Robot of Sherwood
Review by Paul Bowler
When the Doctor lets Clara choose what time and place she’d like to go to next, Clara decides that she wants to visit Sherwood Forest in the twelfth century and meet Robin Hood. Even though the Doctor claims there’s no such thing as old-fashioned heroes like Robin Hood, when the TARDIS finally arrives the first person they meet is… Robin Hood! The Doctor makes an alliance with Robin Hood and his Merry Men to thwart the evil schemes of the Sheriff of Nottingham. With all of Nottingham at risk, dark forces awakening from beyond the stars, and robot knights on the rampage, the Doctor must act quickly to discover who is actually real and who is fake – after all Robin Hood was a legend, a made up hero, he couldn’t possibly exist, or could he?
Robot of Sherwood, the third story from series eight, sees the Time Lord and Clara joining forces with Robin Hood, to do battle against the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham. This fun adventure written by Mark Gatiss (Who also brought us The Unquiet Dead (2005), The Idiot’s Lantern (2006), Victory of the Daleks (2010), and two stories during 2013’s seventh series Cold War and The Crimson Horror) is a glorious blend of humour and legend, directed by Paul Murphy, where the fate of Nottingham and its famous fictional hero becomes inexplicably entwined with the uncanny technological influences that have fallen from the stars that could destroy the world.
From the moment the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS in Robot of Sherwood, he is resolutely set on proving to Clara that the Robin Hood they’ve encountered, is a fake, and Peter Capaldi is brilliant as the grumpy Time Lord. Peter Capaldi’s edgier, less patient incarnation of the Doctor, is an absolute delight to behold in this episode, and its great fun to see how the Time Lord deals with being confounded by the impossibility of Robin’s existence. The fight here between the Doctor and Robin Hood over the river is brilliantly staged. The Doctor even wonders if the TARDIS has materialised inside a Miniscope at one point, a neat reference to the device in 3rd Doctor story Carnival of Monsters (1973) that was used to store miniaturised life forms as exhibits for entertainment. During his fight with Robin Hood, the Doctor also mentions Richard The Lionheart, the 12th Century monarch the 1st Doctor met in the 1965 story, The Crusade.
When the Doctor, Clara, Robin, and the Merry Men attend the Contest for the Golden Arrow hosted at the castle by the Sheriff of Nottingham, the rivalry between the Doctor and Robin continues, with each of them trying to outdo the other by performing the most elaborate shot. After the Sheriff brings the contest to an end it’s revealed that the knights are actually disguised robots, and the Doctor allows them to capture him, together with Clara and Robin, so they can find out what the Sheriff of Nottingham is secretly planning.
Offered a chance to go “anywhere in space and time” Clara’s wish to meet her childhood hero quickly sets up this episodes clever premise, and provides some great moments for Jenna Coleman as the witty script unfolds. Clara makes a stunningly beautiful and resourceful companion as events inadvertently cast her as the stories equivalent of Marian. Clara’s no damsel in distress though; she has to contend with deadly robot knights, act as referee when they are locked in the Dungeon as the Robin and the Doctor constantly bicker, and she cleverly gets herself released so she can trick the Sheriff of Nottingham into revealing his past.
Tom Riley’s Robin Hood embodies all the finest qualities of the Errol Flynn version of the medieval hero: dashingly handsome, honourable, well mannered and jovial, all his scenes with the Doctor are especially fun. At first, the two adventurers bicker constantly as they squabble over who is, and isn’t, real. The Doctor and Robin don’t really like each other at all, and the Time Lord becomes particularly vexed when he’s trying to escape from the dungeon with Robin, but they eventually manage to overcome their differences and it’s great to see these two iconic British heroes fighting side by side. Ben Miller also gives a wonderful scenery chewing performance as the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham, and he makes a great adversary for Robin and the Doctor.
Ever since Doctor Who returned in 2005, the celebrity historical adventure has become something of a mainstay for the new series: so far the Doctor has encountered Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and Agatha Christie. Whereas these were all adventure in the past, the seventh series saw Queen Nefertiti travelling into the future. Now with Robot of Sherwood we have possibly one of the most interesting takes on this format to date, as the Doctor and Clara become part of the fabled legend of Robin Hood.
