While Doctor Who is able to do many genres comedy is tricky. The episode needs to be funny without parodying the show itself. It has to still feel as if it is part of the same universe as the ‘serious’ episodes.
Luckily Mark Gatiss has done just that with ‘Robot of Sherwood’, probably his best episode to date. The premise of the Doctor meeting and then refusing to accept the existence of Robin Hood is delightful and brilliantly played by Peter Capaldi.
This is a romp in the best possible sense of the word.
Spoilers From Here On In!
The episode begins with Clara already in the TARDIS and the Doctor giving her the choice of where they go next. She decides that she wants to see Robin Hood, despite the protests that he isn’t real and offers up two other possibilities (both of which would have made good stories in themselves).
Unable to dissuade her the Doctor sets course for Sherwood forest, 1190 AD. As luck would have it the TARDIS lands right where Robin Hood happens to be, promptly getting shot by one of his arrows.
This sets the adversarial relationship between the Doctor and Robin Hood. Robin is full of laughter and banter while the Doctor is solemn and no-nonsense. Robin wants to steal the TARDIS and the Doctor is determined to show he has the skills to stop him.
This leads to a fun sword vs spoon duel. It is hard to imagine that this scene would have worked with the 12th Doctors most recent predecessors. The ludicrous of the situation is balanced by the Doctor’s authority and the flourish in the direction, still managing to make it exciting. It ends with the Doctor knocking Robin into a river only to be pushed in shortly after, Robin literally having the last laugh.
To demonstrate that this isn’t all fun and games we witness the Sheriff of Nottingham’s knights ransacking a peasant village. Ben Stiller brings the right amount of sinister presence and pantomime wickedness as he trades witty one liners before ruthlessly slaughtering an old man, recalling Alan Rickman’s performance in the same role.
Back in Sherwood forest Robin is introducing Clara to his merry men much to her delight while the Doctor pokes and prods them to prove they aren’t real. The Doctor’s increasing frustration, as he is unable to find any evidence that they aren’t who they claim, and Robin and his merry men’s jovial nature works well.
It really feels as if this could be a Robin Hood story which the Doctor has just intruded upon. It helps as well that Clara is clearly having fun, using her knowledge of Robin Hood to name the group and reveal her familiarity with the outlaw and his tales.
This is a good opportunity for Tom Riley, as Robin Hood, to show the depth of the character. For a moment he drops the mask of bravado he wears and shows the loss the character has suffered, losing both his property and his lady love. They might be stories to Clara but for him they are real.
Despite Clara’s warning Robin walks into an obvious trap, entering into an archery competition at Nottingham castle to win a golden arrow. Amusement can be found in the fact that while entering under the name Tom the Tinker Robin is disguising his appearance by just wearing a big hat.
The backdrop of the castle, with its crowd of peasants and the stage where the Sheriff sits upon his throne, helps make this feel like a grand set piece. Without the Doctor on screen this only reinforces that this Robin Hood could make a good series in itself.
Events follow the legends, with Robin splitting the Sheriff’s arrow to prove his worth. Before claiming the golden arrow (and subsequently being unmasked) the Doctor shows up, splitting Robin’s arrow, to claim the prize himself.
The sequence of Robin and the Doctor continuing to split each others arrows in increasingly silly ways (bouncing their shots of the armoured knights) could have been overdone but they are just the right length. Still being amusing up to the point where the Doctor tips his hand by using his sonic screwdriver to blow up the target and the Sheriff has them all imprisoned.
It is here that meaning of the title is revealed, as the Sheriff’s knights turn out to be robots, able to fire laser bolts from their face. Beneath the castle they force toiling peasants to melt down the stolen gold, disintegrating those who exhaust themselves. This is another reminder that there are still high stakes in this story, with peoples lives on the line.
Meanwhile the Doctor and Robin are bickering in their cell, Clara despairing of their antics nearby. Both men clearly think they are the hero of this particular story and resent the presence of the other. Cell scenes are a well worn trope (appearing as recently in Doctor Who as ‘Day Of The Doctor’) but this interplay keeps the scene fresh.
Clara is brought before the Sheriff, exposed as the clear mastermind out of the trio, and cleverly gets the Sheriff to explain what is going on. Apparently he witnessed lights fall out of the sky and the metal engineers who emerged promised him great things in return for his co-operation.
Elsewhere the Doctor and Robin have escaped their cell (after the Doctor has had a chance to humiliate Robin one more time) before they stumble upon the secret spaceship at the heart of the castle.
It would appear that these robots hail from the 29th century but their ship crashed in the past on its way to the promised land. This gives the Doctor to be in his elements as he excitedly prances between the databanks and claims that this proves Robin is artificial, created from the archive of legends to keep the peasants placated.
Robin is out of his league, surrounded by the smooth metal surroundings and flashing lights. That is until the Sheriff and his robots enter with Clara as his hostage. Within moments Robin Hood makes a daring escape into the moat, carrying Clara to safety.
Imprisoned with the peasants beneath the castle the Doctor realises they are using the gold to repair the spaceships engines but if the Sheriff tries to take off it will destroy half the country.
Now it is the Doctor’s turn to provide the peasants with hope. Freed from his bonds by a plucky peasant woman we’d seen captured earlier he uses a gold plate to reflect a robots laser bolt back on itself. Following his lead the rest of the peasants are soon able to destroy their oppressors in a rousing action scene.
When reinforcements arrive, led by the Sheriff, the Doctor confronts them with what he has learnt and only then realises how stupid they’d be to create Robin Hood. Which would mean that he is real after all.
This revelation arrives just in time for Robin Hood to come to his rescue, with Clara in tow. Reflecting the earlier sword fight with the Doctor and borrowing liberally from Errol Flynn’s repertoire the Sheriff and Robin Hood engage in an exciting duel.
An unfortunate edit means that an important plot point about the Sheriff being a robot is lost, with a line of dialogue referencing this fact lost beneath the music. Nonetheless it reaches a satisfying climax suspended above a boiling vat of gold, where Robin uses one of the Doctor’s moves to send the Sheriff to his doom. This nicely shows that the two heroes can learn something from each other.
With the spaceship taking off Robin, the Doctor and Clara have to work together to fire a golden arrow into the vessel so it has enough gold to make it into orbit where it can explode safely. This makes little sense, since the gold arrow is merely on the ships outer shell, but is a good way to demonstrate the theme of the episode that they have to work together.
With the day saved Robin Hood and the Doctor muse upon their nature as legends. Both don’t view themselves as heroes but realise that if they pretend to be then they can inspire others.
These two men, who have been in opposition to each other for so much of the story, shaking hands is nicely poignant. It demonstrates that while there is much fun and laughter that there was still a point to be made. That the events that unfolded mattered within the context of the Doctor Who universe.
Upon seeing the teaser for this episode last week I was worried that this could be a farce. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the campy tone worked extremely well. It had a sense of fun that the recent BBC Robin Hood series (2006-2009) sorely lacked.
There were parts that were very reminiscent of the 3rd Doctor’s era. From mentions of miniscopes, knights being revealed as robots (as in ‘The Time Warrior’) to the Doctor’s skills with a sword (or spoon in this case) this felt like a story Jon Pertwee would have relished.
Along with these influences it was good to have the references to the history of Doctor Who, such as the reference to Richard the Lionheart which occurred as far back as ‘The Crusade’. It must also be said that the inclusion of Patrick Troughton amongst the database of Robin Hood lore was pleasing.
Very enjoyable, true to the spirit of Doctor Who and with great performances this has been a highlight of the season so far.