“Robot of Sherwood” is a loving tribute to the swashbuckling heroes of old. It even references Errol Flynn and his huge…ego (that’s the second penis joke of Capaldi’s tenure, by the way). Much like the adventurous stories that it is emulating, it is a fun episode, full of action and adventure, but not meant to be taken too seriously. There are sword fights, archery contests, murderous robots…well, maybe the latter wasn’t in the original stories, but this is Doctor Who. It’s a clash between the simpler, noble heroes of old and the more complex heroes of today.
In “Robot of Sherwood” the Doctor learns that if given her choice of anywhere in time and space to visit, Clara would like to visit Sherwood Forest and meet Robin Hood. He takes her to Sherwood Forest in 1190 to prove that there is no such person, but, of course, Robin Hood is the first person that they meet upon exiting the TARDIS. The Doctor and Clara then have to work with Robin to foil the Sheriff of Nottingham and his robot henchman in his plan to murder the king and seize power (and possibly blow up half the country in his attempt).
Every now and then it’s good for the Doctor to have what is basically a fun romp. In this episode, you are never really worried for his or Clara’s safety and the stakes feel pretty low. However, after the rather dark “Into the Dalek,” this was a nice, if a bit jarring, lighthearted change of pace. As in the first two episodes of the season, the plot is secondary to the momentum of the characters, but it is a fun ride. It was entertaining enough to make me willing to ignore the leaps the plot took or the plot holes that occurred. To learn how the sheriff gained control of the robots or just how the Doctor and Robin got out of those chains would slow the story down, and this story is like a soufflé, an insubstantial plot needing just the right touch or the whole story will simply collapse.
Although this story features an appearance by Partick Troughton, (in the collection of Robin Hood images in the ship’s databank, since he was the first to portray the character on television) this story has far more of a Pertwee-esqe feel to it again. He is the first Doctor to come to mind when you think of sword fighting, after his memorable fight with the Master in “The Sea Devils.” However, I loved that Capaldi’s Doctor put his own unique twist on it by doing it with a spoon. The Doctor also demonstrates his Venusian Aikido when he disarms Robin, another throwback to Pertwee. The story even references the miniscopes last seen in Pertwee’s “Carnival of Monsters.”
I also loved the contrast between Robin Hood and the Doctor. Since this Doctor is a man who never seems to smile (although we do get an almost smile about halfway through this episode), it is perfect to create a foil who is always laughing. I’m not sure this episode would have worked as well with another Doctor. The clash of two wholly dissimilar temperaments is what makes the story work. The fact that the Doctor really can’t stand being around these merry men brings a great deal of the humor to the episode. The fact that Tom Riley is an incredibly charismatic Robin Hood helps a great deal as well. He is aggressively cheerful without crossing over into annoying. Despite the Doctor’s professed dislike for banter, the exchanges and bickering between him and Robin were quite memorable. I couldn’t help but feel that the real reason the Doctor didn’t enjoy the laughter was because it was, once again, a man putting up a bit of a mask to hide his pain, something with which the Doctor is all too familiar.
My main complaint would be that the Doctor of this episode doesn’t seem to connect to the darker Doctor whom we saw in last week’s episode. This Doctor is a bit grumpy, but he does not seem to lack empathy for people. Even Clara, who last week said she did not know if he was a good man, is back to seeing him as her hero, with absolutely no reservations. After hitting us over the head with the idea that we should question this new Doctor, that thread is completely dropped in this story.
However, we do learn a bit more about the Doctor through his interactions. It is clear that this Doctor is incredibly stubborn and clings fervently to what he thinks he knows; despite all the evidence to the contrary, he continues to insist that Robin Hood is not real because that is what he believes. This Doctor also seems to guess wrong more often than his predecessors, as he is sometimes blinded by his stubbornness. For the second time, he is wrong about his opponent’s plan, believing that Robin Hood was another of the Sheriff’s robots. The look on his face the first time Clara tells him that he is her impossible hero (which is a great bit of wordless acting by Capaldi) also suggests that this Doctor has emotions, he just chooses not to express them as much as some of his more recent incarnations.
Of course, I can’t neglect to mention that this is another great performance for Jenna Coleman as well. Clara’s joy at being with her storybook hero is evident in every scene. Even though it was obvious what was coming, I did enjoy Clara being taken away while the Doctor and Robin both argued about which of them was the leader of the group. In the moments leading up to that, Clara has very clearly taken charge, using another lesson that I’m sure she learned teaching: how to settle a disagreement between two bickering students. Clara also has a great scene with the sheriff, in which she manipulates him into telling her what’s going on. I was also happy to note that despite the time period, there really were no damsels in distress, with both Clara and Marion willing to take matters into their own hands when necessary.
The “Promised Land” made its now expected appearance, this time as the destination of the robots’ ship. Why are all these robots trying to get there? Missy was not in this episode, but no one sacrificed themselves or was killed by the Doctor’s actions, so I’m wondering if that’s why. There are several crosses seen in this episode, most notably the cross-shaped window behind the Doctor, Clara, and Robin when they are being held prisoner. Even the beam that the robots fired from their heads was in the shape of a cross. I’m not sure if it’s significant, but I’m still finding many religious symbols and references peppered through the stories this season. Additionally, the Doctor is once again writing mysterious formulas in chalk, which he has done in every episode so far. Is it just a habit of his Doctor, or is it something more significant?
While it’s not going to go down in history as one of the legendary Doctor Who stories, overall, I enjoyed it. I would say that it’s on par with Mark Gatiss’ previous historical, “The Crimson Horror,” which was also not meant to be taken too seriously (and which I also enjoyed). Of course the two are very different in style and tone; “The Crimson Horror” is a homage to penny dreadfuls, which requires darker subject matter and humor, while “Robot of Sherwood” is a tribute to old-fashioned swashbuckling heroes. However, they are both episodes that are honoring a specific type of story. Therefore, the actual mechanics of the plots are secondary to the feeling Gatiss is trying (successfully, in my opinion) to capture. What I really took away from “Robot of Sherwood,” I must admit, is a desire to see the encounter the Doctor alludes to between him and Errol Flynn; I think Errol and the third Doctor could have quite a night on the town.