The Shakespeare Code

Good night, Doctor.

Nighty night, Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare and the Tenth Doctor


In Elizabethan England, William Shakespeare is under the control of witch-like creatures.


The Shakespeare Code is Series 3’s historical entry into the traditional early revived show’s ‘modern-past-future’ trilogy. It has never been an episode that I would have said that I love, but having rewatched it for this review, quite close to actually watching it with my wife, I was surprised at how much this story really gets on my nerves. Whilst I am excited for Russell T Davies coming back to the show this year, I feel like episodes like The Shakespeare Code really highlight for me the worst parts of his era.

One of the biggest problems with The Shakespeare Code is how I don’t think that Gareth Roberts really understands Shakespeare. This story literally could work for any other Elizabethan playwright, or in fact, any other author. The story bizarrely makes a lot of allusions to the Harry Potter series of books, which were a big deal when the episode was broadcast and perhaps are there as a reference to the popularity of Shakespeare compared to Harry Potter. Even the title is a reference to one of the biggest-selling books of the 21st Century, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Ultimately, the story’s biggest problem is that it does a lot of tell and not show, and that’s a problem fundamentally with any time the Tenth Doctor meets anyone famous. The Tenth Doctor is so keen to label people brilliant and geniuses and asks that, as he thinks so, the audience has to accept that but I feel that it actually results in the concepts of brilliance and genius being devalued. A classic example in this story is the fact that Shakespeare is able to see through the psychic paper, something that the show has previously established needs a great deal of psychic training to be able to do – thanks Torchwood! There is no reasoning given for this. We are asked to accept that William Shakespeare is a genius because the general audience knows who he is and crucially because the Doctor says he is. I think that using Love’s Labours Won, a Shakespearean lost play, is a good idea but stretches credulity that no-one would think to check it after Will has clearly been possessed whilst writing it.

Instead Shakespeare is depicted as though a lot about what makes him special comes from our central two characters. Shakespeare is depicted as a thief, seeking to steal lines from the Doctor and Martha, even if he is stealing from others, and although the story depicts him coming up with one of his most famous lines (“To be or not to be…”), it also shows him willing to give it up, thinking it trite, until the Doctor encourages him to keep it. At its most generous, this could be seen to be something approaching a bootstrap paradox, but the story does have the confidence to tread this ground. Shakespeare has clearly written plays before the Doctor’s arrival, but the running joke of Roberts produces a piece of work that depicts Shakespeare as a preening rock star, swaggering around the stage at the beginning of the story and nothing that Dean Lennox Kelly produces really makes him feel any more likable or charming. Gareth Roberts doesn’t seem to want to use Shakespeare to say anything substantive about loss or his experiences like Mark Gatiss and Russell T Davies have done in the previous celebrity historical stories. His losses are alluded to, but not taken any further, unlike with Charles Dickens or Queen Victoria.

Ultimately, the ghost of Rose still haunts the Doctor in this story and it hurts the story greatly. The story is about the power of words and the Carrionites use Rose’s name in attempt to hurt the Doctor. To be fair to Freema Agyeman, she does play every mention of her name like a knife to the heart, which for me just makes me feel even more sorry for her. As I have mentioned previously, Doctor Who is a story about change and moving forward, and whilst it is positive to have the show deal with a departure more maturely than it deals with the death of Adric in Time-Flight for instance, the Doctor has lost and moved on previously.

The Carrionites are a good example of the show taking something from Shakespeare’s work, in this case, the witches from Macbeth and dealing with them in a science-fiction fashion. From the opening scene, the Carrionites are Doctor Who at its campy best and I think that the cold open is particularly effective. Christina Cole as Lilith is particularly effective as a villain and visibly delights at playing the role, trying to save her people from the effects of the Time War. I think that the CGI finale has certainly suffered with age, and is a bit too easily solved and neatly tied up at the end as well. The other two witches feel a little bit too incidental to say that they definitively had any character development.

It’s like your police box. Small wooden box with all that power inside.

Oh. Oh, Martha Jones, I like you!

