Veteran Doctor Who scribe Mark Gatiss is one of those polarizing writers for fans of the show. He’s often good at crafting stories that are light in tone and true to the classic structure of the show but, his lack of plotting and ability to put all the cards in the right order leave many fans annoyed by and for some, an eye roll is induced the moment they know he has a story coming up. I’m not one of those people and find many of his stories entertaining even if they aren’t five stars. They are a necessity to each season as they often don’t act as a continuation of established plot lines but just one offs meant for casual enjoyment. “Robot of Sherwood” is designed for that exact purpose in Series 8 but it comes at a time when the show is breaking new grounds in pursuing a dark path which three weeks in isn’t the best move but it is enjoyable nonetheless even when it’s not working all around.
I think for a viewer it’s important to recognize that the writer is not expecting you to take the nature of it serious because it’s a farce through and through. The boisterous over the top nature of all the support players of Nottingham gets groan worthy at times which is probably the point but knowing this doesn’t stop you from feeling a bit over this whole idea. Robin Hood should be taken with a delicate balance of serious and whimsical. While I’m not looking for Alan Rickman wanting to cut a heart out with a spoon I don’t want Errol Flynn either. Of the supporting players Tom Riley and Ben Miller are the best to watch as they should be as Robin and the Sheriff. There is a nice balance of scenery chewing and civility in both actors’ performances which is a good thing especially on Robin’s end because we have to try to believe that he is real.
It’s nice to see Peter Capaldi display some of those wonderful comic chops but it only works when he is channeling the annoyance and anger of Malcolm Tucker. Some of the goofier moments don’t feel right for this Doctor and even the opening sword/spoon fight sequence while amusing was kind of ridiculous and felt like something an established Doctor should be doing. However a moment like the Doctor’s joy at the notion of punching Robin Hood in the face after one of his many laughs feels exactly like how he should be in this incarnation. I have noticed that there are numerous moments that feel like they should be catered to his predecessor but we are also in the early stages of finding out exactly who this Doctor is so it can be excusable. The scene with the Doctor and Robin shackled together trying to escape didn’t feel quite right but it wasn’t the worst thing to happen here. I’ll take this over Clara getting smacked in the face with a newspaper by Strax any day of the week.
All this works well in my book but it doesn’t excuse the flaws which comes down to story mechanics. My fellow pudding brains don’t think for one second I ignored the episode’s lack of identity and plot consistency. Light comedic romps and discussion points about modern mythology don’t make up for being messy with intent and execution. The story’s tone and its plot about these robots and their castle disguising spaceship try greatly to hide the Doctor’s pursuit of determining whether Robin Hood is real or not. We aren’t too sure why he makes it is his mission to prove this situation wrong and we never really do. I think that is the point of the conversation between the two at the end of the episode. Regardless if someone is real or not if you choose to believe either someone else is or that you are true to who you believe yourself to be that is fine because we need people like that.
Three weeks on I think we have exhausted the initial complaints taken about Clara being portrayed as someone who thought of the Doctor as her boyfriend and being a controlling, ego maniac. After reviewing “Deep Breath” I engaged in a very long discussion with a colleague of mine about how unfortunate that focal point was in the premiere. It has been kept quiet since then but having the word “bossy” ring out through her character’s description to people needs to be reevaluated at best. She is more take charge than anything and being “bossy” comes out of dealing with incompetence.
As entertaining as the dungeon scene with the three of them were you could see Clara’s frustration build as mine did towards the bickering between the Doctor and Robin Hood. The teacher in Clara comes out in full again and now more than ever I am seeing exactly what I had hoped would be given to Clara which is being strong and a problem solver in the wake of her friend being incapable of fulfilling a hero template. Being a hero seems to play a big part here and the Doctor and Robin’s final conversation about the notions of mythology and being a story rings true. The British take great pride in their mythical heroes and we get two of them on screen together or so are told to believe. Heroes that inspire don’t seem to come around very often these days and they are needed. While Clara’s initial annoying glee towards meeting a hero of hers was rather stupid her ability to assess the situation and take charge quickly was great because she believes in the notion of a hero’s ability to inspire real or fake but as this story says both the Doctor and Robin Hood are only as real as people want them to be or as they are to themselves.
I don’t think “Robot of Sherwood” is going to win any awards but I don’t think it’s going to be the most hated episode in the show’s current run either. You would have to be made of stone to not find some enjoyment here but once again it is a story that tries to blind us from its greatest flaws and serves as a standalone from the rest of the season’s direction. Looking at the preview for next week’s episode “Listen” it looks like we are going to get some of the creepiest stuff we have had in a while so having this one off comedy, especially one with such obvious plot holes, feels out of place. “Robot of Sherwood” has a lot that could have made it great and it has solid repeat value if you just want a good laugh but it’s too much too soon and it often wanders around lost in its own museum of creativity.
Jason Stives is the resident Anglophile and Pop-Break representative for BBC America conducting weekly reviews of Doctor Who and Orphan Black. He is currently a contributing writer for PropertyofZack.com and a freelance creative consultant for fundraising and marketing campaigns in New Jersey’s various art communities. He is a graduate of Rutgers University’s class of 2010 with a bachelors in Journalism and Media Studies. When he isn’t attending concerts or writing the great American novel he moonlights as lounge crooner J.M Heavyhart turning the works of Dokken and Dio into Sinatra-esque standards (or at least he would like to be). Follow his constant retweets and occasionally witty banter on Twitter at @jaystives.