Well, that was a tonic. As much as I've been enjoying this new, darker Doctor, I was beginning to fear that it was going to be grimdark from here on out. Certainly, pre-season trailers focused on the “into darkness” aspect of the latest set of stories, and while there's plenty of mileage in that, a full season of cheerless, serious stories would soon become very tedious. It's not Doctor Who if we're not having fun. Thankfully, Robot of Sherwood has reminded us that it's entirely possible to ask serious questions about what it means to be a good man, and still have some laughs along the way.
It certainly looks like this is to be another divisive series. We're only three episodes in, but they're already polarising critical and fan opinion, and even a seemingly innocuous romp like Robot of Sherwood has split reviews down the middle. There are many for whom this episode simply didn't work. The complaints have been various. “The plot was too thin,” often from the same people who are quick to moan that the stories are now too complicated. “It was too silly,” from people who have apparently forgotten that they're watching a series about a man in a magical police box who fights monsters with a screwdriver. However, the one that seems to be cropping up most often is this: that the episode doesn't work with Peter Capaldi. Now, I can see the argument here, but I have to say, this is quite simply wrong.
Capaldi's cynical Doctor deforms the story. It's still a comedy, but of a different flavour, as this more curmudgeonly Doctor warps the episode's style around him. Imagine Matt Smith in this episode; he'd be leaping around having the time of his life. He'd be thrilled to meet Robin Hood, even as he questioned his existence. It would very probably be the Doctor who got the final showdown with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Capaldi's Doctor approaches the whole thing very differently. The only reason he even goes to Sherwood Forest is to prove himself right, even acknowledging that Clara is going to be disappointed. Armed with two millennia of experience, the Doctor is so sure of his own knowledge that he can't contemplate that he is actually wrong about Robin Hood. The Robin he is confronted with is so utterly opposite to his character – jolly, dashing, swashbuckling – that they immediately rub each other the wrong way. The rivalry that results is funny precisely because it's so absurd. The Doctor doesn't believe that Robin is even real, and yet he has to prove himself against him. He absolutely has to be right, in all matters, and this is what blinds him to the truth of the situation. What results is rather like Victor Meldrew sharing a dungeon with Lord Flashheart.
There are major flaws with this episode, of course. As excellent as Jenna Coleman is when facing Miller's Sheriff, her gooeyness opposite Robin is a step back for her character. It's also hard to believe that Clara's number one historical hero is Robin Hood, something that nothing in her character has suggested before. The Merry Men get as much screen time as they deserve, but far more should have been made of Sabrina Bartlett as Maid Marian, instead of relegating her to a minor side character. The joke of having a genuinely little Little John isn't new either; Maid Marian and Her Merry Men included the wonderful Little Ron. The absurdity of the plot reaches its nadir when the golden arrow is pinged into the hull of the spaceship, somehow providing it with the surge of power it needs to reach orbit. However, while the plot is simplistic and the episode doesn't make the most of all its elements, there's no denying the sheer fun of it all.
The episode evokes past eras of Doctor Who in several ways. Most immediately brought to mind is the 1983 two-parter The King's Demons, in which Bad King John appears, only to turn out to be a robot. Thankfully Sherwood doesn't resemble The King's Demons in terms of quality. The element most evocative of eighties Who is Ben Miller's arch take on the Sheriff of Nottingham. He appears to have been deliberately made to look as much like Anthony Ainley's version of the Master as possible, and at some moments appears to be directly recreating his performance. Indeed, the inevitable “he's the Master!” cries began even before the episode aired, and while this is the sort of scheme we can imagine the Master being involved in on one of his quieter days, he is of course nothing of the sort. The revelation that the Sheriff is, in fact, cybernetic is somewhat lost in the final edit. While he is a wonderfully camp villain and a joy to watch, the Sheriff never really convinces as a genuine threat. So, just like the eighties Master, then. Other viewers will find elements of the Pertwee era in this episode. Indeed, I half expected the Sontarans to be behind the scene, as they were the last time we saw robotic knights, back in 1973's The Time Warrior. The Doctor himself though most evokes the Troughton period of the series. Not in his performance as such, which is closer to Hartnell's or Pertwee's, if any, in this episode, but in what he stands for. The Doctor is explicitly socialist here, siding with the downtrodden and instigating a peasant's revolt. He even refers to Robin Hood as “the opiate of the masses,” and declares that the best thing for keeping a population at bay is “the illusion of hope.” This element of his character, sometimes lost among all the great Time Lordliness, is at the heart of this Doctor, and evokes something of the anarchic element of the late sixties serials. It's quite appropriate that Patrick Troughton, the very first televisual Robin Hood, makes a brief appearance in the episode.
