Doctor Who: 803 “Robot of Sherwood” Review
Reviewed by John Hussey.
Once again Mark Gatiss has been given the slot of Episode Three (the third time to be precise) and once again has been given the job to deliver a unique script to help the transition of the new Doctor after his introduction episodes. And I will happily give credit to the man; he’s pulled it off again and even exceeded himself.
I’ve been a fan of Gatiss since his work on The League of Gentlemen, working alongside fellow friends Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (who would both respectively gain roles within the Doctor Who universe along with Gatiss). One thing that has always stood out about Gatiss’ work is his love for dark comedy and horror. This has been reflected within all of his scripts to date with his first outing in ‘The Unquiet Dead’ being a prime example through his usage of zombies and ghosts. However ‘Robot of Sherwood’ did not share those traits in high esteem nor really resembled a typical Gatiss story. This I found to be all the more exciting as it meant that Gatiss stepped out of his comfort zone and delivered something a bit different.
We had already seen within ‘Victory of the Daleks’ and ‘Cold War’ that Gatiss could write outside of the horror genre and centred himself around war which he pulled off effectively twice along with being able to handle two separate Classic villains. This time however Gatiss engaged within a very light-hearted story filled with adventure. Though the story itself was not without its dark moments, so in that respect Gatiss has still got it.
The interesting factor was the incorporation of Robin Hood. We’ve already seen Gatiss tackle historic characters before with Charles Dickens and Winston Churchill. Gatiss’ strongest point within his work is his extensive research which allows him to depict his historical settings with precision. Robin Hood however lies on the mythological side of history and thus research alone wasn’t enough for this job. What we got was borderline cliché. Now I don’t use the word cliché in a bad sense, merely to emphasise that throughout the adventure we clearly received what was to be expected out of a Robin Hood story. A dashing young hero stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, his excellent bow-skills, the Merry Men, Little John (who was actually quite little for once), Friar Tuck, Maid Marion, the Sheriff of Nottingham and of course the splitting of the bow during a tournament.
Cliché isn’t a bad thing and in this case it simply means that Gatiss has gone out of his way to tick all the relevant boxes to deliver a believable story within the legend, i.e. give us what we’d expect to see. I really felt like we were watching a Robin Hood tale, only the Doctor got caught up for the ride. What I’m trying to say is Gatiss did a bloody good job and I think this might be my new favourite from him (sorry ‘The Crimson Horror’, I guess you were last year’s news).
Onto the Doctor I suppose (after all I am supposed to be reviewing Doctor Who not Robin Hood). The Twelfth Doctor’s character within this week’s instalment was a radical change to his first two stories. What we’d seen so far was a very non-human, no nonsense man who came across as very dark and unfriendly. This week however we saw a more fun side to him and thus his comedic nature came through, something we haven’t seen since his post- regenerative trauma. I suppose some would claim that the episode was more written for Matt Smith’s Doctor but I think that would be inaccurate. I felt that the Twelfth Doctor didn’t feel out of place with this type of behaviour because he wasn’t intentionally coming across as daft but actually demonstrating his lack of understanding.
One of the Twelfth Doctor’s characteristics that have been declared over his first two stories is his massive ego. The Twelfth Doctor barges into a situation wishing and hoping he holds all the cards and boasts about this. However he doesn’t like the tables being turned against him and making him seem like a fool. He hates being wrong. Nearly the entire plot the Twelfth Doctor tried desperately to prove to Clara, and essentially the audience, that his theory of Robin Hood being fiction was true. At every given moment he tried desperately to prove his theory right, even to the point of being blinded by the truth in front of him and making up analysis’s based around his own theory.
It was great to see the villain of the piece actually inform the Twelfth Doctor that his ideas were ridiculous and clearly didn’t make sense. Why would the Sheriff of Nottingham created an enemy to fight just for the sake of it? That would be hard work and above all pointless, not to mention creating an adversary that could potentially hinder the plan at hand. This entire episode, and scene in particular, showcased that the Doctor can be wrong and that he isn’t always right. He doesn’t always hold the facts and has to be informed of this from time to time.
The part I loved most about the story was the continuous banter between the Twelfth Doctor and Robin Hood. I mean the idea of the Doctor becoming so determined to prove himself right he becomes childish and obstructive is a great idea in itself anyway. The competition between the two was played out well by both Peter Capaldi and Tom Riley. There was chemistry there, flare and some true competiveness showcased. Not only did the Twelfth Doctor try desperately to prove Robin as being a fake but also in some cases tried to outdo him with Robin almost doing the same back to prove his title to be legit. The sword and spoon fight, the bow and arrow tournament and the dungeon scene all had their showcasing of this continuous battle which proved to be most entertaining.
