This week’s episode of Doctor Who, penned by Mark Gatiss, is a fun romp through an enduring myth. ‘Robot of Sherwood’ provides us quotable zingers (or ‘banter’ as The Doctor would say, through gritted teeth) and some light meditation on the legacy of heroes, however, there’s little else in the way of substance to this story.
A fluffy and slightly camper episode may allow a bit of relief from the darker elements this series has so far provided but the use of robots as antagonists so soon after the exploits of The Half-Face Man and last week’s ‘Into the Dalek’ felt repetitive. We know these kind of foes can be defeated so weren’t particularly invested in whether they would be. Indeed, firing Hood’s fabled golden arrow into the side of the ship to increase its power levels seemed a shoehorned solution and undermined why the Sheriff (Ben Miller) and his robot cohorts had been bothering to force the enslaved townsfolk to melt down the gold in the first place.
Others may argue that some narrative cohesion was lost by the BBC’s sensitive (and well-judged) re-editing of the final showdown in which the Sheriff was initially beheaded to show he was also a robot but I would suggest this week suffered more from a lack of original motivation and conflict. Narrative logic might not have been the main purpose of the episode but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t go amiss.
The main draw for ‘Robot of Sherwood’ was of course the opportunity to see The Doctor and Robin Hood (Tom Riley) side by side and in this it did not disappoint, choosing to unexpectedly put them at odds. Peter Capaldi got the chance to make the most of his exemplary comedic skills as the two bitched and snapped their way through the episode. Riley stepped up to the mark easily, although the best lines were always going to belong to the Time Lord himself ( ‘desiccated man-crone’ came very, very close). The dungeon scene, alongside the obligatory archery contest played out to farcical heights, allowed Gatiss’ quick-fire writing to shine and the characters were at their best in these moments. The one liners and retorts flew thick and fast, leaving it to Clara (Jenna Coleman) to step up and make her bickering heroes see sense.
Clara taking charge in this episode is an indication that her character development continues unabated. Coleman’s performance has also moulded into these tweaks and adjustments admirably, this week deftly balancing Clara’s hero worship of both Robin Hood and The Doctor with her pragmatism in the face of the Sheriff’s attentions. Clara’s metamorphosis from the Smith era ‘Impossible Girl’ is becoming as big a talking point as Capaldi’s casting.
Not without its faults, what ‘Robot of Sherwood’ has helped us to appreciate is the potential range of tone the eighth series is capable of delivering. We learned this Doctor can be snippy and childish, just as Clara becomes more capable and confident.
And with Moffat’s ‘Listen’ (how spooky was that trailer?!) coming up next week, there is an impression that these opening episodes have been setting the tone for what this incarnation and series are going to be all about. If the problems with plot from these first three episodes are soon ironed out, I predict we just may well be in for a treat.
Doctor Who Continues 7.30pm on Saturday on BBC ONE.
Contributed by Jane Harrison