Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Notebooks review

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Review Mark Harrison 25 Jun 2014 - 05:54

Mark checks out a new mashup of Doctor Who with Shakespeare...

Over its 50 years, Doctor Who has made some pretty wild pseudo-historical leaps in its representation of artists. The Fourth Doctor wrote “This Is A Fake” on the Mona Lisa in UV pen. Donna Noble came up with the name of Miss Marple. Stevie Wonder sang under London Bridge in 1814.

The new BBC Books tie-in The Shakespeare Notebooks follows in much the same tradition of warping history around the Doctor, with its whole audacious premise being that most of the Bard’s works were Doctor Who fan fiction.

It’s a fun place to start, with an introduction that contextualises the book as a collection of notes and scraps, comprising early drafts and notes written by Will himself. These notes happen to have been transcribed by seasoned Who authors James Goss, Jonathan Morris, Julian Richards, Justin Richards and Matthew Sweet.

We don’t know that this is the most unusual tie-in book we’ve seen since Doctor Who returned, but it’s definitely the most pun-heavy, relying on a certain amount of knowledge about the Shakespeare canon and an extensive memory of Who, dating all the way back to 1963.

As such, a lot of the gags are going to go right over the heads of the series’ target audience, which means this is squarely aimed at adults and literature students.

The book plays much like an anthology of stories, conveyed either through meter or Will’s pre-draft notes. In the latter case, there’s an enjoyable timey-wimey one-to-one editing session that echoes Blink, in which the Tenth Doctor refers to a sci-fi movie classic while giving notes on The Tempest from the future.

The former, which injects the Doctor into existing plays for either short written skits or wholly rewritten passages, brings some of the highlights of the book. Particularly, the Second Doctor adventure in which Jamie and Zoe help him to keep the history of Macbeth on course while also craftily making it less bloody and murderous, feels like it would have been right at home as a more comical serial in the early TV seasons.

Similarly, there’s a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the “everybody lives”-ness of the Moffat era in which the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory turn Romeo & Juliet into a comedy by making sure the characters only appear to be dead, until the happy ending. This isn’t the only instance of the book doing a good gag twice if it’s worth doing once.
Other bits are more muddled and convoluted - a hypothesis that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was actually based on a Sontaran amateur dramatic production of Horror Of Fang Rock in the forests of the planet Vortis feels like a very long walk for a short drink of water.

Likewise, few of the cringeworthy fan-ficced sonnets (“Shall I compare thou to a Type Fifty?” plays like Vogon poetry) have the desired impact and there are only a couple of really good ones. Through this section of the book, (as is true for several other stories) the most fun for seasoned Who fans comes from trying to guess which Doctor is being represented.

All of the Doctors are recognisably featured, whether it’s in the way that they act, the companions they’re with, or more straightforward descriptions of their appearance. Even the War Doctor gets a look-in with an epic Time War segment, and there’s an aside featuring one “Magister” that lightly broaches the authorship conspiracy theories, while also taking detours into contemporary literature and Kylie Minogue lyrics.

At 218 pages, the premise isn’t entirely worn out, but there is some relief in the Academic Notes section towards the end of the book, which makes a Jasper Fforde-esque use of footnotes to do something more in keeping with the creepily mundane tone of some of the series’ best horror moments. It’s also the only part of the book that doesn’t try to cram Daleks, Axons or the HADS into Shakespearean meter, which automatically makes it the most inventive.

The company of writers is solid, but it might have benefited from a Gareth Roberts, who revelled in puns in his novelisation of Douglas Adams’ Shada and mixed Who and Shakespeare with both The Shakespeare Code and the DWM comic strip A Groatsworth of Wit, but seems savvy enough to stay afloat in what could be a tidal wave of fan-wank.

Happily, the notebook closes on a good note with the three-fold delights of a new short story with the Tenth Doctor and Donna which explores a part of the TARDIS that’s seldom been described; an adaptation of an all-time classic episode in iambic pentameter; and a clever, if inevitable Hamlet pun to round it all off.

Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Notebooks is definitely not for beginners, in either television or literature studies. We can’t imagine there’ll be a geekier piece of Who literature this year. The humour is hit-and-miss, but there are witty passages throughout, and it’s always better when it’s punning than when it lapses into a more ill-advised straight adaptation of Shakespeare’s style to wax lyrical about the Whoniverse.

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