"...The light of Shadmock's hollow moon doth
shine on to a point in space betwixt Dravidian Shores
and Linear 5930167.02, and strikes the
fulsome grove of Rexel 4; co-radiating crystal activate..."
An evening at the theatre is anything but relaxing for the Doctor and Martha.
It's 1599 and an alien force, the Carrionites, is working to undermine society but what do they want with William Shakespeare?
When eyeofhorus.org.uk revealed in 2003 that the NEW SERIES would have a "pre-titles sequence" it was lambasted by online fan websites in their coordinated attempt to discredit the site. "All lies" they pitifully cried.
But it survived the last great fan war.
The adoption of the pre-title sequence has proved, even though stalwart stick-in-the-mud jaded fans has seen it as not DOCTOR WHO (the CLASSIC SERIES kind), highly successful in drawing in and establishing a plot. A tussie-mussie of the story with a hint of Russell T Davies.
LILITH: Such sweet music stirs that your blood is afire. Why wait beyond stale custom for consummation.
YOUNG MAN: Oh yes. Tonight's the night.
LILITH: Would you enter, bold sir?
YOUNG BOY: Oh, I would.
It is with THE SHAKESPEARE CODE that the pre-titles sequence provides a prime example of why (and how skillfully woven into the storytelling) the format was chosen by BBC WALES. It establishes setting (London 1599), timbre (a drama that has been carefully researched and realised), and threat (a
mediæval siren that draws the unwary in through deceit revealing a monstrosity). How could anyone "flick over" to watch talentless wannabees in a BUTLINS holiday camp camp review?
MATTHEW WALTER (standing and addressing a meeting of like minded DOCTOR WHO fans): Hello, my name is Matthew.
OTHERS (in unison): Hello, Matthew.
MATTHEW (timidly): ...and I am a DOCTOR WHO fan that likes historically set stories.
Not quite ALOCOHOLIC ANNOYMOUS but near enough. Whilst a sweeping statement, it is true that the BBC "does historical drama the best" and so, when DOCTOR WHO heads in that (past) direction, for me, the expectation is exceedingly high. THE VISITATION being a prime example of, with little resources, time but with the ingenuity & deftness of BBC crafts-people, DOCTOR WHO can tell a ripping yarn of aliens on Earth and yet inform viewers of life in the
mediæval period (This a probably the only DOCTOR WHO episode, in this four decade history, that so prominently features hunan faeces).
THE SHAKESPEARE CODE, however, eclipses, like a witch on a broomstick, THE VISITATION sending it further back into the Dark Ages
The opening "plate" (with place/time setting graphic) is evocative of the period. A London groaning at the seams (even river crossings are crammed with homes and shops that would not be out of place in today's metropolis. The computer rendering is staggering detailed, populated with "green screen" people taking the night air (considering the sanitation of 16th century london, perhaps they should reconsider...) and wood-burning stoves & fires casting a a pre-industrial 'smog' across the 'Smoke'.
The episode is littered with scenic vignettes (matte paintings) of creative genius by The Mill TV. (see below screengrabs). To excuse the Bard himself; a labour of love, surely. These are beautiful, intelligent and cinematically artistic.
The set design & dressing throughout the episode is equally professional and precise, effortless on the eye and combine with live-action shots without question. Designs that the CLASSIC SERIES designer, Barry Newberry would be proud. One gripe - just one: The correlation of internally lit (candlelight) interiors and the relative exterior shots do not tie-in. The exterior view of room windows are too "orangey", too bright for interiors lit by a mere handful of candles.
Richard Clarke's direction is tighter than it was in SMITH AND JONES, with each scene being a rich, freshly brush stroked painting to lavish upon. The contribution by the ever surprising Murray Gold is, again and again and again, stunning. The music score for DOCTOR WHO could be very "samey" after two series but it remains iconically bewildering. Watch the "drowning death scene" and acknowledge Gold's genius - genius! twice in one review! I must be getting old - in carrying the viewer with characters' pain, discord and confusion.
Gareth Robert's script is award winning in waiting.
Punctuated with historical gems, literary references and DOCTOR WHO classic.
MARTHA: And those are men dressed as women?
DOCTOR: London never changes.
And, ironically, summing up it every NEW SERIES episode:
DOCTOR: What happens on the last page?
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: The boys gets the girls, they have a bit of dance. Its all as funny and thought provoking as usual.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: And you Sir Doctor, how can a man so young have eyes so old?
DOCTOR: I do a lot of reading.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: A trite reply. Yeah, that would I do. And you
You look at him like you are surprised he exists. he's much a puzzle to you as he is to me.
Sparkling witty (not ha-ha) script that will, for those viewers/fans who take the opportunity and time, pay dividends after multiple viewing.
The leads (Tennant and Agyeman) are perfect together. A ubiquitous Tennant continues to beguile (have you noticed that he has that "non-eye blinking" alienness and tongue-on-teeth Tom Baker style of acting - forever watchable), whilst Agyeman feels as if she has been with the series since its start. Together, both personify a mature, respectful and sparky on-screen partnership.
Dean Lennox Kelly (please, an action figure) has a complete blank sheet for the character of Shakespeare, and he seems to relish - literally - writing his own character. Like Simon Callow (SERIES 1's THE UNQUIET DEAD) before him it would have been appreciated to have more screen time for him (over a two episode story). However, less could be have been more.
THE SHAKESPEARE CODE is a rarity. A DOCTOR WHO episode that was pure BBC drama at its highest quality for a family audience and one, I am sure, could have been transferred to the "big screen" with ease.
Forty five minutes of pure escapism, beautifully produced with few or no flaws that will stand the test of time. A testament to the expertise and professionalism of BBC WALES and the expectations placed upon them by BBC ONE.
So, why only an eyeofhorus.org.uk rating of eight out of ten?
Future episodes have to match or exceed THE SHAKESPEARE CODE, and I expect them to do so.