Monday 7 March 2011

Sound and Fury

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.


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).  And, I must admit, the conceit of the audience applauding after the defeat of the Carrionites, as though they've just witnessed a special effects triumph, is genuinely funny.

'The Shakespeare Code', however, is set in a time and place that begs to be explored on a political and social level (as Shakespeare did), yet is apolitical and uninterested in worldbuilding. It's also decidely dodgy in its depiction of women. It's entirely reliant on its ability to dazzle us with special effects, entirely repudiating overt theatricality despite being set in (and filmed in) a theatre, and purporting to depict the life of a great playwright.

It actually starts trying to think about theatricality, via the relationship between reality and language. In fact, the relationship between reality and language is at the very heart of the story. And yet, language is actually devalued by the haphazard and garbled way the plot ends up depicting its putative power.

This is a serious set of problems. The last is all the more ironic, given that the story centres upon the person of Shakespeare, who used language to create (and tear apart) alternate 'realities' on stage.


The relationship of language to reality in ‘The Shakespeare Code’ is soon revealed to be nothing more than a cheaty disguised magic. It looks, sounds and behaves exactly like magic (employing, as required, every witchcraft cliché in the book) but the Doctor is allowed to scoff at the idea that it actually is magic. We are told that it’s actually science of a different type… but the lines about Carrionites basing their science on words rather than numbers give the game away. You see, numbers are words. “3” is no less a word than “three”. They are different ways of signifying the same concept, just as are “horse” and “cheval”. Both numbers and words are the same thing: audible and textural symbols, pictures of reality.

‘Logopolis’, which frankly embraces scientists as monks/wizards, is based on this concept. ‘Logopolis’ is about maths? Why is it called “City of Words” then? For a brief, exhilarating moment, it looks like ‘The Shakespeare Code’ might mine the same seam... despite my having doubts about Bidmead being high on Roberts' hero list.  Sadly, it lasts for a couple of lines and then evaporates. Even if we grant that words and numbers are, on some fundamental level, different... and even if we grant that science can be based on one or the other... and even if we grant that Carrionites can use words to directly change reality (the Logopolitans do it, so we’ll let Roberts have that one)... then we are still left with the problem of why Carrionites use bad poetry as their method of communication and attack.

Let’s face it, the Carrionite couplets are pretty awful.  Are they really meant to represent transcendental, dimension-puncturing, alien supertechnology? If their culture really is based on language this banal, then we must hope they never return and stumble into Clinton Cards. They’d probably be able to use the doggerel inside the Mother’s Day cards as some sort of interdimensional superweapon. God only knows what they could do with Alanis Morrisette lyrics.

The Doctor comes out with something about the words of a play promoting emotions in an audience (nothing to do with actors, musicians or anybody else involved in staging theatre then) and supposedly this show us how words can alter reality. This is part of the episode’s underlying theme of art being all about prompting and manipulating the emotions rather than challenging the aesthetic sense, the political conscience or the intellect. This is very much in keeping with the mawkish tendencies of modern Who and it is a sentiment that Shakespeare, for all his populism, would probably have rejected. But, to return to the point, how do we get from feeling sad because Cordelia is dead to ripping open inter-dimensional portals? And why, if emotion is part of the mix, is the necessary ‘code’ such gibberish, utterly unlikely to move anybody in the audience to do anything but go “huh?” (I can't help suspecting that this is what Roberts thinks Shakespeare sounds like to a modern TV audience.) 

After all the stuff about words rather than numbers being capable of summoning Carrionites, the speech that will supposedly enable the Carrionites to manifest themselves contains a whole string of numbers! The story ought to be able to explain this to us but it can’t. It doesn’t know and doesn’t care. Apparently, the emotional impact of words is enough to punch holes in reality. But it works with numbers too. It works when actors speak emotionless words without understanding them. It even half-works when the actors are rehearsing to an empty theatre… so is it not about emotions but just about words and polygons? In which case, why bother having the spell performed in front of an audience? Where exactly does the power of the words come from if it isn’t from their status as words, their beauty, meaning, performance or reception? What else is there?

