Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

23 April, 2007

Sir Doctor of TARDIS and the Queen of Afric

Reading this article about a report which says that college students aren't getting enough Shakespeare reminded me of the wonderful Doctor Who episode, "The Shakespeare Code" which aired a couple weeks ago. In turn, this reminded me of the fact that I haven't really written much about the new season which is already a quarter over. To wit:

The first episode of the new season was "Smith and Jones". David Tennant is still The Doctor but Rose is gone so we are introduced to his new companion, Martha Jones, pictured above. That she is the first black companion in the show's history demonstrates just how far Doctor Who has come since its lilywhite inception back in 1963. Shedding thoughts about the color of her skin, Martha proves to be a classic companion in the mold of Sarah Jane Smith. She proves from the get-go that she isn't just an ignorant human needed to ask questions so The Doctor can give exposition. And neither does Martha simply scream when put in peril waiting to be rescued as so many previous companions in the show. She is smart & curious and helps move things forward instead of being swept along by the tide of events.

"Smith and Jones" introduces us to Martha as we see her walking to work while talking on her cell phone/mobile. Her parents are separated and she's caught in the middle of the planning for a family event between an angry mother and a father who is seeing a blonde woman many years his junior. While this is perhaps a rather hackneyed way of providing some motivation for Martha to join the TARDIS crew, the scene itself was fast-paced and funny and she has to constantly hang up with one person to accept an incoming call from someone else. In just a couple minutes, we are introduced to Martha, her family, and their dysfunction. This taut, compact method of storytelling serves the series well since most of the stories now have to be fit into 45 minutes.

Honestly, this is the only things that approaches a major gripe with me regarding the new incarnation of the show. For the majority of the classic series, most stories consisted of 3 or 4 parts that were about 25 minutes each. You had a cliffhanger most weeks and a total running time of 75-100 minutes. There are two-parters these days but "Genesis of the Daleks" had 6 parts and clocked in at about two and a half hours. I sometimes miss how plots could unfold slowly allowing for peripheral characters to take on something approaching a life of their own and for the subterfuges of the bad guys to build up. But so it goes.

The plot of "Smith and Jones" begins with, as I noted above, Martha heading to work. In this case, it's a hospital where she is a student doing her intern work. A doctor is leading her and other interns around to patients and having the students try to make diagnoses. When one of the curtain is pulled aside, our Doctor is lying there in the bed and it's Martha's turn to diagnose his illness. She applies her stethoscope and is befuddled by the fact that there are two heartbeats. The Doctor winks at her and smiles.

Then it gets dark & cloudy and begins raining. The next thing you know, the hospital has been transported to the moon. Patients and staff alike are screaming and crying but Martha keeps her cool. One nurse begins hysterically crying that they'll get sucked into the vacuum of space but our intrepid companion knows that, if that were to happen, they and the oxygen in the building would have been sucked out immediately. Soon tall rocket-like ships land nearby and an army begins marching towards the building. The figures are big and bulky and their outfits are these black spacesuits which no doubt caused older fans to think they were the Sontarans. However, when one takes off his helmet, we meet this guy:

The guy on the left, I mean – a Judoon. In a nice bit of misdirection, we learn that they are looking for a non-human alien amongst the hordes of patients and medical staff. They do this by scanning the faces of the people and marking the humans with a black X on their hands. The addition of a marker squeaking as they draw the Xs was a funny little touch. In yet another bit of misdirection, it is revealed that it's not The Doctor they're looking for, but rather a kindly old woman, Ms. Finnegan, who is in fact a plasmavore who drinks the blood of the hospital's head honcho by tapping an artery with a straw. She is wanted for murder. The Judoon turn out not to be the bad guys but rather these almost amoral gun for hire.

Of course The Doctor ends up saving the day but not before losing a bit of blood to the plasmavore and having his sonic screwdriver get fried. The hospital is returned to Earth and Martha makes it to her family outing. This turns out horribly and The Doctor is there waiting for her when she spills out of a pub with her parents and siblings. He promises her just one trip in the TARDIS as a reward, of sorts, for having saved his life after his run-in with the plasmavore. But this isn't just The Doctor getting a new companion. There are moments where he refers to Rose and, when he tells Martha that she can go for just one trip, it's obvious The Doctor has affection for and misses his former companion.

This is an area that the new series excels in. In the classic series, most companion changes involved a stoic handshake and then The Doctor got on with fighting evil in the universe. But, as "School Reunion" showed, there's more to it than that for both The Doctor and his companions. I would also mention that the audio dramas delve into this as well. Adric's death is brought up by Nyssa during an argument with the 5th Doctor while the friendship between the 6th Doctor and Evelyn is almost riven in twain by the events in "Project: Twilight".

Overall, "Smith and Jones" was a fun way to get the new season going and introduce fans to a new companion.

Martha's first trip with The Doctor brings me to why I started writing about Doctor Who today in the first place. The second episode of the season has sees our heroes travel to the London of 1599 in "The Shakespeare Code" This was a really fun episode which had great appeal to me as an Anglophile and as someone who's familiar with Shakespeare. It also stands in a long line of Doctor Who stories such as "The Visitation" which show historical events panning out as they do because of The Doctor's interventions in human history..

We open with a fair maiden, Lilith, who is atop her balcony and being serenaded by a suitor from below. Using her womanly wiles, she lures him up to what he supposes is her boudoir but the man finds the implements of witchcraft scattered about the room. She kisses him and, upon pulling back, we see that she has turned into a witch. Two other witches appear which Lilith describes as her mothers and they descend upon the hapless man.

