Doctor Who, Series 8, Episode 3, “Robot of Sherwood”
September 6, 2014, 8:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
Legends are more powerful than mere men. Stories contain messages. Symbols contain power. Become more than just another struggler, step out of the day-to-day life, elevate yourself to the point of mythology, and you can become something grander than you can possibly imagine. You can become an inspiration.
This is hardly a new idea, nor an under-explored one, but it provides the thematic undergirding to “Robot of Sherwood,” a historical trifle that gives the Capaldi era its first miss. Writer Mark Gatiss is something of a mixed bag: several of his episodes (“The Unquiet Dead,” “Cold War,” and “The Crimson Horror,” for my money) are solid, if unexceptional entries for the series. Yet he has also contributed some of my least favorite stories in New Who, like the dreadful “Victory of the Daleks,” the dismal “The Idiot’s Lantern,” and the forgettable “Night Terrors.” Unfortunately, “Robot of Sherwood” falls more into the latter camp for me. The episode has moments (as even the worst episodes of Doctor Who tend to), but for the most part, it is a ramshackle collection of lazy clichés, on-the-nose writing, and obnoxious characterization.
The episode decides to spend much of its time focused on Robin Hood (Tom Riley) and The Doctor basically having an asshole contest, in which both are increasingly obnoxious and contemptuous of each other. This is fine, as these things go: The Doctor is a jealous egomaniac, and it can be a lot of fun to see him match wits and try to outshine historical figures from time to time. But here, it never really lands. The jokes are not funny enough, the characterization of Robin Hood ceases at “no, yeah, he’s totally a real guy even though this makes no sense,” and while Capaldi continues to play the hell out of what he’s given, the material is too paper thin for him to be able to salvage much.
“Robot of Sherwood” is one of those stories that seems to have made it to the screen without ever becoming more than a pitch. Mark Gatiss has “The Doctor meets Robin Hood,” and very little else to contribute here. So the episode goes through the motions of that story like it’s checking off boxes, giving us an archery contest and a sword fight with the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Miller) without ever adding much to them or retelling them in inventive ways. If this was another Robin Hood film, it would be a completely forgettable one, with Riley’s annoying performance providing little anchor to what’s going on around him. There’s a runner in the episode about The Doctor hating his laugh, and disliking “laughing people” in general. I wouldn’t necessarily put myself in that camp, but what I do hate is forced frivolity, and every scene with Robin Hood and his Merry Men seems like it is working overtime to approximate what interactions between fun people who like each other might look like.
It doesn’t help that the episode’s sci-fi insert (a standard in “The Doctor gets thrown into a classic story” episodes) is a pale imitation of a fairly regular plotline for the show, and one we saw just two weeks back in “Deep Breath”: an alien ship has crashed and disguised itself on Earth while it tries to repair itself. The plot does nothing to spice up the Robin Hood material, nor does Miller’s one-dimensional turn as a mustache twirling Sherriff of Nottingham (at one point, he literally marks up a map while saying “Mine, mine”). By the time we reach the climax, a nonsensical resolution that requires The Doctor, Clara, and Robin Hood to shoot a golden arrow into, well, I guess really just anywhere on the ship, it is almost a relief the episode is coming to an end.
It’s not all bad, of course. The space ship set is very cool, and Capaldi looks fantastic as The Doctor feels immediately more at home in the space ship from the future than he ever was in the castle of the past. The robot knights are fine enough as bad guys, and the revolution The Doctor leads, using plates to reflect their lasers, isn’t very inventive but is still pretty fun.
Every season of Doctor Who is a collection of hits and misses. Part of loving the show’s ability to go anywhere and be anything from week to week is getting used to the fact that you won’t always like where the show goes and what it decides to be. “Robot of Sherwood” isn’t a great episode of the show; it isn’t even a very good one. It’s another of Gatiss’ phoned-in episodes, the sort of thing that I will probably completely forget until I return to this season down the road, only to rediscover its mediocrity afresh. In a season that is shaping up to be about The Doctor searching for a solid identity after his regeneration, “Robot of Sherwood” takes the easy road. This is an unblinking assertion that The Doctor is a hero and a good man, which feels even more like a triviality in the face of last week’s excellent “Into the Dalek.” The Doctor is more than a man; he’s a legend. His stories are more than just inconsequential events; they are templates for us to live by. The episode hits us over the head with the idea that we can all be heroes in The Doctor’s name. It doesn’t come up with anything new, and it doesn’t do the things it is redoing particularly well. But the occasional reminder of the power of The Doctor to be a force for good in the real world isn’t a bad thing. I just wish it came in better packaging.
- “Old fashioned heroes only exist in old fashioned storybooks, Clara.” “What about you?”
- “I am The Doctor. And this is my spoon!”
- “All those diseases. If you were real you’d be dead in six months.” “I am real!” “Bye.”
- “Could be a theme park in the future. Or we could be inside a miniscope!” Nice reference to “Carnival of Monsters,” one of The Third Doctor’s finest hours.
- “That isn’t even funny! That was bantering. I am totally against bantering!”
- “When did you stop believing in everything?” “When did you start believing in impossible heroes?” “Don’t you know?”
- “Guard! He’s laughing again! You can’t keep me locked up with a laughing person!”
- “It is not a competition to see who can die slower.” “It definitely would be me, though, wouldn’t it?”
- “Can you explain your plan without using the words ‘sonic screwdriver’?” The writers are really being hard on the sonic this season. Which is funny, because it is their crutch as much as The Doctor’s.
- “Why would we make an enemy to fight us? What sense would that make? That would be a terrible idea!”
- “You’re her hero, I think.” “I’m not a hero.” “Well, neither am I. But perhaps, if we keep pretending, others will be heroes in our name.”
“Robot of Sherwood” is one of those stories that seems to have made it to the screen without ever becoming more than a pitch.