Martha Jones and the Tenth Doctor

In my review of Smith and Jones, I wrote about how frustrating I find the show’s approach to Martha to be, and that definitely rings true again here. On the TARDIS’ arrival in Tudor London, Martha validly raises the point that she may well be dragged away as a slave, something that the Doctor brushes off by telling her to do what he does, walk around as if she owns the place. Whilst the Doctor certainly can do this, it is arguably a result of his appearance as a white human. Whilst I’m sure that the inference is not intentional, the story doubles down on this by having Shakespeare flirt with her and make remarks that to a contemporary audience would be deemed racist, whilst the Doctor stands by and does nothing. It will be interesting to see how Russell T Davies writes given that the Fifteenth Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa, is an actor of colour and whether exchanges and dialogue like the examples in this story are firmly left in his first era. In a story that is so much about the power of words, the fact that the Doctor doesn’t take any steps to dissuade Shakespeare from using this language is a little damning.

Gareth Roberts really rather sidelines Martha, which is a shame given that she highlights that she has the knowledge of some of the rules of time travel, citing the butterfly effect and could genuinely help in this story. However, Roberts makes the Doctor deduce the cause of death of Lynley for himself which is a moment that could be given to Martha to prove that she is just as capable as her predecessor. The fact that the Doctor treats her as a one-trip-only companion for the first part of this series is perhaps the most offensive thing as she tries to show him what she can be and how she can help him, only to be dismissed with comments about Rose knowing what to say, and bemoans the fact that Martha is rather incredulous about the idea of witchcraft. This moment occurs in the infamous bedroom scene, which is as much of a slap in the face as it can be for the new companion and does her no favours in winning over fans. I’m sure that the majority of us have been in a situation where we have been made to feel second best and that’s exactly what is happening to her here. As stated in my previous review, if you’re not going to show the Doctor respecting Martha, then how do you expect any of the watching audience to start to take her to their hearts? Whilst making the Doctor have feelings is something that the modern series should be commended for, the writing of his character is surprisingly tone-deaf and unlikeable, and I say that as someone who is generally favourable towards the Tenth Doctor, even some of his stories aren’t the greatest.

Speaking of the Doctor, he is clearly thrilled to add another figure from history to his collection, as it were, and whilst some of the scenes quite nicely deal with how starstruck he is to meet him, Shakespeare might not quite be as he expected him. David Tennant is an actor who has appeared in a lot of the Bard’s plays, including Hamlet, and I think that helps him capture a sense of awe at seeing the Globe Theatre at the time of Elizabeth I and Shakespeare. Whilst there are flaws with his characterisation, as mentioned above, I cannot criticise Tennant for this – he plays the Doctor with the same vim, vigour, and charisma as ever. That’s what makes the great Doctors truly great, they can work with a script that might not be great and give it their all, and it might just raise the episode a little bit.

Verdict: A deeply frustrating episode that really got on my nerves, The Shakespeare Code is amongst the weakest of the celebrity historical episodes. 3/10

Cast: David Tennant (The Doctor), Freema Agyeman (Martha Jones), Dean Lennox Kelly (Shakespeare), Christina Cole (Lilith), Sam Marks (Wiggins), Amanda Lawrence (Doomfinger), Linda Clark (Bloodtide), Jalaal Hartley (Dick), David Westhead (Kempe), Andrée Bernard (Dolly Bailey), Chris Larkin (Lynley), Stephen Marcus (Jailer), Matt King (Peter Streete), Robert Demeger (Preacher) & Angela Pleasence (Queen Elizabeth).

Writer: Gareth Roberts

Director: Charles Palmer

Producer: Phil Collinson

Composer: Murray Gold

Original Broadcast Date: 7 April 2007

Behind the Scenes

  • This episode’s working titles were Theatre of Doom and Love’s Labours Won.
  • The story featured the first televised appearance of William Shakespeare since The Chase. Shakespeare also appeared in the Big Finish audio drama The Kingmaker.
  • This story was one of the most expensive produced, with large expenditure on sets and costumes. The interior of the witch’s house was reused as the attic in The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Cast Notes

  • Andrée Bernard has appeared in a number of Big Finish adventures including Blue Forgotten Planet, The Feast of Axos and Paradise 5.

Best Moment

I really like the cold open.

Best Quote

Come on! We can all have a good old flirt later!

Is that a promise, Doctor?

Oooh, fifty-seven academics just punched the air!

The Tenth Doctor and William Shakespeare

Previous Tenth Doctor review: Smith and Jones

For more Tenth Doctor reviews, click here

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