For the third time since Doctor Who returned in 2005, writer Mark Gatiss gets the opportunity to provide a new Doctor’s third adventure, and his first “celebrity historical” story. In “The Unquiet Dead,” it was Charles Dickens, while in 2010’s “Victory of the Daleks,” the Doctor paid a visit to Winston Churchill. Here, at the urging of Clara (Jenna Coleman), Peter Capaldi’s Doctor takes them back to 12th-century Nottingham, the haunt of someone she’s always wanted to meet. The Doctor tries to talk her out of it, telling her that she’ll be disappointed to learn that Robin Hood is just a story—only to be mystified when he steps out of the TARDIS and is faced with the legendary swashbuckler, large as life. Before long, he finds himself drawn into the struggle between Robin and a Sheriff of Nottingham who’s acquired some extraterrestrial assistance.
First and foremost, this episode is a romp—and a very broadly written and played one at that. Several tropes from the classic Robin Hood tale are subverted for comic purposes: The fight at the river crossing becomes the Doctor facing off against Robin armed only with a spoon, and the archery contest devolves into a hilarious game of one-upmanship with the Doctor and Robin repeatedly splitting arrows in turn. Only the introduction of the Merry Men falls flat: Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, and the rest are all present and correct, but the script has no room to do anything with them. They come across as so one-dimensional as to inadvertently give credence to the Doctor’s idea that he’s accidentally landed in some kind of “theme park from the future.”
Tom Riley’s portrayal of Robin dances dangerously close to pantomime at times, particularly in the first half, as he irritates the Doctor by laughing at anything and everything. But he and Capaldi put together some excellent comic sequences, especially the scene when they’re chained up and employ the old “distract the guard, knock him out, and steal his keys” trick—only for their squabbling to result in the keys disappearing through a grate in the floor. He also handles the physical derring-do with appropriate panache, and as the episode progresses he gradually shows more depth in Robin’s character as he begins to fully understand the situation.
Gatiss uses Robin’s antics to continue the work of the previous two episodes in exploring facets of the new Doctor’s character. He no longer has any patience with the sort of banter that his previous self would have enjoyed, and finds himself uncomfortable with the idea that a hero like Robin could actually exist. In all three episodes so far, this Doctor has faced a character that reflects some aspect of himself, and here his response is to try and prove that Robin isn’t real. But the twist is that there is no twist: In spite of the pun in the episode’s title, Robin turns out to be exactly what he claims to be, and the robots the Doctor is looking for are actually the minions of the Sheriff of Nottingham. The story keeps the Doctor off balance, and it’s been quite a while since we’ve seen him so completely in the dark.
The production, under new director Paul Murphy, lives up to the BBC’s usual standard of excellence with period pieces. The sunlit exteriors of Sherwood Forest and the castle courtyard provide an excellent contrast to the dark palettes of the previous two episodes, and the robot knights are sleek and impressive. When the Doctor finally discovers the crashed spaceship that brought the robots to Earth (with, amusingly, almost a sense of relief: “At last, something real…no more fairy tales”), it’s a striking, minimalist design. It’s also at this point that the Doctor finally becomes aware of the season arc plot that’s been bubbling away without his knowledge; there’s no appearance of the mysterious “Missy” this week, but he does find a mention of “the Promised Land” (as in “Deep Breath,”) as the ship’s destination.
With the Doctor distracted by his bickering with Robin, Clara takes charge of the situation, and it’s no surprise that, while in the prison cell, she gets picked out as the leader of the trio. Ben Miller play it straight as the Sheriff, presenting him as an intelligent, dangerous opponent rather than an exaggerated, moustache-twirling villain. Regrettably, the broadcast of this episode was affected by recent murders in the Middle East and in London, which induced the BBC to cut out a large section from the climactic fight in which Robin would have beheaded the Sheriff—only for the man to reveal that he’s been turned into a cyborg by the robots. It’s unfortunate that the crux of the plot—that it’s the Sheriff, not Robin, who’s the real “robot of Sherwood”—is obscured in the edited version.
The resolution is rather too cute to be believable, but Gatiss gets points for constructing a climax that requires the combined efforts of the Doctor, Clara, and Robin. After earlier deriding him as a “silly story,” the Doctor finally connects with Robin’s uncynical heroism. “History is a burden,” Robin says, when told that he’ll live on only as a legend. “Stories can make us fly.”
Next Week: Steven Moffat is back, and having fun playing on childhood fears again, with “Listen.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: 1983’s “The King’s Demons,” starring Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, and Mark Strickson, is set just a few years later, in the time of King John, and also features a humanoid robot at the center of the plot.
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