That's not to say that Capaldi doesn't get his fair share of swashbuckling. He even gets a “Hai!” The great sword vs. spoon fight is sure to go down as one of the highlights of the season. The early inclusion of this mockery of the classic Robin Hood bridge fight signposts exactly what sort of adventure this is going to be. Robot of Sherwood displays a joy in playing with the conventions of the adventure genre, and the many years of Robin Hood films in particular. The casting of Tom Riley as Robin is a canny choice. Currently best known for his role as Leonardo in Da Vinci's Demons, he has plentiful experience in portraying a fantastical version of a historical figure, for whom legend has also begun to eclipse historical truth. Riley nails the sort of Robin Hood that Mark Gatiss has chosen to recreate. Explicitly evoking Errol Flynn's classic 1938 turn as the hero, it's a resfreshing change from the ever-so-serious take on the character that more recent, “realistic” interpretations have offered.
That's the central joke, of course. The Doctor cannot believe that Robin Hood exists because the legend is too outlandish. The debate goes on regarding Robin's historical providence, with many still believing that the legends are based on a historical truth. In Robot of Sherwood the legends are entirely true, that Robin Hood was just as over-the-top and ridiculous as the stories suggest. We spend the episode waiting for the Doctor to discover Robin's true nature, something that even the title is suggesting is unearthly. The Doctor throws in references to Miniscopes and other such daft ideas, as if such a thing was somehow more feasible than a real Robin Hood. The Doctor rejoices when he finds the hidden spaceship, claiming to have finally found something “real.” Of course, that's the joke. “When did you start believing in impossible heroes?” the Doctor asks Clara, and in a truly lovely moment, she replies, “Don't you know?”
Gatiss's script revels in the fiction of the Doctor. “Remember, Doctor, I'm just as real as you are,” says Robin at the episode's close, a knowing wink at the audience. The Doctor is explicitly paralleled with robin Hood, the Time Lord of Gallifrey with the Earl of Locksley. “I'm no hero,” says the Doctor, but Robin disagrees, revealing, as Clara had already seen, that the clichéd swashbuckler is just a character he plays. People need heroes to help then become better themselves. The Doctor is wrong when he claims that Robin Hood gives the illusion of hope. Heroes give people real hope, and that's why we need stories like Robin Hood, and yes, Doctor Who. With Robot of Sherwood, Mark Gatiss manages to explore the question of whether the Doctor is a good man without a moment of po-faced grimness.
Links: The Doctor at one point suspects he's in a Miniscope, the alien entertainment device seen in 1973 serial Carnival of Monsters and also in 2011's live show The Monster are Coming! He also suggests that Clara might wish to visit the Ice Warrior hives; he and Clara previously met the Ice Warriors in last year's Cold War. The robots' ship is bound for "The Promised Land," the supposedly mythical destination of the Half-Faced Man in Deep Breath. Unlike that episode and Into the Dalek, we saw no one go to meet Missy in "Heaven," however, unlike those episodes, no one willingly sacrificed themselves, which may be significant.
Threads: The Doctor has mixed up his outfit a little, wearing a burgundy shirt that looks spot on with his navy coat. Clara togs up in mediaeval fancy dress; Jenna Coleman really looks fantastic in period clothing.
Familiar Faces: David Benson has a fabulously over-the-top turn as the king's herald. Benson is particularly well known for his turns as Noel Coward, but Doctor Who fans know him best as the voice of Panda in the Iris Wildthyme audioplays. In the first of these, Wildthyme at Large, he and Iris encountered none other than Robin Hood.
Best Line: "Can you explain your plan without using the words 'sonic screwdriver?'"