New Who in Conversation: The Shakespeare Code/Gridlock (S03E02/03)

David is coming to New Who for the first time, having loved Classic Who as a kid. Tehani is a recent convert, and ploughed through Seasons 1 to 6 (so far) in just a few weeks after becoming addicted thanks to Matt Smith – she’s rewatching to keep up with David! Tansy is the expert in the team, with a history in Doctor Who fandom that goes WAY back, and a passion for Doctor Who that inspires us all. We’re going to work our way through New Who, using season openers and closers, and Hugo shortlisted episodes, as our blogging points. Just for fun!

“The Shakespeare Code” – Season three, episode two

The Doctor – David Tennant

Martha Jones – Freema Agyeman

Shakespeare – Dean Lennox Kelly

TEHANI:
So, Martha’s first adventure and we get Shakespeare! There’s a lot to like about this episode. Ten is clearly enjoying himself on this one, and Martha does well for her first time travelling, don’t you think? Asking the important questions for us not in TV-land and getting timey-wimey explanations in return.

TANSY:
Yes I like that Martha has a very down to earth and practical approach to time travel, and while she has just as much sense of wonder as Rose, there’s a bit more of – I don’t know, is it snobbish to say she feels more intellectual in how she takes in history? Less giggling, more cynical nodding.

TEHANI:
I don’t think it’s snobbish – true, maybe, but just another way to identify the differences between the companions I guess. Martha is better educated and a little more worldly than Rose, so showing Martha reacting quite differently to how we saw Rose reacting is reasonable.

TANSY:
I also think it’s important that Martha raises the race question early, and that the Doctor answers it – it’s a little glib for him to suggest she just walk around like she own the place, because he’s speaking from white male privilege, but at the same time it is important to note that there were people of colour (if not as many as now) in British history, and it’s only a century of whitewashed movies and television that makes us think otherwise. Important that the race issue is addressed in the time travel stories, because pretending Martha isn’t black would be bizarre. I rather like her “not exactly white, in case you haven’t noticed” line because, let’s face it, the Doctor probably WOULDN’T think about that sort of thing.

DAVID:
That’s something I did wonder about, wouldn’t Martha have stood out a little more than she did, not only because of her colour but because of what she was wearing? I would have thought both would have excited more reaction than they did. I’m quite happy to admit to be speaking from a lack of knowledge here, but I would have thought that London circa Shakespeare’s time would be pretty homogeneous so I’d love to be pointed to some sources that talk about the history we don’t see usually see in movies and TV, and perhaps our readers would like to as well (this is something I also wondered when watching the one episode of Merlin I’ve managed to catch)?

TANSY:

I believe that there were certainly more faces of colour around in England in historical times than we are led to expect from 100 years of very whitewashed TV. Not common perhaps – but not especially extraordinary. I assume Shakespeare had to have met at least one black person in his life because, Othello. I did think it was cute that they framed Martha as Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady,’ one of the figures he wrote so many sonnets to.

[ooh look, a source - and a discussion of a book on Shakespeare & Race]

DAVID:
I am glad that in this episode they don’t ignore such issues, I’d much rather they at least acknowledged these things rather than pretending they don’t exist.

TEHANI:
I adored Shakespeare, and the idea that he could completely hold his own with the Doctor. Smart, funny, and fairly easy on the eyes as well! Not to mentioned a little tormented – what more could a girl ask for?

TANSY:
It’s a great performance, I really like the actor’s interpretation. It’s a lot more warts-and-all than, for instance, good old Joseph Fiennes. Also bonus points for use of ‘hey nonny nonny’ as a pick up line.

DAVID:
I thought that the dialogue was one of the major strengths of this episode, as you would expect with episode featuring Shakespeare! The banter between all three of the main characters (Shakespeare, The Doctor and Martha) was brilliant throughout and was a real delight. And, as a writer, I loved the emphasis on the power of words and that was explored really well.

I liked the “unromanticised” Shakespeare we see here, as you say – warts and all. Another great guest performance! The temptation would have been to give us a modern interpretation of the Bard, cleaned and made more palatable to our modern sensibilities but instead we get a man of his times. I have to admit, I thought the scene with Martha and Shakespeare was hilarious, but it was also quite brave and illustrated some of the disconnect there would be with someone from an England that far back in time.

TEHANI:
What did you think of the witches? I liked the young one – while she was pretty over the top in her evilness, it really worked for me – as in, she was genuinely invested in her crazy, so it made sense!

TANSY:
They’re very cliche witches but of course one of the central origins of that cliche is Shakespeare’s Macbeth, so it’s important we see that in them. I have to say, I normally hate the trope of the Doctor inspiring famous writers/artists to do their best work, or even doing it for them, because it takes away from their own reputation to suggest the Doctor did it better – for the most part in this story it treads the right side of the line for me because of the humour in the way it’s used and because the Doctor is at least doing it by accident. Chucking in a reference to the Sycorax is hilarious because it “explains” how an earlier alien race was named with a Shakespeare reference, and it helps that at one point the Doctor quotes a play Shakespeare actually recognises as his own.

