Friday, October 7, 2011

The Keys to the TARDIS: Make that 58

I've been a Shakespeare geek most of my life. My Doctor Who geekdom, however, is a much more recent thing. But it was the one that was the key to the other.

Up until 2008, if you asked me what Doctor Who was, I probably would have said, "Um, I think it's something like a British version of Star Trek." Then I got into the Clarion writers' workshop. And in the lead up to meeting in San Diego, we exchanged a ton of emails and it seemed like everyone was talking about Doctor Who, and how the season finale would air while we were there, and how we should all watch it together. There were rumors about one of our instructors being asked to write an episode. It seemed like a big deal.

I was really nervous about going and living with these people for six weeks, and I wanted to fit in. So I asked someone about the show, and where I should start watching. "Watch "The Shakespeare Code"," she said.
I did. And I was hooked.

"The Shakespeare Code," written by Gareth Roberts, is the second episode in Season 3 of the reboot. David Tennant is Ten and his new companion is Martha Jones, played by Freema Agyeman. He's promised her one trip in the TARDIS. "Outside this door," he says, "brave new world." And that throwaway reference sets the tone for the episode - it would be fun on its own, but if you know Shakespeare, there are so many wonderful little bits that add to the enjoyment.

That was enough to keep me watching the episode, but that wasn't the moment that hooked me. The moment where I knew I'd watch another one was about halfway through. Shakespeare is flirting with Martha, and the Doctor tells him, "Come on, we can all have a proper flirt later." Shakespeare responds with "You promise, Doctor?" and the Doctor notes that "Fifty-seven academics just punched the air." I can tell you I was one of them. Those two lines of dialogue were a brief flash of nerdy perfection.

I like a show that trusts its audience to keep up. I also like a show that knows exactly how seriously to take itself. At the end, as Shakespeare is coming up with an extemporaneous invocation to mend the damage that words have caused, standing on the stage of the Globe, he needs one more magic word. "Expelliarmus!" Martha shouts. So does Shakespeare, and then the Doctor, who follows it up with "Good old JK." A lighthearted moment, sure, but a sly one too, as anyone who is familiar with the Harry Potter films knows Tennant as Barty Crouch, Jr., from Goblet of Fire. It was that combination of knowingness and metafiction and absurdity that made me think that Doctor Who  was a show I could love.

"The Shakespeare Code" isn't my favorite episode, or the one I think is the best. But it is the key to my relationship with the series, and it brings me joy every time I watch it.