Doctor Who series 8: Robot Of Sherwood review

Spoilers: here's our review of Doctor Who series 8 episode 3, Mark Gatiss' Robot Of Sherwood.

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

8.3 Robot Of Sherwood

“And do people ever punch you in the face?”

Three weeks into Peter Capaldi’s reign, and he gets an episode that’s more playful, dafter and – well – just plain funny.

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When it was announced that Doctor Who was doing a Robin Hood episode, there was a suspicion that the character would be treated with a degree of seriousness, a bit of reverence, and one of those moments where it’s seen that the Doctor was responsible for some momentous piece of British history. You’ll be telling us he could have stopped the Great Fire Of London at this rate… *

But Robot Of Sherwood, from the pen of Mark Gatiss, veers off in a different direction. If this had been an episode from series 7, where the emphasis was on a blockbuster movie per week, then if anything, this would have been the mismatched cops comedy. For Gatiss’ ploy of the Doctor disbelieving in, and not really liking Robin Hood, pays very strong comedy dividends. On top of that, Gatiss resists the urge to take both Doctor Who and the Robin Hood legend down a darker path.

To be fair, his script is a gift to Peter Capaldi too. A hugely talented comedy performer, when he puts across that he doesn’t warm to Robin Hood too much, there can be scarcely anyone in the audience who remains unconvinced. Whether it’s a sneer or a cutting putdown, or declaring “I am the Doctor and this is my spoon” (Sylvester McCoy would be proud), this is humour that fits the persona he’s been building of his Doctor tightly.

Robot Of Sherwood also enhances the changing role that Clara is taking in this series of Doctor Who. She’s more grounded, somewhat surer this series, and more and more, she’s having to be the grown up. The face of the Doctor has got older, but it’s Clara who’s having to point out key conundrums that the Time Lord previously would have approached in different ways. She’s taking charge again here, practically telling the Doctor off at times. It’s a far, far more entertaining mechanic than the assorted attractions to the Doctor had become.

“Can you explain your plan without using the words ‘sonic screwdriver'”?

Even the choice of destination this week is Clara’s. She’s back in the TARDIS from the start here, even though the Doctor left her behind at Coal Hill last time. And it’s her life-long dream to meet Robin Hood. Whilst the Doctor’s assertion that Robin Hood isn’t real turns out to have some truth to it, it does ultimately tie in to the nice idea of a spaceship whose databanks store legends so its robotic occupants can fit in. We’ll come to that spaceship again shortly.

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Before that, it’s worth noting that Robot Of Sherwood feels more standalone. There’s a light reference to Carnival Of Monsters (hurray for the miniscope!), but it’s a single line. And whilst there are mild threads to the rest of the series, there’s no Danny Pink here, and we’re not back in Missy’s take on heaven.

The script isn’t bereft of longer-running threads completely though. Intriguingly, we find ourselves in a sparsely decorated spaceship (it’s effective. but it seems the set decoration budget might have shifted to another episode) that’s heading to ‘ The Promised Land’. Why said spaceship would be headed there is unclear, but it seems fairly evident – lest there’s a rugpull ahead – that this is where the overall arc of the series is heading. Given the lack of further clues, we’ll hold back on the speculation here (although we get more radiation – is that of relevance?), short of to say that whatever Missy’s promised land is, they must do some cracking cakes there.

But Robot Of Sherwood doesn’t spend much time exploring that either, to be fair. Instead, it’s having far too much fun being an entertaining adventure content to deal with its own contained narrative work. In the first half in particular, it’s hugely entertaining. Gatiss clearly has an affection for the Robin Hood legend, but not a devotion to it that stop him approaching it with mischief. Shooting out in the open for much of the episode helps it too.

“Whatever it is, you bony rascal, I’m afraid I must relieve you of it”

Somewhat inevitably, Gatiss’ attention is more on Robin – with Tom Riley superbly joining in the fun – than the other characters. Ben Miller’s Sheriff Of Nottingham is fine for example, but comes out a little shortchanged (it doesn’t help him that he’s sporting Alan Rickman-esque Sheriff facial foliage – Rickman-invoking is rarely a safe path. Still, good facial hair is the unsaid thread of this series). The Merry Men too barely get a look in, although at least there’s a lute. 

But then the comedy hits big. The highlight of the episode turns out to be the near-priceless arrow-shooting sequence. With a nod to Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves in there, it’s a scene of metaphorical (just to be clear) willy-waving competitiveness of the finest order, excellently staged by director Paul Murphy (who’s back on Who duty for Gareth Roberts’ The Caretaker later in the series). He splits arrows splendidly, and then shows confidence when it segues into a robotic attack.

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Where Robot Of Sherwood falls down a little, perhaps inevitably, is when the bows and arrows are put away and the grander science fiction plot comes in. That of the hidden spaceship (and wild speculation: a chameloen-esque spaceship that can disguise itself as a castle? Might there be some Time Lord technology at work there?), the story of the mechnical men, and the power grab of Nottingham. As for the ultimate reunion of Robin and Marian: it’s a fine moment to end the story on, but we’d wager most of us would have been aching for another gag or two instead. 

Furthermore, when we’re back in corridors and stuck indoors, it feels, well, simply less fun. It’s not that there’s a problem with it per se, rather that it feels like the real highlights are frontloaded in the episode. As such, we get some really quite impressive robots, shooting out requisite beams of destruction, but nothing that matches another verbal punch up between Riley and Capaldi. Capaldi’s cry of “you can’t keep me locked up with a laughing person”, for instance, is just delightful.

That said, there’s the perhaps inevitable contrast between the Doctor and Robin – both legends in their own right, that many don’t believe in – that’s drawn at the end. They’re not quite foils in the way that Rusty the Dalek was last week, but there’s a continuing feeling that Capaldi’s Doctor is being partly defined by his contrast and similarities to some of the people he’s meeting. Also, Robot Of Sherwood does leave just a little ambiguity surrounding Robin himself (with Nottingham denying that he’s his creation). Might we be getting more Tom Riley in Doctor Who in the future, potentially? And did Clara really tell Robin the Doctor’s stories? Or is there more going on there?

“I am totally against bantering”

Appreciating that we’ve spent many words going against this advice though, perhaps Robot Of Sherwood isn’t an episode to be heavily analysed. It’s episode three of a 12 episode run, that continues to feel quite fresh and very confident. Having those 12 episodes together in one go already feels like it’s leaving more room to duck and dive a little, and it’s a nice treat to get something as fun as Robot Of Sherwood as a consequence. It’s wonderfully silly, has a golden arrow that blows up a spaceship (that’s a future warning to the cybermen), and even finds time for an Errol Flynn penis joke. 

Flat-out classic Doctor Who? Perhaps not. The kind of Doctor Who you reach for when you’ve got a spare hour, and just want to get a great big smile on your face? Absolutely. 

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As the teaser for next week demonstrates though, things go scary again in seven days’ time with Steven Moffat’s Listen. We have high, high hopes…

* Yep, we know.

Our review of last week’s episode is here.

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