The comedian Ed Byrne says that the only ironic thing about the Alanis Morrisette song ‘Ironic’ is that it contains no irony. Well, one of the many ironic things about ‘The Shakespeare Code’ is that it contains no code, and little that meaningfully refers to Shakespeare… and yet its title is rather apt. Really, the episode might just as well have been called ‘Billy Shakespeare and the Goblet of Fire’, yet the very arbitrariness of the title, and the fact that it tries to make the audience smile at a modern cultural reference, makes the title perversely appropriate for the story… because the story itself throws lots of modern cultural references at us but fails to engage with Shakespeare as a man or an artist.
A TELEVISED THEATRE
When it was shown, ‘The Shakespeare Code’ was probably the most visually spectacular episode of Doctor Who yet made. It still looks absolutely marvellous. But there is a complex of ironies here.
There’s always been a kind of affinity between Shakespeare (as a category of play) and Doctor Who. Like Shakespeare, Who is a sort of genre of its own, which comprises many different types of story, some of which are of dubious canonicity and some of which are hard to categorise. Doctor Who is highly theatrical. Doctor Who, like Shakespeare productions, can be very camp. Doctor Who often presents highly implausible plot developments. People who criticise RTD for sloppy endings should check out Cymbeline in which the god Jupiter turns up (in a real deus ex machina!) to sort out the plot. Doctor Who, like Shakespeare, tends to buy into the ‘King list’ theory of history. Many of the early historicals are clearly indebted to Shakespeare, or to various writers’ idea of him. And Doctor Who, like Shakespeare, often presents us with fictional social worlds (shown in microcosm) in order to explore political themes. Both Shakespeare and Doctor Who create little worlds representing great societies which exist ‘offstage’, as it were.
Moreover, Doctor Who grew in a BBC culture that considered TV drama to be like ‘televised theatre’. Who always strained against this… what with Sydney and Verity both being grounded in commercial telly… but most of the classic series looks much more like a televised play, with occasional inserts filmed on location… highly reminiscent, in fact, of the early seasons of the BBC Shakespeare series.
In many ways, Doctor Who‘s development over the years is a perfect example of the way that TV drama has gradually shifted away from this ‘televised theatre’ tradition, towards the prevalent style now, which is to make TV dramas look as much as possible like little films. ‘The Shakespeare Code’ may be the ultimate example of this trend in fruition… yet the irony is that it looks cinematic mostly because of its huge, impressive central set… which isn’t a film set at all but an actual theatre! What’s more, this theatre was built as a recreation of a place where Shakespeare and his company put on his intensely political plays, plays that built fictional worlds in order to examine politcal ideas and themes, plays that confronted their audience with unusually strong depictions of women, plays that had no choice but to summon up huge armies and black nights using only words, there being little in the way of special effects available… though the theatre of the English Renaissance certainly did attempt spectacle (with opulent costumery being a particular draw). …