In a sun-dappled Sherwood Forest, the Doctor discovers an evil plan from beyond the stars and strikes up an unlikely alliance with Robin Hood.
With all of Nottingham at stake, the Doctor must decide who is real and who is fake. Can impossible heroes actually exist?
Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in Robot of Sherwood.
Peter Capaldi (The Doctor)
Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald)
Tom Riley (Robin Hood)
Ben Miller (Sheriff of Nottingham)
Sabrina Bartlett (Quayle’s Ward)
Tim Baggaley (Knight)
Richard Elfyn (Voice of the Knights)
Written by: Mark Gattis
Directed by: Paul Murphy
Gifs by: J-Ru
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It’s been a while since Doctor Who had an episode that was just fun.
Going all the way back to Series 7, The Power of Three saw what happens when the Doctor gets bored, faced with a problem that requires time to solve. He integrates himself into Amy and Rory’s life while Rory’s Dad becomes his lab assistant of sorts. While the episode does, of course, turn serious towards the end, the majority of its run-time is lighthearted and farcical. From then, the show goes on a run from The Angels Take Manhattan all the way to Into the Dalek that consists of more serious episodes with humor and entertainment used to break the tension. The first two episodes of Peter Capaldi’s time as the Doctor have see him deal with post-regeneration sickness, getting into a deadly brawl with a half-man/half-clockwork creature, and wondering about the “goodness” of both himself and a malfunctioning Dalek.
Robot of Sherwood, penned by noted Doctor Who fanboy Mark Gatiss, sees the Doctor and Clara encounter one of England’s most legendary figures, the outlaw Robin Hood. Robot of Sherwood is not a perfect episode. The narrative flow is a bit discombobulated, switching between long, extended moments and quickly rushed scenes, and the science fiction plot feels tacked on. But the strength of the episode is, and always was, the chemistry and banter between the Doctor, Clara, Robin Hood, and the Sheriff of Nottingham. In that, Robot of Sherwood succeeds in spades, with Capaldi’s Doctor coming off at not only distinct from his predecessors, but a little more alien and a little less human as well.
Clara answers the Doctor’s request to meet anyone anywhere in space and time with a roll of his eyes. England. 1170 AD. Nottingham. Robin Hood, who the Doctor states time and time again isn’t real. And he continues to state this fact even as the very first person he meets when he steps out of the TARDIS is none other than the famed outlaw. Clara delights in meeting the Merry Men even as the Doctor insists that none of it is real and it must be some trick. But no matter what, the truth of the matter is that the Sheriff of Nottingham is stealing from the poor and impressing the peasants to work in an underground factory, assisted by a group of strange metal knights…
Mark Gatiss’ Doctor Who output can be described as “fair.” He’s had his misses, including The Idiot’s Lantern and Victory of the Daleks. He’s had his “average” episodes, including The Unquiet Dead. And he’s had his “good, but flawed” episodes such as Cold War and Night Terrors. Robot of Sherwood falls into the latter category, landing squarely into the higher percentiles of the bracket. The tale of Robin Hood is familiar across the entire world. Gatiss could have very easily made this story like so many others throughout the show’s production, where the Doctor’s actions become a vital-yet-unknown part of established historical events. In this story, however, the Doctor is almost a bit-player when all is said and done. It’s very refreshing that for the Doctor to be a part of history, but other people actually MAKE the history. From the moment the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS and Robin Hood introduces himself, it’s obvious that the script is going to be much more Men in Tights than Prince of Thieves, a point driven home by the utterly ridiculous but insanely delightful sword vs. spoon duel the Doctor and Robin Hood face off in. It’s further compounded by the bickering (bordering on homicidal arguing) the pair engage in over the course of the story, from a over-the-top archery contest to an attempt to distract their jailor ending in a manner that both of them are very glad Clara didn’t see. While the comedy is very well done, it does make the “serious” moments a bit jarring when they pop up. Robot of Sherwood knows what kind of episode it wants to be, and it’s the actual science-fiction aspects of the plot that fall flat. There are robots, they want to leave the planet, if they try to leave the planet the ship will explode and take out most of the British Isles, and it takes an arrow made of gold to give it JUST enough of a boost to let it exit the atmosphere so the robots can head to the same “Promised Land” that the clockworks from Deep Breath were apparently heading to. It’s not quite a 180 from the comedic aspects of the story, but it’s enough to cause a bit of a cognitive hiccup.
