Mark Gatiss has always been a bit hit and miss with his Who episodes recently, but when he pens a good one, it is really very good. Robot of Sherwood is nothing short of a triumph, riotously funny from start to finish, steeped in the history of Robin Hood (and others) on screen, but with a melancholy undercurrent as the Doctor continues to question his ability to be a good man. It may be more of a filler episode in that we don't get to see Missy, but it does still tie into an ongoing arc of the series as well as exploring more about this Doctor and his identity crisis.
Everything about this episode is a lovingly crafted Robin Hood greatest hits; the narrative is the traditional one (up to a point) where the Sheriff is gathering gold from the peasants of Nottingham and Robin is an outlaw trying to put a stop to him with his band of Merry Men. There's even an archery contest for crying out loud, which also gets wonderfully silly as well as a swashbuckling swordfight to finish it all off. Tom Riley apes Errol Flynn beautifully (with a dash of Cary Elwes) as the green-clad outlaw, from the much-mocked hearty laugh to the hand-on-hips pose. He has a wonderful chemistry with Capaldi and their constant bickering is one of the episode's highlights.
The episode itself is packed full of references, not only to Robin Hood on screen (the Doctor fighting Robin with a spoon may be my personal favourite), but also to plenty of other things besides. There's a historical Henry II reference, a nod to Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks Sr & Jr and their habit of using a dagger to descend a sail/banner. However, they're not just references for the sake of it, but build into the ongoing exploration of the Doctor as a hero.
Absolutely determined that Robin Hood can't be real because these old fashioned heroes simply don't exist, the Doctor spends much of the episode trying to prove that this is the case. He even confronts Robin with the tales and films that sprung out of his legend, but only manages to confirm that the outlaw was indeed real, but got lost amongst the stories that were told of his bravery. What the Doctor can't quite process is just how similar the two are and perhaps the only duff note in the episode is when Robin explains that the Doctor's humble beginnings are remarkably parallel to his own.
The Doctor has been consistently facing questions about his own heroics throughout the three episodes so far and Capaldi's gloriously bleak interpretation of the Gallifrey man has built into that constant questioning. In last week's episode, the Doctor is faced with his old nemesis telling him that he is a good Dalek, a better version of the genocidal killing machine. This week, he faces both Clara Robin Hood telling him that he is a hero. That final statement rescues the thudding comparison into something much more meaningful; they're not heroes really. They're just very good at pretending to be. With the less cuddly, more willing to send people to their deaths Doctor that Capaldi plays, that idea of pretence is an interesting one, particularly when considering everything that occurred with the idea of masks and faces in Deep Breath.
It's certainly the funniest episode so far this series with one liners and fast-paced bickering the order of the day. After the more serious explorations of Deep Breath and Into the Dalek, the sheer silliness of Robot of Sherwood offers a welcome breath of fresh air, but unlike some other silly episodes, it maintains the quality of the episodes so far. The Doctor's identity crisis is something that looks like it will continue to define this series, tying into Missy's efforts in 'Heaven' perhaps. Either way, it's been a long while since Doctor Who has been consistently this good and consistently this exciting. Let's hope it continues.
You can check out Jen's thoughts on Into the Dalek here.
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