This week, on Doctor Who: Clara meets Robin Hood, the Doctor cheats at archery, and Robin laughs too much
Series eight of Doctor Who has started off with a bang, establishing a new and improved dynamic between the (Twelfth) Doctor and Clara, slowing down the pace, and prizing character work over plot twists. That threatens to falter here, with the series returning to the Doctor Who as fairy tale theme that so heavily infused series five through seven, but fortunately the episode’s sense of humor keeps it on track. “Robot of Sherwood” is a lark, but it’s a self-aware one, with enough pathos peppered in to temper the treacle.
Mark Gatiss is Doctor Who’s go-to writer for historical stories, with “The Crimson Horror” and “Cold War” his two most recent contributions, and “Robot of Sherwood” fits nicely with these. Like its predecessors, this episode centers on the Companion(s), rather than the Doctor, and takes the audience along on their adventure. The single best move Gatiss makes is to focus on Clara, having fun with her school girl crush on Robin Hood and indulging in just how cool it would be to meet a childhood hero made flesh, especially if they lived up to the hype.
Clara is a drastically improved character in series eight, and her scene with the Sheriff of Nottingham is another stellar moment for the clever school teacher. Shifting her defining trait from motor-mouth, mile-a-minute speech to observant quick-wittedness has worked like gangbusters for the character. Jenna Coleman does a fantastic job showing Clara think—a talent not all actors have—and watching our heroine manipulate the Sheriff is a blast. The scene is filled with shoutouts to classic Who, with Clara’s talk of bright lights in the sky, and it does a good job being aware of her position as woman in this time while still allowing her agency. The threat to her is very present, but it’s not immediate, which gives her room to maneuver. Whatever the Sheriff is, he certainly knows talent when he sees it—Clara would be an awesome queen.
The Doctor may receive second billing to Clara for much of the episode, but he’s entertaining nonetheless. His consternation at Robin Hood’s existence is delightful, as are the various asides thrown out early in the episode and conveniently not returned to. The poor lute player is diagnosed with a number of illnesses and only six months to live, but the Doctor never gets around to curing him. The Twelfth Doctor’s irritation with Robin Hood is fun, with the scenes in their cell a clear standout, though it is a bit disappointing that this Doctor responds near identically to how the Eleventh Doctor would, frustrated at the myth for being real and proving him wrong.
One distinction this episode gives between this Doctor and his immediate predecessor, however, is his willingness to duel. Peter Capaldi is absolutely believable brandishing his spoon and becoming the latest Doctor to show off his considerable fencing skills (the most recent being the Tenth Doctor, who is basically introduced doing so). Less successful is his showboating at the contest, which takes the familiar archery scene to absurd levels, with diminishing returns.
This is far from the episode’s weakest moment, however, which is without a doubt the climax of the episode. The tone throughout is one of relaxed charm, with the sillier moments counterpointed by a few more dramatic ones—Clara’s best line comes not with her adorable excitement over her childhood hero or her masterful handling of the Sheriff, but her clear-eyed assessment of Robin Hood, “Why are you so sad? … you laugh too much”—but the ending goes past silly to downright stupid. At the very least, the notion that the arrow would be enough gold to push the ship past the atmosphere needed to be set up and even if it had been, it’d still have been a tough pill to swallow. Equally stupid are the Sheriff’s golden hands, reaching up out of the vat where he died. So he burned to death, submerged in molten gold, but was alive long enough to push his hands back above the surface of the liquid metal after they’d been coated? It’s ridiculous (and not in a good way) and utterly pointless.
Thankfully, those are the only two painful moments in an otherwise very enjoyable episode. Gatiss fills the episode with Easter eggs for history, literature, and Who fans alike. The Sheriff’s, “Who will rid me of this turbulent Doctor?” is a near quote of the line reportedly uttered by Henry II that led to Thomas Becket’s assassination. The character design for the Sheriff is a deliberate reference to Anthony Ainley’s Master, who sparred with the Doctor during his fourth through seventh regenerations, the First Doctor’s adventure with Richard the Lionhearted (in “The Crusades”) is referenced, and so is the Third Doctor’s travels through a miniscope in “Carnival of Monsters”.
The design for the robots is neat, and refreshingly, they don’t come from the 51st Century like so much else in Moffat-era Who. Clara’s fairy tale theme pops back up at the beginning of the episode as she discusses her childhood fascination with Robin Hood, fittingly, and the scoring in general is fun. Most importantly, however, this episode is laugh out loud funny, thanks to the Doctor and Robin Hood’s constant bickering. The “Guard!” conversation is great, as is the eventual reveal of his presence, but for this reviewer, the Doctor gets the best line, with his irritated, “Do people punch you in the face when you do that?” This may not be a perfect episode, but “Robot of Sherwood” gets far more right than it gets wrong and gives audiences a welcome, whimsical change of pace.