It isn’t just that the concepts underlying ‘The Shakespeare Code’ are bollocks. Zigma energy is bollocks too but nobody minds. The problem with the bollocks in ‘The Shakespeare Code’ is that it’s badly thought-out, self-contradictory, lazy, uninterested bollocks.  Maybe (I’m casting around in desperation now) the power of the words comes from the author? The Carrionites do seem to need Shakespeare… But why?  Ah yes... because he’s a GENIUS.


The Shakespeare presented to us is not a person in any real sense. He’s a GENIUS. There is no sense of him having to struggle for his words or work at his writing. He seems superhuman; he sees through the psychic paper and makes leaps of intuitive understanding simply because he’s Shakespeare and Shakespeare was, to use Martha’s word, “clever”. The Doctor, in his drooling hero-worship, implies that Shakespeare was born a GENIUS (presumably it’s genetic... which is biological determinism... which is reactionary bullshit). Shakespeare himself is seen to endorse this idea. Never mind that the idea of ‘genius’, particularly of the artistic kind, is a very modern idea that stems largely from the Romantic movement.

No room is made for the fact that Shakespeare collaborated with others, probably often adapted and rewrote others’ work, learned as he went along and developed his style from early talent into its later greatness. The Doctor calls him “the most human human” (whatever the blithering fuck that might mean), yet Shakespeare is robbed of his humanity. The story makes his words the result of magical inspiration, not talent or toil… something which implies a massive lack of respect for his work.

Beyond the crashingly anachronistic Russell Brandesque laddishness, he is presented as a sort of übermensch; a man inherently more insightful than anyone else around him simply by virtue of his status as icon... or, to use a different word that seems to get more to the heart of the problem, a celebrity. By making him into a superman, they make him less than human. And this is the fundamental problem with the whole notion of the "celebrity historical", going right back to its half-hearted birth in 'The Mark of the Rani' (which itself stupidly and inaccurately reduces the industrial revolution to the work of a few GENIUSES): the 'celebrity' is gawped at and worshipped by the story as though the programme makers are paparazzi stalking them for Heat Magazine.

The personality of the real, human Shakespeare can only guessed at. He seems to have been ambitious, well educated, romantic, fond of his children... perhaps less fond of his wife, etc. There's a whole publishing industry devoted to worthless speculation about his personality. More pertinently, he may have been a secret Catholic sympathiser. He also seems to have been liked by his colleagues and contemporaries. But none of that tells us what he was like. We don’t really know if he was a prudish man or a frequenter of brothels, if he was teetotal or a boozer, if he was modest or a braggart, if he was mild or fond of the odd pub brawl (there does seem to have been a summons for GBH).

The trouble with ‘The Shakespeare Code’ isn’t that it misrepresents Shakespeare (we’d need a substantial, accurate picture to distort and we haven’t got one) but that it doesn’t really attempt to represent him at all. We don’t even get a proper guess at what Shakespeare may have been like. We get a GENIUS. We also get, in outline, a caricature of a figure very much of our times: the celeb artiste. You can easily imagine the character in ‘The Shakespeare Code’ appearing on chat shows or doing I’m a Playwright, Get me Out of Here! if his career went on the skids. Even this, in itself, wouldn’t be so bad if what we got was a witty satire of such a character… but we hardly get a character at all.

Shakespeare, in ‘The Shakespeare Code’, isn’t a human being. He’s a cultural icon familiarised as a modern media archetype. They don’t want to present him as the bald, middle-aged, baggy-eyed man of the famous picture (not sexy enough)… yet he has to be given his ruff at the end, just to make him into the icon we recognise, to make him visually complete. It’s a very sterile approach and a very safe one. Doctor Who ought to be about confronting audiences with things they haven’t seen before, things that are uncanny and unfamiliar. But ‘The Shakespeare Code’ presents us with a jazzed-up English Heritage icon rather than a flesh-and-blood man. The episode obviously thinks its being irreverent by showing Shakespeare as a star who joshingly insults his audiences but, while this might jar with some popular preconceptions about the man, the behaviour itself is so familiar from our own time that it still fails to surprise.

