Dave-El here with Day Two of Doctor Who Weekend as we look back at Saturday's new episode, Robot of Sherwood.
First of all, a shout out to the fun crowd at Geeksboro Coffehouse Cinema where the El family goes to watch the new episodes. We've kind of gotten hooked on the energy of watching Doctor Who with a hundred other fans. (We're also hooked on their strawberry-peach smoothies. Hmmmmm! Smoothies!)
Before I get to review of the new Doctor Who episode, I must remind you I will discuss details of the episode that might spoil things if you haven't seen it yet.
That said, I will begin the review after the spoiler warning below!
Man, that scares me every week!
So now down to business
A story by Mark Gatiss is usually a good bet. Not to say Gatiss hasn't had his misfires (Night Terrors from Series 6, anyone?) but there are some real gems among his scripts: The Unquiet Dead for the 9th Doctor and last year's The Crimson Horror with the 11th Doctor are probably my two favorites Mark Gatiss stories.
I may have to add Robot of Sherwood to that list.
It starts off with an offer from the Doctor to go anywhere that Clara would like. She choose to go back in time and meet Robin Hood. The Doctor protests that Robin Hood is not real even as he reluctantly sets the TARDIS in motion to the year 1190...ish.
The Doctor continues to protests the existence of Robin Hood even as an arrow strikes the TARDIS.
Standing there in the forest as big as life is Robin Hood. While the Doctor continues to doubt the veracity of Robin Hood's existence, it doesn't stop him from getting into a duel with Robin: sword vs. spoon. (Spoon wins! For a moment.)
The Doctor and Clara meet the rest of the Merry Men. Well, they're not called that until Clara calls them that. Robin and the gang thinks its a wonderful idea. Robin and his men seem to do a lot of laughing which irritates the Doctor to no end even as he stalks about their camp, plucking hair samples and asking for other kinds of (ahem!) samples.
The story leads to the archery contest that is central to the Robin Hood legend as Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham keep hitting the target in the center. The Doctor enters and he's firing off arrows and he's hitting the center of the target. Until he proclaims all this as silly and brings the contest to a decisive end. (Target goes boom!)
A battle ensues as the Sheriff's knights are revealed to be robots. The Doctor gets himself captured along (more or less deliberately) with Robin Hood and Clara which ends up with the trio chained up in a dungeon. The Doctor and Robin get into an escalating war of taunts and insults. (Robin's laugh particularly irks the Doctor.) A guard outside has been listening to determine which of these three is the leader. He takes Clara.
Clara has a chat with the Sheriff and promptly wraps him around her finger as he tells her stuff (instead of the other way around which is how the Sheriff thought it would go when had her brought to him). The Sheriff's robot knights are from space and the castle is actually a disguised space ship that the Sheriff wants to get back into flying shape so he can conquer the world. (To be fair, he intends to get there very incrementally.)
After one escape plan fails specifically due to Robin and the Doctor's competing egos, they manage to make their way to the sleek control room of the space ship. There they encounter the Sheriff and Clara. Robin makes his escape with Clara in tow while the Doctor winds up in chains again. He's not there for long thanks to the help of a well timed peasant revolt. But the Doctor is not out of danger yet but no fear, Robin Hood is here and enters the fray in spectacular fashion. The Sheriff is defeated and all the good guys escape before the castle...er, space ship blasts off. Thanks to some clever cooperation between Robin Hood and the Doctor with help from Clara, the day is saved.
Things end with the Doctor and Clara saying goodbye to Robin Hood. Here we have a most insightful conversation between the Doctor and Robin Hood on what it means to be a hero, a legend. The Doctor has no part of it; he does not see himself as a hero. Robin says Clara does and suggests the Doctor should be okay with that. Being heroes creates stories to tell and stories never end.
This is a rollicking episode of adventure and humor that entertains all the way through. Robin Hood IS a fictional concept, really, (as far as we know, right?) but by embracing him as an historical figure and then hanging on for dear life as Robin actually does all that derring do that we've seen in the movies, we upend our expectations. We keep waiting for the big reveal, that Robin Hood is indeed not who he says he is. The Doctor is sure of it and so are the viewers. So when Robin Hood starts doing Robin Hood stuff, we find ourselves actually enamored with the tropes of the Robin Hood of movies and the Doctor finds himself is in an unusual state: surprised.
Tom Riley is amazing as Robin Hood, throwing himself into the part with gusto. When we first meet Robin, Tom's really playing into the idealized movie concept of Robin Hood which gives the characterization a surreal quality, something that makes us as convinced as the Doctor that this isn't real. But as the episode progresses, Tom dials it back a bit, making Robin seem more and more real even as he continues to do fantastic things.
And then there's Clara. Her almost schoolgirl like glee at meeting Robin Hood and his Merry Men (proving the Doctor wrong is just a bonus) is infectious but not over the top. When the Doctor and Robin Hood won't stop bickering in the dungeon, it's Clara who has to set things straight, leading the guard outside to determine Clara is the leader of the group. And Jenna Coleman really shines in Clara's scene with the Sheriff as she plays him like a cheap fiddle to get him to tell her what's going on.
For the past two weeks, I've spoken in glowing terms about my enjoyment of the first two episodes but also about my frustration with what I see as missteps at the very end of each of those episodes. Did Robot of Sherwood stick the landing or is there a stumble at the end?
As the TARDIS vanishes, Robin Hood's true reward for all that he has done is revealed. And it's a scene that does not quite ring as sweetly and true as one might expect from these things. It was an element that I think required more development earlier so that the reveal would mean more. Instead, I imagine someone, maybe Mark Gatiss or Steven Moffat, slapping their forehead and exclaiming, "Wait! We can't do a Robin Hood story without Maid Marian!" To me, that's kind of how that last bit plays like, "Oh here's a big part of the Robin Hood legend that we didn't have time for earlier in the episode so here she is now, good bye."
So yeah, I'm calling it a misstep. Sorry.*
*Hello. Me again. I just realized that the woman we see a couple of times in the castle who helps the Doctor was Maid Marian all along. So there was some set up after all, I guess. Still, seemed out of nowhere to me anyway.**
**Sorry, butting into my own post again. I mentioned this to my wife and daughter who were both incredulous that I missed the "the woman in the castle was Maid Marian all along" thing. They thought it was quite obvious. So fine. I'm a pudding brain and it wasn't a misstep
Still, I would rate Robot of Sherwood a success. A great story paired with great acting from Jenna Coleman and Tom Riley as well as the Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi. While we have seen the darker and edgier Doctor we were promised, Peter's Doctor has a wicked wit that is almost Malcolm Tucker-ish. Prime example: "Do people ever punch you in the face when you do that? Lucky I’m here then.”
Peter Capaldi's Doctor may be taking us into darkness but so far, we're having a good time going there.
See you here next week.
I'm So Glad My Suffering Amuses You