Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 3 “Robot of Sherwood”
Directed by Paul Murphy
Written by Mark Gatiss
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Tom Riley, Ben Miller
Air Date: Saturday, September 6th, 2014
As we move through the third week of Doctor Who season eight, we continue to explore the identity of the Doctor and his relationship to Clara. Is it merely coincidence that William Hartnell’s third serial was a historical adventure about the journey of Marco Polo and episode three of Peter Capaldi‘s first season is a quasi-historical adventure about Robin Hood? It’s hard to know if Steven Moffat really is that much of schemer.
While the serial “Marco Polo” was the first serious attempt by the show to educate its audience about the past, “Robot of Sherwood” is more an examination of our expectations about the reality of the past in both the personal and historical sense. That applies to the history of the show itself, as much as the continuity of its characters or the history of the world they inhabit.
The resulting drama played out rather unevenly. The plot reused some elements from the history of Doctor Who, though it certainly didn’t directly copy anything. It gave the Doctor some situational comic relief in contrast to the drama of last week in “Into The Dalek.” Jenna Coleman clearly got to shine as Clara, with some determined action on her own as well as a few good bits acting as the Doctor’s conscience yet again. It clearly lacked a properly developed antagonist for the Doctor, instead relying on a fairly generic cartoon villain. It made for some entertaining fun, but is it anything we will remember as classic from this season? Probably not.
The basic plot premise draws some low rent inspiration from 1974’s serial “The Time Warrior”: a spaceship crashes in medieval England and introduces advanced technology into a world of horses, stone, and forged iron. In the older serial, an incompetent mercenary leader named Irongron seizes a castle whose owners are absent and needs the technology to solidify his position against a coalition of his neighbors. Here, the Sheriff of Nottingham needs the help of a crashed spaceship full of robots to destroy London and become king. Before, Irongron is allied with a Sontaran named Linx, marking the first of several appearances by Sontarans in the series. Now, the Doctor and Clara are aided by Robin Hood and his Merry Men (though truthfully, Robin’s henchmen are pretty much window dressing for all the screen time they get.)
The relationship between Robin and the Doctor appears to be the key thing that writer Mark Gatiss and showrunner Steven Moffat want to explore in this episode. The Robin we see here is not some historical person who is shown as the deconstruction of a myth. He’s very much the Errol Flynn version of the character in the flesh, and asserts that his identity is exactly what he appears to be at every point. The Doctor seems just as determined to want to reject that notion out of hand whenever he can; he has to somehow inhabit a world that is not really England, or must be the robot creation of a crashed ship from the future if it really is England. In an exterior sense, that allows the two characters to constantly argue about the nature of reality vs. fantasy while the story itself argues over the nature of the set of story tropes the viewer sees on screen. Is this a Whovian world or that of Robin Hood? Both characters claim it and argue of what the familiar story elements actually mean.
There’s also an interior argument going on that is closer to what we saw in the two previous episodes. The Doctor began his time on television as an anti-hero who was more content to observe what was going on around him than get involved. While the Doctor evolved as the classic show passed through its original 26 seasons, he was always the charmer or the trickster, not the leading man. Even with Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor in the new series, we saw a character that often stood off to the side of the room, rather than completely command the center. That changed with David Tennant, his hero coat, and his plimsolls. He was both the Doctor and the leading man, eventually getting the girl in a convoluted way in “Journey’s End.” Matt Smith played down that aspect of the character to a certain extent, but he was still involved in a very flirty relationship with River Song and even his own TARDIS in “The Doctor’s Wife.”
Here, Robin Hood embodies Clara’s fantasies for a romantic hero or a romantic past, if not a romantic leading man. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor spends nearly his whole time on the screen with Robin repudiating his existence. That is not ME, he seems to want to say. Yet Clara by herself and through Robin point out that this is who you were, and perhaps still are, despite everything you say. Looking like a younger man might be a vain mistake that needs to be corrected, but the Doctor is still a hero even if he doesn’t look like a leading man anymore.
Aside from those meaningful conflicts, the rest of the plot is slightly more than half-baked. Ben Miller‘s Sheriff of Nottingham is an oversize villain very much of the Alan Rickman mold in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the only enemy that Robin has. He’s got a half-formed goal of flying to London to become king that serves the story with a timetable to drive the plot; his ship can fly as soon as it is recharged. His henchmen are more of what we saw in the “Deep Breath,” evil robots who kidnap and kill indiscriminately. Let’s hope the writing staff can get a little more inventive about this if robot armies are going to be a recurring theme as the season goes on.
In the end, it’s all good fun. Other shows, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, have done the Robin Hood theme to greater and better effect. This one still generally passes muster. It isn’t a classic, but it will do.