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Doctor Who is lightening things up — barely.
The Time Lord (Peter Capaldi) travels to the 12th century in Saturday’s episode, “Robot of Sherwood,” where he comes face to face with Robin Hood (Da Vinci’s Demons‘ Tom Riley), one of Clara’s (Jenna Coleman) childhood heroes. The hourlong episode, penned by writer Mark Gatiss, showcases Capaldi’s 12th Doctor in a more comedic light — a 180 from his usually dour demeanor.
“It’s definitely a more light-hearted adventure,” Gatiss tells The Hollywood Reporter, “but it’s also quite moving.” One of the larger thematic questions explored is the question of “the nature of heroism.”
Gatiss, also of Sherlock and Game of Thrones, talks to THR about Saturday’s episode, Capaldi’s inherent Scottish-ness and all that Sherlock love at the Emmys.
You’ve written Doctor Who episodes for every Time Lord since the show was brought back in 2005. How has your approach changed in writing Peter Capaldi’s iteration versus, say, Matt Smith’s?
I’ve written for all the Doctors since the show came back, and it’s all essentially the same process, which is, the Doctor is the Doctor. So you know from that moment how he’s going to be, but you evolve it between drafts to suit the actor. With Peter, I knew him. I knew what he wanted to do with the part. As soon as you imagined an older man who was slightly more cantankerous and less immediately accessible, then it starts to inform the whole thing and it becomes fresh again. You think, “This is a totally different person in this situation.” You can imagine Matt [Smith‘s Doctor] would be very pleased to see Robin Hood, whereas Peter can’t stand it. (Laughs.)
What surprised you about Peter’s version that you weren’t expecting when you first sat down to write the episode?
He’s a proper fan. I invited him to the set of An Adventure in Space and Time before he was cast because I knew it would mean an awful lot to him to see the creation of the old TARDIS. The thing that surprised me was that there is something intrinsically Scottish about him that reminds me very much of actors like John Laurie. There is a Celtic thing going on with his boniness and his big eyes; there’s something kind of mad about him which I think is brilliant. In his silence, his eyes are so expressive and his gangly hands and things.
The Doctor’s partnership with his companion, Clara, is also reset in a way.
It’s kind of funny. It’s more like how it was when I was growing up. The Doctor was more like Peter’s age and there was no real hint at romance. It’s a bit like going back to the ’70s, sort of like Tom Baker and Sarah Jane Smith — a more acerbic character with his best friend.
Was that particularly exciting for you to infuse the show’s central dynamic with a bit of that ’70s vibe?
It’s always the same show but it has very distinctive periods. It’s only in retrospect that you can say, “That’s a distinctive era.” It’s not really about nostalgia; the radical thing to do after two much younger Doctors was to have a Doctor in his 50s, which [used] to be the default for the program.
Tell us about what we’ll see in Saturday’s episode, “Robot of Sherwood,” where the Doctor comes face to face with Robin Hood.
Clara wants to meet Robin Hood because he’s her childhood hero, and the Doctor says there’s no such thing. They go back to 12th century Nottingham and discover that they’re in the middle of the Errol Flynn movie. The Doctor cannot believe in him and yet he appears to be real, and he’s searching for some reason for why he’s there. It becomes, in the end, a debate about what a hero is and what the Doctor represents to Clara and I suppose, to us, versus the idea of a legendary hero like Robin. Mostly it’s a romp.
From the footage that’s been released, this episode seems to be a way to feature the Doctor in a lighter, funnier context.
The important thing to me is to have variety. Peter’s whole take is darker, it’s trickier, it’s less human than David [Tennant] and Matt, which is wonderful. But Peter is a funny actor. You put him being grumpy, dour, next to Robin Hood laughing his head off and it’s extremely funny. It’s definitely a more light-hearted adventure, but it’s also quite moving because of its questions about the nature of heroism.
In light of the ISIS situation, the BBC made the call to edit out a beheading scene from the episode. Were there other scenes that were cut for one reason or another?
What can you do? It’s a terrible tragedy and it’s only a TV program so you have to be sensitive to these things. I hope it’s going to be on the DVD. Originally, the episode had a much more complex plot, but the more I [added to] it and the more Steven [Moffat] said, “I think it just has to be Robin’s real, that’s it.” I said, “But when you take away all of that then it just becomes Doctor Who versus the robots,” which is my favorite title ever. (Laughs.) In the end, that’s why people seem to like it. It’s very gettable and quite breezy and quite simple.
Switching gears for a bit to Game of Thrones, which you’ll be returning to, viewers perked up when you appeared onscreen last season as Tycho even though you were only in it for a few minutes. What was the most fun about getting to be in the show?
It was going to play in another enormously popular show, but one which I don’t have any actual attachment to. It would be like being asked to be on Doctor Who if I wasn’t a lifelong Doctor Who fan. Being asked to be on it was an honor.
Moving on to another topic, congratulations on the Emmy love for Sherlock.
Thank you! It was a shock really. (Laughs.) We went two years ago and had 13 nominations and didn’t win anything so it was a very nice surprise.
When Steven Moffat revealed backstage at the Emmys that season four would be “devastating” and that “we practically reduced our cast to tears,” the Sherlock fandom picked up on that. Anything else you can share?
[The stars] were so excited about it, and that was the most brilliant part. To pitch four episodes like that and really surprise them as much as [we did], it’s like watching the show very quickly. We were just able to pull the same sort of cliffhangers and do it while pitching it. And we were very gratified with the response, and they’re all extremely keen to do it — so that’s good.
Doctor Who airs at 9 p.m. Saturdays on BBC America.
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