Doctor Who – The Shakespeare Code

Something strange is happening in London in 1599. A young man serenades Lilith[1], a beautiful young woman. When she invites him in, he thinks his luck’s in, but he’s a bit worried when he sees her room, which seems a bit too full of cauldrons, arcane symbols and the like to be a suitable residence for a nice girl. He’s even more perturbed when immediately after kissing Lilith, she transforms into a hideous witch creature. And when she summons her two mothers, even more hideous witch creatures called Doomfinger and Bloodtide, he’s distinctly concerned. But he doesn’t have too much time to worry about it, as the witches immediately kill him.

The Doctor and Martha arrive in London in 1599[3]. On leaving the Tardis, Martha asks if it’s safe to be in her past. What if she steps on a butterfly and changes the future? Doctor advises her

Don’t step on any butterflies! What have butterflies ever done to you?

The Doctor offers to take Martha to the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s plays are performed. She’s excited at the thought of meeting Shakespeare.

The Doctor: When you get home you can tell everyone you’ve met Shakespeare

Martha: And then I can get sectioned

Anyway, they see Love’s Labours Lost, after which Shakespeare comes on stage. This is Shakespeare as a young man, played as a rock star. He tells the audience that there will be a sequel, Love’s Labours Won. One of the witch creatures is in the audience, and by means of what looks like a voodoo doll, makes Shakespeare announce that the new play will be performed the very next night. Which is interesting, because Love’s Labours Won is a “lost” Shakespeare play. No manuscript of it exists, but there are records of it having existed at some point.

The Doctor and Martha go to see Shakespeare, and we soon realise that there’s something special about him. For a start, the Doctor’s psychic paper doesn’t work on him – he sees the blank paper instead of what the Doctor wants him to see. And he recognises that the Doctor has hidden depths:

How can a man so young have eyes so old?

And from there on, things get a lot more interesting. The “witches” are Carrionites, creatures from the dawn of time, who were banished by the Eternals[4]. Their technology is based on the use of words rather than mathematics. The right words in the right place can have incredible power, which is why they’re interested in Shakespeare. They influence him to add some apparent nonsense at the end of his new play – words that will release all the other Carrionites who will destroy all life on Earth.

Before the really quite impressive climax, we’re treated to Harry Potter gags, and some quite superb interaction between the Doctor and Shakespeare, not least the running gag where every time the Doctor uses a line from a Shakespeare play, the bard says “I might use that”.

In the end, it takes the combined forces of the Doctor, Shakespeare, Martha and J K Rowling[5] to defeat the Carrionites. All nicely done, and all good fun. But we’re not finished yet!

Shakespeare, who has already said how happy is not to be the most intelligent person around for once, shows his brilliance: he knows that the Doctor is from another world and that Martha is from the future, but that doesn’t stop him writing a sonnet for his “dark lady”[6]. Just then, Queen Elizabeth I arrives at the theatre. Having heard about the play, she wants another performance. However, she recognises the Doctor and shouts:

Doctor – my sworn enemy! Off with his head!

Which is a bit of a surprise for the Doctor, as he hasn’t met her yet! So he’s got something to look forward to. The Doctor and Martha flee and depart in the Tardis.

So there you have it. A nifty historical episode, in which the Doctor gets to meet someone nearly as clever as he is, some alien technology that looks remarkably like magic[7], lots of fun, David Tennant on sparkling form, excellent dialogue and nicely scary witches, who persist in talking in rhyme in the manner of the ones in Macbeth, which Shakespeare hadn’t written yet.

I’ve watched it twice, and I’m still impressed. And that’s only episode two of the series. Next week it’s back to New New York, for a (final?) meeting with the Face of Boe. Woo hoo!

[1] No hints in that name then[2]
[2] And no, I’m not talking about Frasier Crane’s ex-wife :laugh:
[3] The Doctor does have a knack for turning up when something bad is about to happen
[4] And we haven’t heard about them for a while
[5] Well, her words, or at least one of them, anyway
[6] So that’s who it was!
[7] Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law strikes again