Robot of Sherwood.

TV Just over ten years ago, your writer, not longer after watching the director’s cut of A Californian Archer in the Sheriff's Court decided to visit Nottingham and “do the Robin Hood” thing. Even on the six hour train journey down, or down and across, a bit, he didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect other than to see perhaps the castle. Thanks to the sheer longevity of this blog you can read about the whole thing here (I’ve now been writing this for a third of my life) including the visit to said castle where, after some haggling over guide books and what was their lack of interest in selling me one, the clerk behind the counter informed me that Robin Hood didn’t exist.

Luckily, opposite the station I found a Tales of Robin Hood tourist attraction in which the visitor was taken on Yorvik Viking Centre like chair ride through scenes from the stories, through Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff’s banqueting hall. At the end of that you were shown a video in which, as the younger version of me describes, saw “a Raymond Chandler style Private Dick visiting a contemporary Nottingham trying to find out if Robin Hood was indeed real. His findings were inconclusive and that it's pretty much a matter of opinions.” Ironically now the Tales of Robin Hood itself doesn’t exist having had to close because they couldn’t make enough rent to pay their landlord Tesco, which is doubly ironic given the topic I suppose.

Even after all of that I'm still not sure if Robin Hood really existed. A bit like Clara in Robot of Sherwood (paragraph three, will wonders?), I’ve always sort of hedged my bets on it, or found a sweet spot somewhere between there having been some kind of historical outlaw figure, a Pandorica-like fairy story and the idea that illiterate outlaws used the name Robin Hood as a kind of John Doe substitute. He’s mentioned in As You Like It and in a way, which suggests Shakespeare wasn’t convinced either way. The Two Gentlemen of Verona features a passage in which Valentine falls in with a band of outlaws which practically screams “this play would be in production more often if it was just about Robin Hood”.

The BBC itself has had some previous with the Hood (Troughton!). Twitter was soon abuzz with deluded notions about this being less funny than Maid Marian and her Merry Men as though it’s a fair comparison given they’re trying do different things but the most obvious contextual point is Robin Hood, the first bit of genre family entertainment broadcast in Who’s slot after it changed Saturday night television forever (by essentially remaking Lois & Clark apparently). The first version of this review blog post thing was going to be a meta-jokeoid about the resurrection of a previously cancelled but much loved drama series with different actors but I realised that as a meta-jokeoid it wasn’t particularly funny.

Within the Whoniverse he’s been pretty well established as a character. The (well alright if you say so) Twelfth Doctor forgets that in his first incarnation he met Robin and tussled with the Sheriff in Jonathan Morris’s brilliant Short Trip, The Thief of Sherwood (revealed through fictitious excepts from a Time Team in Doctor Who Magazine, Radio Times, Doctor Who: A Celebration, The Television Companion and Target Books "novelisation" of the serial). A later “Trip” by Joseph Lidster placed Polly in that exact story as Maid Marion. He’s also met Iris Wyldethyme, in his time. A version of him also appeared in an episode of the K9 spin-off, which the TARDIS Datacore has decided is canonical, so there you are.

There’s plenty more supposition and intrigue on the designated Wikipedia page but the point is, as Mark Gatiss has realised in crafting his script, in writing a story featuring one of Britain’s oldest mythic figure, it’s best to treat him as being just as relevant and as respectfully as the man (or potential Romola Garai) who constitutes our newest. To make as many jokes as he likes about the veracity of the existence of Robin Hood but to in the end realise that the best way to deal with him within the mechanism of Doctor Who, to keep our franchise’s ineffable magic intact, is to follow the lead of Ben Aaronovitch in integrating Camelot in Battlefield (and Jonathan Morris in his short prose) and make him as real as the Time Lord.

With a brief thought as to whether Sherlock Holmes would have received similar treatment under different show runners and not ones with all-consuming fires elsewhere this makes the episode immediately rewatchable because we now want to enjoy this characterisation without the nagging doubt that he’ll turn out to be a phantasmagoria with all the veracity of one of The Androids of Tara. With the knowledge that he’s “real” (or at least “real” within the structural scaffold of this fictional construct), his gag reflex and the fight sequences all gain a completely different complexion, a weight. All aided, of course by Tom Riley’s portrayal which stays just the right side of pantomime theatricality.

Not that the episode in any way stays away from pantomime theatricality. It’s a romp, a good old-fashioned romp, of a kind I’m not sure we’ve seen since, well I’m not sure. I’ve just asked Twitter, and suggestions include The Lodger and Closing Time both of which feel like more like homage to the sitcom rather than a Carry On film (though I appreciate the distinction is wafer thin). The Unicorn and the Wasp? Dinosaurs on a Spaceship? Perhaps there wasn’t one in nuWho. Perhaps we haven’t been here since City of Death in the 70s, which is odd considering Gatiss suggests in DWM that all of nuWho up until this point took its lead of City of Death and we’re all watching The Horror of Fang Rock now. Time will tell.

