Wednesday, 10 September 2014

After its first two episodes took us “into darkness”, series eight of Doctor Who was in need of a bit of light relief. And who better to bring such a break than writer Mark Gatiss, who gave us last year’s hilarious Victorian romp The Crimson Horror?

Gatiss’ latest episode, Robot of Sherwood, saw the Doctor come face to face with another legendary hero, one he didn’t believe could possibly exist – Robin Hood. But there’s no Robin Hood story without his iconic adversary, and so the Doctor, Clara and Tom Riley's Robin soon found themselves up against the machinations of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, and his legion of knights – who also happened to be time-travelling space robots.

As anyone who’s seen the Errol Flynn classic knows, Robin Hood films are best when you can embrace the campness of it all and have a bit of fun. This episode certainly shared that sensibility, providing some of the funniest scenes in recent Doctor Who, the spoon vs. sword fight on the river and the Doctor’s sabotaging of the archery competition being particular highlights.

But this is a darker Doctor, as we’ve constantly been told. How can Peter Capaldi’s grumpy, murderous old man fit into all this frivolity? Bloody well, actually. It’s exactly because of the lightness of everything else that this is an episode perfect for a darker Doctor, and a lot of the best laughs came from countering Robin’s dashing heroics with the Doctor not having any of it, constantly bickering and moaning, even declaring himself “totally against bantering.” I mean, imagine the Eleventh Doctor in this situation; he’d just swan around wanking over how cool it all is and the whole thing would be intolerably cheery. Isn’t it great that we have a Doctor who’ll threaten to punch Robin Hood in the face and then whack him over the head with a spoon? And I bet whoever demanded the beheading scene be cut didn’t see this:

But the Doctor’s role in this wasn’t just bickering. We got some deeper exploration of what it means to be a legend, too, and the Doctor and Robin’s final conversation is a finely written scene…

“I’m not a hero”
“Well neither am I, but if we both keep pretending to be – ha ha – perhaps others will be heroes in our name. Perhaps we will both be stories, and may those stories never end.”

Meanwhile, Clara, who I’m much more fond of this series than I was last year, continued to be very watchable in this episode. Her one-upping of the Sheriff is an impressive feat, as is her taking control of the two bickering heroes in the dungeon, becoming the real ringleader of the pack. It’s just a shame that the episode’s only other female character, Marion, was very poorly served, being written as little more than a “present” for the Doctor to leave for Robin. The episode clearly needed to flesh out Robin and Marion’s relationship better – or maybe have, as I at one point suspected, the twist that Clara herself becomes the Marion of legend. 

My other big criticism of Robot of Sherwood is – and this is a sadly common criticism when it comes to recent Doctor Who – the plotting of the villains’ plans. The Sheriff’s idea of crashing into London and then taking over the world is a little bit bollocks, and there are some things that clearly don’t make any sense at all – what spaceship would ever get a massive boost of power if you shot an arrow built of a relatively tiny amount of its fuel into the side of the hull? 

And worse: some robots crash a spaceship in England, disguise it as a period building, and beat up the locals in an attempt to gather resources so they can bugger off to Michelle Gomez’s big tea party in the sky. Am I describing Deep Breath or Robot of Sherwood? You can’t answer that, right? Two episodes having such similar plots is bad in itself, but considering they’re only two episodes apart, that’s an inexplicable crime. 

It’s a shame, but at least this take on that plot is a lot better handled than Steven Moffat’s series opener; the Doctor, Clara and Robin propel the story along nicely and there’s much gallant derring-do to enjoy along the way. Embrace the campness, and Robot of Sherwood is great fun.

And it’s a much-needed dose of fun, as next week’s episode looks pants-shittingly spooky...


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