‘Doctor Who’ Hits the Mark With Robin Hood and the Enjoyably Silly “Robot of Sherwood”

By  · Published on September 7th, 2014


When I first got into Doctor Who (only a few years ago), part of the appeal for me was that it had a kind of Quantum Leap deal as far as the main character’s control of where he’d wind up in many episodes. He would try to go to one place and time, but he and his companion would land in another, as if the Tardis was taking them somewhere and somewhen more important to put right what once went wrong. It’s not as fun when, say, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) gets to pick a destination and they actually get there.

But this week’s installment, “Robot of Sherwood,” worked for me anyway because of a new twist on the idea. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) doesn’t expect to land where/when they do because he thinks it isn’t real. Or at least he doesn’t think the real place and time is populated by such folklore characters as Robin Hood (Tom Riley), Little John (Rusty Goffe) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Miller).

It’s incredible that this episode, written by Mark Gatiss (“Victory of the Daleks”) and directed by Paul Murphy, could be nearly more cartoonish than Disney’s Robin Hood and almost more comical than the visit to Sherwood Forest in Time Bandits, but boy is it a light and loony one. The Doctor even acknowledges what we’re all thinking at one point: “This is getting silly.” Indeed. It is also seemingly insignificant to Series 8’s continuity so far in that it doesn’t have a character give their life at the Doctor’s command and then show up in Missy’s garden. Were there not a reference to the Promised Land, I’d think it a throwaway story.

By throwaway I don’t mean garbage, of course. As far as sunny “Robin Hood” depictions go, it’s pretty fun. I credit my enjoyment most with Miller’s Sheriff, who completely makes up for how boring it is that we’ve got more uninteresting alien robot baddies. Miller’s expression in the role is comically villainous on the better edge of being hammy. He has a Christoph Waltz meets Ralph Fiennes look about him that only made me find him funnier with each scene. I was not familiar with the actor ahead of time but am not surprised to learn he is part of a well-known British comedy duo. I not only didn’t want to see him defeated, but I wanted him to somehow be a recurring part of the show.

Also enjoyable, though, is the Doctor’s banter with Robin, particularly after claiming to hate banter so much. The two of them could in fact have made a contest to see who dies slower a thorough entertainment. The Doctor meets a lot of historical figures more famous and more important than he, but it’s not often that he comes across another outright legend of unreal proportion – another “impossible hero.” He never appears to be jealous of the attention Robin gets from Clara (which at first reminded me of Vincent Van Gogh’s crush on Amy Pond), rather of the general attention he’s gotten from humans over centuries.

I would have preferred the episode not end with the point about the Doctor being Clara’s bigger hero. As we’ve already established, this is not an incarnation of the Doctor where we consider him to be like a boyfriend figure to his companion. We’re here to explore his identity, however, and for the episode to be about the legendary aspect of who he is there has to be someone to represent the belief in that legend. Still, there’s plenty there with the parallels to Robin. One is the “Prince of Thieves,” the other the “Last of the Time Lords.” One is Earl of Loxley, the other the Time Lord of Gallifrey. They’re so often defined by titles of notoriety. They have similar origins, as well.

Yet the Doctor is a total cheater in the delightful archery competition scene. And a bit of a baby for when such cheating doesn’t even work against the skilled Robin he has to make the target explode with his sonic screwdriver. Surprisingly he doesn’t throw a minor fit when later Robin steals something from the Doctor – his moves in combat – never mind that it allows the hero to defeat the Sheriff, because the Doctor cares more about his pride than whether one human baddie lives or dies.

It is amusing that someone with such an ego is also so self-doubting about his being called a hero. That status goes along with his question of whether he’s a “good man.” Even funnier, and something he should be more concerned about, is how much he’s proven wrong in “Robot of Sherwood.” He loves to be right, to the point that he’s glad to see a Dalek reverted to its usual evil if it means he was correct in a theory. And it’s a hoot to watch him try every which way with the Merry Men to out them as fakes. Terrific comedy there.

This episode was a lark, the sort of carefree installment viewers tend to complain about with more-serialized series than Doctor Who. I prefer them with this show, especially compared to ongoing storylines that are too convoluted to enjoy. And when they’re as goofy as this one, they make a perfect contrast against what I’m hoping next week’s “Listen” is – an old-fashioned Steven Moffat creeper.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.