Which stories are more real? Those where their authenticity is proven, or the ones we have retold in our heads, where literal truth has given way to poetic meaning?
It’s the single big idea at the heart of ‘Robot of Sherwood’, and if it sounds pretentious, really it isn’t. It is, in fact, as comic and ridiculous as Doctor Who has ever been. Not since the Doctor met up with Lemuel Gulliver – or, before that, with Agamemnon and Odysseus – has the programme taken such irreverential delight in pitching the Time Lord against other fictional heroes.
Firing an arrow at the TARDIS and winking, literally, at the viewer, Tom Riley’s Robin enters the narrative with all clichés ticked: hands on hips, knees-a-swaggering, campness barely disguised by braggartly masculinity. It’s little wonder the Doctor asks him, ‘And do people ever punch you in the face when you do that?’
Ben Miller may star as the Sheriff of Nottingham, but it’s the Doctor who most inhabits the sardonic spirit of the famously Christmas-cancelling Sheriff. This Doctor isn’t just intrigued; he’s also personally offended that ‘It’s too sunny. It’s too green.’ If you like your Doctor contemptuous of the foolhardy and flippant, then there’s a story here to suit you. But there are other moments, other stories – and even, briefly, one other Doctor.
The sequence when the Doctor is kissed by the as-yet unrevealed Marian is a beauty. The Doctor holds his hand to his cheek like a gauntlet, softly awakening the memory of something confused and tender.
But the real punch-the-air moment comes earlier when, on board the spaceship, the Doctor scrolls through the faces of fictional Robin Hoods, and there, in a production still from the BBC’s first ever Robin Hood, is Patrick Troughton! Here is a story we can tell ourselves – a tale of how a Time Lord who is a once and future Merlin can also be an echo of Robin Hood.
It’s a glorious knowing wink in an episode that is full of them – and who better to decipher the allusions than Clara, English teacher extraordinaire and sometime supervisor of after-school taekwondo? Dressed in ye olde fashion style, Clara is our über-Marian for the episode. [There’s a reason why the ‘real’ Marian has to be kept veiled until the final scene.] She’s also our compass for which truths have most value: the one character who has reawakened her childhood belief in old-fashioned heroes.
When she tells the Doctor at the beginning, apropos Robin Hood, ‘I love that story. I’ve loved it ever since I was little,’ we should have known then where this was heading: should have known then that the folk hero being celebrated was not the one in Lincoln green but TARDIS blue.
Yes, the clichés are plentiful, but it is a confident dance of storytelling that can honour and subvert so many clichés, while opening the doors to so many other stories too. There is the tale of the Tumescent Arrows of the Half-Light – all the more pertinent given that it is a tumescent arrow which ends the narrative – and for long-time fans there is the happy confirmation, long since assumed following scenes in ‘Silver Nemesis’ and ‘The Shakespeare Code’, that the TARDIS shell is self-healing. Arrows can’t harm it!
Director Paul Murphy has great fun in playing the genre for all its gleaming enchantment. Rarely has Wales in early Spring looked quite so halcyon. It’s been a while since Doctor Who has done this – the storytelling equivalent of taking the top down and driving away the winter blues.
However, when Mark Gatiss wrote a story about the retelling and reshaping of stories, it’s fair to say he didn’t expect that his own script would become itself quite so dramatically bowdlerised – or in such circumstances.
Nonetheless, it is a fact that for some viewers – specifically those viewers who read or downloaded the leaked episode online – there will now co-exist two versions of ‘Robot of Sherwood’. The one where the jumped-up Sheriff leads an army of robot knights or – and we find ourselves now in the unusual position of giving a spoiler warning for a scene that was never screened – the one where the teched-up Sheriff was himself half robot knight.
The ghost of that earlier revelation is there in the climactic sword fight, as the Sheriff identifies himself to be the ‘First of a new breed. Half man, half engine!’ It’s there also in the title – the use of the singular ‘Robot’ being more than just a pun but a direct implication of the Sheriff’s true identity
The edit in question was necessarily tactful – on balance, the right thing to do in the circumstances. In terms of the flow of the narrative, it matters not that much: the climax is still breathlessly fun.
Aired at 7.30pm on Saturday 6 September 2014 on BBC One.
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