You know what I could do with? A good, olde-timey, Doctor-Who-style adventure. Sure shenanigans inside a Dalek had their rollicks, and of course a plot involving dinosaurs and organ-harvesting robo-people in Victorian London is game for a quest, but they all seem a bit… well… fidgey-widgey in the plot department. There’s too much and it goes everywhere; discussions on morality, the nature of soldiering, the existential terror of change, a small cafe outside of Lisbon,
EVERYWHERE! I just wish we could take the time to sit back in front of our telly machines while a series of knowingly silly, light-hearted and well-written escapades occur before our eyes. Nothing dour, nothing frumpy, nothing complicated. Can we do that? Has serialised television changed so much that if it does anything suddenly different in tone we as an audience simply up-end our tables and bray blue murder? In Dutch?
With all the above in mind here’s a review for Doctor Who episode three: Robot of Sherwood.
I’m so glad ‘Doctor Who’ is a family show. I may actually send a muffin in the post to Steven Moffat (a Moffat Muffin?) and a cake to Mark Gatiss (a Gatiss Gateaux? I’m here all week!) for reminding us all that Doctor Who can be pure and silly fun. Not all the time, obviously, but do you remember Tom Baker’s scarf and propensity for Jelly Babies? Peter Davison’s token piece of celery? Matt Smith’s fez? Now imagine that level of quirky irreverence for a whole episode, but with robots and Robin Hood. Okay, now tone it down a smidge.
So the Doctor asks Clara, out of all of time and all of space and all of their sum, where she’d love to go most of all. She makes a giggly face and mentions Robin Hood, which causes a splendid range of rancour and disbelief to dance over Peter Capaldi’s face. Having been the one who asked, The Doctor submits to Clara’s request and off they trot to merry old England circa 1190AD, our man from Gallifrey still doubting the very existence of Monsieur Hood up to the point a man in a very distinct green outfit puts an arrow into the TARDIS and respectfully inclines to relieving it from The Doctor’s possession.
As suspect as ‘The Doctor Meets Robin Hood’ may sound the interplay between Capaldi and Tom Riley’s Robin Hood is spot-on, with Riley’s manifestation of the legendary outlaw happily doing a jig on the border of over-the-top to which Capaldi’s Doctor gets a right royal time of trying to out-do/debunk in that schoolboy manner of his. The fact that Riley’s Robin Hood and the present situation meet so many of the legend’s clichés (the outfit, the unsettling sunniness of Nottingham, the eeeeeevil Sheriff, the nigh-on-persistently laughing band of none-more-obvious ‘Merry Men’) only fuels The Doctor’s suspicions that something is amiss (“Have you ever been to Nottingham?”) and makes it his mission to find out whatever it is that’s upsetting him so, if indeed it’s anything at all. That doesn’t stop him from engaging in a brief river-based sword/spoon fight with our suspicious outlaw chum, though. A man’s got to protect his blue box after all.
As for Clara, she dresses up for the occasion and generally nerds out over Robin Hood recounting her knowledge and generally fangirling around the charming cove. It kind of flies in the face of what she said in the series opener about not falling for a pretty ‘un, but she is meeting her lifelong hero after all. Can you honestly say you’d keep your composure? If you can then I can’t hear as you as I’m all the way on the other side of the internet.
Anyway. This being a suspiciously obvious Robin Hood scenario naturally there’s an archery competition that Robin just has to take part in, not only to win the coveted golden arrow but also to show up that no-good, gosh-dang evil Sheriff of Nottingham (played with sneering, beardy, gold-craving assurance by Ben Miller aka: the man who voices the PG Tips Monkey). Things go as you’d expect if not for the sudden appearance of The Doctor, some homing-device-embedded arrows and a sonic screwdriver with its setting on ‘explode things’. Events naturally take a nose dive and in an attempt to save the day with some swashbuckling derring-do, Robin chops off a guard’s arm. But wait! That’s no guard! That’s a robot! With face lasers! Following a succession of pew-pew-pews, The Doctor, Clara and Robin allow themselves to be captured and find out, just what the flip is going on.
Robin and The Doctor trade squabbly barbed words in their jail cell, with Clara having to go all school teacher on them in order to get them to calm down. This leads the jailer to assume Clara is in charge and swiftly sends her off to meet with the Sheriff, who, over a rather delightful-looking dinner, reveals his plans and intentions a la a classic Bond Villain.
Through sly and childish plans, The Doctor and Robin escape their cell and make their way into the heart of the sheriff’s castle which (dun-dun-duuuuuun) is actually a spaceship destined for ‘The Promised Land’ or ‘Paradise’ or whatever they’re calling it. The ship’s robots disguised themselves as armoured guards and blended in the environment in order to gather gold from the locals, melt it down into spare parts and repair their craft. In order to keep the population from breaking, The Doctor theorises, the robots created a villain and an opiate: the Sheriff and Robin Hood, they would keep everyone in check psychologically.
Unfortunately the ship is venting fuel, causing a minor greenhouse effect in Nottingham, and if it ever takes off, due to the insufficient amount of gold in its repairs, will fail to make orbit and ultimately explode taking England with it. Due to events, The Doctor is kidnapped (again) and Robin makes an escape with Clara.
With the clock ticking things go all Errol Flynn with The Doctor staging a prison riot using golden plates and trays and Robin Hood squaring off against the sheriff, all the while The Doctor’s theories are disproved: the Sheriff is just a greedy fellow who wants to take over the world with a flying fortress and Robin Hood is, well… a puckish medieval rogue. Robin knocks the sheriff into a boiling pot of gold, the prisoners get saved and everyone makes a run for it, which would be great if not for the whole, y’know, exploding England thing. But hang on a tick, don’t our heroes have a golden arrow that when fired from a longbow could give the ship the boost in gold it needs to make orbit before exploding? Yes. Yes they do, but only together can they steady and aim the bow at the spaceship. Cue works both team and fire.
The whole, Doctor-meets-significant-historical-figure-but-oh-nelly-something-is-rotten-in-the-state-of-Denmark thing is one of my personal favourite story arcs that happen on Doctor Who (see Vincent and The Doctor’ as to why), and whilst the past few episodes have borrowed heavily from earlier ideas and overly-trodden ground this one has been the best by far. Not because unexpected plot happened and not because of wild character development. It was an adventure in time and space, and every now and then we need that from Doctor Who.
I will grant that the episode’s deeper attempt at exploring what it is to be a hero, nay, a legend in the eyes of someone were nicely flirted with. I’d much rather Doctor Who dance around such introspective concepts with a berth wider than that joke about your mum than to dive head-first into them and try to unravel itself like a kitten made of wool. That’s our job, Doctor Who. Not yours.
Some would say Robot of Sherwood was simple. Some might even call it predictable. Harsher people would call it lazy, derivative and uninspiring to the point of crippling lethargy. But those kinds of people had better check themselves before they wreck themselves over a Saturday evening family television show. This episode was good old fashioned fun: Capaldi was great, Jenna Coleman was great, Tom Riley was great, Ben Miller was great, the writing was great, it was just (not to bludgeon the point home) great. Not everything has to have a narrative like spaghetti soup to be enjoyable, you know. Sometimes you just need a good premise, a bit of an adventure, a pinch of rivalry and an appreciation of spoons.