As we established back in Series 1, each season of Doctor Who during the RTD era always starts with a loose trilogy of episodes set in the past, present and future to ease newcomers into the show’s premise. After “Smith And Jones” officially kicked off Series 3 with a bang, the second episode, “The Shakespeare Code”, is given the task of breaking in the show’s new status quo – the Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones travelling together in the TARDIS – and it does a mighty fine job of it. “The Shakespeare Code” is the writing debut of Gareth Roberts, a guy who would go on to pen other similarly lighthearted episodes like “The Unicorn And The Wasp“, “The Lodger“, “Closing Time” and “The Caretaker” down the line, helping Mark Gatiss fill Doctor Who’s fluff quota every year.
Like “The Runaway Bride“, two episodes prior, “The Shakespeare Code” is purposely aimed towards the sillier side of Doctor Who’s emotional spectrum. It’s a campy, scenery-chewing, unashamed comedy romp that’s meant to revel in how absurd and bizarre the series can get by taking our heroes back to spend a week in Elizabethan England. It’s the by-now traditional ‘celebrity historical’ episode that often comes early in each season of Doctor Who, giving the Doctor a chance to rub elbows with a famous historical figure. Like the two previous celebrity historicals, “The Unquiet Dead” and “Tooth And Claw“, “The Shakespeare Code” is the sort of cheeky genre mash-up Doctor Who does best, combining a rustic period piece with the anachronistic futuristic trappings of a sci-fi story. One half of it is a tribute to the bard William Shakespeare, featuring all sorts of geeky references and in-jokes about his life’s work, his experiences, and even his sexuality for modern fans of his to catch. And the other half is a classic witches’ yarn, partly as a nod to Shakespeare’s classic play “Macbeth”, squeezing in as many tropes and traditions about cackling, evil wicked witches as possible into forty-five minutes.
While he’s whisking Martha away to 16th century England, it’s pretty clear that the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) has really missed getting to show-off the potential of time travel to other people. The Doctor picked this destination because he’s a massive Shakespeare fanboy, and Martha turns out to be partial to his work as well, so the pair of them get to geek out together and marvel at the experience they’re having throughout the episode – whether it’s discovering Shakespeare is nothing like what they expected or getting to fight off witches – bonding further as friends. Like always, what starts out as a sight-seeing, tourist’s trip for our heroes quickly becomes a mystery worth sticking around and solving once the Doctor picks up signs of trouble, giving him an opportunity to rub elbows with Shakespeare for a few days longer.
We’re also given a reminder of why the Doctor chose his particular title as a healer on Gallifrey, when the Doctor uses his time lord telepathy to console and question a poor, tortured man who’s mind the Carrionites broke, helping him to recuperate just a little before one of the witches swoops in and kills him. But despite the Doctor’s jovial mood throughout this episode, “The Shakespeare Code” also fully cements that the Tenth Doctor has become a more serious and emotionally guarded person on average since “Doomsday“. There are times throughout this episode when Ten comes off as being very condescending and dismissive towards Martha’s opinions, and in-between all the fun of their adventure, there is this one truly awkward and uncomfortable bedroom scene which signifies the elephant in the room neither of them want to face yet. They both want different things: Ten just wants a friend and a way to distract himself from how lonely he is, while Martha is still holding out hope for some romance in vain, because Ten hasn’t told her how things ended with Rose yet. And that elephant is not gonna go away.
After having her worldview changed irrevocably in the previous episode, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) takes her first trip through time in this adventure, so she’s in full tourist mode here. All the joy, excitement and wonder Martha experiences with the Doctor in this episode is an excellent example of why I enjoy Doctor Who so much as a fantasy series. I personally love stories about exploring and broadening your mind to new experiences – discovering fantastical things very few people ever get to see – and a time travel series certainly fits the bill. It’s sweet to see Martha having fun, enjoying the local culture and flirting with Shakespeare, throughout this episode. If you notice at the end, while the Doctor checks on the Carrionites, Martha takes a bow with the playwright and all his actors onstage, because you probably only get to fight witches with William Shakespeare once in your life, and she is going to savor those memories.