Sadly, ‘The Shakespeare Code’ shrinks from attempting to give Shakespeare any semblance of a genuine 16th Century psychology or to even refer to the complexities in his character. He was a loyal Elizabethan but also, possibly, a recusant Catholic who had seen members of his mother’s family arrested, tortured and executed as traitors. He was both an artist and a commercially minded theatrical entrepreneur (he probably wouldn't have comprehended the opposition that we are inclined to see here). He spent most of his time away from home and family, living alone in London. He might have been bisexual (though it’s simplistic and facile to cast Elizabethan sexual attitudes in modern terms) if we tendentiously take the Sonnets to be autobiographical. This last is referred to, but only in a throwaway joke. At least, in this instance, it’s rather a good joke. At least some of his poems, brilliantly wrought works of high beauty and intensely dark emotion, were nevertheless written for rich patrons who could cough up the cash.  They were not improvised as chat-up lines. The death of his son Hamnet is dutifully ticked off the List of Things to Mention and Shakespeare dutifully looks a bit melancholy… yet there is no real attempt to find out what this means to him (beyond the casual bit when he trots out the obligatory “to be or not to be” in completely the wrong context).

The death of Hamnet is deemed to be of significance by modern Doctor Who because it is directly to do with emotion, because it’s likely to effect the audience on a maudlin emotional level. (Later it is revealed that Shakespeare’s grief is itself enough to open some sort of gateway into our world for the Carrionites, as though Shakespeare’s superhuman status means that his emotions effect cosmic reality. More bardolatry, more elitism, more confusion of the concepts.)

Sadly, many far more interesting facets of Shakespeare’s character and personal history are deemed unworthy of attention because they refer to the political and social context of his life. There is, for example, his possible association with the Catholic underground and his friendship with Kit Marlowe (rival playwright and part-time government spy).

I suppose it could have been worse. The episode might, for instance, have tried to suggest that Martha actually was Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’. We might have had scenes where Anne Hathaway got into a cat-fight with Martha. I can easily imagine the current production team sniggering over a scene in which Mrs Shakespeare starts wrestling Martha in the street shouting “Get away from my man, bitch!” while a crowd of Londoners gather round and cheer like a Jeremy Kyle audience.

After all that, it’s funny how the Carrionites seem not to actually need Shakespeare to write the words himself! They just need him to take dictation while going cross-eyed under the influence of a voodoo puppet… well, you could get Jeffrey Archer to do that! Or even Dan Brown. The words that form the ‘code’ are not Shakespeare’s words but Lilith’s; Shakespeare just happened to be holding the quill… so the strength of his superhuman talent for words is irrelevant, as are his dimension-puncturing emotions. He ends up being Lillith’s secretary… which, in case this had slipped us by, makes him utterly irrelevant to the workings of the plot.

They really might just as well have had the whole story set in the present day with the Carrionites manipulating Rowling into putting their code into the next Harry Potter book and summoning their race onto the film set when Daniel Ratcliffe says the line. Rowling’s words are, apparently, able to seal dimensional rifts just as well as Shakespeare’s handwriting can open them. Is Rowling a GENIUS too? A genetic freak with magical abilities and a superhuman intuition like Roberts’ version of William Shakespeare? Well, according to ‘The Shakespeare Code’, artistic worth derives not from technical merit but solely from the ability to emotionally stimulate a mass audience. Maybe that makes Catherine Cookson a candidate for artistic demi-godhood too. Along with Liberace, James Last and Hitler. Remember, it isn’t the quality of the words that matters, it’s how they effect the emotions. Some of those Nuremburg speeches really ought to be required reading in schools. Okay, they may be incoherent, bombastic, specious, fatuous, banal and filled with ideas of incomparable evil… but they sure made the audience quiver!

