Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Shakespeare Code

This episode begins with a beautiful flurry of questions from Martha. "How does it [the TARDIS] work? What happens if I tread on a butterfly? What if I kill my own grandfather? Am I going to get carted off as a slave?" They showcase her intelligence - these aren't questions that have been asked before in a show that is (at least sometimes) about time travel - but they also highlight the fragility of the Doctor Who premise.

I don't mean that it is not a good premise; it's excellent in that it provides an inexhaustible variety of stories, settings and characters. But it is also nonsense, not so much science-fiction as pure fantasy. If we ask too many questions (or worse, answer them) there is a danger that we will, as the Doctor puts it, "take the fun and the mystery out of everything." It's a timely reminder that we are all here primarily for the adventure.

On the other hand, Doctor Who can't dodge that last question Martha asks, even if the Doctor tries to brush it off: the matter of Martha's skin colour needs to be dealt with in her first historical outing. It's addressed gently, which is probably the right thing to do. The Doctor points out that 16th century London does have black inhabitants - and whilst we can't definitely say that this was the case, it is certain that the lives of any ordinary black people of the time will have been under-represented to the point that they will have become invisible to history. Quite right that Doctor Who, a show with progressive leanings, should show racial integration as a normal and long-standing state of affairs. Then Shakespeare himself shocks Martha by trying to use the appropriate Elizabethan terminology: "an Ethiope girl, a swarth, a Queen of Afric?" She can't quite believe what she's hearing and the scene raises the point that the words we use to describe ourselves and each other are of crucial importance. These epithets change over time, as do the nature of race-relations.

The Doctor's reaction is interesting. When Martha first raises her concerns he seems bewildered, but later on, with Shakespeare, he appears to anticipate that the Bard's language will provoke her 21st century principles. Just how colour-blind is he? His attempt to reassure Martha is telling: "I'm not even human. Just walk about like you own the place. Works for me." In other words, like most white men, he is largely oblivious to his own privilege.

Before the grand unveiling of Peter Capaldi, there was much discussion of a possible non-white Doctor, although nearly every article I saw on the matter mentioned only black alternatives. There's no internal reason why there shouldn't be a non-white Doctor, nor any shortage of good black actors who would be great in the role. But casting a black Doctor gives the show a moral obligation to explore historical attitudes to race, even more so than we have seen with Martha. This is not a bad thing, in fact this would be an excellent reason to have a black actor in the role. It would be fascinating and important to see the Doctor coping with prejudice and without the advantages that come with white skin.

But this would have to happen, or at least be acknowledged, every time the TARDIS went back into the past. In fact to ever ignore it in an historical setting would be to disrespect the suffering of people of colour. We might wish to live in a colour-blind society, but we can't do that if we gloss over the evils of the past. Making the Doctor black would be a valid direction in which to take the show, but might mean that Doctor Who appeared to become a programme that was only about racism. Such a shift might take time away from exploring other stories and issues. Let's face it, the Doctor has already been given the sonic screwdriver and the psychic paper in order to speed stories along and remove obstacles: if historical episodes weren't going to repeatedly explore similar racial tensions, they would have to start working around them.

I don't mean that any of this is a reason never to have a non-white Doctor. If nothing else it would make clear something that has often been taken for granted: that the Doctor, regardless of his apparent race or gender, is a character of purest privilege. He is an aristocrat, an actual Lord. And on top of that his species is superior to almost all others: the Time Lords were the crème de la crème, the self-appointed elite of the universe. For all his many acts of rebellion, the Doctor is merely gallivanting around Space and Time, his interventions caused as much by the grandest noblesse oblige as by his morality. And beyond these notions of class, the Doctor has intelligence, learning and experience in intimidating amounts: he is not, in any way, our equal. Even Eccleston's Doctor, the least patrician of the lot, made sure the "stupid apes" knew what he thought of them. As long as this superiority is not diluted, there's no reason why anyone could not play the Doctor.

These are some of the questions that would need to be mulled over. But, to go back to Martha, we need to be reminded sometimes that this is more a frivolous adventure show for kids than it is a weighty examination of the human condition. Casting a non-white Doctor would mean  walking a fine line between seriously examining prejudice and maintaining a lightness of touch and I can understand why producers and writers might feel this was territory best left to other programmes. However, the treatment of Martha in The Shakespeare Code certainly offers encouragement that this balance could be achieved. Although she isn't mistreated in this episode, her skin colour is addressed - but in between these conversations with Shakespeare (which are more likely to be considered examples of sexual harassment than racial abuse) it's all brushed under the carpet so that we can get on with the story.

The thing I love most about The Shakespeare Code is the evocation of Shakespeare's London. It's just a couple of streets and the Globe Theatre but it looks magnificent and real. There have been times recently when the modern city has not looked so convincing on screen as this does here. It's a triumph.

Tennant is good as well. There's something more satisfying about his Doctor this series, as if he's earned the authority that he wields, say, when he names the Carrionites. Looking back at the confrontation with the Headmaster in School Reunion or the fingers-on-lips scene from Fear Her, there was something a little unconvincing about the way the Doctor faced people down. He defers to Shakespeare here, but only as one genius to another: this year there's more confidence about both Tennant and the Doctor.

And look, for the third story in a row, female villains. Has that happened before? After Anne Reid's 'witch' in Smith & Jones, we get real witches here or, at least, Doctor Who's SF assimilation of them. But they aren't just a collection of fairy tale clichés. The opening scene, in which they lure a young man to his death, is savage and (according to the boys) "horrific". Throughout, their spells and ploys feel like the sort of thing stories about witches might be based upon rather than the other way around, and the only hocus-pocus on display is the Doctor's penchant for Harry Potter.

The boys both gave this an 8. William liked the interplay between the Doctor and Shakespeare and all the business of feeding titles and lines into their dialogue. Chris mentioned that he liked it when the historical figures turned up, but we're big fans of Horrible Histories. I wonder, did Doctor Who partially help prepare kids for that show by showing them Dickens, Queen Victoria and Shakespeare?

Overall this is much better than I remembered and I really enjoyed it, especially the non sequitur of Queen Elizabeth roaring in at the end. Once again Martha, and perhaps the audience, would like an explanation; once again, the Doctor is too busy having fun to think of one.


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