This week’s Doctor Who took a sharp left turn into silliness… and the end result is fun, if not very deep.
If you’ve been keeping up on our Doctor Who reviews, you know that I’ve felt the last couple of episodes have been highly derivative of older episodes, but this week we have something that feels like fresh territory for new Who. Unfortunately for some, this fresh territory comes with a lot of comedy — and if you’re used to the darker tone the show’s taken lately, the slapstick comedy of Robot of Sherwood (spoiler alert: there are robots) might not work for you.
For all its comedy, however, the episode was edited prior to broadcast to remove a beheading scene that the BBC decided to skip in light of recent beheadings of journalists in the Middle East. And it’s probably a better episode for it, as it allows the episode to focus on the lighthearted tone that it was clearly meant to have. All in all, it’s a thoroughly fun romp… even if it doesn’t inspire a lot of deep thinking. (But if this kind of silliness isn’t your thing, try tuning in next week for Listen, which looks to be thoroughly creepy.)
If you want to tune in yourself, you can can new episodes of Doctor Who on Saturday nights on BBC America — though cord-cutters will have to pick up the current season on iTunes or Amazon Instant. If you want to catch up on earlier seasons, they can be found on both Netflix and Hulu.
To get you up to speed, in the last episode we saw:
- The 12th Doctor having his first run-in with his age-old enemies the Daleks.
- In a throwback to season 1’s Dalek, where the Doctor met a lone Dalek who told him he would be a good Dalek, this episode’s central Dalek tells the Doctor that he is a good Dalek.
- The Doctor struggles with whether he’s a good man — and the Dalek’s proclamation definitely didn’t help.
This week, the Doctor and Clara head into the past rather than the future, visiting Sherwood Forest. But because this is Doctor Who, it’s not just a peaceful trip into the past. For those of you who have watched (or don’t mind spoilers), read on for more about the third episode of season 8, Robot of Sherwood.
Robin Hood: Man or Myth?
We start off in the TARDIS, where the Doctor and Clara are taking the time to actually decide where they’re going next rather than just stumbling into whatever trouble comes their way. Clara says she’s always wanted to meet Robin Hood, and though the Doctor says there’s no such thing, she’s insistent that this trip is her choice and that means Robin Hood.
So off we go to Sherwood Forest, where the TARDIS lands only to be immediately hit by an arrow by someone who is dressed rather suspiciously like Robin Hood. Robin immediately lives up to his (fictional) credo of robbing from the rich to give to the poor wants to steal the TARDIS, and when the Doctor refuses to hand it over, there’s a sword fight… sort of.
Saying he needs no sword, the Doctor pulls a spoon out of his pocket and proceeds to fight with it… and since he manages to hold his own, it definitely gives the impression that he’d be really good with an actual sword. When Robin tries to outdo him by slicing a button off of his coat, the Doctor pushes him into the stream with a bit of fancy footwork… though soon Robin sneaks up behind him and pushes him into the stream in return.
Yes, the whole episode’s like this, with the Doctor serving almost entirely for comic relief. If that’s not for you, turn back now.
At Robin’s camp, we’re introduced to the Merry Men who are exactly what you’d expect from their fictional incarnations. Clara’s delighted to meet Robin Hood in the flesh, and her characterization here sways unfortunately back to the generic. Though she has a strong role to play in this episode, she doesn’t show any of the personality we’ve seen emerge from her over the past two episodes — and her swooning over Robin Hood doesn’t quite mesh with her claim that she was never one to be turned by a pretty face. This feels like a big step backwards with her, as she spends the episode only showing what personality traits are required by the plot, which is a shame considering how interesting she’s been over the last couple of episodes.
Despite the evidence of his eyes, the Doctor has serious doubts about where they are: because Robin Hood is fictional, this can’t be real…. but he’s not sure how it isn’t real. The characters around them aren’t holograms and, after taking hair and blood samples — which he does while they’re introducing themselves for yet more comedy — he still can’t point to anything specifically wrong. The sky is too golden, the Merry Men laugh too much, and Robin’s jokes aren’t even funny, he claims, but it’s a long way from a winning argument.
The Doctor Does Archery Now, Archery Is Cool
Even the famous archery competition is scheduled to happen the next day, where Robin will disguise himself to compete for an arrow made of gold. It’s a trap, of course, but one Robin can’t refuse — after the sheriff shoots a bullseye, Robin wins the day by splitting his arrow clean through.
Where’s the Doctor while this is happening? Practicing his archery skills (or archery trickery), apparently, as he shows up to split Robin’s arrow in half. The sheriff then offers him the golden arrow, but the Doctor looks at it and tosses it aside, saying he wants something else: enlightenment. Though this seems to be the Doctor’s main play to figure out just what’s going on, he’s interrupted by Robin, who splits the arrow again.
This farce continues with arrow after arrow until the Doctor decides it’s getting silly — though it’s been pretty silly all episode — and blows up the target with his sonic screwdriver. (Apparently, there’s a setting for that.) It’s been enough silliness for the sheriff, too, as he orders his guards to seize the Doctor. In the melee that follows, Robin winds up slicing off the arm of one of the guards and, surprising no one who read the episode title, the guard is a robot.
