Season Eight has been dark so far, but I don’t think I realized exactly how dark the first two episodes were until I started watching “Robot of Sherwood,” an episode which triggered a huge grin that refused to go away throughout the episode. And it was sort of a relief, because perhaps we needed to be reminded that this show is still capable of and not shy about making us laugh. This is no slight against all the other episodes, but I can’t recall the last time I had so much unbridled fun watching a new episode of Doctor Who. Here the Doctor declares he detests banter. Thankfully writer Mark Gatiss does not, because this episode overflows with witty repartee.
The series hasn’t had a celebrity historical for quite some time. Nothing in season seven unless you count Hugh Bonneville’s Henry Avery. Season six made a joke of Hitler and Nixon figured into its opening two-parter. But there arguably hasn’t been a proper one of these since “Vincent and the Doctor” way back in the fifth season. At that time, based on the strength of the material, I wondered if writer Richard Curtis had maybe “ruined” the format by making the definitive example of it, but here comes “Robot of Sherwood” to thankfully prove me wrong. Maybe the gimmick just needed a good rest, as there have been times when it felt positively strained (I’m looking at you “The Unicorn and the Wasp”).
At the start, the Doctor asks Clara where or when she wants to go, yet he’s not looking for her to name a person, much less a fictitious one. He scoffs at her request to meet Robin Hood, but nevertheless heads for 12th century Nottingham to prove a point - a point which he continues to attempt to prove for the bulk of the story. Of course, the TARDIS materializes mere feet away from Hood (Tom Riley, practically unrecognizable from his other role as an historical celebrity, the title character in the series Da Vinci’s Demons). He’s a classic, uncomplicated Errol Flynn type of Hood, an actor whom the Doctor name drops before engaging in a whimsical duel of sword versus spoon. It’s entirely possible I’ve been waiting 30 years to watch the Doctor do battle armed only with a spoon, and I just didn’t know it.
While Clara moons over the stuff of legend, things quickly take a turn for the Doctor’s ego. After thinking that he’s beaten Hood, the bandit swoops around and dumps the Time Lord into the water. From that moment onwards, the Doctor detests Hood. On the surface, the Doctor insists it is because Hood is a fraud or an imposter or anything other than the actual Robin Hood, but boiling away beneath is irritation with Hood’s stealing of Clara’s attention away from him. He gets grumpier and childish, which is a noteworthy trait of this elder Doctor, and I wonder if we’ll continue to see more of this in Capaldi’s Doctor.
But Clara isn’t entirely a doe-eyed romantic here. Perhaps much like us viewers, after two heavy, dark adventures, she just wants to bask in the merriment and frivolity Hood and his Merry Men (who get their nickname here) have to offer. Jenna’s such a radiant knockout in this episode, even more so than usual. She’s that girl you crushed on hard that one time at the Renaissance festival; the one with the chalice that you’ve never been able to entirely get out of your head.
“When did you stop believing in everything?” – Clara
“When did you start believing in impossible heroes?” – The Doctor
“Don’t you know? (beat) Anyway, it’s rather sweet.” - Clara
After that melancholy exchange, the Doctor learns nothing, and turns his attitude toward Hood into a petty rivalry; an ongoing game of one-upmanship ensues, first demonstrated at a delightfully over the top archery contest in Nottingham, held by the Sheriff (Ben Miller, Primeval, Johnny English), who is less moustache twirling and more beard stroking, figuratively speaking. Here the narrative turns when the Sheriff’s armored men are revealed to be robots (really cool looking robots, too). Finally! The Doctor is right about something. It’s almost a meta-commentary by the Doctor on the series itself: We’re in the past; surely there must be an alien of some kind around here somewhere.
In Act II, while the Doctor and Hood are manacled together in a dungeon (loads of great comedy on the part of both men), the Sheriff grills Clara for information, though she cleverly gets far more out of him than he from her in a couple of scenes that all but co-star Basil Exposition. It’s an elaborate plot with a crashed spaceship needing gold for repairs, which the Sheriff intends to fly to London and crash into the castle, killing Prince John, so he can take over as King or some such. If you’re an old school fan, parts of this are vaguely reminiscent of a lackluster Peter Davison story called “The King’s Demons,” which took place only a few years after “Sherwood,” and also featured a robot and a plot to control England. That episode’s machinations were fueled by the Master as played by Anthony Ainley, who Miller’s Sheriff bears an uncanny resemblance to.