After all, this is the same writer who will, in the following season, assert that Agatha Christie was a GENIUS because she sold lots of books.  Well, I'm sorry, but Deepak Chopra sells lots of books.  Do we really want to go there?


There are also, sadly, big problems in the way the episode presents Shakespeare’s world. The 1599 that we visit in ‘The Shakespeare Code’, and the Shakespeare who lives in it, are both constructed from images and clichés without social or political context. They are constructed, for the most part, from old episodes of Blackadder (which used the three 'witches' and borrowed the speech patterns of feigned madness from King Lear to much better effect than ‘The Shakespeare Code’ managed). I’m not saying that the story should have centred upon the political ructions and religious controversies of the age (the days when stories like that are considered capable of getting healthy viewing figures have long passed) but still, setting a story in Shakespeare’s day and not even mentioning the Reformation is a bit like basing a story on a meeting between the Doctor and George Orwell without once mentioning totalitarianism. Which would be pretty fucking dumb, frankly.

In view of all this, it almost seems redundant to mention factual howlers. I’m not, generally, the sort of person who nitpicks over the potatoes in ‘The Time Warrior’, but I may as well mention that the Globe was only polygonal because truly circular buildings were impossible to construct using Tudor building methods and materials. Not only is there no mystery to us, there would have been no mystery to people at the time. Asked “why fourteen sides?”, Shakespeare would have known the answer exactly: because that’s how you build something that looks circular. And Love’s Labours Won is known to have been published, rather than simply disappearing immediately after the first performance. And Love's Labours Lost almost certainly wouldn't have played at the Globe when it was new, earning thunderous applause from the groundlings; it appears to have been written as a bit of showoffish look-at-how-erudite-I-am material for an elite audience. It was used at the Globe, much later, but shows no signs of having been a hit. Even today it is considered a difficult, slippery, highly-cerebral, verbally inaccessible play.

Of course, Gareth Roberts makes it very clear that he really isn’t interested in Tudor London. What a fascinating setting he thumbs his nose at! A place full of bubbling religious and ideological conflict, a proto-police state swarming with informers and spies and torturers, an outwardly pious Babylon, the centre of the English renaissance, a hub of artists and thinkers, a pit of squalor lorded over by the rich. None of this gets a look in. Roberts is too busy telling us how the world of the Elizabethans was exactly like ours only in funny clothes. This wouldn’t matter so much if what we got worked as a 3D world, a place we can believe in. The darkly comic world of I, Claudius has more to do with the manner and morals of bourgeois 20th century England than the real ancient Rome, but we accept it because the world presented to us seems to have depth, to have nooks and crannies, to have side streets and byways, to have things going on around the corners. But Roberts’ 1599 London is made of clichés and nothing more: Blackadder’s hand-me-downs, at best.

To return to the theme of irony… it really is very sad to see the Doctor finally meeting Shakespeare while Doctor Who refuses to engage with his world in a way that would have recalled some of its greatest past successes, the historicals which borrowed elements of Shakespeare’s method to such fine effect. It isn’t just that ‘The Shakespeare Code’ misrepresents Tudor London. ‘The Time Warrior’ and ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ don’t bother trying to accurately depict their settings either, but they have satire and knowing pastiche instead... indeed, some of the great pseudo-historicals of the past base their success on a witty awareness of the impossibility of accurately depicting history. ‘The Shakespeare Code’ tries to replace an earnest depiction of its setting with a list of stock jokes.


For a story that revolves around a man who revolutionised the way characterisation was conceived of and executed in drama and literature, ‘The Shakespeare Code’ is very short of proper characterisation of any kind. We have the Master of the Revels who has no existence beyond his bluster, the actors who don’t exist beyond their vain preciousness (they are actors after all... what do you want, something other than cliche?), the lady who runs the boarding house who is just a buxom wench and nothing more, the madman, the nasty attendant at Bedlam, the tetchy Queen Elizabeth… cardboard cut-outs all. Even Martha devolves into a sort of companion-shaped gap in the picture, asking dumb questions and fixating upon the Doctor at the expense of all else.

