Upon transmission of this story, as we all know, the scene where the Sheriff was decapitated was removed. However, my review was actually written about the pre-edited version, and indeed, I even quote a line of dialogue that didn’t go out on the Saturday night. Presumably, though, a future DVD release will see the story become available as it was intended, and that’ll be the one that’s absorbed into the canon.
Secondly, almost for no good reason, I have a pop (not for the first time) at ‘spoiler-free previews’, the internet’s equivalent of a noisy neighbour leaning over your fence and giving you their opinion of your evening’s plans. Sigh.
At last, by the will of the people, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have finally brought together those two singularly British fictional heroes, the Doctor and… Ah, it’s Robin Hood.
Sorry Clara, but Robin Hood doesn’t do it for me. I can’t really elucidate on that prejudice, I’ve just never found the character with his derring do and jumping and grinning particularly intriguing. So when the ‘next week’ trail for Robot of Sherwood hit, with arrow imbedding itself into TARDIS, I was hardly aquiver. The Count Duckula episode title didn’t help either. Or the Disney merry man costume. But as the episode itself began, this happened…
ROBIN HOOD: [Laughs heartily]
THE DOCTOR: And do people ever punch you in the face when you do that?
And I started to enjoy myself.
Mark Gatiss’ script is such a departure from the show’s current direction (recap: “Into darkness”) that it feels as though he must have spent his time in story meetings doodling stickmen sword fighting and arrows going ‘pew-pew’ rather than absorbing the new mandate. Instead of the imperious hero who’s lived for over 2,000 years, this is the Time Lord in the guise of Grandpa Who. He’s grumpy and rather silly. A consequence of this is Clara’s never been happier, as if she’s mindful she’s lucked into a weird old-school Doctor Who tale, maybe even one from TV Comic.
But I wonder where this has left those fans who, over the last two weeks, have been rubbing their trouser-legs in satisfaction that finally their favourite TV show has grown up. Are they miffed that at the end of the story this most egregiously fictional Robin Hood – who has the silly pointed hat and everything – is left standing? I’ll confess, I was surprised the improbable character wasn’t finally revealed to be a computer sub-routine or something, but surprised in a good way. “Remember Doctor, I’m just as real as you are,” says the outlaw, words dripping with subtext. The worlds that Doctor Who both speaks of and plays to need silly solid heroes who aren’t in the least bit indicative of the cutting edge. Indeed, the Doctor himself is one of them,
In the current cultural climate it would have been an easier sell to produce something with a surface level sophistication, tarrying with the legend of Robin, but ultimately debunking the concept of merry men camping out (in all senses) in Sherwood Forest while also playing up the squalors of medieval Britain. This, they tell us, is proper drama. But instead we have Nottingham, 1190AD (ish), a place where people cut a rope then hold onto another rope and shuttle up to a sturdy crossbeam whereupon they continue sword fighting. Where deaths are simply story collateral, and an arrow can become but a sheath for another arrow and another arrow and another arrow as clever men exhibit their magnificent prowess in archery. The whole contrariness of it appealed to me. That utter refusal to rationalise anything, because Doctor Who doesn’t need legitimacy. Even in the darkness, it’s never Game of Thrones.
Gatiss has lots of fun with this, even casting the Doctor as that sceptic who hankers for things to be unembarrassingly credible, and pokes and moans, “Bit unrealistic, isn’t it?” This does, however, place him on the outside for a lot of the story and while it’s satisfying his well-structured theory about Robin being an alien creation turns out to be a load of old guff, his carping – like anyone’s carping – eventually gets old. When the Doctor and Robin are having that interminable debate about who would die slower in captivity, it’s long since past the point our man should have got with the literal programme.
Nonetheless, “I’m totally against bantering!’ is one of his more enjoyable moans. And aye to that! In general. But, here the dialogue possesses an extra lustre, that sheen of words spoken aloud which in any other circumstance would only ever be written. Men referring to other men as ‘sir’, the Sheriff perusing upon “an intriguing gallimaufry” and Robin labelling the Time Lord a “bony rascal” (presumably kicking himself that Irongron had already seized the Middle Ages’ best Doctor insult in the course of this story’s half-brother, The Time Warrior).
Matching up to that is Tom Riley as Robin, making exactly the right choice to deliver the dialogue in declamatory style with either a hand on a hip, or a foot on a thing. His Robin Hood isn’t just a Robin Hood, it’s shooting for the Robin Hood, a skilful distillation of what we come to expect from the character on screen, drawing mostly from Errol Flynn, but with a little of Richard Greene and also that cartoon fox. That isn’t some poisonously worded faint praise on my part, I genuinely think he cracks it, erecting tall the legend so that at the story’s end, the man himself is able to emerge a little out of its shadow in his goodbye scene with the Doctor. “I’m not a hero,” says the Time Lord. “Well, neither am I,” replies Robin gently.
It’s some achievement, Riley still feeling like the real deal even in the light of the Doctor loading up a slide show of fictional Robin Hoods on the stricken spaceship’s computer. Incidentally, goodness knows what the online ‘spoiler-free previews’ had to say about the appearance of that 1950s headshot of Patrick Troughton in the role. Presumably something carefully phrased so as not to ruin the surprise – but still colour it. Spoiler-free previews, I ask you! Their only function being to illustrate they’re closer to your favourite show than you are. Oh yeah, you watch on Saturday, we’ve already seen it. But, you know, enjoy!
In similar dastardly style comes Ben Miller having a high old time as the Sheriff, a miscreant from the James Stoker school of medieval acting. Half of him may ultimately prove to be robot, but as the man says himself, “The rest is talent and pure flair!” And what flair, swishing into scenes, body language and gait set to radiate pure badness. Like all the best evil reeves of Nottinghamshire, this one is a pantomime mixture of cruelty (running his sword through Quayle) and comedy (“After this… Derby!”). Although minus-points for failing to chomp lasciviously at a leg of lamb and then wipe the drippings from his beard, when sat at table. In truth, there’s nothing sophisticated about him, he’s the type of chap who in a fury will try and punch out a suit of armour, but that’s not to say there’s nothing skilled about Miller’s performance. He’s giving it exactly what the script asks. He’s tearing it up.
A romp, a jolly, an all out aberration in the flight-path of this year’s Doctor Who? Which is Robot of Sherwood? Worst story ever? (No!) Best story ever? (Erm, also no.) But it is the most fun the Doctor and his companion have had for a very, very long time, and that’s worth a hearty ‘huzzah’ and a flagon of, erm… mead? Oh I don’t know. I can’t do all that. For this wandering minstrel, I leave the scene as I arrived, still resistant to the Robin Hood legend. But I am glad our fabled traveller in time didn’t end up pulling rank on it. Yes, we’ve had some fun with the preposterousness of it all, but there’s no need to totally take the myth. Heroes, when we get them, should be raised high, not shot down.