Robot of Sherwood

Story No. 265
Production Code Series 8, Episode 3
Dates September 6, 2014

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Mark Gatiss Directed by Maul Murphy
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: Clara wants to meet Robin of Sherwood, but he's fictional. Right?


A Review by Flynn Sullivan 11/12/14

Series 8 has been given a lot of praise in recent reviews, with one notable exception: Robot of Sherwood. What episode were they watching? Now, to be fair, Mark Gatiss's work on Doctor Who has often been less than stellar, leaving the viewer with an empty feeling. However, that's no excuse to ignore one of the funniest Doctor Who episodes since the series returned.

Much of the humour in this story relies on the gimmick of having the Doctor crash into Robin Hood's world of dashing heroes and mwahahaha villains, but the already-great setup is supported by the depth given to Robin Hood, the great writing (one notable joke being Alan a Dale's life expectancy) and the fabulous set design and direction. It's also evident that Gatiss strongly cares about both heroes, reinventing RTD's trademark "I'm your number 1 fan!" episodes by having Robin and the Doctor initially have a strong dislike for each other and an equal respect at the end. This gives Robot of Sherwood heart.

Although I often malign Clara for her bossy nature and indecision regarding whether or not she should lead a normal or a time-travelling life, even she managed to shine during an electrifying scene with the Sheriff of Nottingham.

There was literally nothing I could find about this story that didn't work, a very rare occurrence. It's a shining gem in a season primarily dominated by mediocrity and a classic.

"That'd be a rubbish idea..." by Donna Bratley 29/12/17

Here's an oddity: an episode that's minimal in terms of plot and should be insufferably hammy by its very concept. Yet every time I watch it, I enjoy it.

There are "classics" scattered through Doctor Who history - Pyramids of Mars, The Evil of the Daleks, The Talons of Weng-Chiang to name three obvious examples - and I adore them all. But there are also lighter adventures, The Time Warrior and The Time Meddler being personal favourites. They're the kind of thing I'll settle down with on a miserable Sunday afternoon and be instantly cheered up. Robot of Sherwood is an addition to that list.

It's by a distance my favourite Mark Gatiss script. His episodes I tend to find bland at best: at worst, virtually unwatchable (yes, The Idiot's Lantern, I'm looking at you). It's about as subtle as a clout with half a housebrick, practically yelling "Twelve doesn't think he's a hero! Got that? Sure?" at beginning and end, but that's a point I'm actually pleased to see being addressed.

There have been occasions in the modern era when a wandering alien scientist has been portrayed as a Santa substitute - or worse, very nearly as a god. There have been moments he's seemed to positively embrace it.

No more, and the character is richer for it.

Tom Riley's Robin Hood is impossibly glamorous and monumentally irritating. I'm entirely on the side of the Doctor, who can't contain his impatience with all the overblown merriment and derring-do on display. He's also therefore the main reason this story works with Twelve's more sceptical, less boundlessly enthusiastic manner.

The premise sounds a better fit for an earlier new series incarnation, but I shudder to imagine the Ninth's Doctor's forced-grin "Fantastic!" or Ten's disbelieving "No! Nooo! No way! You're Robin Hood!", let alone Eleven's ecstatic capering should he have been confronted with the legendary outlaw. Tights are not and never will be cool; and that hat would look even sillier than the fez.

Clara shows an unexpectedly romantic side to her imagination in immediately choosing a figure of myth when given free choice of destination. I can think of a dozen real-life characters I'd jump at the chance to meet; I wouldn't spare a thought for a figure of fiction. It's a generally mundane outing for Jenna Coleman, but she does at least get to shine in outwitting Ben Miller's slimeball Sheriff, a stock dumb villain lifted by a performance that veers dangerously (and I assume deliberately) close to ham with a cheesy topping. I specifically love his nod toward the apocryphal cry of Henry II - "Will no one rid me of this turbulent Doctor!" - one of many terrific lines, perfectly delivered.

Clara's deadpan "Worksop?" is up there with it, and while there might as well be a neon sign over her head in the dungeon scene - with two men behaving like children the nanny's always going to be taken for leader - it's still hilarious. Verbal sparring is funniest when all the protagonists have pinpoint timing, and all three are on top form there.

The small matter of the sonic's habitual over-use is dissed with a weary "It's always the screwdriver!" (anyone would think the writers have been listening to fans!) while the bristling exchanges between two captive legends are wonderful from first to last. The Prince of Thieves and the Last of the Time Lords chained up in a cell... no wonder Clara's disappointed when the best they can do is bicker about which is likely to die slowest.

Everyone should be childish occasionally and the Twelfth Doctor is definitely that here. There's such wicked, boyish glee behind Capaldi's "Yeah, but it'd definitely be me, wouldn't it?" that it almost beats his immaculately judged response to Robin's horrified "Soiled myself!!" as they deceive their dim-witted peasant gaoler to be my moment of the episode.

It's notable that the Doctor at least is fully aware of how absurd the two of them are being. His first thought on losing keys in a foot-fight is "at least Clara didn't see that!" He probably realises a peacock display of masculine one-upmanship could earn them both a slapping.

