Monday 8 September 2014

Reviews in Time & Space: Robot of Sherwood

Doctor Who s08e03 - Robot of Sherwood

Another week has passed, so naturally it's time for another look at the latest season of Doctor Who. Episode three sees the TARDIS flying to Sherwood forest to the times of Robin Hood, after Clara tells the Doctor she's always wanted to meet the legendary hero. Eager to prove that Robin Hood doesn't exist, the Doctor is naturally rather surprised to find both him and his merry men almost instantly when they land. So while the Doctor gets caught up in trying to prove that this Robin Hood is a fraud, they all also get caught up in a plan involving robots, gold and of course - the Sheriff of Nottingham. The episode is titled Robot of Sherwood, and was written by Doctor Who regular and Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss.

Robin Hood and his Merry Men
Woof woof!

First things first - if this is another episode where you're expecting this "darker, more serious" Doctor the general public have been teased for the last year you are going to be sorely disappointed. Robot of Sherwood is a brightly coloured 45 minute romp, deliciously campy and a wonderful slice of Doctor Who silliness. The alien/monster side of the plot is considerably light, with the main emphasis on the relationships between the Doctor who refuses to believe Robin is real, Robin who doesn't take much of a liking to this old man coming in and asserting his superiority, and Clara who's stuck in the middle of her two "impossible heroes" bickering like school children. Who's version of Robin Hood is straight out of the Men in Tights/Blackadder history books (how amazing would it have been to see the late great Rik Mayall reprise his role from Back and Forth?), camping it up alongside Capaldi's bitter old man Doctor. It's the perfect clash of personalities, and it also makes you wonder how this new Doctor would react meeting some of his previous incarnations that met everything with a beaming smile and laughter at things that weren't even funny.

But just because this episode didn't show off the Doctor's darker side doesn't mean that his personality didn't shine through. The Doctor has always been a rather stubborn man, but this new incarnation takes it to a whole new level. We see the Doctor constantly trying to prove himself right, from tinkering around with blood samples of Robin's merry men ("If you were real I'd say you only have six months to live.") to cheating at an archery competition just to make himself look better. The ridiculous lengths he goes to prove Robin Hood is a fake is repeatedly called out, and only in the closing moments does he fully acknowledge that he's been WRONG the entire time. Over the years the Doctor has become a near infallible character, so it was really refreshing to see him having to swallow such a huge helping of humble pie for once. Things like that do a far better job of making him relatable than all the attempts to 'humanise' him we've had in recent years.

And let the bickering commence
It's Clara's face that makes this picture for me

Capaldi also channelled some of his inner-Pertwee into this week's performance, demonstrating the sort of "man of action" moments the Third Doctor was so renowned for. He may have cheated on the archery, but the Twelfth Doctor is not a man you want to mess with when he's armed with a spoon. I just hope Peter Capaldi is ready for the amount of spoons people are probably going to want him to sign/pose with in the years to come...

This was another great episode for Clara too, who is really going from strength to strength in this new season. Her quick comment about being the Doctor's 'carer' in Into the Dalek couldn't be more appropriate, as here she's the only one keeping a cool, rational head half the time. Her relationship with Robin is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from an episode like this (he thinks she's beautiful, she gives him wonderful speeches about how he should never give up etc.) which isn't really a bad thing, but she plays off brilliantly with Ben Miller's pantomime-esque version of the Sheriff of Nottingham as she turns his interrogation on its head. Her best line though? "Can you explain your plan without using the words ‘sonic screwdriver’?" - nice to know that even the writers are beginning to realise how much of a "get out of jail free" card its become once again.

Ben Miller as the Sheriff of Nottingham
So THAT'S where the Master's beard went!

As I mentioned earlier, for the characters to come across so strongly in this episode the alien robots needed to take a bit of a backseat. Not even getting so much as a name, the only real thing we learn is that (like the Half-faced Man of Deep Breath) they also fell through time while trying to reach 'The Promised Land'. It seems that even with no appearance of Missy this week (despite there being plenty of opportunity), the writers are keen to keep foreshadowing at an all time high. That said, the robots themselves still managed to leave a good impression - they looked great and their death rays were considerably nasty even if they could be bounced back by something so basic as a silver serving tray.

But even with all its slapstick, Robot of Sherwood certainly wasn't short on the heart. Addressing the parallels between both the Doctor and the legend of Robin Hood, the moral of their actions spurring others to become heroes couldn't be more important in a world where the Doctor is more unsure of himself than ever.

The Robots of Sherwood
Probably going to make a neat toy

Robot of Sherwood certainly seems to have been the most polarising episode of the new season so far, getting critical panning almost all around despite having quite a vocal support group in said-reviews' comment section. I stand quite firmly that it's undoubtedly the best episode of the season so far, and easily one of (if not the) best main series (so not counting specials) Doctor Who episodes in years. With the historical episodes usually the ones with the most potential to fall flat, it was genuinely surprising that everything felt so right here. Some people may want Doctor Who to be dark and serious week after week, but the show has always been just as much about the silliness. This was the perfect opportunity to see that Capaldi's Doctor can still do the funny side of the show, and the episode itself had no qualms about being 45 minutes of solid entertainment. Those preferring Who's horror side of things have plenty to look forward to in next week's Listen, but for now everyone should just revel in the campy fun that made this week so special.

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