It’s telling that the scene which tries hardest to explore genuine characterisation is the Doctor and Martha’s bed scene. The message is clear: this week’s setting is a backdrop for Martha’s unrequited lust and the Doctor’s pining for Rose.

Unforgivably, Roberts can’t even be bothered to give the villains a proper motivation. Even the Krillitanes had more motivation than the Carrionites. They want to come to Earth and destroy it. Why? Because they’re witches and witches are nasty. They kill that chap at the start? Why? Because the episode needs a pre-title sequence. They don’t have any kind of mindset beyond cackling. They do Bad Things because they are Bad. Roberts can’t be arsed to do better than this. He wants to get back to the jokes, the cultural references, the sexual innuendo and the effects sequences before the audience (as he appears to percieve it) gets bored. Meanwhile, the villains can be scared off by having their own names shouted at them (which must make social life a tad difficult). Of course, this trick only works once. After all, the Obligatory Big Confrontation between Our Hero and this week’s Lead Bad Person has to go on a bit longer than the altercation with Savouryfinger or whatever her name was. If all David Tennant had to do was shout “Lilith!” then she wouldn’t have time to trot out the obligatory bit of taunting about how he’s all alone and misses Rose.


There is also the question of the gender politics. I can't help notice an extremely dodgy attitude to women submerged in this story.  (I'm not saying, by the way, that Gareth Roberts is a womanhater or anything like that... just that his use of stereotypical tropes about witches allows some nasty undercurrents to slink in unnoticed.)

We have a sisterhood, with one member called Lilith... which is kind of interesting, given the title of the story. One of the things that Dan Brown gibbers on about in The Da Vinci Code is the Catholic Church suppressing the "sacred feminine", which Brown fatuously connects to all sorts of nonsense about pagan goddesses, inaccurate accounts of Mary Magdalene and the myth of the millions of witch-burnings. There is, of course, a grain of truth hidden somewhere in this morass of ordure: organised religion has been systematically guilty of oppressing women in multifarious ways; most organised religions are heavily patriarchal in their internal structure, ideology and their social effect (we could argue about why this is but it would take us way outside the scope of this essay). Of course, Brown's book is itself highly sexist, not least in its 'worship' of the feminine as a receptacle for an essentially patriarchal conception of intellectual, spiritual and sexual power. The trouble is that 'The Shakespeare Code' manages to be even more reactionary than Dan Brown... because it presents us with evil in the form of a female organisation, made up of hideous old witches, who turn out to be exactly that: hideous old witches. They look evil because they have the temerity to be female while also being old (i.e. experienced, wise, sexually unalluring, unable to procreate)... and rather than buck this trope of patriarchal culture, they conform to it. They look evil... and they are evil.

The use of the name Lilith is telling. Lilith is a figure from Jewish mythology. She was, so to speak, Adam's first wife, created at the same time as him, before God plucked the altogether more subservient Eve from his rib as a replacement. Lilith leaves Adam, refusing to obey him, and has an affair with an angel. She has been a recurrent and reinvented figure in various traditions, almost always standing for female independence, sorority and disobedience... conceptualised usually as a demonic or semi-demonic being, or at least highly sinister. In the Western tradition she is constructed almost as a personification of the self-involved romantic/Romantic doom foisted upon poor victim men by heartless, remote females (as in the Pre-Raphaelites, for example). She has a tendency to hate children and to spend ages brushing her long hair and gazing lovingly at herself in a mirror. It's apparent from this short summary what she embodies: the male's terror of the woman who does not revere him, who does not submit to his rule, who does not wish to be a seedbed for his potency, who refuses/fears the role of mother, who does not look at him with awe but instead considers herself and the rest of her sex with esteem (such shocking selfishness!). In short, she's the opposite of the hopelessly lovestruck Martha, or the accommodating buxom serving wench who gazes adoringly at the GENIUS writer. She's the woman as enemy.

