Thus far series eight of Doctor Who has been defined by its dark and brooding tone as Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor raises questions about his own identity and morality while battling an array of creepy foes. Robot of Sherwood, however, sees the show taking a break from such levity by embarking on a light-hearted romp through the midlands that swaps existential pathos for swashbuckling action and plenty of laughs.
The Mark Gatiss-penned episode is geared around the Doctor’s attempts to dispel the notion that his is some sort of mythical hero as he asks Clara, “When did you start believing in impossible heroes?” To prove his point, Twelve agrees to take Clara back to Sherwood Forest to visit the fictional hero she loved as a child, convinced that Robin Hood is mere myth. Imagine his surprise, then, when their arrival is greeted by non-other than the man himself. Maybe the Doctor isn’t as much of a know-it-all as he thinks.
Capaldi’s Doctor has been set-up as a moodier and more abrasive incarnation, but here he is finally given the chance to have more fun with the role. For that he needs a sparring partner, which Gatiss duly provides in the shape of Tom Riley’s Robin Hood, and the duo instantly form a humorous slapstick double-act as they engage in a childish game of one-upmanship to prove who is the real hero of the story.
At first this tonal shift is jarring with Capaldi’s attempts to replicate Matt Smith’s bonkers energy feeling clunky and awkward in comparison to his usual fierceness. Yet he soon settles into a pleasing rhythm with Riley, which is best highlighted by their first encounter that ends with an enthusing sword versus spoon fight. No prizes for guessing who brought the spoon.
We’ve been waiting for Jenna Coleman to be given a more prominent role and though the previous two episodes have offered glimpses of her potential this is the time when Clara really gets to take charge. While the Doctor and Robin Hood squabble over who will get to save the day, Clara takes the lead by engaging the Sheriff of Nottingham in a game of wits that shows-off the kind of quick-thinking and resourcefulness that would make the Doctor proud.
It’s just a shame that Gatiss could not resist turning her into a gooey fangirl whenever she is around Hood because Clara is always a more entertaining character when she challenges her partners rather than pandering to their egos.
The supporting cast also give a good account of themselves, with Tom Riley and Ben Miller putting in superb performances as Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham respectively. Riley adds a thigh-slapping bravura to Hood’s eternal optimism while Miller has fun going camp to play the dastardly Sheriff.
The details of the plot are gradually unveiled as the Sheriff and his robot guard plunder Nottingham’s gold reserves to repair their crash-landed spaceship, which will allow them to overthrow the King of England. Yet as the episode wears on it becomes increasingly apparent that the plot is of little importance. This episode is all about having fun.
Robot of Sherwood may be a nice palette cleanser to the darker tone of earlier episodes, offering a hefty dose of daring adventure and silly humour, but the way in which it introduces interesting ideas about heroism and then fails to expand on them makes it hard to view it as anything more than a throwaway episode: enjoyable enough to pass 45 minutes but unlikely to live long in the memory.
Next week on Doctor Who, we will once again be heading into darkness in the scary-looking Listen, which has the tone of a twisted fairytale as the Doctor warns us to beware of the creepy-beings that hide beneath our beds.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood on iPlayer