The supporting cast boils down to two characters – Robin Hood, played by Tom Riley, and the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Ben Miller. Or, as someone pointed out, “the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Roger Delgado impersonating Anthony Ainley.” Miller, one half of British comedy team Alexander & Miller, embraces his role with gusto; not quite going full Alan Rickman, but you can see him from Miller’s performance. He twirls the mustache, oppresses the peasant, trades banter with Robin Hood, and takes great glee in being evil. But Miller shows just enough intelligence that his character doesn’t slide into pure caricature, and his “AND THEN THE WORLD” line just might be the revival’s answer to the classic-era’s “MY DREAMS OF.CONQUEST!” Opposite of him, Tom Riley’s Robin Hood shows why he’s such an annoying thorn in the Sheriff’s (and the Doctor’s) side. He’s competent, cheerful, and boisterous. Excessively so, as the Doctor threatens to punch him over his ridiculous amounts of laughter, and it’s easy for Riley’s performance to go from “humorous” to “annoying” for some viewers. But Robin Hood’s skill with sword and bow is beyond reproach in both his duel with the Doctor and his fight with Nottingham. The finale scene with the Doctor is a feather in Riley’s cap, as he answers the Doctor’s concerns and contradictions.
The great 2014 Clara Oswald Reclamation Project continues. Jenna Coleman was simply amazing in this episode. Let me count the ways. One, she meets Robin Hood and doesn’t fall in love with him, doesn’t develop a crush on him, but simply enjoys his company, both the good and the bad. Her sheer GLEE at meeting him radiates from the screen. She also goes so far as to chastise both Robin Hood AND the Doctor, and after hearing their “plans,” takes matters into her own hands. Her dinner scene with the Sheriff will easily make any “Clara Highlight Reel” that some fan compiles and puts on Youtube, as she shows smarts and a bit of sultry flattery as she makes the Sheriff reveal most of his plan without going “over the top vamp.” When Clara is on screen, Robot of Sherwood is usually clicking on all cylinders, which is something I never thought I would be writing a year ago. She DIGS into the adventure instead of being a passive observer or someone for the Doctor to provide exposition to. Clara, to me, will be remember much more for her travels alongside Twelve than for being “The Impossible Girl.”
I loved Capaldi in this episode, but it’s easy to see where some viewers would have reservations about his performance. One could make the case that David Tennant and Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor went a very long way to “humanizing” the last of the Time Lords, lowering his defenses and sanding his edges. They definitely presenting the most appealing Doctors, not “TOO” alien and different from humans, aside from two hearts and a magic phone box. Capaldi, though, has gone the other direction. He insults humans, and what Ten would find “fantastic” and Eleven might find “neat,” Twelve finds “absolutely impossible.” Some viewers might have found his not accepting the situation as off-balance for someone who, over the course of 1200 years, has seen some absolute amazing things. But to me, Capaldi’s regeneration is just doing what countless regenerations have done in the past, and that’s be completely different from the ones before. Mark Gatiss wrote this episode before Twelve’s personality had any of its characteristic defined on-screen, so I would like to think the Doctor’s arrogance, bickering nature, and shock at being wrong as he realizes that Robin Hood isn’t a robot were more the part of Capaldi and not Gatiss’ script. I say this because, in many ways, Robot of Sherwood is a script that could have featured several other Doctors. The Third Doctor, of course, comes to mind, but one could also see Six complaining about the banter and insisting he’s right, and perhaps even Seven trying to calmly deduce the “long game” that’s going on. With Twelve as the Doctor on call, he comes off as, well, slightly off. He’s determined to figure out what’s wrong, determined that there MUST be a puzzle to be solved, that his superior intellect alone will save the day, even if it means casually telling someone they’ll be dead in six months, biting into an apple and then scanning it, blatantly cheating at an archery contest, or challenging a man holding a sword to a duel while wielding a fork. It’s either over-the-top silly and perfectly in line with the Doctor and the episode, or completely out of character and a major speedbump in the characterization of the Doctor, depending on how one chooses to look at it.
The end of the episode sums it all up. Robin Hood, instead of being dismayed that history will forget him and turn his crusade for justice into myth and legend, believes that it’s a good thing as long as people take up the fight for good in his name…which is something the Doctor has seen before, for both good and ill. While to some people the big story arc this season will be Missy and “heaven,” to me the story arc is more about the Doctor, after all he’s seen, coming to grips with the absolution of guilt over the Time War and trying to define himself. This episode saw him as a hero. Into the Dalek didn’t. Which Doctor is which then?
Robot of Sherwood has several easily noticeable flaws, and depending on how you like your Doctor Who, they can either be overlooked in the course of an enjoyable episode, or glaring enough to drag down the whole story. In either case, it’s a memorable story, and one that I could easily see myself rewatching in the future. And it’s definitely an episode I would feel comfortable showing to someone who had never seen Doctor Who before, as it has everything I love about the show; humor, action, and just a touch of character driven pathos.
And by the way, Patrick Troughton’s cameo in this episode was absolutely awesome.