DAVID:
One of my friends is blogging Shakespeare, doing each of his plays in turn, and he was talking about how Love’s Labours Lost is such an atypical play, and it that it does actually read as if part two is missing. I wasn’t aware of that, obviously a hole in my education, but it does make me look at this episode in a whole new light.

TEHANI:
I think Doctor Who writers are a pretty clever bunch, even when you don’t REALISE how clever they’re being until it’s pointed out to you – so many people are WAY smarter than me!

DAVID:
The way this episode provides so much banter and dialogue also fits in with the style of the play, the more I learn the more I admire the writer!

I do agree that having cliche witches in this makes sense, because they are the inspiration for the cliche itself. It’s a pretty standard Who thing as well to treat magic as something that has a scientific basis, not supernatural or occult, but just a unfamiliar way of manipulating the Universe.

TEHANI:
The pop culture references are a nice touch – Shakespeare quoting JK Rowling, made of awesome! But my favourite line has to be:

Ten: Come on! We can all have a good flirt later!
Shakespeare: Is that a promise, Doctor?
Ten: Oh, fifty-seven academics just punched the air.

Way to break the fourth wall!!

I also really liked the underlying premise that words have power. It’s not really subtle, but it’s also only there if you think about it, if that makes sense, wrapped up as it is in a story about one of history’s finest wordsmiths.

DAVID:
This episode was very pop culture heavy, wasn’t it? But I thought they did it really well, there were no cringe worthy moments. And, besides, I love Harry Potter!

TANSY:

The use of ‘expelliamus’ was awesome, and acknowledges I think how much Potter has sunk itself into our pop culture. It’s quite nice to see the Doctor chatting about J.K Rowling instead of sticking to the more ‘classic’ Dickens and Shakespeare. Hmm. Do we think it’s time the Doctor went back to check out Jane Austen and her crowd? She has to be the most popular famous writer that we haven’t seen on the show yet!

DAVID:
Was this the first actual appearance of Shakespeare on the show? I know he has been referenced before, but I can’t remember if he had made an appearance. I’d love to see Jane Austen on the show too.

TANSY:
No, he hasn’t appeared, though the Doctor name-dropped him quite a few times and the Fourth Doctor claimed to have scribed Hamlet at his dictation (which was why the original manuscript was in his handwriting).

TEHANI:
I’m all for any Doctor Who set in our past with historical figures – they’re my favourite episodes! Oh, David, just wait til we get to Leonardo!

TANSY:
Okay, I just officially put “City of Death” (Classic Who) on Tehani’s shopping list.

TEHANI:
That list is growing scary big!

“Gridlock” – Season three, episode three

The Doctor – David Tennant

Martha Jones – Freema Agyeman

TEHANI:
Tansy, I’m cautious of doing this one! There’s a really big important reason for this episode that only becomes clear later on! David, you won’t know, don’t worry :)

Ten is a bit callous and heartbreaking in this one, but really, at least Martha can never say he led her on! At the same time, we get a bit of a return to some vulnerability about his past, which Tennant does well.

TANSY:
There are a few reasons I was keen to discuss Gridlock, apart from it feeling like one of the most solid pieces of science fiction we’ve seen for a long time in the show. The references to the Doctor’s past and his discussion of Gallifrey make for a very powerful and emotional scene – it’s interesting, actually, the idea that he has to have ‘the talk’ with each new companion, and what new information we as the audience get. Martha needs to know about Gallifrey AND Rose – good thing they didn’t keep this up or you’d have him presenting a lecture with power point each time someone new joined him. “And this was Sarah Jane…”

DAVID:
Many things to like, wasn’t there? For a start, the idea of an entire population trapped in a endless traffic jam was compelling and creepy, especially for someone who has spent some time on the Monash Freeway! I always love a story where we are presented with a society that seems ordered on the surface and we gradually get to see how the mechanisms beneath that hold it together are slowly breaking down – it reminded me a bit of Paradise Towers, actually. And, it’s always nice to see a creature or villain from the Doctor’s past.

The payoff was pretty good, actually, the idea of a last desperate ploy to save the uninfected from the plague, the surface dwellers throwing the switch to shut off the lane ways and not knowing whether they had succeeded in saving anyone. And, the sight of all those skeletons! As you say, there was some solid sci fi here, and some nice emotional resonance to go along with it. While Ten doesn’t wear the traumas of his past on his sleeve quite the way that Nine did, the scene where he talks about Gallifrey does a great job of conveying the depths of his pain and gives a real sense of exactly how much he has lost.