Not only does Roberts' script do precisely nothing to challenge this underlying notion, it actively embraces it. It makes men into the helpless puppets (literally) of a gang of ball-busters. It shows us men driven mad by female power. It shows Western civilisation (the Globe theatre is as good a symbol as any for this notion) menaced by a cloud of cackling women. It even has the Doctor chased away at the end by Queen Elizabeth I, the symbol par excellence of remote, autocratic, virginal, non-sexually compliant, gender role-defying, self-determining female power.

It's all the more ironic, given that the story revolves around Love's Labours Lost... a play which is about the various ways in which women can be independent, can challenge male self-esteem even within patriarchy, can construct their own destinies, can judge men on their terms, can be the intellectual and verbal equals of men, can even choose to delay their marriages for reasons of their own... all without also being evil, or even unlikeable!

Even the Weird Sisters in Macbeth (and they are "weird sisters", not witches) are not straightforward depictions of female evil.  They are highly complex representations and ambivalent figures (and looking at them in detail is well outside my scope here) but they tempt Macbeth into doing things he has already considered, and he makes their predictions come true himself by deciding to construe their words in a way that conforms with his own conflicted desires.  They are not simply cackling hag demons.

I'm not claiming, as some do, that Shakespeare was a proto-feminist. Indeed, although he pays far more detailed and sympathetic attention to female psychology, the female social situation and female inner life than any other dramatist of his time, he still writes embedded within the thoughtworld of a deeply patriarchal society... and it shows. However, the point here is that a writer in 2007 should surely be able to do better, on this subject, than one writing in 1599... not because we're so much more advanced and moral, but because feminism and other types of liberating politics have been highly visible and influential for decades.


In an article for DWM, Roberts once mocked the idea that Doctor Who should carry political messages. He ridiculed the notion that anything worthwhile could come of the green themes in ‘The Green Death’. Everybody knows pollution is wrong and they don’t need Doctor Who to tell them. His Big Finish audio ‘Bang-Bang-a-Boom!’, co-written with Clayton Hickman, seems designed to heap scorn upon those hateful episodes from the Trek franchise which indulge in asinine liberal/bourgeois philosophising about Arabs and Israelis… which is fine with me, except that the play seems to imply that all such attempts to use science-fiction as a space for political metaphors is inherently fatuous. Certainly, Roberts has disdained the worldbuilding/microcosm/metaphor approach that I mentioned above, at least in his televised episodes... though, in fairness, that may be because he hasn't been asked to do an alien planet/future story yet.

But, all in all, Roberts appears to have rejected the idea that Doctor Who, or sci-fi generally, can or should try to Say Something political. He even takes a moment in 'The Shaksepeare Code' to imply that global warming is a myth that only ranting, doommongering, soapbox-loonies go on about. Roberts himself may not believe this, but people do... which itself demonstrates the point (which he has questioned) of creating art which, say, attempts an ecological polemic.  He's got a point about 'The Green Death' (and Star Trek), but there's no reason why all such attempts must collapse into patronising didacticism.

This is all the sadder since Roberts' sophomore New Adventures novel, Tragedy Day, was a bravura exercise in caustically satirical social-sci-fi worldbuilding.

There's yet another irony here. 'Freedonia' is mentioned in 'The Shakespeare Code'. Freedonia is of course the quasi-Ruritanian country in the Marx Brothers' classic comedy film Duck Soup... the only one of their films to be set in an explicitly fictional country, a microcosmic/metaphorical social world of the Shakespearean kind. Duck Soup engages in the kind of speculative and/or satirical discursive worldbuilding that Doctor Who (and 'soft' sci-fi generally) inherited and developed from its origins in the humanist literature of the Renaissance, from Spenser's Fairie Queene, Golding's translation of Ovid and Shakespeare's confabulated Illyria, Bohemia, Elsinore and Venice. Duck Soup may not be Orwell, but it uses a fictional world as a space in which to poke fun (very, very broadly) at things like government, taxation, pageantry, polite 'society', diplomacy, espionage, war, etc. In this way, Duck Soup is more like classic Doctor Who (or Shakespeare) than 'The Shaksepeare Code'.