The real plot – the ongoing one - seemingly bubbles away beneath the script’s surface. When the Doctor enters the ship’s control room, he discovers its original destination was the Promised Land, as first mentioned by the Half-Face Man in “Deep Breath.” Indeed, the story of a spaceship of metal men crash-landing in Earth’s history, and trying to get to the Promised Land is almost identical to the premise of “Deep Breath.” And in a season that we already know culminates in a storyline involving the show’s most infamous metal men, the Cybermen? Further, between Heaven and the Promised Land, and this episode’s robots having cross-shaped lasers, as well as an extremely prominent cross in the dungeon (which was part of the ship), there’s been a great deal of Christian iconography and terminology so far this season. It can’t all be coincidence.
You’ve probably heard that a scene was cut from the episode. It turns out that with the removal of that minute or so went some pretty significant information: The Sheriff was a robot all along; he is even, it would seem, the robot of the episode’s title! There remains at least one signifier of it; during their climactic duel, the Sheriff boasts to Robin something about “half man, half engine.” But given what transpired on screen, we’re left with an almost Blade Runner-ish, Rick Deckard “Was he or wasn’t he synthetic?” type of scenario. More importantly, though, the Sheriff being a robot makes sense because otherwise our human villain was boiled to death in molten gold, which may be a bit of a grim notion for this otherwise frequently light-hearted fare. (The Sheriff did put a sword through a man at one point early on, though I’m not sure that justifies boiling him.) Hopefully the footage will be reinstated for DVD and Blu-ray. Further, it wouldn’t be surprising to find out later on that the Sheriff ended up in Heaven with Missy.
As far as any issues with what is onscreen, the only major one I can find fault with is the golden arrow, which is pretty preposterous on a number of levels, including its weight in regard to any distance it could be believably propelled, and the idea that with all the gold that had been collected and melted down for the ship, this one “bauble” shot into the side of the ship would somehow give it the necessary oomph it needed to exit our atmosphere. Why did the arrow exist at all, if the Sheriff needed every last nugget of gold to achieve his plans? And yet it gave the story an excuse to bring our three heroes together at the close to save the day, and it feels picky to take it to task too hard in the face of accomplishing that.
Perhaps the most poetic and unexpected move Gatiss made was to make Robin Hood a real man that history simply turned into legend over time, which at the close distorts and mirrors the Doctor’s own legend. The amount of information and seeming understanding Robin had of the Doctor – which he claimed Clara told him – felt weirdly forced. Was there more going on here than meets the eye? Will we also see Robin again? In any case, for a season that was promised would consist largely of standalone stories, there’s clearly an RTD-esque mystery building here, and we’re only three episodes in.
Odds and ends
- The scene where Marian kissed the Doctor on the cheek, and his subsequent reaction may have been the very best moment in the entire episode. It said so much about this incarnation of the Doctor, with so little.
- The Doctor mentions that they might be in a miniscope, which is a reference to the Jon Pertwee story “Carnival of Monsters.”
- When the Doctor is flipping through the Robin Hood myth in the ship’s computer banks, there is a publicity still of Patrick Troughton as the title character from the 1953 BBC series Robin Hood.
- This was the first episode directed by Paul Murphy, who’ll also be helming 8.6, “The Caretaker,” later this season.
- When the robots attack, a Wilhelm scream can be heard.
- “He’s having a nervous breakdown. He’s like this whenever he’s in any kind of danger. He just can’t seem to cope. He gets so afraid. He goes into a kind of fit. I honestly believe he may die of sheer fright like some tiny, shivering little mouse.” – The Doctor, to the guard, on Hood
- Be sure not to miss next week’s episode, “Listen,” which rumor has it is Moffat’s next “Blink.” Yes, that’s a staggeringly towering claim, but it’s what some of the cool kids are saying.
- Attention New Yorkers! Consider attending the fan convention L.I. Who in November in Ronkonkoma, Long Island. They’re in only their second year, but have put together a truly impressive lineup of guests for this year’s con, headlined by Paul McGann and Colin Baker. Tickets are going fast and will likely sell out, so don’t hesitate. Here’s their website with all the pertinent info.