The third episode of Doctor Who Series Eight, “Robot of Sherwood” written by Mark Gatiss, is something of a comedy. After the grim tone of the previous week’s “Into the Dalek” this makes for a nice change of pace. The episode further develops the character of the recently-regenerated Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his changed relationship with Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman).
Asked by the Doctor to choose a destination for the TARDIS, Clara decides that she wants to meet one of her childhood heroes, Robin Hood. The Doctor immediately dismisses Robin Hood as nothing but a legend. “He’s made up. There’s no such thing.” But Clara wears him down and he reluctantly sets the coordinates for Sherwood Forest in medieval times. Arriving, the Doctor is extremely surprised and annoyed to find that a very jolly fellow in green armed with a bow & arrow claiming to be Robin Hood is ready to steal the TARDIS.
“Robot of Sherwood” brought a big grin to my face on several occasions. Capaldi was excellent as the Doctor, who even at bow-point adamantly refuses to acknowledge Robin Hood’s existence, instead floating all manner of outlandish theories to explain away the presence of the prince of thieves and his band of Merry Men. Clara, in contrast, is utterly charmed and thrilled. Wearing a beautiful red period dress, she is ready to dive right in, much to the Doctor’s disgust.
One of my favorite moments came early on when Robin (Tom Riley) challenges the Doctor to a duel for the TARDIS. The Doctor accepts, but instead of utilizing a sword whips a large spoon out from his jacket. Capaldi’s enthusiasm and irreverence totally sells the scene. Of course the Doctor would be crazy enough to fight someone with a spoon!
Much of the episode is devoted to the Doctor alternating between attempting to prove Robin is a fake and showing up the archer. Quite clearly the Doctor does not want to be proven wrong. Neither is he comfortable with Clara mooning over the outlaw lord of Locksley, as the Doctor hates to be outdone by anyone.
During the famous archery contest organized by the Sherriff of Nottingham (Ben Miller) to trap Robin into revealing himself, the Doctor inevitably tries to grab the spotlight, attempting to out-shoot the legendary archer, and then finally resorting to blowing up the target with his sonic screwdriver. When the Sherriff orders his knights to attack them, in the resulting fight Robin hacks off one of their arms, revealing it to be a robot. Of course the Doctor is utterly jubilant, as this finally seems to confirm for him that everything that is taking place is a fake.
However, it does inevitably transpire that Robin Hood is the genuine article. Only the robots, and their spaceship hidden at the center of the Sherriff’s castle, are out of place. It takes Clara to figure this out, as she bluffs the besotted Sherriff into revealing how he plans to use these crash-landed automatons to seize the English throne. The Doctor and Robin finally agree to work together and, escaping from the dungeon, discover the control center of the robots’ ship. The Doctor is perturbed to learn that the ship had been en-route to “The Promised Land,” a destination that had also been sought out by the half-faced clockwork man in “Deep Breath.”
In a number of ways “Robot of Sherwood” is almost a love letter to the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who. The Twelfth Doctor’s costume has a more than passing resemblance to the Third’s. Capaldi’s performance certainly possesses some of the authoritative, bossy arrogance of Pertwee’s. There are parallels to the Third Doctor story “The Time Warrior,” with its spaceship crash-landing in medieval England, and a ruthless robber baron attempting to use alien weapons to expand his empire. “The Time Warrior” even had a robot knight, and “Robot of Sherwood” improves on that with a whole army of them.
Other instances that call back to the Pertwee era are the Doctor using a martial arts move to disarm Robin Hood, and his suggestion to Clara at the start of the episode that they take a trip to Mars to visit the Ice Warriors. At one point, trying to figure out the “truth” behind Robin Hood’s presence, the Doctor wildly guesses that they are actually in a Miniscope, a shout-out to the Third Doctor serial “Carnival of Monsters.” Miller’s theatrical performance as the black-clad, bearded Sherriff even brings to mind the Third Doctor’s constant adversary The Master, both in his physical appearance and in his propensity for wildly impractical schemes to conquer the world. I was left wondering if the Sheriff attended The Roger Delgado School of Villainy, as taught by head instructor Anthony Ainley.
Although “Robot of Sherwood” is a humorous tale, Gatiss’ script does also take a bit of time to reflect on the character of the Doctor. Concerning Clara’s fondness for Robin Hood, the Doctor asks “When did you start believing in impossible heroes?” One suspects that this is as much directed at how Clara feels about Robin as she does in the Doctor himself, who seems to find her faith in him misplaced. At the end of the episode, when Robin, referring to Clara, says to the Doctor “You are her hero, I think.” The Doctor merely replies “I’m not a hero.”
It is actually very appropriate for the Doctor to have this self-perception, and to be dismissive of his accomplishments. It has sometimes been observed that real heroes do not think of themselves as heroes; rather, they are just people who are merely attempting to do the next right thing in a difficult, complicated world. And that can certainly apply to the Doctor.
Some fans may have been put off by the whimsical tone of “Robot of Sherwood.” Myself, I liked it. One of the great strengths of Doctor Who is that is can support episodes that are diverse in tone and style. This was humorous without being silly, a fun story that entertained while continuing to develop the character of the Twelfth Doctor.