I can't express how much I was dreading this episode.
Let's add up the evidence against it...a Robin Hood-centric plot written by Mark Gatiss. While either option taken alone is enough to give one pause, put them together and you have a worrying concoction of potential silliness.
Indeed, "Robot of Sherwood" was about as silly as I could expect. Yet, it was terrifically funny as well, brandishing out some of Gatiss' better comedic chops not seen since The League of Gentlemen. After the darker, more introspective tones of "Into the Dalek" it turns out that "Robot of Sherwood" was just what the Doctor ordered in terms of tonal reversal. Both episodes represent the kind of show that Doctor Who excels at, despite being so diametrically opposed.
The season-long arc didn't really move in this episode, other the obvious parallels between the robots and the Clockwork androids that appeared in the premiere, both seeking a mystical "Promised Land". But, in terms of character development, we see the thread of The Doctor coming to terms with the man he is following up on the events of "Into the Dalek". He's now coming to understand the person he is in this new incarnation by seeing who he is not. When positioned against this version of Robin Hood, it's like The Doctor is looking at a distorted mirror of what he once was, a person who laughed his way through every adventure to hide an immense sadness. Both he and Clara are aware of this defense mechanism of Robin's, and are quick to point it out to him because they both realize this is exactly what the previous Doctor once did with regularity.
That's why in the hands of a different Doctor, this romp through Sherwood Forrest probably wouldn't have worked. Could you imagine Matt Smith's Eleven or David Tennant's Ten interacting with this lovable oaf of a Robin Hood as played by Tom Riley? There'd probably be some instant level of camaraderie and respect, perhaps even reverence, and the effort as a whole would be made far less worthwhile. With Peter Capaldi's more curmudgeonly Doctor though, it's an instant butting of heads, and one that is fantastically one-sided.
This is the rare situation where The Doctor himself is blown away by what he's seeing and Clara is the hardcore believer. Robin Hood is a complete farce, much like the Doctor is in a meta-textual way. So what we see before us is a false hero questioning the identity of another "false hero". The previous two episodes have offered up this question of: "Is the Doctor a good/heroic man?", and "The Robots of Sherwood" is positioned in such a way that it allows The Doctor to contrast against another legendary figure and underline the sense of myth that surrounds his character.
There's a very telling scene towards the end, and its been rightly signified as the highlight of Gatiss' script, when Robin posits The Doctor's history against his own, describing him as a "man who sought to fight injustice". What's funny about that little passage is how inaccurate it is. The Doctor himself just one episode ago even stated to "Rusty the Dalek" that he never found himself until he ventured to Skaro and became the hero he is today. Before that, he was just an old man who wanted to get his granddaughter off of Gallifrey. Again, this is the power of mythmaking. Clara hero-worships The Doctor and because of that her descriptions of his exploits have taken a significantly larger tone. To her, he's always been the person that's been saving the universe, one person at a time, even though she's technically seen him since the beginning of his adventures (though its arguable how much she actually remembers, it's all a little hand-wavey).
The question that Gatiss raises here: Does it actually matter how heroic a person is if they're remembered that way? For a lighter affair throughout, it's a weighty enough theme: the concept of story dissection. We never get a chance to dig much deeper than that, but its an adequate framing device for an episode that's actually one of more purely escapist adventures we've seen in Doctor Who in quite some time, Riley's Robin Hood being the glue that ties everything together. Seen through this particular lens, Robin Hood is an utter fop that quite literally laughs in the face of danger, akin to The Tick or, as Hannah pointed out to me last night, Aquaman from Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Given that the comparison between Capaldi's Doctor and Batman is already out there, having this perfect Arthur Curry-like counterpoint is fitting. The Doctor's befuddlement at the existence of The Merry Men gives the audience a chance to see just how funny Capaldi can be in such a ridiculous setting, and the chemistry between Riley and Capaldi is pitch perfect, reminding me a bit of the camaraderie between Matt Smith and Tony Curran in "Vincent and The Doctor".
The plot is admittedly bog standard Robin Hood stuff, and to an extent, pretty reminiscent of other tales where The Doctor ventures into the Medieval Era, such as "The Time Warrior", where other-worldly beings have come into contact with less than scrupulous individuals and use their advanced technology to rule the land. There are also moments of pure ridiculousness that can't help but be labeled as hallmarks of a Gattis script, from the spoony-swordy fight to the golden arrow launching a space-ship into orbit (which makes no sense no matter how hard you stretch it). But the good so completely outweighs the bad, and I found it easy to forgive the silly and embrace the onslaught of guffaws. In truth, I think it might be his best work on the series to date.
By episode's end, Clara, who throughout the episode continues to display the sense of agency that has marked all of her appearances this season, points out that to The Doctor that he clearly likes Robin. In a broader sense, this is The Doctor no longer shunning what he once was, but being willing to embrace his previous character faults and perhaps coming out of it a stronger, more balanced individual having recognized where he once went wrong.
Thoughts to Ponder:
- The robots imbued a cross onto their victims before destroying them, this clearly marks a strong religious bent for this young season thus far when taking the previous episodes' focus on faith into account.
- I would watch an entire series of Peter Capaldi and Tom Riley playing off of each other for years.
- The Sherriff of Nottingham as played by Ben Miller was quite reminiscent of Christoph Waltz, but also of Anthony Ainley's version of The Master.
- "Or six months in your case..."/ "That's not even funny!", Capaldi had me rolling on the floor this week.
- Next week's offering "Listen" looks to be the kind of Steven Moffat written episode that I adore, though I'm hopeful that Danny Pink doesn't have bigger skeletons in his closet beyond the obvious. We'll see next week.