Confession: I missed the last 30 seconds or so of “Into the Dalek”, so I didn’t hear Clara say that she didn’t have a rule against soldiers. This lightened my attitude toward her a bit, and made the ending more tolerable, since she clearly feels something about leaving Journey Blue behind.
“Robot of Sherwood” is surprisingly good. I expected to dislike it; the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Louise-Coleman) meet Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) and robots. I don’t like the Robin Hood legend, and robots appear as villains too often in Doctor Who. But this is my favorite episode of series 8 Doctor Who so far. It does pretty much everything right, even the goofy ending.
Clara gets to pick the destination this time, and she insists on Robin Hood (Kevin Costner). The Doctor claims he isn’t real, but lands in 1190 Sherwood Forest. Robin greets the Doctor with an arrow and tries to mug him. The Doctor pulls out a dueling glove and a large spoon.
They duel on a log over a stream and the Doctor knocks Robin into the water with a fancy move. The episode is full of Robin Hood tropes, and the duel means you’re in with Robin’s gang. He takes Clara and the Doctor to his hideout, where Clara joins the ranks of Companions creating history by dubbing Robin’s group the “Merry Men.” She and Robin talk, while the Doctor takes hair, blood, and “other” samples from the Merry Men for testing. The Doctor is convinced Robin is not real, and remains so for most of the episode.
The Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Miller) and masked Knights kidnap peasants for labor and steal gold from the rest. When a peasant mouths off, the Sheriff kills him with a great pre-mortem one liner: “You’ll live to regret that… Actually, you won’t.” He also sets up the classic trap for Robin Hood (Sean Connery), an archery contest.
The best scenes in this episode are all silly. When Robin enters the contest, he wins by splitting the Sheriff’s arrow in two. Before he can claim the gold arrow as his prize, the Doctor splits that arrow. He and Robin one-up each other until the Doctor gets exasperated and blows up the target. The Sheriff arrests them, and the knights reveal themselves as robots. The Doctor is smug and glad, and surrenders quickly.
The rivalry between Robin and the Doctor deepens in the dungeon. Clara acts as the moderating voice, but even she gets fed up. A guard picks her as the leader, and takes her away. While she interrogates the Sheriff, Robin and the Doctor try to escape. They knock out the guard, but both try to grab the keys and accidentally kick them away. The Doctor says, “Well, there is a bright side here. Clara didn’t see that.”
Clara is at her best in the interrogation. She leads the Sheriff on without ever becoming as sleazy as he is, and gets his plans, his history, and his motivations. She pretends to have met the robots as well, and the eagerness with which the Sheriff believes her is pathetic. The Sheriff is my favorite villain so far because he is believable. He feels ill-used and lonely, but he’s also a total creep when he hits on Clara. He seems somewhat insane, as he rambles on about a vague plan to conquer England, then “the WORLD!” with the robots’ spaceship.
The Doctor and Robin stumble into that same ship, and the Doctor searches the computer. He finds references to Robin Hood (Tom Riley), and tries to tear him down as a fake. He loathes the idea that Robin might actually exist. The Sheriff finds them, but Robin escapes with Clara as the Doctor is captured again.
The Doctor creates a riot with the kidnapped peasants, and nearly breaks out before the Sheriff appears. He claims the Sheriff and Robin are in on the plot together, but the Sheriff points out: “Why would we create an enemy to fight us? What sense would that make? That would be a terrible idea.” Seriously, the Sheriff is super-cool. He baffles the Doctor with common sense. The Doctor is forced to realize he’s wrong about Robin.
Robin and Clara reappear to save the Doctor. The ending has an odd misstep: the Doctor and Clara stand and watch while Robin duels the Sheriff. The episode is paced so well that this really stood out. Robin knocks the Sheriff into the vat of molten gold, but the ship takes off. Without more gold it won’t reach orbit, and the exploding engines will take out half of England!
The gold arrow is so, so goofy, but it fits the episode. I see it as a reaffirmation of heroes doing impossible things. Before leaving, the Doctor and Robin talk about heroes. The Doctor despises heroes and legends. Robin and the Merry Men are both. They fight impossible odds, laugh at death, and show up just in time. Robin says he’s not a hero, but by pretending he inspires others.
This shakes the Doctor up. It’s been a while since we’ve gotten a real character arc, so this is especially welcome. Both Robin and the Doctor started off as similar characters, but with a drastic difference: Robin believes in heroes, the Doctor does not. Robin Hood is impossible to the Doctor. He knows from long experience that silly heroics don’t save the day.
The gold arrow saves the day, though, against good sense and gravity. It shows that heroes are rewarded. The scene is ridiculous I think because believing in the Doctor and Robin Hood is ridiculous. The success of the arrow mirrors their own possible success as actual, big damn heroes.
Other things of interest: What is the Doctor writing on the blackboard as the episode begins? It looks similar to his scrawling in “Deep Breath.” And where was Missy? I expected her to pick up the Sheriff. We see his hands, covered in dripping gold, reaching out of the vat. I hope he comes back. Finally, why do only robots believe in the Promised Land?
images © BBC