The Doctor takes the TARDIS to Sherwood Forest to show Clara that Robin Hood is a myth. But is the dashing outlaw in green they meet really Robin Hood? And why is the Sheriff of Nottingham hoarding gold?
Too funny for its own good?
No damsels in distress. No pretty castles. No such thing as Robin Hood.
Doctor Who has always benefitted from an occasional injection of humour to provide levity between an episode’s big dramatic moments. However, when the pursuit of laughs comes at the expense of narrative the results are usually disappointing. (Case in point: the Ninth Doctor’s Slitheen two-parter Aliens of London/World War Three.)
In Robot of Sherwood, Mark Gatiss opts for thigh-slapping camp farce in his retelling of the legend of Robin Hood, and it just doesn’t work. It’s not that the banter between the Doctor and Robin (Da Vinci’s Demons’ Tom Riley) isn’t funny – much of it is. And after the darkness of the opening two episodes a bit of light to offset the shade makes for a welcome change. But the humour comes at the cost of characterisation and any sense of a coherent plot.
Are we really expected to believe that the Doctor can hold off a skilled swordsman such as Robin with a spoon? Yes, I know it’s a comic retelling of the traditional tale of Robin and Little John’s initial encounter, but come on.
Then the entire resolution to the story revolves around two conceits which require far too much of a suspension of disbelief.
Marian helps the Doctor rally the peasant slaves to overcome the alien robots by using silver trays to reflect their laser beams back on themselves with implausible accuracy. And then there’s the gold arrow won by the Doctor at the Sheriff of Nottingham‘s (Ben Miller) archery tournament, which turns out to be the difference that allows their ship to make orbit at the end. If scarce gold is so important to the robots’ attempts to repair their spacecraft, why waste some on a trophy?
Reflections on a hero
Remember, Doctor, I’m just as real as you are.
The one area where the story does work well is in portraying Robin as a mirror image of the Doctor, although the point is hammered home rather too heavily in the final scene. Both are heroic, rebellious and hide their true nature behind a mask – overt merriness in Robin’s case, whereas for the Doctor it is his changing faces which provide his disguise.
Also, there’s a tacit recognition that both men are incomplete without their companions – Clara and Marian – and better men when united with them.
The edited scene
The original episode included the Sheriff being (temporarily) beheaded near the beginning of the climactic battle, revealing that it is he and not Robin who is (partly) robotic. This was edited out 48 hours before transmission after the recent murders of two US journalists by Islamic State militants.
Although it doesn’t materially affect the outcome of the episode, it does explain why the Sheriff subsequently refers to himself as “first of a new breed: half man, half engine”, a statement which makes little sense without the context of his beheading.
Overall, this was an episode which lacked the dramatic oomph to balance out its funnier moments, one with a plot which was both plodding and predictable. For all Gatiss’s sharp wit and lovingly inserted references, the whole was so much less than the sum of its parts. Disappointing.
Fun stuff, references & quotables
- The Doctor is seen scribbling on a blackboard again. That’s three episodes in a row.
- He offers to take Clara to see the Ice Warrior hives. Their most recent appearance was in Cold War – an episode written by Gatiss.
- I make Robin Hood the eleventh major historical figure to appear since the series’s return in 2005. Previously we’ve had three queens (Victoria, Elizabeth I, Nefertiti), three writers (Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie), two leaders of nations (Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler), plus Madame de Pompadour and Vincent van Gogh.
- The Doctor says he learned his fencing skills from Richard the Lionheart, Cyrano de Bergerac and Errol Flynn. The First Doctor met Richard in The Crusade, while his successor summoned Cyrano in The Mind Robber.
- One of the Doctor’s early theories is that they may be trapped in a miniscope representation of Sherwood Forest. Miniscopes appeared in the Third Doctor story Carnival of Monsters – they were cylindrical micro-environment displaying the lives of miniaturised beings for the entertainment of others.
- “Quickest way to find out anybody’s plans – get captured.”
- “It is not a competition about who can die slower!”
- Sheriff: “[I will be] King in all but name, for Nottingham is not enough. After this, Derby. Then Lincoln. And after Lincoln …” Clara: “Worksop?”
- The Doctor calls the Sheriff a “pudding-headed primitive”. He also referred to Earth as “planet of the pudding brains” in Deep Breath.
- Gatiss also incorporates a number of historical references:
- The Sheriff’s plea of “Who will rid me of this turbulent Doctor?” echoes Henry II’s request about Thomas Becket, with ‘Doctor’ in place of ‘priest’.
- “Do you really think your peasants’ revolt can stop me?” The Peasants’ Revolt was an uprising in England led by Wat Tyler in 1381.
- The Doctor’s evaluation of Robin – “He’s the opiate of the masses” – is a quote attributed to Karl Marx, the father of Communism, in which he compares religion to the narcotic effects of opium.
- “History is a burden. Stories can make us fly.”