Comic adventures are not the most common kinds of stories in Doctor Who, and the ones that have existed in the new series have tended to go for zany rather than funny. It’s a difficult tone to strike, and really the show hasn’t done it super well since the 1960s. Still, most modern Who is funny despite the terror, but this week’s episode, “Robot of Sherwood”, is just funny all on it’s own. I don’t remember the last time I smiled that much throughout an episode. It was just so delightful with its dialogue and not-quite-over-the-top silliness, but it also tells a good message about not giving up on legends because any hero can be real so long as they inspire heroism in others. My gosh, what an ep!
Written by perennial writer Mark Gatiss and directed by newcomer to the series Paul Murphy, “Robot of Sherwood” does what few episodes have done before, which is to blend comedy and adventure in a way that isn’t dumb, and to let the series for once be about a “fictional” character from the past. Being the huge classic series fan that he is, surely Gatiss was channeling a bit from the First Doctor story “The Myth Makers”, in which the Doctor and companions go back to Ancient Greece in the middle of the Trojan War and inadvertently cause the events surrounding the Trojan Horse, which the Doctor claims would never work because it’s just an Epic Poem. Of course, this episode forsakes “The Myth Makers”‘ horribly tragic ending and just stays with the swashbuckling adventure theme.
Clara wants to go meet Robin Hood, one of her favorite historical figures, but the Doctor tells her he’s just a myth and she’d be disappointed, then trying to get her to want to see the Ice Warrior encampments on Mars (bo-ring). Clara insists and the Doctor sets the TARDIS controls to Sherwood Forest, 1190AD-ish. He exits expecting to be 100% correct and is immediately met by Robin Hood (Tom Riley). That can’t happen, right? He’s just as brash and prone to fits of derisive laughter as his myth and Hollywood movies would lead you to believe. The Doctor asks if laughing ever got him punched in the face (hilarious) and the Prince of Thieves says he’s going to still the bony man’s blue box, despite Clara and her period-appropriate attire and her undeniable glee that they’d found Robin Hood so quickly. Robin draws his sword and the Twelfth Doctor shows what he’s made of by drawing his own weapon… a spoon.
After the duel ends, Robin takes both of our heroes to meet the rest of the Merry Men (what an apt name for them) and the Doctor still thinks something is wrong and that these people aren’t real. They can’t be! He thinks they might all be in a Miniscope (reference to Third Doctor story “Carnival of Monsters”). Clara asks when he stopped believing in legends, and he asks when she started believing in mythical heroes. “Don’t you know?” is her very heavy reply. She then talks to Robin and he tells her everything she already knows about his own mythos and that it was Maid Marian who convinced him to stand up to Prince John’s tyranny. She also knows she’s sad because, the Doctor’s right, he laughs too much.
If this is Robin Hood, there must also be a Sheriff of Nottingham, in this case played by guest star Ben Miller. He’s pretty darn evil all right. He has set up the famous archery match as a trap to catch Robin Hood. Naturally, Robin does amazingly well and is about to be awarded the golden arrow when another arrow splits his own. It was fired by the Doctor who doesn’t want the arrow, he wants something else. What follows is an increasingly ridiculous show of skill between the Doctor and Robin until finally, Robin reveals he is indeed who he says and the Sheriff’s knights attack. One gets its arm cut off and then the Doctor knows he’s right. He allows himself, Clara, and Robin to be captured because capturing is the best way to find out what someone’s evil plan is.
What follows is one of the funniest and best scenes in the episode, which is already pretty amazing with Capaldi-awesomeness. It’s all about the Doctor and Robin Hood trying to out-hero each other with regard to coming up with the better escape plan. Neither of them have anything, and Clara knows it. The sheer amount of bickering is enough to driver mad; luckily, she is taken to see the Sheriff pretty quickly, and the Doctor and Robin are left to come up with something.
Clara is a genius! She manages to trick the Sheriff into telling her what happened with lights in the sky and the robots and everything. He wants to use them to overthrow Prince John and become king not only of England, but of the whole world, after Lincoln of course. The Doctor and Robin do manage to escape and, after removing their shackles (the Doctor makes a joke and regrets it when Robin laughs), they find the control room. Seems the castle itself is a spaceship and its engines need repairing, in the form of gold. They were looking for the Promised Land too. Weird, eh? The robots databanks have a history of Robin Hood (including a picture of Patrick Troughton as Robin Hood in Robin of Sherwood from which this episode gets its name) and he thinks this is definitive proof that Robin isn’t real, but when the Sheriff bursts in and the robots begin firing on Robin, the knave takes Clara and jumps out the window into the moat below. The Doctor is then captured.
The Doctor determines the robots plan to blast off soon, but they still don’t have enough gold and the ship will likely explode, destroying half of the country, if they do. After a bit more hullabaloo, Robin is in a duel with the Sheriff and it’s learned that the Sheriff has been turned into a robot as well, so the only thing left for him to do is the Doctor’s sword fighting trick and knock the blaggard into the molten gold. But the robots still want to take off, so the Doctor, Clara, and Robin work together to fire the golden arrow into the ship to allow it to enter orbit, but then it explodes anyway. The Doctor and Clara leave Robin, and Mr. Hood tells the Doctor they’re both legends and that he doesn’t mind not being remembered as a real man so long as people take up the good fight in his name. Maybe people will do the same for the Doctor.
As I said before, this episode is just a delight. I loved everything about it. Even some of the sillier moments like the archery tournament worked for me because the overall tone of the episode made it work. The constant rivalry between the Doctor and Robin, not to mention the Doctor’s constant irritation at the very idea of the Merry Men, made for a lot of laughs. He’s grumpy and older-looking but decidedly childlike and petulant about things. Both Tom Riley and Ben Miller were brilliant and gave very funny but not mawkish performances as their respective characters. Robin Hood’s incessant laughter was constantly hilarious to me. This has to rank as one of my favorite Mark Gatiss-penned adventures, up there with “The Unquiet Dead” and “The Crimson Horror.” I can’t wait to see what he does for Series 9.
Next week, it’s a very intriguing-looking episode: “Listen” written by Stephen Thompson and Steven Moffat and directed by the exceptional Douglas Mackinnon and will see the return of Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink. The Doctor doing a bottle episode? Can’t wait!