Doctor Who Series 3, episode 2, “The Shakespeare Code,” poses serious issues for a long-time, committed and discerning fan such as myself. On the one hand, as a fan I very much want it to be good, or at least to find something to enjoy in it. On the other, as a person whose taste has been shaped by past experience of works of this type, it would dishonor the memory of my favorites to not recognize when something fails to live up to them.
And look, I’m no purist. I understand that art requires trying new things, that it is necessary to experiment. At the same time, it is the nature of experimentation that most attempts fail to accomplish their goals–indeed, that is the point, to try out things that might or might not succeed and discard the ones that do not. If we pretend that a failed experiment is not a failure, then we have missed the point of experimentation. True, it is just as bad to fail to recognize something good just because it’s unfamiliar, but I don’t think that’s the issue here. I’ve had and enjoyed mint ice cream with peanut-butter sauce and raspberries; it takes some getting used to, but once you understand what it’s doing, it’s actually quite delicious.
But I’m sorry, try as I might I cannot figure out how I’m supposed to enjoy or even appreciate this. This goes beyond experimentation or even challenging our expectations; I have to seriously question the judgment of the people responsible for making it. Have they ever even eaten ice cream? Do they know what it is?
Consider: Even the simplest hot fudge sundae is a study in delicious contrasts. Thick, sticky sauce, so dark a brown it’s nearly black, dribbling down the sides of a creamy mound of bright white ice cream. Hot, bittersweet, rich chocolate shares mouthspace with cold, sweet, refreshing vanilla. But here we have no such contrasts–quite the opposite, as the episode takes pains to make the 16th century as familiar an experience for modern-day Martha as possible, from the Doctor’s speech early in the episode comparing people on the street to their 21st-century equivalents, to the depiction of William Shakespeare as a pop-cultural icon.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with challenging definitions in art, at least in principle. Can you make a sundae without ice cream? Well, frozen yogurt seems like a reasonable substitute. Maybe sherbet, perhaps even a sorbet, as long as they have toppings. But would a bowl of chocolate sauce and sprinkles be a sundae? Is it still a sundae after the ice cream has melted? Those seem like reasonable avenues for exploration.
But “The Shakespeare Code” isn’t even edible! You might be able to make the case that 44 minutes of sitting, spoon in hand, as frustration mounts is an artistic experience of some sort, but it certainly isn’t an ice cream sundae by any stretch of the definition I can imagine!
Like I said, it makes me seriously question the judgment of the BBC. I get that Doctor Who is one of their longest-running properties, and maybe they’re concerned about getting stale, but it got to be so long-running because of fan loyalty. Now, I don’t want to be one of those “entitled” fans here; I get that the BBC owes me nothing, but at the same time I don’t owe them anything, either. It’s not a matter of owing something, but of cause and effect: if you want to retain your fans, you have to give them something to like. And people love ice cream! It’s been one of the most popular desserts for decades, and for good reason. So you can’t just go around, presenting something that is blatantly not at all an ice cream sundae, and expect to retain viewers!
This is typical Davies, and sadly, I can say with some authority (having seen the entirety of the new series to date) that Moffat does no better. They both seem utterly determined to provide viewers with no ice cream whatsoever–indeed, ice cream is barely even mentioned anywhere in their runs! It makes me seriously question why I continue to bother watching—I don’t know who they think they’re making this series for, but it’s obviously not ice cream aficionados any more.
If it ever even was.