Mark Gatiss has ingeniously woven the legend of Robin Hood into this episode of Doctor Who: we have a very traditional style Robin Hood, one that’s free from the angst so inherent to many modern versions, then we have Robin’s band of Merry Men, the fight over the river, sun-dappled glades, an archery contest, a dark dungeon, and exciting swordfights. Gatiss’s excellent script for Robot of Sherwood perfectly balances all these key elements, it’s certainly a more light-hearted episode, and there are some very poignant moments as well that offer a meaningful insight to the value of old-fashioned heroes like Robin Hood.
The Sheriff described to Clara how he witnessed a spaceship crash, discovered its secrets, and began collecting all the gold in the land with the disguised robots to repair the ships circuitry so he can use it to take over the Kingdom and the world. It is only when the Doctor and Robin finally escape from the dungeon that the full extent of the Sheriff’s grand design is finally revealed, when they discover a secret room and learn the castle is actually a disguised spaceship that has fallen back through time. The engines are damaged and the ship has been attempting to blend in by altering itself and the surrounding environment from the data of Earth’s myths stored in its memory banks; inadvertently creating Sherwood Forest and instigating the legend of Robin Hood.
After a dramatic start to the season, we get a break from the darker tone of series eight for this episode. Robot of Sherwood is packed with humour, clichés, lots of puns, and even a hilariously absurd sword / spoon fight between the Prince of Thieves and the Last of the Time Lords, but it’s all brilliant fun too! While all the merriment and mirth won’t appeal to everyone, I think it’s good to have a lighter toned episode like this to balance a season out; otherwise everything can become unrelentingly dark. Mark Gatiss’s script cleverly weaves its magic, making Capaldi’s Doctor all dour and grim (and consequently really funny), while Riley’s outlaw of Sherwood Forest is a thigh-slappingly cheerful Robin Hood, and Miller’s Sheriff of Nottingham serves as a fittingly grandiose pantomime villain. As such, Robot of Sherwood is a marvellously fun run-around for the Doctor and Clara, so much so that at times it almost feels as if this episode is actually daring you not to like it, before winning you over with its cheeky grin and infectious charm.
Even when he is captured again the Doctor quickly realises there is nowhere near enough gold in the area to repair the spaceship properly, and it will almost certainly explode soon after take off. The Doctor instigates a revolt and leads the other prisoners against the robot knights, which, together with the arrival of Clara, Robin Hood, and his men, ensures that the Sheriff’s plans are soon in ruins. Robin’s swordfight with the Sheriff of Nottingham sends the Sheriff plummeting into a vat of molten gold as the remaining robots take off in the ship. Although his arm was injured in his fight with the Sheriff, with the Doctor’s and Clara’s help, Robin manages to fire the golden arrow at the spacecraft, enabling it to safely reach orbit, where it explodes.
With its impressive production values, costumes, and colourful cast of characters including Friar Tuck (Trevor Cooper) Little John (Rusty Goffe), Will Scarlet (Joseph Kennedy), Alan-a-Dale (David Benson), Walter (Adam Jones), Herald (David Benson), Quayle (Roger Ashton-Griffith), and Quayle’s Ward (Sabrina Bartless), together with Paul Murphy’s excellent direction, Robot of Sherwood remains a thoroughly enjoyable affair from beginning to end. While there is no sign of Missy (Michelle Gomez) the bizarre Mary Poppin’s-like character who has been welcoming the recently deceased in previous episodes, the data bank on the robots space ship indicated the vessel was bound for the promised land – the same place the Half-Face Man was searching for in Deep Breath. Fans also got a nice surprise as the Doctor showed the spaceships files to Robin and an image of Patrick Troughton appeared from when he played the title role in the BBC’s 1953 TV production of Robin Hood.
The robot knights are also very impressive, and its clever how their helmets open to reveal their true identity. It’s only really towards the end of the episode, when the robot menace is defeated and everything gets wrapped a little too easily, that Robot of Sherwood becomes a little unstuck. However, minor quibbles aside, this is a great comedic episode, Peter Capaldi is superb, and the final scene as the Doctor says his farewell to Robin is something really special. The Doctor and Clara also appear to be getting along much better now, they seem more comfortable with each other, and the way the legacy of Doctor Who collides with the legend of Robin Hood in Robot of Sherwood gives added weight to the Time Lord’s ongoing mission to rediscover himself and understand the man that he has ultimately become. Robot of Sherwood is a very old-fashioned style of adventure, its always an extra special event when the Doctor meets a historical figure, even more so this time because its a fictional one, and as a stand-alone story it works remarkably well.
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