Robot of Sherwood
The Doctor: Right, that isn’t even funny. That was bantering. I am totally against bantering.
Doctor Who Season: S34 (Ep3).
Story Number: 244.
When legends collide…
Ever since Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005, it’s used its first three episodes of each episode-run to the set out the stall of the show, to show what it can do.
For the RTD era, that was usually a trio of contemporary-Earth, space-future, and Earth-past episodes. This was re-used by Moffat for 2010 and 2013. The message is clear – this is a show that can travel in time. However, though the time-travel thing is one of the reasons for Doctor Who‘s popularity and longevity, it’s not the only reason.
Did I mention it also travels in style?
From the stark tea-time horror of the first two episodes, there is now an abrupt travel in style to lighthearted comedy. This is not a style that’s alien to Doctor Who at all, and Earth-past stories are fertile ground for comedy, (though with sometimes-dark elements), think 1965’s The Romans or 1973’s The Time Warrior.
The time-period of Robot of Sherwood is not new for the programme – The Crusades and The King’s Demons being set respectively during the time of King Richard I and his successor King John.
Capaldi’s Doctor is still being established and after the two foils of the Half-Face Man and Rusty the Dalek to define himself against, now it’s Robin Hood. Even though it’s a comedy and not a dark horror, the whole point of the story is for a darker and more disagreeable Doctor to have comedy friction with an upbeat Robin Hood. It simply wouldn’t be a comedy if Robin’s co-star was the Tenth or Eleventh Doctor. The Ninth Doctor’s Stan Laurel-esque laughing-through-the-pain is also much too similar to this Robin Hood for it to be any sort of contrast.
Of all twelve (or thirteen) Doctors, it’s only really the Twelfth Doctor that you could imagine saying the line “And do people ever punch you in the face when you do that?”
Jenna again has a welcome chance for some centre-stage showcase acting to define 2014’s Clara, this time it’s her scenes opposite Ben Miller’s Sheriff of Nottingham. There’s something Sarah-Jane-esque about her intrepid-cheeky antics this story. That, combined with the Third Doctor’s arrogant desire to be top dog and the Fourth Doctor’s passionate curiosity (both having echoes with Capaldi’s performance) means this story has the flavour of 1970s Doctor Who.
Tom Riley’s exaggeratedly mirthful Robin Hood is part of a long tradition of similar British television comedy such as Month Python and Blackadder, the British joke being there’s something not quite right about being so uncynical – the Doctor plays Blackadder’s role of harrumphing about how the world actually is.
By the story’s end though, it’s not all frothy comedy, and the Doctor perhaps has a greater understanding of himself and his role – and the season’s theme continues.
Robin has to “be” Robin to inspire his Merry Men, and perhaps the Doctor is still trying out role as a new Doctor. Robin isn’t as mirthful as he appears, and this Doctor we know realise does have the capacity for mirth. He generally has a smaller audience than a band to impress, (within the show), his one companion. When he is thanked as a hero – such as by Maid Marion – he’s taken aback, surprised.
It seems this Doctor doubts himself as much as Robin does. Robin understands this though, and understands the Doctor – thanks to Clara recounting the legend of Doctor Who.
It’s an emotional speech that Robin makes – about the value of the role of the hero, even if it is very much a role that Robin Hood or the Doctor are playing for an audience.
“Perhaps others will be heroes in our name. Perhaps we will both be stories. And may those stories never end.”
It’s an interesting thought – Doctor Who has an impressive 51 years of stories now, but Robin Hood has been going for slightly longer than that. That Patrick Troughton is acknowledged during this episode as having played both roles is one of the joys of this story.