|Come on. I dare you. Shout “Freebird.”|
It’s April 7th, 2007. David Tennant remains very happy with the charts, or, at least, with the top of them. His feelings on Avril Lavigne, Gwen Stefani, Fray, Fergie, Take That, and Justin Timberlake are, to the best of my knowledge, undocumented. In news, Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko dissolves parliament. The University of Florida unexpectedly wins the NCAA Basketball championship to the swelling pride of nobody whatsoever in Gainesville, Florida, a town that is known to bring trees down when it wins football. Three people are charged in the 2005 London bombings, and Iran releases fifteen British sailors captured back before Smith and Jones, proclaiming it a “gift.” And, the day this story airs, the 153rd University Boat Race takes place. Cambridge wins by one-and-a-half lengths.
While on television, The Shakespeare Code. Some time ago, I was having lunch with Jane, one of our regular commenters, and we were talking about the blog and the roles various commenters play within it. She mentioned Jack Graham and asked what role he played, and I, without a second thought, replied, “he’s the blog’s conscience.” Which is to say that Jack has a staggering 5,000 word piece on The Shakespeare Code that is the definitive account of it, and I’m humbly penning a brief follow-up sketch. Jack, for his part, savages The Shakespeare Code for what it’s not, which is to say, a story about traveling back and time and meeting Shakespeare. He is, of course, absolutely correct that this is not at all what the story is.
His dismissal of what the story actually is holds some water, and I’m certainly not going to be so foolish as to disagree with it, but equally, I’m not, in this case, as interested in the ethics of it as I am in the shape of it. Jack is ultimately making the same observation Tat Wood makes in About Time, which is that Doctor Who has moved to being about people in strange worlds to… ah, but here’s where things fog up. Whatever the ideological case for why this move represents the end of civilization as we know it, it’s not entirely clear what this new take on Doctor Who is.
Whatever it is, Gareth Roberts is surely the iconic example. Gareth Roberts is a writer with little interest in world-building. For Roberts, the point of Doctor Who is to provide cracked mirror reflections of middle class Britain. For him the pinnacle of the series is thus the Graham Williams era, where everything in the universe proved able to become Douglas Adams-esque banter. I said last week that Roberts only ever writes love letters, and this remains an important explanation for his writing. A Roberts script is only ever going to come out of a basic passion for its subject matter. This isn’t a problem – in fact, it’s what makes Roberts’s scripts so much fun. But it means that there’s not a desire to explore the pokey ends of concepts in the scripts.
All of which is to say that this is not a story about London in 1599 in any meaningful way. Nor is it really a story about history. It’s not even what we’ve previously (borrowing from Tat Wood) called theme park history, which suggests a simplified “from the history books” approach. This isn’t even from the history books – Elizabethan England is explicitly presented as no different from the present. The past is not a foreign country here. This is particularly striking given that this is Martha’s first trip in the TARDIS, and yet the entire story is configured to minimize the sense that being in 1599 is a particularly big deal.
Again, this highlights an important fact about Martha, which is that she is a Doctor Who character. This represents a fundamental change to how the series works. In truth, of course, Rose had been a Doctor Who character who drops into EastPowellStreet occasionally for the better part of Season Two, but the official line was still that she was an ordinary person. But Martha doesn’t need an introduction to Doctor Who, and this says something important about her character. She was visibly designed first in terms of her interactions with the Doctor, and then had a background grafted onto her. This is not a problem as such – it’s clearly how most companions were created. But it’s a marked change in the series, which is switching actively to being read on its own terms.
Which is why there’s that odd scene in the beginning in which Elizabethan England is explicitly treated as an extension of the modern day instead of as a place that might be at all strange, or, more to the point, racist. This scene, of course, frequently criticized, and in many ways rightly so. There is an erasure of history involved in treating Elizabethan England as a multiracial and inclusive paradise that’s troubling. To have the Doctor, a white male, tell a black woman that the solution to historical bigotry is to “walk around like you own the place” rather spectacularly misses the heart of the issue, which is that he looks like the people who do, and she doesn’t. It is a literal illustration of the concept of privilege, albeit, maddeningly, one that fails to actually notice what it’s doing. (A similar problem exists in Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, where a story that’s about hardline racial purists and that is otherwise unusually fascinated with the material conditions of its time period inexplicably decides that the Great Depression was a multiracial celebration of diversity.)
But what’s at issue here is not simple historical erasure. Rather it’s a collision between the issue of depicting history and the Davies era’s strong ideological preference towards diversity, and, more to the point, towards a non-showy diversity. It’s the same thinking that led to the wishful thinking at the end of Captain Jack Harkness – the desire to not make diversity into a stunt and to just do it. This is admirable on its own terms, and is, let’s be honest, why we have a black companion in the first place. But the desire to have Doctor Who be an unfussy portrait of the diversity of modern Britain runs aground when faced with history. The problem here is the attempt to have it both ways – to acknowledge that Martha faces genuine peril that no other companion ever has when put into history, but also to maintain the show’s untroubled diversity. Having everybody ignore Martha’s race the same way they ignore the Doctor’s clothes would have worked. Having racism be something Martha regularly encounters would have worked. The middle ground of endlessly reiterating how beautifully non-racist the past is… does not really work.
