Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Paul Murphy
Starring: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor); Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald); Tom Riley (Robin Hood); Ben Miller (The Sheriff of Nottingham); Ian Hallard (Alan-a-Dale); Trevor Cooper (Friar Tuck); Rusty Goffe (Little John); Joseph Kennedy (Will Scarlet); Roger Aston Griffiths (Quayle) & Sabrina Bartlett (Miss Quayle/Marion)
Here There Be Spoilers.
And here we are at the first historical episode of series 8 with a logline so simple that it’s a wonder that no one ever thought of it before: the Doctor meets Robin Hood. Sure, Robin Hood never existed, but the Daleks don’t exist either and that hasn’t stopped them from making appearance after appearance. With Robot of Sherwood, we’re given the type of frivolous, light-hearted episode that we haven’t seen since The Crimson Horror and wasn’t certain was actually possible with this new and sterner Doctor. And that’s fortunate because, after the darkness of the first two episodes, this show needs a bright and light-hearted romp. And so we have it… so why am I somewhat disappointed?
Robot of Sherwood begins with Clara already on the TARDIS, like the good old days when companions only rarely, if ever, went home, and the Doctor asks her where she’d like to go. Gushing like a teenager, she says she always wanted to meet Robin Hood. The Doctor is disappointed; Robin Hood doesn’t exist, he insists, but Clara is adamant and off they go to Sherwood Forrest where Robin and his Merry Men makes themselves immediately known. The Doctor is having none of it; Robin Hood doesn’t exist and he’s going to prove it! Soon everyone is off to the archery contest that everyone knows is a trap laid by the Sheriff of Nottingham, many arrows are split by other arrows, and the Doctor, Clara and Robin are all thrown into the dungeon, which is perfectly fine with the Doctor because it gives him an opportunity to figure out why the Sheriff’s guards are all robots.
The best portion of the episode is the opening ten to twenty minutes (everything I’ve just described); the setting of Sherwood Forrest is bright and gay (which the Doctor immediately finds troubling – “You ever been to Nottingham?”), there’s lots of good jokes (most of which involve the Doctor trying to prove that the Merry Men are not real) and even a fine opening “sword” fight, with the Doctor using a spoon to ward off Robin’s blows. Tom Riley is good as Robin Hood and Ben Miller (channeling Anthony Ainsley’s Master) is even better as the villainous Sheriff. The archery contest is a bit of an old cliché, but it is livened up by the Doctor continuing to one-up Robin (the Doctor later admits that he cheated). The realization that all is not what it seems – that the knights are actually disguised robots – looks promising (if we forget the fact that the villains for the first two episodes were robots and robot-like Daleks). But things take a turn for the tedious when our heroes are thrown into the dungeon.
Simply put, the sequences of the Doctor and Robin Hood insulting each other and trying to one-up each other starts off as humorous and becomes deadly dull very quickly. In the dungeon, Robin continually laughs like a Merry Man on standby and the Doctor continually shouts for the guard to move him to another cell. It seems to go on forever and we are thankful to Clara for telling them both to shut up. This is followed by more squabbling; both Robin and the Doctor insist they have a plan to escape and want to hear the other’s first (neither of them have anything close to resembling a plan). Clara, believed to be the ringleader because she is the only one talking sense, is mercifully taken for questioning by the Sheriff, but that unfortunately leaves us alone with these two squabbling old biddies. It’s with some sense of relief when the scene cuts to Clara and the Sheriff.
Mind you, the script does give Clara the choice role; her scenes with the Sheriff in which she goads him into telling his plans without revealing any information herself is choice stuff. But while Clara makes off with the best part of the script, we are thrust back into the dungeon with the Battling Bickersons, reduced to luring a guard in with a flimsy story and having to drag a stone block out with them when they jointly lose the key (in a very poorly shot moment; a shot of the key tumbling down the pit would’ve worked much better than a sound effect). This leads us to the other problem with the episodes: the Doctor, in wanting to prove that Robin Hood cannot possibly exist, leaps completely to the wrong conclusions. Upon finding the heart of the ship (searching, like the Victorian robots of Deep Breath, for the Promised Land – ah, mustn’t forget that arc, must we?), he is convinced that the ship has created Robin and his men based on the Earth legends of Robin Hood. He shouts “You’re a robot” continually, only to be finally proved wrong by, of all people, the Sheriff himself (“Why would I create an enemy to fight me,” he asks and the Doctor is forced to admit that such a plan would make no sense). So the Doctor is wrong throughout most of this episode… and it is annoying as Hell. Furthermore, we have no idea how wrong he is; the fact he is continually trying to drum into our heads that there is no such thing as Robin Hood and we want to believe him (he is the star of the show, after all), makes it difficult to walk away from the episode with a clear understanding of who Robin Hood is: he may be flesh and blood, but is he the real McCoy or has the ship somehow created him out of an ordinary man using the myths in its databanks. Why is he looking for Maid Marion? Where did he see her last and where had she got too? Most Robin Hood legends have Marion being of somewhat noble breeding, but the woman who is eventually revealed to be Marion (or is possibly saddled with the identity) is a commoner, new to Sherwood. The Doctor is apparently instrumental in getting this peasant, Miss Quayle, to become Marion, but did he somehow recognize her true identity (and if he did, how did he?) or did he convince her to be this Robin’s Marion? These are all questions that should not be popping up in the episode’s last minutes, as it calls into question everything we’ve seen before and leaves us scratching our heads rather than sitting back with a satisfied smile.
Robot of Sherwood does have lots going for it: it is funny in many places, all of the swordfight sequences are masterful, the Doctor’s plan of using the reflective surfaces of gold trays against the robots’ lasers is inspired, and there is a begrudging respect between the two heroes in the episode’s final minutes (beginning when Robin uses a move to defeat the Sheriff that he learned off the Doctor earlier), but there are also questions that must have seemed definitively answered to the production team that, even on a second viewing, leaves the audience guessing. Robos of Sherwood is fun in its light-heartedness and tries hard, but suffers from the same things that many Matt Smith episodes before it suffered from: too many quips and too many twists without enough hints to let the audience in on its secrets.