TV review: Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 3 (Robot Of Sherwood)
Similarity to classic Who8
Similarity to recent Who9
Ability to feel like part of the current series7
Simon Kinnear | On 07, Sep 2014
Imagine the scene. Showrunner Steven Moffat is outlining his plans for the forthcoming season of Doctor Who to his Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss. “We’re going more traditional this year. An older Doctor, less chatty and more cantankerous. Darker stories, too.”
Gatiss, the most trad of modern Who writers – the man behind fright-inflected stories from the Unquiet Dead to The Crimson Horror – claps his hands in delight. “What have you given me, Moff?”
“The Doctor meets Robin Hood in ye olde merry misadventures!”
“Oh,” replies Gatiss.
Meanwhile, Gareth Roberts, the guy who penned the 10th Doctor’s hilarious encounters with Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, sits by the phone, waiting for a call that never comes.
OK, that’s a tad unfair. Gatiss is, after all, the guy who initiated the whole celebrity-historical sub-genre with The Unquiet Dead’s run-in with Charles Dickens, and is a career-long expert at period pastiche. In a season already full of surprises, though, giving Gatiss the light-hearted romp is a brilliantly counter-intuitive choice, especially given what Robot Of Sherlock represents.
Admit it. When details of this series were announced, you thought you had this story pegged: rollicking action, cheeky comedy, the Doctor firing an arrow. Even the story’s sci-fi element is given away in that awful title, possibly the worst in Who history (and this from a series that once thought it a good idea to introduce Peter Davison in an adventure called Castrovalva). It’s scientific fact that the decline in The Simpsons began when it started using puns in episode titles.
One one level, Robot Of Sherwood is exactly the episode you were expecting: it has jokes about Merry Men; it namedrops Errol Flynn; it includes the log-over-river face/off and the archery contest; Ben Miller’s Sheriff of Nottingham is straight out of panto; and even Tom Riley’s Hood is an amalgam of every cliché about the character ever created. Had it appeared in the David Tennant era, nobody would have batted an eyelid. But surely Capaldi is above such frivolity?
Well, quite. This Doc is “totally against bantering” and therein lies the joy of Robot Of Sherwood. It’s a brilliant, knowing take-down of Who’s entire celebrity-historical sub-genre, a chance to differentiate the series’ new era by mimicking and mocking its recent past. Simply by choosing a character from legend rather than documented fact, Capaldi cannot possibly be matey with Hood. Instead of the awestruck hero-worship practiced by Messrs Tennant and Smith, Capaldi forges a superbly childish rivalry with Robin.
The wide-eyed wonder has gone. This Doctor is sceptical, a rationalist, forever looking for the bad and aghast amid the laughter. It’s just the tonic – and isn’t there a touch of Tennant in Riley’s performance, a tonal insult that adds a frisson to the farce?
Suddenly, Gatiss’ presence makes sense. The familiarity of the Robin Hood story allows him to express his joyous use of the genre’s tropes and language: finally, a Doctor Who writer has injected the medieval word gallimaufry, famously the inspiration for naming the Doctor’s home planet. But this is as much a pastiche of Who as of Robin Hood, wrong-footing us at every turn, because Capaldi is such a different Doctor to what we’re used to.
So it’s probably no accident that this is a souped-up remake of one of classic Who’s comic gems, 1974’s Jon Pertwee story, The Time Warrior (not coincidentally, the story where Gallifrey was first named, because writer Robert Holmes wanted something that would sound intelligible to 12th century ears). Robot Of Sherwood has exactly the same premise of a spaceship landing in medieval England and Capaldi even executes a Pertwee-esque bit of Venusian karate. “Hai!”
The result has it both ways: deconstructing and celebrating the show, and its main character, as a modern-day legend. Robin and the Doctor alike hope that the stories will never end; instead, they will be replayed, remixed for new audiences – whether it’s the old guard who grew up with Pertwee, or the nu-Who faithful still figuring out if they like Capaldi. [For good measure, a montage of images of Robin Hood includes a sneaky shot of Patrick Troughton, who played the outlaw before he became the Doctor. It’s a brilliant touch for this most meta of stories, an unashamed apologia for treating Doctor Who as a form of repertory, in which each successive generation of writers, directors and stars will put their own stamp on the formula.]
Three stories in, then, and we’re getting a handle on a vibrant new style. The second best thing about Season 8 continues to be Jenna Coleman, gaining in confidence by the week, as she inhabits the space vacated by Matt Smith, who hogged attention in a way that the more watchful 12th Time Lord hasn’t yet done. But the best is Capaldi himself, a reluctant Doctor who isn’t prepared to be the demonstrative, hyperactive type of his immediate predecessors.
Even in a brilliantly funny, effortlessly entertaining romp like this, Capaldi finds it hard to crack wise – so what’s going to happen when things get really dark? Next week’s episode looks frankly terrifying. The only respite for the faint-hearted comes from knowing that at least Mark Gatiss won’t be the one trying to terrify us.
Doctor Who Season 8 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. Want to keep Capaldi’s Doctor for longer? You can download Doctor Who on blinkbox and Amazon Instant Video, or on iTunes – where buying a season pass will also give you all of Doctor Who Extra.
Where can I buy or rent Doctor Who: Season 8 online in the UK?
Photo: BBC/Adrian Rogers