So far this season we’ve had a slow opener and a dark examination of The Doctor’s character. Besides last week’s few momentary sparks between Clara and Danny Pink, Series 8 has been a rather serious season. That changes this week with the Mark Gatiss-penned “Robot of Sherwood,” a silly adventure that manages the right tone and enough genuine laughs to avoid being utterly ridiculous.
Over the years, the stakes on Doctor Who have become increasingly dire. Throughout new Who there has been a move towards more heart-wrenching and at times horrific shocks and bigger, more catastrophic consequences. It’s a move made to try and relieve Doctor Who of its more asburd and downright campy elements, but that levity is key to the series’ long lasting appeal.
Traveling with The Doctor is meant to be fun, but that hasn’t been the case so far with the Twelfth Doctor. It’s been absolutely terrifying! Which he must realize, so he asks Clara where and who in all of space and time would she like to visit. Her response? Robin Hood.
Yes, yes. He’s not real. We know that, The Doctor knows that, and really, so should Clara. But Clara has a whimsical side to her, and she’s far more willing to race off on an adventure than he. And since The Doctor begrudgingly agrees to take Clara where she wants to go (1190 A.D.-ish), they of course meet the infamous thief only moments after stepping out of the TARDIS.
It goes against everything The Doctor knows to be true, and it’s all aligning just a little too well with our generally accepted telling of the Robin Hood tale. And it’s infuriating to The Doctor! He desperately seeks any reason or answer as to why Robin of Locksley and his Merry Men are traipsing through Nottingham’s Sherwood Forest as if on set of a costume drama. For him it’s maddening, but for us it’s hilarious.
Simply because Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is gruff and curmudgeonly doesn’t mean he can’t be funny, and Gatiss knows this. Any of the scenes where The Doctor is doing his best to disrupt whatever cheesy Renaissance Fair reenactment they’ve wondered in to are gold, and especially any scene where he gets to play off Tom Riley’s Robin Hood. Riley is delightfully over-the-top, giving his best Errol Flynn with his earnest portrayal of a Robin Hood who’s just as much of a show-off but endearing hero as the stories made you believe.
For her part, Jenna Coleman begins this episode as a professed fangirl complete with her own Maid Marian gown, but once The Doctor and Robin can’t stop squabbling, she has to take reins. It’s a wonderful chance for Coleman to step up and show us how capable Clara can be, and it’s good to see she hasn’t completely lost that feisty streak. Her deceiving of the Sheriff of Nottingham is brilliant, and though maybe not entirely necessary for their eventual resolution, it’s still good to see she can handle matters just fine on her own.
For as old as he is, The Doctor can still be exceedingly childish. Look no further than his first incarnation and you’ll see just that: a grumpy old man acting as stubborn and petulant as a child. That selfishness is just as much part of The Doctor just as being clever, kind, or cruel. But Capaldi displays it with an air of exasperation that’s all his own, which will surely come to define his Doctor.
In all honesty, what happens in “Robot of Sherwood” is pretty inconsequential to whatever this season’s overall threat will be. Except for a quick mention of The Promise Land, whatever that weird woman is up to is barely even touched on. Yet, this episode has done more for establishing Capaldi’s era as The Doctor than any thus far.
“Robot of Sherwood” is fun, plain and simple. Is it silly? Yes. Was its ending with the golden arrow being shot at the spaceship a complete cop out? Yes. Was the final bit about becoming a legend being better than being remembered as a real person and how that parallels the life of The Doctor a hamfisted message? Oh yes. But I was having too much fun to care.
Next week’s episode, however, looks utterly terrifying.
Doctor Who airs Saturday at 9pm on BBC America.
Watch a preview of next week’s episode – “Listen”: