I have always loved The Shakespeare Code. It really is a fantastic stand-alone story. According to the IGN review:
In an episode that serves as the Doctor’s inaugural journey with Martha Jones, it’s hard not to get a sense of deja vu. At first, this seems so much like the episode “The Unquiet Dead,” the episode from first season where The Doctor took Rose to 19th century London. That episode featured an adventure with Charles Dickens, and also had a supernatural feel to the story. While this at first seems derivative, it begins to come clear that the similarity is deliberate. What we’re watching is The Doctor doing exactly what he said he wasn’t doing: replace Rose. This is a man on the rebound if ever there was one.
The episode itself is somewhat run-of-the-mill, with a fairly straightforward story. However, Dean Lennox Kelly gives a great performance as William Shakespeare, whom he plays as a womanizing arrogant 16th century equivalent of a rock star. He lends a number of great moments to the show, including one where The Doctor promises, “We can all stand around later for a good flirt,” which prompts Shakespeare to shoot The Doctor a lusty glance and say, “Is that a promise Doctor?” The Doctor says, “Oh, 57 academics just punched the air.” It’s one of the biggest laughs of the episode, and a reminder that only this show can get away with a moment like this.
This take on Shakespeare is interesting because it presents him as brilliant beyond just his writing. The Doctor’s “psychic paper” doesn’t work on Shakespeare, because he’s simply too insightful. This episode also presents the interesting idea that Shakespeare’s words work in a way that has much the same power as the Carrionites in this episode.
Writer Gareth Roberts manages a number of deft touches in the script, which elevates the episode above its standard story. When it starts to look like magic is involved in the plot, Martha says, “It’s all a bit Harry Potter isn’t it?” This is a good way to ground the episode, as magic is a foreign element to Doctor Who – and having Martha voice this thought lays the audience’s concerns to rest. It also provides the opportunity for the Doctor to say, “Wait until you read Book 7, oh I cried”
Martha proves a capable adventurer, adapting well to the strange environment and supernatural dangers. It’s interesting to have a companion with an expertise – watching Martha use her knowledge of medicine is a fun change. Freema Ageyman makes it obvious that she has romantic interest in The Doctor, and this dynamic is fun to watch as it’s a bit more on the surface than the relationship with Rose.
While this episode had some entertaining moments, and Martha continues to prove an able companion, the new dynamic is still getting underway. What works well in this episode, and makes it fit well into the overall Doctor Who story, are the moments where the similarities to Rose come out or she is outright referenced. It’s nice to see that the producers and writers of the series are as aware of how special The Doctor and Rose’s relationship was as the audience is. “The Shakespeare Code” is not an exceptional episode of what is an exceptional series, but still retains much of the entertaining elements that make the show work. It also helps that watching David Tennant read a phonebook would probably be an entertaining way to spend an hour.