Doctor Who Recap: Men In Tights

This week the Doctor got lovably silly. Spoiler alert.

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This is the latest in our series of Doctor Who recaps. Spoiler alert.

Kids who grew up reading superhero comics often dreamed of being Batman or Spider-man. Those who watched action films dreamed of being the hero who dispatches the villain, saves the town, and winks surreptitiously into the camera. But those who grew up on Doctor Who never dream of being the Doctor. They dream of meeting him.

That’s one of the reasons that the Doctor has remained so perennially popular: he’s unlike any other hero. Most rely on some sort of physical alteration: you can dream of being bitten by a radioactive spider, because what is Peter Parker but you with amazing powers? The Doctor’s strengths lie in his impossibly large brain, his unknowable otherness, his innate mystery. We simply can’t fathom being him.

Russell T Davies (Doctor Who showrunner 2005-2009) said he’d always dreamed of turning a corner and seeing the TARDIS there waiting for him. That the Doctor would be there to whisk him away to incredible adventures. And because we don’t dream of being the Doctor, but rather being his friend, there’s a small part in the back of all Doctor Who fans’ minds that believes he might be real. Just a little bit. In an infinite universe, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, all things are possible, even the Doctor. Maybe he really is out there in the cosmos, and the show we’re watching is his biography.

Ahead of the 2012 Olympics, fans created a petition to have Tenth Doctor David Tennant be one of the torch bearers. In the end he wasn’t – incumbent Doctor Matt Smith got that honour – but the reason behind the petition was that in 2006’s Fear Her, Tennant’s Doctor actually does carry the torch on the way to the 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony. This is the power of the show: fans are so determined to have the continuity of Doctor Who match up with the continuity of real life, that they’re even determined to make Fear Her – a story they themselves ranked the second-worst in the show’s 50 year history (Doctor Who Magazine, issue 474) – part of real life.

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Doctor Who fans still ranked “Fear Her” higher than “reality”.

And that’s essentially what Robot of Sherwood is all about. The third story of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor sees Clara convincing the Doctor to take her to Sherwood Forest to meet Robin Hood, despite the Doctor’s protestations that Robin Hood never existed. Naturally, he’s the first person they meet upon exiting the TARDIS, and he’s got a band of merry men and an evil Sheriff of Nottingham to boot.

At first, the title seemed like a dead giveaway; a spoiler trumped by an irresistible pun. But that’s the episode’s great misdirection: Robin is real. And, as he discovers, remembered by future generations (ie: ours) as the legend, not the man. He finds a kindred spirit in the Doctor. “I’m not a hero,” protests the Doctor. “Well neither am I,” says Robin, “but if we both keep pretending to be, perhaps others will be heroes in our names. Perhaps we will both be stories. And may those stories never end”.

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Clara sneezes, releasing a virulent strain of 21st century head-cold onto the unsuspecting Middle Ages.

The message for the kids in the audience (and, hopefully, the adults) is that yes, he is indeed out there somewhere, and we should follow his example. Because let’s face it: Doctor Who is real.

It’s a lovely message in an episode that is ridiculously fun. It’s possibly the best episode written by potential future showrunner Mark Gatiss, who has written for every Doctor since the show’s return. In a recent interview, Gatiss correctly identified the 1938 Errol Flynn-starring The Adventures of Robin Hood as the greatest telling of the legend, and clearly takes his inspiration from its tone. This is a brightly-coloured, fun romp that has no time for the tedious muted colours and grim realism that has boringly crippled the story for the past twenty-five years.

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“And now we simply aim this at the people who leaked this episode onto the web weeks early.”

Tom Riley is a wonderful Robin Hood, and comedian Ben Miller gets the villainy of the Sheriff absolutely spot-on. First-time Doctor Who director Paul Murphy balances the humour and the action to a tee, and the episode looks simply stunning. The show has looked great since its 2005 return, but this season seems to have stepped it up in a big way. Look at the shot when the Doctor, Clara and Robin are chained up in the dungeon. That could be a painting.

Robot of Sherwood follows the now-legendary mixtape roadmap given by Rob in High Fidelity: “You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch, but you don’t want to blow your wad, so then you gotta cool it off a notch”. After the intensity of the first two episodes, Robots is definitely taking the seriousness down a notch: it’s an hilarious, engaging adventure that reminds us the show is supposed to be fun, and that legends are real.

The key to defeating the Sheriff was to slip the “Alien3” card into his deck during charades.

The key to defeating the Sheriff was to slip the “Alien3” card into his deck during charades.

Questions To Ponder:

  • When the Doctor thought he might be in a Miniscope, was that merely a fitting reference to 1973’s Carnival of Monsters, or a continuation of the episode’s meta theme that he really is performing for the amusement of an unseen audience? (I’ll save you the trouble: it’s both.)
  • Did you spot Second Doctor Patrick Troughton in there? When the Doctor is showing Robin the memory banks featuring all the easily-licensed images of Robin Hood, the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed a picture of Troughton from his role as Robin Hood in the 1953 BBC mini-series, the first ever TV version of the legend, now sadly lost to the ages.
  • Clara really is coming in to her own this season, isn’t she? She’s the driving force of this story; as the competing egos of Robin and the Doctor cancel each other out, she’s the one who actually figures out the Sheriff’s plan. It’s also nice to see how genuinely and appropriately excited she is by everything. We need our audience avatars to be as excited as we are!
  • Between this story and 1980’s State of Decay, will the Doctor now, quite reasonably, assume that every castle he encounters is just a spaceship in disguise?
  • Worried the new Who would be too serious? We just got a return of the Third Doctor’s brilliantly absurd Venusian aikido, complete with “hai!”.
  • No direct reference to 1965’s The Crusade? This classic story is also set in 1190, so we now know that as the Twelfth Doctor is gallivanting about with Robin Hood in England, Robin’s King Richard the Lionheart is off in Palestine with the First Doctor. Someone fanfic this!

Like this episode? Then check out 1983’s The King’s Demons, because Robot of Sherwood isn’t the only time the kingdom was plagued by robots. Fifteen years after the events of Sherwood, the Fifth Doctor arrives in England on 4 March 1215 to discover that King John – the one who didn’t appreciate the Sheriff of Nottingham – is actually a shape-shifting robot planted by the Master. Well, sort of. The real King John is off in another part of the kingdom, and we never meet him, just the robot one.

Sure, the Master’s plan doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense (minor historical mischief seems more like the purview of the Meddling Monk), but there’s a sword fight and a joust and a robot, so quit complaining.

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“King Richard, Prince John and Robin Hood were shocked at Hal the Archer’s impression of an angry Sontaran.”

Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist. He co-hosted the ABC2 film comedy series The Bazura Project, and is a co-presenter of film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. He tweets at @leezachariah.