I'm praising the one-liners (the ornamental plant stand crack is another throwaway gem) and the performances because the plot itself doesn't have too much going for it. Sherwood Forest looks lovely; the alien robots are beautiful pieces of work sadly under-used; Robin and the Sheriff do what Robin and the Sheriff are supposed to do, with a cartoon gang of cardboard cut-outs in the background.

It's amusing to see the outlaw beat his nemesis with a trick out of the Doctor's playbook, but the damaged spaceship/power-crazed human accomplice story is sketchy, lacking originality and - more of a problem to me - any genuine sense of threat. That the Doctor grabs the wrong end of the stick (abetted the misdirection of the title - I expected Robin to be the robot, singular, in question too) is amusing; his confrontation with the Sheriff, getting drawn into banter and rambling to the conclusion that his suggested plan would indeed be a rubbish one, is delightful. Again, it's performance glossing over the narrative depth of a puddle.

As for the finale, with Our Heroes united to fire one last piece of gold into the flying bomb... preposterous is a Doctor Who staple, and that's the kindest thing I can say about it.

I could do without the sledgehammer "legends, stories, you're just as real as I am" nonsense, although I give great credit to both actors for their handling of so much un-reconstituted hokum. It was always obvious who the Doctor's plucky damsel sidekick was going to turn out to be but there's a lot of obvious going on. It really should detract from my enjoyment more.

I'll also grant a bonus point for the split-second glimpse of Patrick Troughton in the aliens' database too: any reference to the Second Doctor is a winner with me!

Doctor Who is a broad church; there'll always be the odd comedy romp among twelve episodes. When it contains the wit and the charismatic performances of Robot of Sherwood, you won't find me complaining much.

"History is a Burden, Stories Can Make Us Fly" by Jason A. Miller 25/11/20

Mark Gatiss is perhaps the most hit-or-miss author in the entire Doctor Who canon -- TV scripts, novels, audio plays -- going all the way back to '63. Like the girl with the curl, when Gatiss is good, he is very very good, and when he is bad, he is horrid. Robot of Sherwood is, fortunately, very, very good indeed. Followed the next season by Sleep No More. Gotta take the rough with the smooth. Gatiss wrote nine stories over New Who's first ten series, and this one, right here, is my favorite. Second place is... a bit further back. Probably Victory of the Daleks for me, and that's not a story that shows up on most second-best lists, now, is it?

What makes Robot of Sherwood sing? This is a straightforward, direct tale, and I detected only one scene written by Moffat (the final dialogue between the Doctor and Robin Hood, discussing whether or not they are real men, or stories). We first hear Clara's idea that she wants to visit Robin Hood at the 30-second mark, Robin Hood laughs his way from the bridge between the cold open and the opening titles, and the episode ends on him (instead of as, on it would do for much of Series 8, a cackling Michelle Gomez). This story's all about Robin Hood, and Gatiss doesn't let up his enjoyment of the Robin Hood mythos for a moment.

Paul Murphy, the director, tells us in the DVD's episode commentary that there are many ways to do Robin Hood: from jocular (Errol Flynn) to gritty (Russell Crowe), and Gatiss settled firmly on the former. This is a witty script, poking fun at all the tropes of the Robin Hood legend. Alan-A-Dale gets to compose several ballads on his lute, there's the reveal that Little John is a short actor, there's a little wink that Robin Hood might be gay (he's more interested in the size of the TARDIS than Clara's dress), and that's Mark Gatiss' husband, by the way, playing Alan. Until the episode ends on the cinematic kiss between Robin and Marian, which settles the score on Robin's sexual preference. So there's Gatiss providing a witty spin on the Robin Hood story. The Merry Men are just as colorful as legend would have them, but they're also human. And Alan's going to be dead in six months -- ha ha!

And the in-jokes are, you know what, funny. The golden hue imbuing Sherwood Forest with an atypical poetic glow (The Doctor: "Have you ever been to Nottingham?") gets a plot explanation. When the eponymous robots (from the future) are revealed to have a databank collecting Robin Hood lure, there's a photo of Patrick Troughton playing the role (a dozen years before The Tenth Planet).

There are also neat-looking killer robots who dispense purple death rays and a very funny archery contest, with Robin and the Doctor constantly one-upping the other by splitting each other's arrows. Ben Miller is a bit one-dimensional and humorless as the Sheriff, but the script doesn't need him to be Alan Rickman, it just needs him to be a straight man for Jenna Coleman's interrogation-by-flirting. So there's not much of a dull moment on offer.

Robot of Sherwood doesn't make too many demands on its audience, and it doesn't play much into the ill-fated Danny Pink story arc that left the rest of Series 8 with a bitter aftertaste. You can watch this one episode in isolation, out of sequence and enjoy its humor and energy and soft golden hues. It's a good script for Clara, who as a companion was in her golden age -- after the Impossible Girl story arc and before the addicted-to-time-travel/face-the-raven story arc, neither of which served the character very well. Clara gets to boss around the Doctor and Robin, look stunning in her gown, and run intellectual circles around the Sheriff.

So, yeah. This is Gatiss's best Doctor Who script. I'm just curious to why none of his others were nearly this good. How does somebody capable of writing Robot of Sherwood, also give us Sleep No More and Night Terrors?