Peter Capaldi continues his turn as the most dangerous curmudgeon in the universe in “Robot of Sherwood” by Mark Gatiss. Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald) shines in this episode, and Tom Riley of Da Vinci’s Demons is the perfect choice to guest star as Robin Hood. While not without its problems, “Robot of Sherwood” left me content and wanting more. Spoilers ahead.
The plot contains no real surprises. It’s a standard “Doctor meets legendary figure and discovers a gang of shipwrecked aliens preying on the population to repair their spacecraft” story. Gatiss does get points for pacing, though. Every turn of the plot is exactly where it should be. The episode doesn’t drag and it isn’t rushed. If you’re going to write to a formula, this is the way to do it. While the plot doesn’t make for a serendipitous experience, it gives the actors and production crew plenty to work with, and the acting and production are the two elements of this episode that make it memorable. Gatiss also does a good job weaving in references to earlier film incarnations of Robin Hood.
Clara convinces the Doctor to take her to meet Robin Hood, her favorite legendary figure. The Doctor claims Robin Hood never really existed, but takes her to Sherwood Forest c. 1190 anyway. They encounter Robin Hood the minute they step out of the TARDIS. There’s a memorable duel in which Robin Hood uses his sword, but the Doctor uses a spoon. I can’t help but think this is a tongue-in-cheek reference to this moment from 1991’s Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.
Clara also refers to Robin Hood as “prince of thieves” later in the episode. Riley’s Robin Hood owes more to Errol Flynn than to Costner, though. The costume design and the constant laughter from Robin Hood and his Merry Men, which annoys the Doctor to no end, are both straight out of the 1938 movie. The lighting is also striking. All the outdoor scenes are sunny and green, thanks to a radiation leak from the alien ship. This makes the indoor scenes of the castle gloomier and the dungeons more dank than they would be otherwise.
The back-and-forth between Robin Hood and The Doctor is entertaining, but Clara steals the show. As with “Deep Breath” and “Into the Dalek,” Coleman’s performance could have sunk this episode. She strikes the right balance between shameless fangirl and genre-savvy time traveler here. When the sheriff captures the trio, it’s Clara he pegs as the ringleader. This bodes well for the rest of the season. It seems Clara’s a real character now.
The biggest problem I have with the episode is that the plot resolution is just too contrived. The alien spaceship takes off. The aliens haven’t gathered enough gold to actually repair and fuel it, so it’s just a big bomb. If it explodes over England, it’ll destroy half the country–and it has almost, but not quite, enough gold to reach orbit before it explodes. The solution: fire the golden arrow from the archery contest into the alien ship, which will be just enough gold to allow it to escape Earth’s atmosphere. The Doctor, Robin Hood, and Clara work together to do just that, and it works. Now, I’m not one to expect hard sci-fi from Doctor Who, and I enjoy a bit of camp as much as the next guy, but this is just too much. The problems I have with it are listed below.
- You can’t really fire a gold arrow that distance. This is the least of the problems.
- If you could fire a gold arrow that far, and you fired it into the hull of a spaceship made from 29th Century alien alloy, you wouldn’t expect it to stick.
- Even if it did stick, I don’t see what good sticking the gold into the hull would do.
No amount of conjecture about “smart materials” solves this problem for me. Call me a tedious geek if you like, but this is just too much, and it un-suspended my disbelief for a second. They could’ve at least fired the arrow into the exhaust or something. On balance, though, this is a small problem. By the time it happened I’d already been so thoroughly entertained I was in a forgiving mood, and the rest of the episode was good.
I have a larger concern with the way the series is developing, as well. I’m having the opposite problem I had with Matt Smith when he first started. I didn’t like Smith in the beginning, but I liked the 11th Doctor immediately. I’m liking Capaldi, but I don’t care for the 12th Doctor so far. As Will pointed out in his review of Episode 2 on Saturday, the Doctor is supposed to be unlikeable at the moment. I’m thinking he isn’t unlikeable enough. He’s just unlikeable enough to keep me from rooting for him. I don’t dislike him enough to find the character engaging. For all Calpaldi’s brilliance (and his acting is brilliant), the Doctor, as a character, is the least interesting part of these first three episodes. If that doesn’t change, this season is in real trouble. I hope the creative team is setting the Doctor up for a turn, and I hope we don’t have to wait until Episode 10 for it to happen.
The only clue we had about the season arc in this episode is that the alien ship’s destination was “The Promised Land.” That makes me think Heaven/The Promised Land/Paradise is a planet, so the theory Hannah and I have been discussing for the last couple of weeks about Missy being a future TARDIS may be blown already.
Tune in next week for my review of Episode 4.