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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “The Shakespeare Code”

(Don’t miss the introduction to my Doctor Who drooling…)

(previous: Episode 1: “Smith & Jones”)

Ah, now here we have the genuine thrill of traveling with the Doctor: visiting the past. The future is cool and all, an undiscovered country, but history… ah, history is a storied place we never get to visit. Unless we’re with the Doctor.

I love Martha. She asks all the questions we would ask, the questions the Doctor’s companions should always have been asking: How does the TARDIS travel in time? What makes it go? She doesn’t get any answers, but that she asks is important, I think. Her curiosity about the Doctor is far more intellectual than that of almost any of the other human companions. She instantly fall in love with the Doctor, sure, and what better reason to keep hanging around with him, but she would be genuinely fascinated by the situation she finds herself in on its own even if she weren’t. Her questions about stepping on butterflies and killing one’s grandfather… this is a woman — dare I say it, a geek — who has thought about the implications of time travel before. She’s an excellent stand-in for us.
And never more so than when she finds herself in bed — if entirely innocently so — with the Doctor. Oh, poor Martha, so intimately face to face with him, and he’s thoroughly unaffected by it.

Still: she’s a practical gal, not one to go all screamy and girly at the first sign of something icky. Like the evidence for the lack of indoor plumbing that gets dumped at her feet. How the hell cool is she, anyway?

And how the hell cool is Will Shakespeare, too? He’s not taken in by the Doctor’s psychic paper, he catches on to the truth about the Doctor and Martha, and the power of his words is more than something metaphoric. There’s a steely backbone in this episode that seems to be a kind of standing up for its own silliness: words have the power to change minds, and “entertainment for the masses,” as the Doctor points out that Shakespeare was in his day, can be so much more than mere simple diversion. Will is the greatest genius of all humanity, Harry Potter Book 7 made the Doctor cry, so it’s okay if we’re getting way more caught up in Doctor Who than we should, right?

There’s a lot of meta going on here, actually. Like here, the Doctor urging Will to give up wasting time hitting on Martha at least until they save the world:

“We can all have a good flirt later!” — the Doctor

“That a promise, Doctor?” — Will

“Oh, 57 academics just punched the air…” — the Doctor

Now, c’mon: that’s gotta be a meta reference to the TV audience watching this episode — who else is listening? Whom else could the Doctor be referring to?

There’s a lot of meta going on throughout the entirety of this new Doctor Who. Pop culture references, for one, were never tossed around on the old Who — oh, maybe there was the occasional mention of Blue Peter, the BBC’s long-running kiddie show, but that’s about it. Sarah Jane Smith never dropped a quick allusion to how she was reading Roots or that she sometimes felt like Annie Hall; Jo Grant never complained she was missing an episode of Are You Being Served?. But now we have, in this one episode alone, references to Harry Potter, Back to the Future, and the Marx Brothers, all by the Doctor himself, not his human companion (although arguably his usage of the fake place name Freedonia is more generic than a nod to Groucho).

I’m tempted to say this is evidence of the influence of other recent TV science fiction like Farscape and Stargate SG-1, with their pop-culture-snarking heroes, but I think it’s the other way around. It’s not that you can’t make shows like these in the Aughts without featuring a hero who drops pop culture references left and right and so Who had better imitate that attitude if it wants to succeed; it’s that if you’re making this kind of show in the Aughts featuring a 30something hero, a hero you want to appeal to 30somethings (like the 50something Jack O’Neill), or a hero who at least appears to be 30something (like the Doctor in ), it’s inevitable that pop culture snarking will come into it, because that’s who we 30somethings are today. It’s simply natural for the Doctor (or, really, the 30something writers) to drop in nods to movies, TV, the Internet, because that’s what we all do these days. I don’t have memories of the Seventies that extend beyond my own limited kiddie experience to the world at large, but I find it easy to believe that grownups, on the whole, simply weren’t as obsessed with pop culture then the way grownups are today. If Jo Grant missed an episode of Are You Being Served?, well, that was it: it was missed. She couldn’t have TiVoed it to watch later, or gone online to read a wrapup at Television Without Pity, or Torrented the missing episode. But surely the Doctor can simply have the TARDIS tap into the satellite communications of the global TV networks if he misses an episode of Lost.

Of course, the Jon Pertwee Doctor could probably have popped forward to 2007 and simply bought Jo Grant a DVD player and a box set of Are You Being Served?… if only the writers at the time knew that.

Random thoughts on “The Shakespeare Code”:

• The Doctor failed his test to fly the TARDIS? Or was he kidding?

• On witchcraft: Once again we see that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

• Expelliarmus! Tee-hee!

• There’s power in a name? What does that say for the fact that the Doctor has no name, or at least one that he won’t reveal? What’s the power in his name that he’s afraid of?

• Ah, so Martha was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady!

• We had the Bad Wolf arc back in Season 1. And the Torchwood arc in Season 2. And now fans have decided that Season 3’s arc is “Mr. Saxon.” (Don’t read this link unless you want spoilers.) But I’m seeing some interestingly arc-ish stuff in the fact that many of the “bad guys” in this season are creatures from the dawn of the universe, from the “old times” or “dark times.” Like “Runaway Bride”’s Racnoss, the Carrionites here, and other antagonists to come. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

• The Doctor imprisons the Carrionites in the crystal ball — they’re not dead, but they are eternally captive by his doing. This is a grim theme that will repeat later on…

(next: Episode 3: “Gridlock”)

MPAA: not rated

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