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BBC1. 7.30 pm. 06.09.2014.
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Paul Murphy
One of the features of new Doctor Who since its successful return in 2005 has been the ‘celebrity historical’: hitherto we’ve had episodes where the Doctor meets Charles Dickens (‘The Unquiet Dead’), Queen Victoria (‘Tooth and Claw’), William Shakespeare (‘The Shakespeare Code’), Agatha Christie (‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’), Vincent Van Gogh (‘Vincent and the Doctor’) and Winston Churchill (‘Victory of the Daleks’). This was also a strategy of early classic-era Doctor Who in adventures such as ‘The Romans’ (Emperor Nero), ‘The Crusades’ (Richard the Lionheart) and the much-abused ‘The Gunfighters’ (Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp). In those early days the historical stories were played largely straight, but new series historicals have always featured some kind of extra-terrestrial menace. It seems that simply meeting historical figures is no longer deemed sufficiently dramatic in its own right. This is a shame as it means that new Doctor Who never treats the past on its own terms (‘You can’t change history, Barbara, not a single line,’ the First Doctor once informed his companion as she tried to persuade an ancient civilization to abandon their practice of human sacrifice in ‘The Aztecs’) but rather as a sort of historical theme park that is often replete with (deliberate) anachronisms and non-sequiturs. It would make a refreshing change – just for once – for the new series to try a ‘straight’ historical and see what the response was. I don’t realistically expect this to happen, however.
Given the series’ fondness for celebrity historicals, it was only a matter of time before Doctor Who met Robin Hood. Unlike Dickens and Queen Victoria and the rest, of course, Robin Hood was (probably) not a real historical person but a myth that has been enhanced over many centuries. Again we’ve been here before in the classic series: ‘The Myth Makers’ suggested that it was the Doctor who inspired the Trojan Horse. Mark Gatiss is seeped in Doctor Who’s history, and it seemed to me that ‘Robot of Sherwood’ was his take on ‘The Myth Makers’. This was neither a didactic history lesson nor a serious examination of a different society. Rather, it was the sort of story generally described as a ‘romp’ – and none the worse for it. It reminded me in particular of Gattis’s Series 7 episode ‘The Crimson Horror’ which brought together an eclectic mix of cultural influences and references – from Victorian penny dreadfuls to The Avengers – into a delirous Grand Guignol horror pastiche. This time the influences included Westworld (the medieval theme park populated by lifelike androids) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (here with Ben Miller providing an inferior Alan Rickman imitation as a comedy Sheriff of Nottingham).
Gatiss also drew upon two other classic Doctor Who stories: ‘The Time Warrior’ and ‘The Androids of Tara’. From ‘The Time Warrior’ – the first Sontaran story – we get the medieval setting and the motif of an extra-terrestrial visitor who has allied with a local villain (the Sheriff of Nottingham, naturally enough) and provided them with alien technology to further their quest for power in return for the raw materials needed to repair the space-ship. From ‘The Androids of Tara’ – the Prisoner of Zenda pastiche/homage that made up perhaps the most enjoyable part of the ‘Key to Time’ series – we get the heraldric trappings of castles and tournaments and some swashbuckling derring-do from the Doctor who, in a variation of the Robin Hood myth, here fights Robin not with a quaterstaff but a spoon.
It was not entirely all high-spirited silliness. There were a few asides about the economic exploitation of the feudal system and the idea of Robin Hood as a sort of proto- socialist engaged in the redistribution of wealth (he robs from the rich to give to the poor). And underlying the episode was a reflection on the nature of myth. The starting-point for the story was Clara’s desire to meet Robin Hood and the Doctor’s insistence that Robin Hood did not exist. Hence the Doctor’s initial reluctance to believe that Robin and his outlaws are real people: he first thinks they are androids and later speculates that the TARDIS might have materialised in a miniscope (a reference to the classic series’ ‘Carnival of Monsters’). The twist on this occasion is that Robin is real but that the Sheriff’s knights turn out to be androids. The parallel between Robin and the Doctor as mythical hero-figures who provide hope for the oppressed and disadvantaged is suggested but not laid on too heavily.
Altogether this was a fun – and funnier – episode following ‘Deep Breath’ and ‘Into the Dalek’ which had both indicated a darker trajectory for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. The trailer for next week’s episode also suggested something more psychologically intense. But ‘Robot of Sherwood’ proved that Series 8 of new Doctor Who has not lost the sense of fun and adventure that appeal across age groups. If – as has been widely speculated within fandom – Mark Gatiss does in time take over from Steven Moffat as the series’ showrunner, then we can rest assured that the future of Doctor Who will be in safe and sure hands.
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, second edition, I. B.Tauris, 2013.