Written by: Gareth Roberts
Directed by: Charles Palmer
At the press launch for series three, Gareth Roberts, writer of this caper, gleefully revealed that it was the most expensive episode of Doctor Who ever made – “Even more expensive than The Mind of Evil!” As that 1971 Pertwee tale boasted nothing less than a nuclear missile on a flatbed truck, that’s some going.
Someone’s spent their money wisely. While season opener Smith and Jones felt like a big, bold relaunch of the entire show (maybe it was the fact that we’ve finally cut the moorings to the Eccleston/Piper era), The Shakespeare Code runs with that huge new confidence and cranks it up to eleven.
The pennies are up onscreen. This recreation of Shakespeare’s England is sumptuous, from the witch-filled skies to the Globe itself, every frame dripping with a big screen sensibility. New director Charles Palmer (who helmed the equally impressive Smith and Jones) is a find, and it’s good to know he’s returning later in the series.
It’s amazing that Doctor Who has rarely plundered the archetype of the witch until now (does Jean Marsh’s sorceress Morgaine in ‘89’s Battlefield count?) and what’s wonderful is that these witches are proper witches – parsnip-nosed, wart-ridden hags, all the more entertaining for being an inch away from parody. Someone’s having fun – and luckily it’s the audience.
Cracking cast, too, particularly Christina Cole as the seductively evil Lilith, while Dean Lennox Lewis takes Shakespeare’s trad foppish image and kicks it deftly in the nuts, offering us a rock star take that’s pure Gallagher Bard. Tennant’s still impressive, dialing down last year’s occasional outsized performance and giving us a Doctor with genuine, endearing eccentricity and contrasting glints of darkness. And Freema’s great here on her second outing, capturing Martha’s delight in adventure and clear dismay at comparisons to Rose.
Powering everything is Roberts’ literate, witty script. It’s ripe with one liners and smart bits of business, but also finds time for horror, magic and racial commentary, not to mention a sly nod to J K Rowling. Though on a first viewing I was convinced the Doctor had given thanks to Jay Kay, and wondered how a Jamiroquai lyric had saved the day…
“All the world’s a stage… You can have that one!”