Anyway, here I take my bow and leave a stage bereft of flowers... the scattered, perfunctory, embarassed, insincere applause ringing in my ears.

[Exits pursued by a Carrionite.]


  1. "They really might just as well have had the whole story set in the present day with the Carrionites manipulating Rowling into putting their code into the next Harry Potter book"

    Have you read "The Writer's Tale"...?

    Because if you haven't, then... you probably shouldn't.

    "Voyage of the Damned" was awful, but we were spared something far, far worse.

  2. Ah, dramatic irony. My readers know something I don't.

    Still, in this case I feel that ignorance may be bliss.

  3. A psychic beetle was going to latch onto JK Rowling (playing herself) and bring all the things from her "amazing imagination" to life in the real world, sort of like "Turn Left" for idiots.

    Davies was ready to pitch it as the 2007 Christmas Special until David Tennant told him it was stupid, so we got "Voyage of the Damned" instead.

    The worst part is knowing that, in 2030, either Big Finish or Ian Levine will try to do an audio version.

  4. Goes to show, everyone has limits. Even David Tennant didn't want to be in that... and this is the guy who agreed to say "Make the foundation of this society a man who never would!" on national television.

    Thing is, Rowling IS that beetle. She's the imagination parasite. If they'd done a story where they got her to play an alien idea-vampire, that might've been something.

  5. Sorry to be so repetitive, but I really enjoyed this one too.

  6. It surely would be nice if this episode had done for Shakespeare with "Vincent and the Doctor" did for Van Gogh.

    Still, I must cavil. Numbers aren't words. Numerals are words. Numbers are whatever it is that numerals stand for -- a much-debated philosophical question. But in some sense 2 + 2 would still equal 4 even if no language-users existed.

  7. It's really hard to believe this is the writer of Tragedy Day. What happened to the man?

  8. This is entirely off topic, but you sort of brought it up and it's a pet peeve of mine.

    Yes, the only ironic thing about "Ironic" is that it contains no irony. But Ed Byrne wasn't the first person to say that.

    Alanis Morissette was.

    1. Don't feel bad. You're far from the first person to be tripped up by "Ironic": It's probably one of the most frequently and profoundly misread and misinterpreted songs of the past several decades.

    2. Do you mean that the ironic lack of irony is intentional?

    3. Absolutely. "Ironic" is not a cheerily bemused song about how "life has a funny way of sneaking up on you/When you think everything's okay and everything's going right". It's a deeply bitter up-yours to the sorts of people who would smugly claim pop music is shallow and vapid and that all pop singers are dumb, interchangeable bimbos who don't know what words like "ironic" mean. Which actually finally makes the song make sense, as at first glance it sticks out like a sore thumb on the otherwise quite venomous Jagged Little Pill.

      Alanis later, somewhat coyly, said "For me the great debate on whether what I was saying in 'Ironic' was ironic wasn't a traumatic debate. I'd always embraced the fact that every once in a while I'd be the malapropism queen."

      But then she would.

    4. I'll have to re-listen to it.

    5. It would have to be a pretty well-concealed bitter up-yours. Either way it seems to stick out, since nothing else on that album is what you'd call subtle. But I'll take your word for it.

  9. It surely would be nice if this episode had done for Shakespeare with "Vincent and the Doctor" did for Van Gogh.

    So...reduce him to a mental health issue, casually reference several of his best-known works like a postcard book, and then have him savagely murder an ostensibly thinking, feeling creature with the instrument of his art (a quill pen, I guess)?

    Or just have Bill Nighy say how awesome he was? I guess that part would be OK. :)

    1. I don't think V&tD "reduced" Van Gogh to a mental health issue. And it didn't just casually reference the paintings, it immersed us in them. (In a chronologically inaccurate way, incidentally, but whatever.)

    2. Hopefully I'll be able to see it that way the next time I can bring myself to sit through it.