Due to their bickering in the dungeon scene I could tell from a mile off that Clara would be taken away and not them two, probably due to them being thought of as idiotic and unworthy of being the leader. Clara was made less impressed by them both competing for the best plan of action and even competing on how long one could outlast the other in starving, the Twelfth Doctor quickly boasting due to him being a Time Lord. The final straw was when their competitive nature led to a blundering, i.e. their key to salvation falling down a drain.
Speaking of Clara, I found her character to be on the top of her game this week. Her excitement over Robin Hood was a fun aspect to be explored and helped to emphasis her loyalty to the Doctor later on in the story. I also loved her strong and determined mind throughout the story challenging the Twelfth Doctor’s motives and in doing so being the better character by actually engaging with the world around her instead of bickering about it. Once again she used a psychological approach to outwit her enemy, like with the Half-Face Man in ‘Deep Breath’, and made the Sheriff reveal the truth behind his intentions and the origins of the robots.
How can we forget Ben Miller’s fantastic performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham? I liked Miller in Primeval so I was well and truly excited to hear he was coming to Doctor Who to play a villain. He played the part well and even gave Alan Rickman a run for his money. I felt his character was ruthless and yet likable, a bit like Rickman’s portrayal of the character in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He also had his moments of comedy, most notably him getting angry and hitting one of the robots, only to quickly regret the action through his indication of pain. Also his plans didn’t seem out of place. It would’ve been easy to say the Sheriff’s motives ascended higher into universal conquest but I’m glad Gatiss kept them small and within character and the times of the story. Also like with ‘The Time Warrior’ his understanding of the science-fiction elements were handled with care and were made to seem believable reactions, which I guess helped through the Sheriff being a more intellectual character. Also I loved how the Sheriff was somewhat unhinged due to his unexpected anger spurts.
The robots were a nice addition to the story as well and held onto an easy-going storyline of using gold to repair their ship’s engines in order to escape. Due to this plan they then stopped being a direct threat and became a more natural threat through the ship exploding upon attempted take-off because of its lack of resources. I also liked how the story-arc was cleverly incorporated. It wasn’t forced, just nicely put in to allow a moment of intrigue and reminder of the overall story-arc. The robots destination routed them to be going to ‘the promised lands’ to which the Twelfth Doctor immediately picked up on and commented about, looking back at the Half-Face Man and his ideas of the so-called Paradise. This so-called place makes you wonder if Missy’s statement to the Half-Face Man about him reaching his promised land was true or not. Is her Heaven really Heaven or some sort of trap concealed by the promise of salvation? It is a very intriguing scenario that lingers on the mind each week as it slowly gets revealed into the bigger picture. I liked how the Twelfth Doctor was engaged with the story- arc instead of just brushing it off as a passing moment. The action of the story immediately came back in afterwards, making the transition between the two story-elements seem all the more smooth and in place.
I liked how this week’s reflection of the Twelfth Doctor’s characteristics was done through the idea of a hero’s story. The entire plot of ‘Robot of Sherwood’ engaged with comparing Robin Hood to the Doctor. The Twelfth Doctor tried to shun out the possibility that Robin Hood could be based on truth. In reality the Doctor’s own back-story and ongoing adventures resemble that of a legend or myth. The irony of the Twelfth Doctor judging another person for their so-called fairytale adventures as being a mere story really does make you question about how the Doctor thinks about himself. He made it clear during the last scene that he didn’t think of himself as a hero, which reflected my analysis of his character last week, i.e. him not being a true hero and not wanting people’s praise. I do love though that there was the connection between the two characters and that in the end the Twelfth Doctor had respect for Robin Hood. The Twelfth Doctor’s story had come full circle and he was able to show defeat over his earlier claims.
The end scene was made all the more compelling upon the Twelfth Doctor’s knowledge that Clara looked up to him as a hero. Her admiration towards Robin Hood was almost a comparison of how she looks up to the Doctor which was a nice touch to the story and the overall chemistry between the two. It was her belief in him and his whimsical tales that made Robin Hood look at him as an equal in terms of roles. The other nice touch was Robin’s speech declaring whether or not the Doctor would be remembered in the future. It is an interesting idea that one day when the Doctor does meet his maker that he too could become a mere legend like Robin Hood, an aspiring hero to the people of the universe.
I can happily say that ‘Robot of Sherwood’ has been my favourite episode so far and thought it hit everything right and fulfilled in being a fun, adventurous story whilst still maintaining the new darker themes of Capaldi’s era. Well done Gatiss for another wonderful addition to the Whoniverse.