Naturally, Martha spends a good chunk of this episode trying to adjust to understanding time travel: not just the mechanics of it, but the different perspective it provides. Since Martha is a medical student, we essentially have two doctors in the TARDIS at the moment, who can bond over their medical knowledge, diagnose the people they come across, and comment on the standards of each era in history that they come across, which makes for an interesting dynamic throughout Series 3. Staying true to her character, there are times when Martha’s morals and personal principles clash with the attitudes and sensibilities of the time. She briefly worries about the possibility of the Doctor taking her back to a period that’s super racist (a fear that’s later validated in “Human Nature“), and she’s quite rightly outraged by Bedlam asylum: a place that would obviously be considered inhumane by modern medical standards, where the mentally ill are caged and whipped and treated more like animals instead of receiving the proper care and treatment they need.
Doctor Who’s portrayal of William Shakespeare is certainly an unorthodox one. Instead of being a reserved and dignified author, he’s a witty, confident braggart of a man and a flirtatious womanizer, who’s nonetheless shown to be a charismatic, likable, crowd-pleasing showman in his prime. He’s well aware that he’s an accomplished playwright, and he can deliver the goods when he’s asked. Basically, Shakespeare in this series is a 16th century local celebrity. Amusingly enough, he immediately becomes infatuated with Martha when they meet and the two of them trade banter and flirty remarks throughout the episode. Unrequited love is a recurring theme throughout this season: as much as Martha’s crush on the Doctor forms a thorough-line across the series, Martha is shown to be quite a dude magnet herself who catches the eye of several guys like William, Riley or Tom in Series 3.
Shakespeare is characterized as a thoughtful and perceptive man, who’s forward-thinking and very accepting of the bizarre, but is also a product of his time like every human ultimately is (such as his negative attitude towards the mentally ill). During the latter half of the episode, he’s given some more depth when it’s revealed that he outlived his son who died of the plague, and the grief of losing the boy nearly drove him mad. Ever since then, he seems to have buried the scars by living a life of fun and frivolity pursuing his passion, a lifestyle choice the Doctor can certainly relate to. The Carrionites manipulate William as their pawn and use his latest project to try to take over the world, but thanks to the Doctor and Martha’s encouragement, he’s able to get his own back and stop their plan by weaponizing the power of words in his favor. Rather appropriately for a showman, the exciting final showdown between Shakespeare and the Carrinoites happens on the stage in front of a captive audience.
“The Shakespeare Code” is both an affectionate homage to your classic witches’ tale and a parody, so the villains of this episode are the Carrionites, flying wicked witches from space who revel in witchcraft and blood magic, and want to colonize Elizabethan England as their new home. Whenever Doctor Who tackles a certain legend or genre, it tries to squeeze in as many tropes, staples and traditions as possible with a sci-fi explanation justifying them – whether it’s a werewolf massacre, a ghost story, a pirate romp, a whodunnit mystery, or a World War II invasion – and “The Shakespeare Code” is no exception. The Carrionites are campy, smarmy, vile villains: three cackling, hammy, haughty women who spend almost every minute of screen-time they get chewing as much scenery as possible – and I really like them for that.
The Carrionites are so over-the-top that it actually surprises me how much I enjoy them as three delightfully fun villains, considering it was only two episodes ago that I criticized the Racnoss Queen for her actress overacting like crazy to a cringeworthy level – but Gareth Roberts and their actresses pitch the cheese level at just the right amount. The Carrionites draw their power from black magic and they’re quite proud of that fact, and we’ve already established that the Doctor doesn’t believe in the supernatural, so we once again get to see the Doctor combat superstition with cold, hard logic and scientific answers whenever he faces the witches – both parties steadfast in their beliefs. The Carrionites use the power of words and phrases, amplified by raw psychic energy, to warp reality, using Shakespeare and his audience in particular to try to break through into our world – before their tricks get used them against in the eleventh hour. The power of words and phrases when you have a big enough converter is stressed frequently throughout “The Shakespeare Code”, which later foreshadows how the Doctor and Martha beat the Master in “Last Of The Time Lords“.
Charles Palmer and his crew are given the daunting job of recreating Elizabethan England for this adventure: he manages to imbue the episode’s direction with plenty of lively energy and wonder, reveling in the distant past setting and romanticizing it quite often, which comes to a head during the frenetic, chaotic climax when the Carrionites fill the Globe theater. Naturally, “The Shakespeare Code” is a more expensive installment than “Smith and Jones” was and it required a lot more location shooting: sections of the episode were filmed at redressed and restored historical landmarks like Lord Leycester Hospital, Bethlem Royal Hospital and the Globe Theater, and with that in mind, the set designers did a great job with this episode, making each environment feel worn-down and lived-in.