TEHANI:
I’m still a huge fan of the cat people, and I loved the way mixed race (species!) marriage AND same sex marriage is portrayed here. Although the kittens were perhaps just a bit much…

TANSY:
The RTD era is great at those little touches that show there are more possibilities out there than many people think is traditional. I thought the kittens were pretty cute! It’s a very clever episode, the way they used the same ‘car’ set over and over again to convey a whole society instead of showing us a planet through one family or one crew.

DAVID:
The contained nature of most of this episode was very clever, wasn’t it? And it must have helped the budget too! I liked the little slices of life we got with each of the cars, and you really could imagine the way that a community would have formed with the radios as the only means of communication, and how no one would have cared what the person on the other end looked like or who they were marrying or any of that, they would have been simply a friendly voice in the dark, their shared experience and humanity the only important thing.

TANSY:
That’s true actually, you get the feeling that Brannigan is a bit embarrassed about the lesbian old ladies (I’m an old fashioned cat) and can’t quite acknowledge them as wives (they might feel the same way about he and his wife’s relationship), but as they’re all in it together none of them let their differences stop them being allies. It’s more realistic than everyone feeling exactly the same about particular social issues.

The cleverness of the design used in the episode lifted it into something special for me, and I liked how we got to see so much of the society through the postcard glimpses of each car and crew. Great worldbuilding!

TEHANI:
This one wasn’t one of my favourites, but I agree it’s a good strong SFnal episode. The monsters were really an afterthought to the story at hand though, weren’t they – a catalyst for the danger rather than the actual plot, which was pretty cool.

I liked that we got to see Novice Hame again, and the Face of Boe – I agree David, it’s nice to see return characters!

DAVID:
They are a great pair, but the other blast from the past is the Macra! They featured all the way back in the Doctor’s Second Incarnation. One of the things I have enjoyed about New Who is that, while they aren’t constrained by it, they haven’t ignored what has gone before and we have seen lots of little homages to Classic Who. The fact that the very first episode (Rose) featured an previously featured alien race set the tone, and was very reassuring for a Classic fan like myself, and that has continued.

TANSY:
The Macra was so gratuitous! If even I have to go look up a reference … but of course it works fine without knowing the Doctor has seen them before (right, Tehani?) and I love all the self-reference stuff, anything that makes it feel more like it’s the same universe (bar reboots & reality shifts) that he’s always been bombing around in.

TEHANI:
Ohhhhh, so they’re creatures from Classic Who, right! Yes, works fine – I kind of expect the Doctor to know everything about every creature/monster/alien/planet, so it never really occurs to me to wonder if the reason he knows about something is actually because he’s encountered it before!

DAVID:
I have to admit to be slightly surprised by the use of the hymns “Abide with Me” and “The Old Rugged Cross” in this episode (though apparently “Abide with Me” was in Kinda!). I certainly didn’t have an issue with it, and the idea of all the gridlocked travellers sharing an united moment is at once convincing and moving.

It’s simply that “The Old Rugged Cross” in particular is an exceedingly Christian specific hymn, not one that you would consider interfaith, or ecumenically neutral, which says some interesting things about the society of New Earth. I am not sure that they would have thought quite that deeply, but I do wonder whether they picked it at random or whether there was a reason. It is a very English moment, too, you can imagine the same thing happening during the Blitz or on the deck of the Titanic.

It’s a beautiful piece of music, though, and adds a great deal of poignancy to the Doctor’s reminisces as he remembers, and mourns, Gallifrey.

TANSY:
I don’t think anything about the soundscape of Doctor Who these days happens at random – they put so much time and thought into post-production. I agree it had a historical British feel about it, in a Blitz spirit kind of way. But, of course, all the futures in DW are British! (makes a change from American)

I didn’t actually know whether they were ‘real’ hymns or not because I’m pretty ignorant about that sort of thing, but I thought they might be and it is a very interesting choice for them. It certainly worked in the moment, as far as the drama is concerned.

TEHANI:
The music is one thing that is something I’m noticing more and more during rewatch – I’m finding it frequently overpowers the action and dialogue onscreen, and I wonder why they make some choices. In this case it wasn’t an issue, but I’ll flag it for further discussion in other episodes!

So, onwards?

We have already talked about:
“Rose”, S01E01
“Dalek”, S01E06
“Father’s Day”, S01E08
“The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”, S01E09/10
“Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways”, S01E12/13
Season One Report Card – David, Tansy, Tehani
“The Christmas Invasion”, 2005 Christmas Special
“New Earth”, S02E01
“School Reunion”, S02E03
“The Girl in the Fireplace”, S02E04
“Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel”, S02E05/06
“Army of Ghosts/Doomsday”, S02E12/13
Season Two Report Card – David, Tansy, Tehani
“The Runaway Bride”, 2006 Christmas Special
“Smith and Jones”, S03E01

20 Comments

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