The TARDIS lands in the middle of a street and, upon walking out, Martha barely misses having the contents of a bucket (chamber pot?) being dumped on her. She asks The Doctor if it's safe to wander about citing the Grandfather Paradox. "You're not planning on killing your grandfather, are you?" asks The Doctor. "No," she replies. The issue of race comes up when Martha asks how the sight of a black woman in the late 16th century will go over. The Doctor reassures her that it won't be a problem and we see two other black women walking down the street unmolested. He remarks that 16th century London isn't too different from the 21st century version by pointing out someone removing some horse manure – "See – they recycle!" Soon enough they're off to The Globe where they take in a performance of Love's Labours Lost. Shakespeare himself comes out at the end to thank the audience whereupon we see Lilith up in a balcony in the audience with a voodoo doll. She causes him to inform the audience that the sequel, Love's Labours Won would be performed the following night. This obviously piques The Doctors interest. While the play is mentioned in the historical record, no known copy of it exists. And so they seek out The Bard.

They find him at an inn where The Doctor introduces himself as "Sir Doctor of TARDIS". The Bard is smitten with Martha from the moment he sees her. Shakespeare flirts with her and calls her a "Blackamoor lady" and "Queen of Afric". The playwright is clearly being portrayed as a rock star of his time. While it was humorous, the scene also indicates that the issue of race has not been forgotten with just an assurance from The Doctor. Our hero also tries out his psychic paper on The Bard who is immune to its effect. This is proof for The Doctor of Shakespeare's genius. However, Martha is not immune and I laughed aloud when she pointed out that it had "Dr. Martha Jones" on it.

Humor is also provided by brief soliloquies, a.k.a. – The Doctor averting his gaze from everyone else and talking to himself. He quotes Shakespeare often and The Bard tells him that he likes the turn of phrase. At one point The Doctor quotes Dylan Thomas and, when approval was forthcoming, he tells Shakespeare that it belongs to someone else. And of course there are the witches.

Macbeth was probably written sometime between 1603-1606. In this case, the witches are Carrionites who seek to open a portal to allow the rest of their race through to the Earth. And how? The play's the thing! Lilith uses witchcraft to control Shakespeare and has him end Love's Labours Won with an incantation which would open a portal to where the rest of the Carrionites are trapped. The play is staged and the closing lines spoken. Then all hell breaks loose. The Doctor gets Shakespeare to use his gift of words to utter a counter-incantation. At the end, he struggles and Martha suggests "expelliarmus" (from Harry Potter) which does the trick. As the portal closes, all the Carrionites are sucked into it along with all copies of the play thusly sealing its fate as a "lost" work.

The story ends with The Bard once more flirting with Martha. He even begins reading a poem he has written for her: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" That's about as far as he gets because a couple actors anxiously burst into the scene saying the Queen herself has arrived. Elizabeth I enters and immediately recognizes The Doctor as her "sworn enemy". For his part, The Doctor is taken aback and claims he's never met her but is keen on finding out why she would have him dead. He and Martha dash back to the TARDIS just in the nick of time.

"The Shakespeare Code" is heavily-laden with CGI effects but perhaps the best visual is The Globe itself. The show was given permission to shoot at the modern reconstruction of the theatre which opened in 1997 and the scenes there look wonderful. Besides the visuals and just being a whole boatload of fun, the episode continued some of the character development of "Smith and Jones". There's a scene where The Doctor and Martha are given a room for the night which has but a single small bed. The Doctor lies down and pensive stares at the ceiling as he tries to get his brain around what's happening. Completely innocently, he invites Martha to share the bed with him. She takes this as meaning some amorous tidings are going to come her way but, when they are not forthcoming and The Doctor laments that Rose is not around to provide some insight, she angrily blows out the candle next to the bed. This whole I-miss-Rose thing was not overwrought, thankfully, and I can say having seen episode 3, that this will probably be coming to a close soon.

I know that there are fans out there who think that Martha is being modeled closely upon Rose. Perhaps a bit too closely for their tastes. I don't see this as being unfair but I prefer to give it a little time. Martha is a medical student whereas Rose, if I recall correctly, opted out of higher education. Rose has the street smarts whereas Martha is more educated. Leela vs. Romana, anyone? We'll just have to wait and see how it all pans out.

If you're not keen on downloading the series, then all you have to do is get cable and wait until July when series 3 begins airing on the Sci-Fi Channel.
|| Palmer, 2:06 PM


I don't want to think about how many 3 hour Dr. Who episodes I watched in my coke-bottle glasses wearing youth. Many a snowy Saturday(?) were spent giggling to the effects that weren't that special. Fun Fact by the time my mom finished my dr. who scarf (2+years) I was out of my sci -fi phase and into my metal phase (still pending).

Have only caught bits and pieces of the new series. My 5 year old really likes it . ( Cue 'Cat's in the Craddle') But I kind of miss the garbage bags + anything we can find laying around aspect to making things look 'alien'.
I don't have cable but PBS is reruning the 1st 2nd series on sat nites so I'll try to catch up.
Anonymous arch stanton, at 12:30 PM  
Yeah, the series are very different. I love the new series - it's a whole lotta fun - but there are definitely times when I need me some cable access quality special effects.
Blogger Palmer, at 12:49 PM  

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