Three years in and the so-called ?elebrity?historical has become something of an annual tradition in new DOCTOR WHO. In 2005 we saw the Doctor and Rose encounter Charles Dickens, last year Queen Victoria crossed swords with a werewolf and made a new enemy in the shape of the recently-regenerated tenth Doctor (and we even had a bonus celeb in the form of Madame du Pompadour in a later episode) and this year it? the turn of Bill Shakespeare, the original Bard Wolf, to trade quips with the Doctor and new-girl-on-TARDIS Martha. Gareth Roberts?first proper DOCTOR WHO script (he wrote last year? brief TARDISodes, the interactive ?ttack of the Graske? co-wrote the charming pilot episode for THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES and has a long line of well-regarded DOCTOR WHO novels to his credit) is a bouncy, lively, spritely thing, witty and literate, bold and saucy. The production ?the BBC at its costume drama best ?is pretty breath-taking and it? full of jaunty performances. But, oddly, it all feels a bit familiar; some of the plot contrivances evoke memories of season one? ?he Unquiet Dead?(CGI aliens rampage through a theatre as a noted playwright/author performs his latest work), one or two of the characterisations are a bit over-ripe (that? you, evil witches) and ultimately the story has a bit too much of the flippancy early episode of new series of DOCTOR WHO tend to favour before the slightly darker stuff comes along later in the run.
BBC Wales clearly went to town on ?he Shakespeare Code??that town actually being London (with a bit of Coventry thrown in for good measure). 16th century London is wonderfully recreated and the early street scenes with the Doctor and Martha dodging?r?ubstances hurled from upstairs windows and wandering amongst the raggedy locals, are hugely atmospheric. Sumptuous filming in the Globe Theatre adds enormously to the theatrical side of the storyline and FX bods the Mill, yet again, work wonders on a TV budget by making the theatre look packed to the rafters with just forty or so enthusiastic extras. Its authentic atmosphere and often cheeky dialogue is what keeps ?he Shakespeare Code?rattling along because, in truth, the plot ain? all that much. It appears that a trio of witch-like aliens, the Carrionites, are attempting to corrupt the Bard? work by using his unfinished play ?ove? Labours Won?to open up a dimensional portal (or something) through which the rest of their kind can sweep across the Earth. It? all very pot-boilerish but done with such gusto it? easy to forgive the familiarity of the idea and just wallow in the beauty of the production and the subtleties of the script.
Gareth Roberts clearly knows his Shakespeare and there? a lot of subtle stuff here, from the Bard? distress at the premature death of his son Hamnet, sensible use of the legends of the ?issing?play and plenty of clever gags. Some of the gags go on a bit, though; like last year? ?e are not amused?gimmick, the idea of the Doctor giving Shakespeare ideas for lines of dialogue gets a bit wearing and repetitious but it? hard not to cheer at the extremely witty use of the reference to the Sycorax from ?he Christmas Invasion?a name which, as was noted at the time, has its origins in the works of Shakespeare. Now we know why!
Guest star Dean Lennox Kelly plays Shakespeare as the swaggering, cocky rock star of the 16th century, all high kicks on stage and weariness of the attentions of his fans. It? an interesting, tongue-in-cheek portrayal which might cause purists the odd palpitation but it makes the character far more palatable to a modern audience than the rather stuffy, patrician image generally associated with Shakespeare. The sparks fly when Shakespeare becomes entranced by Martha (another cracking performance by Freema Agyeman, easily cementing her position as a more than worthy replacement for Billie Piper? iconic Rose) and David Tennant is clearly in his element here, coolly confronting the Carrionite leader Lilith (Cole) and ultimately encouraging Shakespeare to resolve the whole situation in his own very special way.
The Carrionites themselves are creations which veer wildly from the pantomime (their cackling, crooked-nose witch-forms) to the creepy (the swooping, ethereal CGI creatures at the climax). But they?e an enemy not to be trifled with and one or two scenes are genuinely quite unsettling ?the (off-camera) destruction of Lilith? would-be suitor and, especially, a surprisingly-graphic ?ry-land drowning?complete with spluttering and liberal doses of choking water-regurgitation. It? hard not to smile at the scene where Lilith escapes her first confrontation with the Doctor by means of a broomstick. Well, some clich?are just too delicious to resist?n
?he Shakespeare Code?is a perfectly-servicable, beautifully-crafted episode with plenty of moments to savour ?the Doctor and Martha? visit to Bedlam, the Doctor and Martha? bedroom scene with the Doctor blind to the fact that his new girl? clearly interested in him as more than just a time-travelling companion, the breathless flight back to the TARDIS after a close encounter with an old enemy the Doctor? not even made yet! It? cracking stuff but it can? help creating a sense of d? vu, almost as if this is a celebrity historical for the sake of it. But its breakneck pace means you?e never bored and it? nice to be reminded that DOCTOR WHO is always at its most disarming when it? just being fun. A story much admir? then, but maybe not ador??