The Doctor is thrilled by this development, because now he’s finally getting somewhere… so he surrenders, explaining the best way to figure out what’s happening is to get captured. Clara and Robin apparently trust him enough to go with this which means the three of them wind up chained together in a dungeon… which leads to Robin and the Doctor bickering while Clara insists they need to come up with a plan.
Clara in Charge
Unfortunately for Clara, this means the guard listening at the door decides she’s the one in charge and so takes her to the sheriff for interrogation. But because the sheriff intends to make her his consort once he’s king, the interrogation takes place over a nice dinner, where the Sheriff answers more questions for Clara than she answers for him. His story is the standard Robin Hood tale up until the point where he saw lights in the sky — a crashing ship, Clara guesses.
Will the Doctor come to her rescue? Well, without Clara, his argument with Robin has continued unabated. The two finally manage to come up with a plan for Robin to act sick to lure the guard in and knock him out — but arguing over who will get the keys the guard’s dropped leads to the keys getting kicked through a grate… so the two finally escape carrying the stone their chains are tied to.
No More Fairy Tales
When they finally manage to free themselves, they stumble on to a spaceship hidden inside the castle. “At last, something real. No more fairy tales,” proclaims the Doctor. Accessing the ship’s databanks, the Doctor explains to Robin that after crashing, the ship blended in to its environment while trying to repair its engines — with gold we’ve seen the sheriff collecting. The ship creating this environment, the evil sheriff, and even Robin, hero of the people, based off of old legends, which he demonstrates by showing Robin the references to his story in he computer — including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of 2nd Doctor Patrick Troughton portraying the character, a nice nod to classic fans.
Another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment is a shot of the ship’s original destination: The Promised Land, where the robots in the premiere were headed to… and may or may not have wound up when the episode’s big bad woke up in a garden with the mysterious Missy, who told him he was in heaven. It’s this episode’s only link to season 8’s overreaching story… but as with Moffat’s recent seasons, we’re not likely to figure out what’s going on until he decides to tell us.
Robin doesn’t have much time to question whether he’s man or machine as the sheriff barges into confront them. Robin manages to escape with Clara, but the Doctor is knocked out — and, considering the Doctor’s grouchy persona this season, it’s surprising we’ve gotten to episode three before that’s happened. When the Doctor wakes to find himself chained up below the castle, he incites a riot, getting the servants to work together and reflect the robots’ lasers back at them with serving trays. It’s more silliness, but it’s effective, allowing them to escape the castle before the ship activates its damaged engines, which the Doctor suspects will cause the ship to blow.
However, the sheriff confronts the Doctor on his way out, giving a typical villainous speech about how he intends to rule England from the skies. This gives enough time for Robin and Clara to make a grand entrance, in which leads to a classic Errol Flynn-style sword fight between Robin and the sheriff, winding up with the two of them fighting on a beam above a vat of molten gold. After the sheriff cuts his arm — suggesting that Robin is human after all — Robin then mimics the move the Doctor used to push him into the stream to send the sheriff into the molten gold. That’s gotta hurt.
But there’s no time to celebrate: the ship is taking off and when it explodes it will take most of England with it. Continuing the episode’s farcical tone, the Doctor decides to shoot the ship’s engines with the golden arrow to, hopefully, give the ship enough of a boost to get further away before it explodes… which just leads to the Doctor, Robin, and Clara arguing over which one will shoot the arrow. But the three of them finally seem to have come to terms and decide they’ll work together to do it since Robin’s arm is hurt and the Doctor only used high-tech homing arrows to win the contest earlier.
Surprise! This madness actually works, and the ship makes it to orbit before it explodes, wrapping up the storyline pretty neatly.
The Final Verdict
Even if you didn’t like the silliness, the episode did have some interesting moments that questioned the Doctor’s role as a hero. Clara clearly thinks he is one, same as any storybook hero — like Robin Hood — that she’s read about. Robin’s fine being remembered as a legend rather than history, saying “History is a burden; stories can make us fly.”
But is the Doctor okay with being a legend? When Robin suggests that the Doctor is Clara’s hero, he only responds “I am not a hero” — which definitely seems to be the theme of the season. While the Doctor isn’t sure, he has managed to save the day in every episode so far this season, even if he’s had a lot of help to do so.
The fact that he’s had so much help is kind of a problem, though: while the supporting cast has been great, we aren’t seeing very much of this new Doctor in action. Even in this episode, where we’ve seen him more active than in previous ones, he only has equal time with Clara and Robin — which isn’t bad now and then, but it’s odd to have several episodes in a row that way, especially just after a regeneration.
On the up side, however, this episode Peter Capaldi did a great job of channeling 7th Doctor Sylvester McCoy, who could similarly be both very dark and very silly. It was a combination that suited McCoy’s run in the 80s… but does it still work today? This episode was almost too silly, but we’re not ready to write off Capaldi just yet.