When it comes to Doctor Who, sometimes silliness is a bug, and sometimes it’s a feature.
It’s important to keep that in mind when you’re talking about this week’s episode. “Robot of Sherwood” is a mostly ridiculous story, but it’s so by design. On its surface, it’s little more than an excuse to have fun with the tropes of both Robin Hood and the Doctor.
And I pretty much loved it.
A brief expositional digression here: When Doctor Who was first conceived, in those glory days of Sidney Newman and Verity Lambert, the programme encompassed two genres. One, of course, was the obvious sci-fi story we’ve all come to expect in the five decades since. The other would place the Doctor and his companions into different historical periods and places, where they would interact with the figures therein and provide the educational content expected of a children’s show in the 60s.
“Robot of Sherwood” is Mark Gatiss’s latest historical tale for the series. In the past, Gatiss’s efforts have deftly moved between laughs and chills: “The Unquiet Dead” balanced a genuinely creepy ghost story with the utter charm of Simon Callow as Charles Dickens, while “Cold War” combined a paranoid submarine thriller with some of the funniest moments of David Warner’s career (his entrance alone is priceless).
Here, Gatiss has abandoned all pretense to frighten. There’s a plot, to be fair, involving the Sheriff of Nottingham – played with almost Masterful glee by Ben Miller – and his plans for world conquest using mysterious alien technology. But the real story of this episode is a battle of wits, faiths, and eating utensils between Robin Hood and the Doctor. Yes, I said “eating utensils” – Peter Capaldi may well be the only human on Earth who could pull off a swordfight with a spoon.
(With the possible exception of Alan Rickman, of course.)
The Doctor just cannot accept that the legendary outlaw could possibly be a real person. And it doesn’t help that the person who makes the claim embodies all the cliches that come with the name. But it definitely helps the viewer that Tom Riley is playing Robin. From the Errol Flynn laugh to those damnable green tights, Riley glories in playing to our expectations of what Robin Hood should be… right until Robin’s own expectations are broken by the Doctor’s suspicions. Somehow, in that moment, the legend becomes a flesh-and-blood human.
It’s in that same moment that the man becomes the legend. And that’s the theme of this episode. What is a hero? Is such a being even possible?
The Doctor makes a big show to claim that it isn’t. But then again, his disbelief in Robin likely stems from his disbelief in himself. For all his banter and snark, Twelve is still nursing his disappointment and regret over the events of “Into the Dalek.” He can’t believe in Robin because the outlaw’s strength only serves to magnify his own weakness.
But that’s where Clara comes in.
Jenna Coleman’s performance here is a wonderful payoff to her work in “Deep Breath” and “Into the Dalek.” It’s Clara the Control Freak who gets the better of Robin, the Doctor, AND Nottingham (who clearly didn’t hear Twelve’s advice to Half-Face Man). It’s Clara the Carer who encourages Robin to embrace the legend he will become. And it’s Clara the Pal who gives us the episode’s most touching moment, a deceptively simple exchange with the Doctor:
“When did you start believing in impossible heroes?”
“Don’t you know?”
If Clara’s getting used to Twelve’s flaws, she hasn’t given up on the brave, compassionate spirit she used to know. And if Twelve’s character arc for Series 8 is learning to embrace the better part of himself, then maybe Clara’s role is to continue to fight for that part, to remind him that he hasn’t lost it. A good man who goes to war can still be a good man.
As good as he was in “Deep Breath,” as good as he was in “Into the Dalek,” he’s still brilliant here. But “Robot of Sherwood” brings something more. For perhaps the first time since his regeneration, we see a trace of hope in the Doctor. Whether it’s the character finally learning to embrace himself again, or Capaldi’s sheer joy in playing the role of a lifetime (I’ll argue it’s a lot of both), there’s just something special about watching him in this episode.
In the seven seasons since Doctor Who returned, we’ve seen the character become an obvious hero. But with Series 8, we’ve seen that stripped away. The Twelfth Doctor is deeply flawed. He screws up, and screws up badly. He kind of hates himself for it. He does not, can not, will not believe that someone as messed up as he thinks he is can be a hero.
And that’s EXACTLY the kind of person we love to root for.
Crazy as it sounds, this most unlikely of heroes might end up being the most heroic. This most alien of Doctors might end up being the most human of them all.
And that’s kind of dazzling to consider.
Thanks once again for following along. Until next time…