When it comes to the visual effects, moody, rustic matte paintings were created by the Mill for the episode’s establishing shots, which are sometimes hit-and-miss, but they do an adequate enough job of creating the illusion of 16th century London. By this point in the series, Murray Gold has pegged down what kind of musical style he wants Doctor Who to have, and he’s grown fully accustomed to working with a full orchestra instead of a small band, so he really hits his stride as the series’ composer in Series 3. For “The Shakespeare Code”, he pens a score that’s whimsical, jovial and dark, filled with sharp strings and harsh brass, and he certainly doesn’t waste anytime creating some sly, folksy variations on “Martha’s Theme” for her scenes with Shakespeare and the Doctor. For the Carrionites, Murray crafts some creepy, foreboding music like “Drowning Dry” and that curious track of a woman wailing off in the distance, before he finally brings the action home with an ominous choir in “The Carrionites Swarm“, one of his most exciting climatic pieces so far centered on a repeating melody.
As a bit of fluff and a chance for the Doctor and Martha to bond, “The Shakespeare Code” does a fine job of continuing the momentum “Smith And Jones” started, and it’s one of my early favorites from the first half of Series 3, alongside “Gridlock“.
* “Soon, at the hour of woven words, we shall rise again, and this fleeting Earth will perish!” So, um, who is she talking to? Is she breaking the fourth wall?
* “When are we?” “Gardez l’eau!” “Somewhere before the invention of the toilet. Sorry about that” Stay classy, Doctor Who.
* “When you get home, you can tell everyone you’ve seen Shakespeare!” “Then I could get sectioned!”
* “And those are men dressed as women, yeah?” “London never changes”.
* “Now we’re going to hear him speak! Always he chooses the best words. New, beautiful, brilliant words” “Ah, shut your big fat mouths!” “…Oh, well” “You should never meet your heroes”.
* Feelings of lust are an odd recurring theme in this episode that never seems to pay off. That guy died in the teaser because he thought he was going to get lucky; Lynley promises to return later to one of the Carrionites but she’s really not interested; Shakespeare tries and fails to woo Martha, Martha tries and fails to woo the Doctor; Dolley Bailey never has that fun night with Shakespeare she wanted because she winds up dead; and Lillith is certainly flirty with her male pawns. Basically, everyone is horny in this episode except for the Doctor.
* “Upon this night, the work is done. A muse to pen Love Labor’s Won!”
* “And you, Martha? You look at him like you’re surprised he exists. He’s as much of a puzzle to you as he is to me”.
* When Lilith snaps her head around and reveals her true face to Dolly Bailey, I always burst out laughing. Something about the timing of that shot is just hilarious.
* “It’s like your police box then. Small wooden box with all that power inside!” “Oh, oh, Martha Jones, I like you”.
* “Come on! We can all have a good flirt later!” “Is that a promise, Doctor?” “Oh, fifty seven academics just punched the air”.
* “Doomfinger, transport yourself. Doom the Doctor. Doom his hide!” “HIDDEEE!!!!” I love these witches.
* “Good luck, Shakespeare. Once more unto the breach!” “I like that. Wait a minute, that’s one of mine!” “Oh, just shift!”
* “Stop the play! I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but stop! This performance must end immediately!” “Ugh, everyone’s a critic”.
* “You must forgive our irksome Will. He’s been on the beer and feeling ill!”
* “Oh, how to explain the mechanics of the infinite temporal flux? I know. Back to the Future. It’s like Back to the Future” “The film?” “No, the novelization. Yes, the film”.
* When Lilith hovers around outside the barn, that wirework couldn’t be anymore obvious if it tried.
* “EXPELLIARMUS!” “EXPELLIARMUS!” “Good old J.K.!” The climax of this episode is the Doctor, Martha and Shakespeare saving the world by quoting Harry Potter. I love this show.
* “Queen Elizabeth the First!” “Doctor?” “What?” “My sworn enemy!” “What?!” “Off with his head!” “WHAT?!”