The Doctor takes Clara to Twelfth Century Sherwood Forest to show that Robin Hood is just a legend. There they meet Robin Hood, his Merry Men and the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham.
Story-telling is important in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who. Series five was a deliberate shift away from council estates to a ‘dark fairytale.’ At the Official 50th Anniversary Celebration the show runner said,
“It’s hard to talk about the importance of an imaginary hero. But heroes are important: Heroes tell us something about ourselves. History tells us who we used to be, documentaries tell us who we are now… but heroes tell us we want to be.”
At the very beginning of Doctor Who the companions are Ian and Barbara, teachers of Science and History respectively. It’s no mistake that current Coal Hill pedagog Clara teaches English, reflecting the shows current pre-occupations compared to the educational remit of the show’s origins.
Mark Gatiss’ script for Robot of Sherwood falls well within in this thinking. The conversation the Doctor and Robin share at the end ties in with both this and the new Twelfth Doctor ongoing question of whether or not he is a good man; and the point being that he tries to be.
Suspicious of the veracity of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the Doctor speculates that they could be in a Mini-scope. This is a device from the Third Doctor story Carnival of Monsters, which shrinks alien species and puts them in a time-loop for the entertainment of viewers. In this story Jo Grant makes quite a meta comment about Doctor Who:
JO: And outside there are people and creatures just looking at us for kicks?
DOCTOR: Very probably.
JO: They must be evil and horrible.
Gatiss’ story has the Doctor make a comment about watching the series too, and again recognises the real importance to most people of stories and heroes. Escapism.
“What does every oppressed peasant work-force need? The illusion of hope. Some silly story to get them through the day. Lull them into docility and keep them working.”
There seems to be a religious thread running through series eight, the culmination of which is entitled Death in Heaven. As discussed in my Into the Dalek blog, Paul Cornell described that episode as “gloriously theist”; while this one has a couple of subtle references perhaps less supportive of religion. The Sheriff asks, “Will no-one rid me of this troublesome Doctor?” This is a misquote of Henry II asking, “Will no-one rid of me of this troublesome priest?” He was talking about Thomas Beckett, who opposed him as Archbishop of Canterbury. Beckett was killed after this remark in 1170, twenty years prior to this tale. The Doctor calling Robin Hood “opiate for the masses” recalls Karl Marx’s description of religion, published in 1844.
By all accounts the scene cut from the episode saw the Sheriff being decapitated by Robin, only to be revealed as a robot. He re-attaches his own severed head and then is killed in the way we saw on screen. The episode certainly doesn’t suffer from this cut, and his character lusting after Clara makes more sense if he’s human. There is no scene with Missy in this episode, so we don’t know yet if the Sheriff of Nottingham made it to the Promised Land. There’s no self-sacrifice, but its only speculation if that is the criteria for entry at this stage. But it would seem appropriate if the erstwhile Death in Paradise star returned for series finale Death in Heaven.
The Doctor says that Clara should not have told Robin Hood about his past. I’d certainly welcome a return to the Doctor being mysterious and circumspect about his origins than announcing his name, age and provenance at every opportunity. I really, really enjoyed this story. I love the boy’s own adventure chutzpah, the cheeky Troughton pic, the Venusian Aikido chop and the fact that it’s laugh out loud funny. It’s great to see Peter Capaldi grab the opportunity with both hands to show his comedy chops in the role. “May those stories never end,” says Robin Hood at the end. Damn straight.
Originally published on my Doctor Who blog, Trap One.