Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In the Heart and Mind of the Universe, There Is a Reason

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.


  1. But it's penne a la pesto, and judged by the standards of penne a la's oxidizing.

    1. Ha! Yes!

      One of the few episodes of Daria I've actually seen, by the way. Not because I have anything against the show, just because I didn't have cable until 2006.

  2. I didn't think that episode was particularly bad. Oh sure, it's treatment of the historical setting was a bit lazy and parts felt a bit goofy, and the fact that it didn't even try to pretend the magic was sciency was a bit unusual, but for most of the episode it was pretty average Dr Who. It had reasonably compelling villains with a reasonably compelling evil plot, and the villains provided a pretty good sense of menace prior to the part where they lose (half killing the doctor tends to score you points).

    It's not like some of the episodes in the most recent half-season with Oswin that were just plain *garbage*. I'm looking at you, "Journey to the Center of the Tardis". (Then again they bounced back to good in her last three episodes so whatever. Crying doom is so passe).

    1. Oh, I think this episode is just fine. Not one of the best by any means, but certainly nowhere near worst.

  3. I am very very confused. Is there an episode of the new series you do enjoy?

    1. Good, that's the reaction I was going for. ;)

      And I like almost all of the new series, this was (a) a response to a comment here along the lines of "it would be daft to criticise TSC for not being more like an ice cream sundae," and (b) a parody of a particular kind of fan criticism.

    2. Ah. I should have refreshed the page before I hit "publish" on my long-ass comment to see if anyone had replied while I was typing it. I didn't realize this was a reaction to something specific.

      I shall now read that linked post and discern how badly I missed the point.

    3. Okay, I clicked through to the original Jack Graham review that spawned the response the response to which this was a response to, and when I saw these... I couldn't help laughing.

      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...

      ...'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.

      "Apolitical and uninterested in worldbuilding" is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of Shakespeare. Shakespeare didn't write plays to explore political and philosophic ideas, those ideas grew organically out of his characters. He wrote about human drama and comedy, and the ideas grew out of that... and even then, he was careful to avoid definitively answering any of the questions he raised about society or humanity.

  4. 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.

    As a classical theatre geek (may I linkdrop my MLP/Shakespeare crossover fanfic?), I loved the parallels the episode drew between pop culture then and pop culture now. I actually ran a panel at Geek.Kon last month entitled on this very topic, called "Geek Highbrow," and one of the things we discussed was how Shakespeare wasn't highbrow in his day at all... his plays are popular NOW because they're brilliant, but back then they were popular because of the supernatural monsters, excessive violence, illicit (and underage) sex, and anachronistic pop culture references in ostensibly-period dramas.

    Really, the only major difference (aside from level of talent) between Shakespeare and modern genre writers is that Shakespeare didn't care about continuity or world-building at all.

    Classic lit has this reputation nowadays of... well, imagine someone invites you to join them on a tour of a museum exhibit of surrealist and impressionist painters. You take one look at the dozen or so people filing in, and feel that if you went in there with them, you'd be the only one there who wasn't dressed like you'd stepped out of a Victorian ballroom painting, and that you'd lower the average age of the group by about ten years. You can see part of the exhibit from a distance, and it doesn't look like you'd be able to tell what any of these pictures were supposed to look like or what they mean. You get the feeling that the tour guide would be using big words right from the start, and you'd be afraid to ask for any clarifications because you can just picture all the other people staring at you contemptuously for distracting them from the high art, and whispering stuff like, "hasn't s/he read the complete works of Dostoyevsky? Children these days know nothing of art!" and "probably watches cat videos on WebTube or whatever it's called," and "the internet is destroying civilization," under their breath.

    That's the feeling that a lot of people, especially young people, get about the arts. I loved that "The Shakespeare Code" made Shakespeare look so human and approachable.

    1. I completely 100% agree with you, and in fact may go further: I don't draw any distinctions between "high" and "low" art or, for that matter, between art and entertainment.

    2. Hah. I wrote an in-character tumblr post on that very topic.

      That reminds me, I should check the convention footage on my video camera. Sadly my panel was right next door to the large "boffer" room where people spent the entire convention thwacking each other with foam swords (and screaming incomprehensible lines from martial arts anime at the top of their lungs while doing so) with only one of those accordion-wall things, which we couldn't even get all the way closed, separating us, so my hopes aren't high that the audio will be audible, but if it is, I'll post it to YT... (one of our panelists, incidentally, was cosplaying as Pinkie Pie)

    3. Well part of the problem is any and everybody who thinks that there is some magic to the original English. No, guys, just no. The only magic in the original English is a sleeping spell. Every time a you ask children to read a work of Shakespeare that hasn't had its language and, ideally, its humor updated for modern audiences, you are killing their interest in literature for the rest of their lives.

      Then again, I distinctly remember finding it to be a chore to read "The Catcher In the Rye" back when I was in middle/high school. I mean the fact that I had a personal dislike for the whiny main character obviously didn't help, but there was nothing wrong with that book. That was perfectly normal modern English. And heck, these days I gobble up and savor fiction that requires far more brainpower than that to follow yet is undeniably "lowbrow".

    4. I don't believe the problem actually is that children are made to read Shakespeare in the original English, but rather that they are made to read it at all. Shakespeare is dead on the page, but any remotely competent performance (even a community theater production of one of the minor comedies) can sizzle.

      Also, I think I may have mentioned this before, but no one should be allowed to read or see Romeo and Juliet until they're a good decade older than the main characters. It's the only way to kill the ridiculous belief that it's in any way romantic.

    5. Every time a you ask children to read a work of Shakespeare that hasn't had its language and, ideally, its humor updated for modern audiences, you are killing their interest in literature for the rest of their lives.

      I work with a nonprofit children's educational theatre troupe in which kids and teenagers (ages 6 to 19) perform full-length, uncut and unbowdlerized Shakespeare plays. Each actor gets explanation tapes in which the director breaks down the meanings and double meanings of all the lines each character says. And in 2007, they performed the RSC's nine-hour stage adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby.

      Just saying.

    6. "The only magic in the original English is a sleeping spell."

      Also a lot more cheap sex jokes.


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