Doctor Who episode 819: Robot of Sherwood (6/9/2014)
‘I’d last a lot longer than this desiccated man-crone.’ Third time lucky. This is like The Mark of the Rani, going for whimsy rather than sadism, remembering the Doctor is never cruel or cowardly. Capaldi responds with a performance that’s still spiky, but with Pertwee Moments of Charm™, and his relationship with Robin Hood comes across almost like two Doctors meeting and trying to outdo each other.
This is a useful corrective to the new Doctor’s character, with a lot more emphasis on comedy – he’s abrasive, but in a way that’s played for laughs rather than to be taken seriously (notable moments include when he puts on his spoon-fighting glove, when he flits around the Merry Men trying to work out what fakery he’s looking at, gate-crashing the golden arrow contest, and in his arguments with Robin in the dungeons). I really enjoyed Capaldi’s performance in this. My favourite 12th Doctor moment so far comes when the Sheriff of Nottingham points out how stupid the idea of inventing a robot enemy would be, and the Doctor, to his own horror, realises he’s been wrong.
Leading the captive peasants to freedom armed only with some tea trays (well, gold plates) is a lovely moment that makes this Doctor look heroic in a way we haven’t seen to date – which is apt in a story that’s about heroism. He is reluctant to be a hero (his little spoon lick when Clara declares him one is brilliant). Having Robin recognise him as a kindred spirit – ‘if we both keep pretending to be [heroes] perhaps others will be heroes in our name’ – is the perfect antidote to the anti-heroism of Deep Breath and Into the Dalek.
Clara is also great in this – mostly because she’s not an ‘impossible girl’ or a ‘control freak’, she’s just enjoying making some childhood dreams come true. Her delight at meeting Robin is lovely; her exasperation at his arguments with the Doctor and her winning over the Merry Men by basically drawing out the parallels between the Doctor’s story and Robin’s are all spot on.
So, this is probably Mark Gatiss’ best episode to date. It’s full of some very funny one-liners (‘bony rascal’), neat scenes (spoon fighting), guest stars who absolutely approach it in the right spirit (Tom Riley is fantastic, David Benson and Ben Miller give some Merrie England fruitiness), some good structural conceits (Robin using the Doctor’s trick against him in the final battle with the Sheriff). I love that the story seems to inevitably point towards Robin being a fake – but he isn’t, and (thanks to edits for sensitivity) the Sheriff is just a power-hungry medieval villain, not some space cyborg. The resolution might make no sense (how would a golden arrow sticking into a spaceship’s hull make any difference to its engines?), but it brings our three heroes together to defeat the baddies. It’s Doctor Who for all the family again. Wonderful.
Next Time: Listen
I often felt that this and Robot of Sherwood should have been flipped in running order.