As befits a romp, the story isn’t that complex and probably would have easily graced The Sarah Jane Adventures back in the day, which is no way a criticism. One of the tendencies in nuWho has been to pile on more stuff and incident whereas this keeps things on the relative low-low. The pacing too is expressively slower than in previous series, as per Deep Breath, though with some detectable cross cutting but notably only generally to paper over the elements like the cutting of the manacles.  I could be of course be imagining all of this and if I was to do a scene length study across the Gatiss episodes, there’s no change at all.  But since I barely have enough time to think about where to buy a new bed even though I know it'll end up being John Lewis because it always is, that seems unlikely.

What did change is the ending. Understandably, given current events, although it’s fair to say this isn’t usual with Doctor Who, I don’t think, we discovered the other day that a beheading was cut from the finale. My first reaction was “a beheading in Doctor Who”? I mean I know it was supposed to be taking a darker turn but that’s ridiculous... But my second was, yes, probably a robot. Weeelll. Now that the episode has aired, this blog reveals, presumably after having read the leaked script, that this is indeed what it was, Ben Miller’s superbly Ainley-like Nottingham (if only we’d had this rather than Keith Allen’s interpretation) having been revealed as such in the middle of the final fight, extraordinarily so considered the King's own demons.

If this is reinstated for the blu-ray and streaming services (and we have to imagine it will) it’ll do at least three things. (1) Even without some tonal foreshadowing at the opening of the episode and taking Dinosaurs on a Spaceship into account, Nottingham’s tumble into the vat of gold is tough within the context of modern Who which tends to champion the life of anyone, even villains. Now that we know he’s an android it feels less, well, less. (2) It gives context to some of his more excessive behaviour not least during the Clara interrogation – he’s giving it some Zaroff because the robots have put him back together slightly wrong because (3) they’ve presumably based him at least on the stories in their databanks.

It also explains why the Doctor and Clara don’t seem like particularly active participants in that section of the denouement, just standing around and watching a lot. They weren’t originally. Unless the Doctor’s mind was turning over why some of this seemed strangely familiar given that the creation of printed circuits in ancient lands for a spaceship which has every potential of exploding and destroying the local population has been seen by his face before. No, I don’t think his “Why this face?” line from Deep Breath is a coincidence. I hope it means we’ll get an episode where the Doctor will meet the doppelganger he saved from Pompeii, or at least that the two are tied together somehow.

What was I saying, oh that’s right, Mark Gatiss is an equal opportunities writer, at least in terms of myths. Just as many Who tropes were skewered (arrowed?) tonight, not least the propensity the Doctor has for using his sonic to get out of scrapes. There’s also the small matter of the Time Lord’s God-like decision making which has been reduced somewhat, not that the show’s been afraid to present him as a slightly pathetic creature, from the sonic-off in The Doctor Dances to bringing the full power of his speechifying to bare on a bunny in The Day of the Doctor. But the sheer level of befuddlement in the cell tonight as pride gets the better of him is a welcome change, especially since it's treated as just that, not some malevolent secret plan.

Our acceptance of this is, of course the writing, but also the wicked chemistry between Capaldi and Coleman. The former is finally hitting his stride. On rewatching Into The Dalek, I noticed that he's far more comfortable in the scenes at the school and in the TARDIS indicating they may have been shot in a later production block (a contrast similar to Jenna in Hide last year) (or rather the year before) and if the Ben Wheatley material was shot first, then its clear here Peter’s had a chance to think about who his Doctor is, his accent baseline posh unless he’s shouting or desperate (and imagine if Tennant had been allowed to do this), the line readings much more comfortable (if only he could have gone back and redone the “bolt hole”).

Since we’re dwelling for a moment, notice too how much of an action episode this is for him or at least for this incarnation. In the pre-season discussions and especially during the transfer window, the expectation was that Twelfteenth would be cutting down on the exuberance and Danny Pink was being brought in as the action hero as well as the love interest. On the basis of tonight’s episode there’s a danger he’ll end up like Harry Sullivan. The Thirwelfth Doctor brought it, either through Capaldi himself or (if his comments in Extradential are any indication) some very good doubles, with spoon duelling and Venusian Aikido) (height!) (hait!) (howeverthisisspelt!).

My reservations about the treatment of Clara in the previous episode and how it might have been a blip are largely dealt with here by his carer largely having narrative agency throughout most of the episode even when the apparent lead is in full bloom. Jenna’s nothing less than extraordinary in this episode. Notice how, during the interrogation scene with the Sheriff she subtly also poshifies her accent apart from during the asides, suggesting she’s revealing to us her true nature. Meanwhile, this episode confirms she was born in Blackpool (Jenna’s own home town) and given previous dates, a year later than Lucie Miller. There’s nothing much to that, other than how the franchise’s connection to the town continues. Freeze frame.

Not really, because as we discovered eighteen months after that fateful freeze frame, the best legends continue. As Robin says of him and the Doctor, “Perhaps we will both be stories. And may those stories never end … and remember Doctor, I’m just as real as you are.” A slightly less poetic, more portentous version of “Aren’t we all?” but the message is clear. Except of course when Robin’s legend surfaces, it’s the same story interpreted again and again in different ways, whereas for the Doctor and the miracle of Doctor Who it’s all one story and in Robot of Sherwood, I at least have confirmation after a shaky start, that he’s still my Doctor, it’s still my favourite series, and there are few things more real to me than that.

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