One of the things that has impressed me about this still young season of Doctor Who is the way that it seems more interesting in engaging with Big Themes wrapped up in Silly Ideas than the last few years have been. Last week's episode was a little off-balance in that regard since the execution of its premise was perhaps not as rigourously thought out as it could have been; its attempts to tell a story about prejudice was undercut by having to shrink The Doctor down and physically place him inside a Dalek. This week's episode is built around an even sillier premise - The Doctor and Clara meet Robin Hood and fight robotic knights! - but it worked better for me because it used that silliness as a way to explore the power of myths and storytelling.
But before we get to the heady stuff, let's talk about the silliness. If "Into the Dalek" was a riff on Fantastic Voyage or Innerspace, "Robot of Sherwood" is an overt homage, or at least loving parody, of the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn. Obviously the Robin Hood legend predates cinema by several hundred years, so the show had more material to draw on, but the specific links to that version are too clear to ignore. The looks of the familiar characters drew heavily on the imagery from that film (though so do most Robin Hood films that came after it; even the ones that don't, like Ridley Scott's aggressively mediocre 2010 version, are defined by how far they move away from the 1938 version), Tom Riley's performance as Robin is clearly influenced by Errol Flynn's cavalier, devil may care bravado, and, perhaps most importantly, the script by frequent Who writer and Sherlock show runner Mark Gatiss repeatedly pokes fun at the way everyone in the Flynn version is constantly laughing. Seriously, watch that film and take a drink every time Robin and his men break out into laughter. You will die of alcohol poisoning before the end of the first hour.
Actually, don't do that. But do at least watch the film, because it is fantastically fun.
For the first fifteen minutes or so, the episode seems dedicated to recreating the familiar beats of the Robin Hood story as faithfully as possible. When The Doctor and Clara first arrive in Sherwood forest, they are introduced to Robin when he fires an arrow into the side of the TARDIS. Robin then challenges The Doctor to a fight for possession of the TARDIS, one which, much like the fight between Robin and Little John, takes place while on a log over a stream. Then they meet the Merry Men, go to an archery contest in disguise to win a golden arrow, then they discover that all the Sheriff of Nottingham's knights are secretly robots. Actually, that last part might be new.
Before the sci-fi elements kick in, the thing that most distinguishes this from a Robin Hood story is The Doctor's unremitting disbelief about being in a Robin Hood story. He tells Clara that Robin Hood wasn't actually real when she tells him that she wants to meet him, and only agrees to take her to Sherwood in order to show her. When he is presented with someone who looks, talks and acts like the famed outlaw, he can't help but be suspicious, and so he goes to great lengths to try to figure out what's really going on, determining that Robin and his men are not holograms, but not ruling out that the whole setup could be part of some futuristic theme park. He knows his sci-fi cliches, having lived through pretty much all of them many times before.
His approach to the situation is suggestive of a level of experience that verges on outright cynicism, which feels right for the idea of an older Doctor, but it lacks the sense of wonder or fear that typified the responses of Doctors Nine through Eleven when they were faced with the inexplicable. I don't think that's a necessarily good or a bad thing for the show or the character, but it's one of the more definitive breaks so far between Capaldi's take on the character and those that came before him.
But when The Doctor realises that the Sheriff's men are actually robots, the way he gleefully says "Now we're getting somewhere!" does speak to his essential inquisitiveness, and the sense that he's as much a scientist and an investigator as he is an adventurer. The thrill of discovery comes through loud and clear in that moment, and there's this impish quality that resurfaces during his many arguments with Robin, who The Doctor initially dislikes because he doesn't believe that he is actually real, then later because he's a boisterous, constantly laughing dick. It also informs the pleasure he experiences when he thinks that he has stumbled upon the truth - that Robin is just another robot who is pretending to be this great hero in order to give the people false hope - and proceeds to hurl accusations at Robin like some kind of medium-range, airborne projectiles, like spears or darts.
This was also an exceptionally good Clara episode, one that gave her a lot to do even after she was taken captive. Rather than have her play the damsel in distress, the show had the Sheriff (played with hammy gusto by renowned sketch comedian Ben Miller) come to believe that Clara was the brains behind The Doctor and Robin's plans, and proceeded to interrogate her. Then Clara turned the tables on him, and in a funny and witty scene, she managed to convince him that she had seen the spaceship that had brought the robots to Earth so that he would in turn reveal his plans to her. It was a playful scene that puts the onus of discovery on Clara, and makes her an essential part of foiling the plan in the end without ever making her a victim. She was constantly in control in a way that no companion since Rose has been, but she still got plenty of funny lines and to revel in playing someone who was so excited to get to meet Robin Hood. All in all, it made for a nice progression in how the show treats Clara.
As much as the episode played into the established conceits of the Robin Hood legend, it also put a twist on some elements: The Sheriff's obsession with collecting gold through taxes was revealed to be part of a plan to get fuel for a gold-powered spaceship, which would then be able to escape into orbit to serve as, to borrow a term from Futurama, a mobile oppression palace. The launch would kill most everyone surrounding the launch site in the Sheriff's castle, but what's a few thousand deaths for control of the world?
The episode then found a way to return to the standards of the genre, going so far as stage a big climactic sword fight between Robin and the Sheriff, complete with the two trading barbs, and a moment when Robin combines a danger and a tapestry to create a makeshift fireman's pole. That aspect of the story fell a little flat (something which may have resulted from pre-airing alterations to remove a beheading which, given recent horrifying news stories, could have been insensitive if left in) but I still appreciated how Gatiss' script found ways to weave elements of a traditional Robin Hood story into a Doctor Who one in a way that allowed them to inform each other.
It also tied in to the ending of the story beautifully, as it's revealed that Robin Hood is, in fact, Robin Hood, and that all the legends are true, it's just that people have forgotten that they are. When The Doctor tells Robin that people in the future no longer remember him as an actual person, he seems relieved, and says "History is a burden. Stories can make us fly." The idea that stories give meaning to our lives is a pretty big theme to throw in at the end of an episode about an alien fighting robots alongside a man in green tights, but it's handled with such wit and grace, and it ties so nicely into The Doctor's suspicions about Robin, that it just about carries it off. Doctor Who sometimes struggles to balance its themes with its prerogative as fluffy entertainment, but here I thought the balance was so deftly handled it make up for the moments when the campiness became a little overwhelming.
- I hate and love the pun in the episode title in equal measure. That might sound like I'm neutral, but it's a raging inferno of conflicting emotions in my head right now.
- I loved this exchange:
"Robin Hood laughs in the face of all!"
"And do people ever punch you in the face when you do that?"
"Not as yet."
"Lucky I'm here, then, isn't it?"
- "Are there any more in there?" - Robin's response after seeing Clara exit the TARDIS was a nice way of establishing his roguish credentials.
- No sign of Missy this week, but we did get talk of The Promised Land/heaven that featured in the last two episodes. It seems that we know where the show will take us before the season is over.
- The Doctor is not a fan of bantering. He's not a banter fan, Jerry!