But this problem is a slightly mispitched moment in a larger decision, which is to treat the past as essentially an extension of the present. Thus The Shakespeare Code is not about Shakespeare as a historical phenomenon, but about Shakespeare as another genre that Doctor Who can crash into. Shakespeare is thus positioned as something that continues to exist int he present day. Which, to be fair, he does. What we have is not really engagement with the historical Shakespeare but with Shakespeare as a still-popular author whose plays are regularly performed, occasionally in high-profile versions starring David Tennant.
Thus the basic touchstone for Shakespeare becomes J.K. Rowling, because the point of the exercise is that Shakespeare is a part of contemporary popular culture. (Hence the otherwise inscrutable title) The story is about Shakespeare’s writing as a site of play, with Shakespeare becoming a living text to be romped through. Notably this is the one celebrity historical that makes essentially no effort to have the historical figure look as expected. Instead Shakespeare is made sexy, youthful, and vigorous, rescuing him from history’s death. Shakespeare exists in this story as a textual phenomenon – the subject of literary jokes, pastiches, and words.
This isn’t theme park history, in other words, because it’s not history at all; it’s genre. And that’s consistent with a larger shift in Doctor Who, which hasn’t been about history as such in a very long time. There is a school of thought that blames this sort of thing on forty-five minute episodes, but that’s a stretch. Yes, it’s true that forty-five minute episodes are too short to do any significant world-building and that new series Doctor Who is dominated by accelerated plot development, but it’s not like world-building was a huge part of stories in the latter days of the classic series. Stories like Ghost Light or Delta and the Bannermen were just as much about genre as The Shakespeare Code is, functioning not through the movement of historical forces but through literary play. The forty-five minute episode may foreclose any alternative, but Doctor Who had picked a side in that debate long before Davies tinkered the format.
Indeed, the “the Doctor teams up with a historical celebrity and fights aliens” subgenre, which was invented by Pip and Jane Baker in 1984, has always been about treating history as a genre, its original version having consisted of dropping three Time Lords into early industrial Britain so they could bicker. The Mark of the Rani wasn’t a story about the industrial revolution to any meaningful extent. And this has been true of every journey into history since The Massacre or so. All have been about using history to set up particular genres in which the Doctor plays.
Which is the basic approach of Doctor Who in general. The fact that history is not so much a series of events as a set of stories is wholly in keeping with everything else in Doctor Who. It turns out that in fact you can rewrite lots and lots of lines of history so long as everybody can still tell what sort of story they’re in. And so we get a story where writing and rewriting flow freely around the basic rubric of Shakespeare as a pop culture icon, and, when that proves insufficient, where words from another icon can be filled in freely.
And yet there are occasional tensions. For all that The Shakespeare Code is ambivalent about historical representation, its treatment of Bedlam is both deft and chilling. It’s an isolated moment in a story that’s mostly playful, but it’s also a reminder that there is something alienating about history, and that the Shakespeare of popular culture, while a real thing, is still something that’s been laid over real history.
But in the end this is the story in which the idea that Doctor Who is simply there to be fun gets its most thorough airing. The dynamic of watching a scripted performance in a communal context – and BBC One is, let’s recall, a communal context – is treated as an act of sorcery. The very act of partaking in popular entertainment is treated as sacred and inherently valuable. And while the show pays lip service to other icons of popular culture, in the end it’s Doctor Who that’s the cultural touchstone being celebrated here, hence it getting the tacit endorsement of Shakespeare intuiting the series’ premises.
On the one hand, as we’ve said, there’s a theme of hubris here. The uncritical embrace of Doctor Who is eventually something the series is going to call into question. Even here the foundation of the critique is being set up, with the Doctor stressing the human quality of Shakespeare. But on the other, there’s only so far this critique can be taken in terms of The Shakespeare Code. Even Jack Graham, for all his vehemence, admits that the episode is terribly lush and pretty. And Roberts is never going to turn in an episode that doesn’t move along and have some good jokes in it. The Shakespeare Code may be a slender trifle to proper Shakespeare buffs (although there are some terribly obscure gags for them), but it is fun and entertaining.
And whatever later critique of the series’ hubris might be in order, that is the priority right now. Having changed dramatically over the course of two seasons, Doctor Who needed, at the start of Season Three, to do a set of stories that demonstrated what it could do. Celebrating what Doctor Who itself was, separate from Billie Piper or Christopher Eccleston or even David Tennant, was a necessary step. Once that’s done some discussion of the implications might be in order, but for now the series has to account for itself on its own terms. Given this, turning to Gareth Roberts borders on being the most obvious decision imaginable, and The Shakespeare Code is exactly the story you’d expect it to be.