – after all, we’ve seen the Doctor grieve for Rose in The Runaway Bride, and this is some time after that for the Doctor, but crucially also for the audience. It could simply be that I’m more familiar with the concept and I’m willing to accept companion changes intuitively, and maybe it was different for audiences then, but having been watching the series in ‘real time’, I’m not sat here missing Rose. I liked Rose a lot, sure, but I don’t actively miss her. In turn, then, I’m inclined to question just how necessary this all was.
Necessary or not, it’s a problem – specifically, it’s a problem for Martha. I’m reminded of a bit in The Writer’s Tale (my bible) where Russell T Davies is a bit panicky about how The Daily Mail or someone took quotes out of context to make it seem like he said Martha would always be second best to Rose. Which is an understandable concern, but for the fact that they do present Martha as a second best to Rose. Overtly so, in fact – yes, you can argue that it’s just the Doctor who believes that, and it’s part of his character arc for the season, but insofar as we consider the Doctor an authority over the narrative (and we must, since he’s now transitioning to the main character in a way he wasn’t before when Rose was around) that in turn means we’re inclined to treat Martha that way too.
Which is quite unfortunate, to say the least. Particularly so since we’re sticking with the idea of Martha being in love with the Doctor – again, it’s a bit of a problem. There’s no reason why it couldn’t work if it was built to more gradually (this is, after all, leading straight from Smith and Jones, so Martha’s only known the Doctor for about a day!) but here it feels far too quick. It’d be enough of an issue on its own terms, really, but alongside the fact that the Doctor is treating Martha as second best? It’s not great.
Indeed, the whole thing really undercuts her character, taking the wind out of her sails completely. Admittedly one gets the sense that this is less a specific failing of The Shakespeare Code and more that Martha is just being poorly served by the overarching narrative of the series, but nonetheless, it’s difficult to see how this is appropriate.
Another interesting aspect of this episode – albeit a fairly fleeting one – is how it treats race. Martha is, after all, Doctor Who’s first non-white main televised companion (various caveats withstanding, of course) so this is an angle that’s worth some exploration, right?
Well, no. The episode more or less sidesteps it completely; while Martha does question it, the Doctor dismisses her concerns with one of the most fascinating and breath-taking displays of privilege the character has ever uttered. (More on which shortly.)
I’m inclined to say, almost, that this is probably the best way to handle it in an episode where you’re not going to make a thing of it. But then that does beg the question – why wouldn’t you make something of it? It’s not that it can’t be handled deftly or appropriately (not to spoil things too much, but this is an idea they return to later in the series) and it certainly throws up some interesting potential – Martha is going to have a fundamentally different experience with time travel than Rose would, so why not depict that? I suppose the decision was to acknowledge it but not dwell upon it, which – while I can understand that – I do question somewhat.
Far more interesting, though, is what the Doctor said:
“Just walk about like you own the place, it’s what I always do.”
That’s an absolutely fascinating quote, in terms of how it highlights just how different his perception of events is. (Really, it’s sort of awful, and the Doctor should absolutely have made more of an effort to resolve Martha’s concerns rather than dismiss them, but that’s another issue again.)
In turn, though, it’s also the one line in the entirety of Doctor Who that so fundamentally encapsulates why I’d love to see a female Doctor, or a non-white Doctor. A huge part of Doctor Who is throwing the character up against these power structures, seeing the character backed up against a wall, etc – a female Doctor offers an entirely new perspective on every aspect of the series that we take for granted. It wouldn’t change the dynamic, per se, but it’d filter it through an entirely new lens, offering a huge amount more potential – isn’t that exciting?
Not that the above has a huge amount to do with The Shakespeare Code, admittedly. But still. It’s a perfectly entertaining episode – it’s very funny, and I suspect I enjoyed it a lot more this go around than I would have last time, on account of actually understanding more of the Shakespeare references.
And yet the episode is hobbled somewhat – both by its treatment of Martha, and oddly by its treatment of Shakespeare, who can’t quite be important enough within his own story to actually save the day. (Contrast this with Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, where the resolution did revolve around him.)
So, it’s an imperfect but enjoyable second episode. It’s not a problem, because in the end, this always happens – after all, the course of Doctor Who never did run smooth…