‘The grief of a genius.’ After Series Two cautiously trod in the footprints of Series One, with a Victorian werewolf instead of ghosts for example, Series Three has upped the ambition considerably. This flirts with the template of The Unquiet Dead, taking a mysterious lost work (Edwin Drood/Love’s Labour’s Won) as a plot element, supernatural monsters and a great author in historic England, but is bigger and bolder, done on the scale of The Empty Child, in recognisable London locations.
The key one is the Globe Theatre, and it’s hard to see this working quite as well if they’d been forced to recreate it in studio. There’s something magical about seeing the Doctor and Martha on stage with Shakespeare, expelling the Carrionite horde back into hell that means the episode can get away with some implausibilities (like how exactly the witches’ power works, beyond being ‘old magic’). The concept is Logopolis by a writer rather than a mathematician, with the power of words replacing the chanting of numbers: an idea made flesh in Shakespeare, whose words retain their power four centuries after his death. Which makes the Globe the equivalent of the Pharos transmitter, with entropy, or at least chaos, trying to force its way into the universe rather than being channelled out. In its way, this is as high concept as Bidmead, with sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic, and the Carrionites sharing a Hinchcliffean history with the Racnoss as creatures from a time of ancient chaos.
In the middle of this are two geniuses. Shakespeare is meant to be a different proposition from either the Shakespeare in Love image of a pin-up romantic lead, or the balding, middle-aged intriguer we glimpsed in The Chase. The working-class hero we get is somewhere between this extremes, strikingly human with foul breath and a foul mouth (or at least as foul as you can get in a BBC One early evening slot). The Doctor retains his own eccentricity (the ‘bad-a-boom’ bit skirts dangerously close to Army of Ghosts’ ‘Who you gonna call?’), but there’s more texture for Tennant to play with as the Doctor is haunted by the name of Rose and seems reluctantly drawn into adventure rather than leaping in carefree.
The downside is that Martha’s first trip is in the shadow of ‘the distant Rose’, as the Doctor reminds her she’s just getting one trip, calls her a novice, and is disappointed when she doesn’t come up with exactly the insights Rose might have. I think this tends to make him look an idiot and forces the audience to keep comparing Martha to Rose as a series-long theme, when I suspect most people would have been comfortable to let it drop after a couple of episodes. Instead, she asks a lot of intelligent questions, restarting the Doctor’s heart again (there’s a metaphor there), and coming up with the right word to complete the expulsion of the Carrionites. I like that this doesn’t avoid the race issue either, with Martha worrying about her own safety, and being treated as an “exotic” by Shakespeare.
The end result looks good, sounds good and includes some brilliantly funny moments, the most memorable of which is probably Elizabeth Tudor’s horrified reaction to the Doctor, ‘my sworn enemy’, the inspiration for the unlikeliest six-year story arc in the series’ history. It’s just a shame the ‘Sycorax’ name had already been taken.
Next Time: Gridlock