Sunday, 9 November 2014

Big Gay Longcat reviews Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Notebooks


Friends, Romans, countrycats, lend me your cat ears;
I come to bury The Shakespeare Notebooks (by James Goss, Jonathan Morris, Julian Richards, Justin Richards and Matthew Sweet), not to praise them.
The evil that mannys do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with The Shakespeare Notebooks.

That's a taster of the kind of Shakespeare-style writing that this book is full of. It's a sort of sequel to the TV stories The Shakespeare Code and City of Death (or at least that one scene where the Doctor talks to Countess Scarlioni about Hamlet), being all about the Doctor's many encounters with William Shakespeare. It uses the well-worn scarf of a conceit that the chapters of the book are first drafts and alternative versions of Shakespeare's plays, in which the Doctor interferes or plays a part, often replacing familiar characters or taking over their roles within the plays.

The book is very variable in quality throughout (suggestive of the multiple authors), with some of the pseudo-Shakespearean verse being both well-observed and witty, mixing Doctor Who references into the original lines with skill. At other times the alternative versions appear lazy and groan-inducingly unwitty. For example:
"I am but mad north-north-west.
When the time wind's southerly,
I know a Dalek from a Cyberman."

Mew.

One thing the book consistently captures very well is the different aspects of the Doctor's personality across his varying regenerations, so that you can soon tell which Doctor he is supposed to be in each appearance, even without the accompanying illustrations. This does manage to highlight how annoying some Doctor's mannerisms could be when not backed up by the charisma of the actor playing him on TV - especially the tenth.
"Oh, I'm sure you'll think of something. Allons-y, Alonso!"

Mew again. I will now go into more detail on my three favourite chapters.

First, "Master Faustus", a Doctorless, Shakespeareless chapter in which the Master tries to change history by getting Christopher Marlowe to write stories from the future so his plays eclipse Shakespeare's. For some reason the Master's speech is full of song titles and lyrics, such as:
"Oh, Master Shakespeare? Fear him not.
His bright eyes suddenly burn so pale.
For he is but a candle in the wind.
And I shall snuff him out."

I didn't really get the point of this quirk - it doesn't come from the Master as seen on TV - until reaching the following lines:
Pageant of stars unfurled 
"We cross the void beyond the mind,
The empty space that circles time
We see where others stumble blind
To seek a truth they never find
Eternal wisdom is my guide
I am the Master."

Lol, it's Jon Pertwee's "I am the Doctor" song, if you don't know it.

My second best bit is the chapter where a manny is writing footnotes to Julius Caesar and gets haunted by a ghost. The story is told really well, considering it is done entirely as footnotes written in the first person, and builds up to become nicely spooky. The main character ignoring the Doctor's warnings mirrors Julius Caesar ignoring those who warn him about his upcoming assassination, which I found to be really clever.

The only problem I have with this story is that the Doctor has to act very out of character for it to work - he only ever helps the protagonist obliquely instead of directly, even though he clearly could have. As a result I feel this would have worked better if it had not been a Doctor Who story at all.

But the best chapter of the whole book is the version of Macbeth where the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe take the places of the three witches - accidentally at first, but then they have to step in to keep history on its course. This whole short story is wonderful, capturing the second Doctor and his Companions' personalities and era perfectly and being just a great, funny version of Macbeth as well.

The whole book would be worth it for this chapter alone, even if there were no other good bits. As it is, The Shakespeare Notebooks is quite patchy overall but I would recommend it because the good more than outshines the bad. And so all's well that ends well.

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