Refreshingly standalone (although there was still an oblique reference to ‘The Promised Land’ and therefore the enigmatic Missy), “Robot Of Sherwood” is the first universal Doctor Who story of the Capaldi era. By universal, I mean it could have successfully featured any Doctor. The 11th would have loved meeting Robin Hood and all the sceptical bickering with Hood and his men was very, very 10th Doctor but it could easily have been any of the other nine. Indeed there were quite a few nods to classic Who tucked away in this jolly Sherwood Forest romp, particularly to Jon Pertwee’s dashing, swashbuckling 3rd Doctor adventure “The Time Warrior”.
Mark Gatiss (“The Unquiet Dead”, “Cold War”, “An Adventure In Time And Space”) has crafted a giddy pantomime of an episode, quite unlike the serious pair that preceded it. Heavily influenced by (and borrowing a complete set piece from) “Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves”, this is actually more of a Robin Hood adventure where the Doctor acts as sceptic, narrator and occasional catalyst for the action.
While Clara embraces the glamour and excitement, the curmudgeonly Doctor has a much harder time believing in the legend and a great deal of humour is mined from his continued attempts to find out who or what Hood and his band of outlaws actually are – even down to scanning an apple for clues. Despite being borrowed from Kevin Costner’s 1990 smash hit, the duel on the river crossing is joyously pure, uncut “Doctor Who” goodness as the Doctor bests Robin in a swordfight using only a spoon. It’s a delicious subversion on why the Sheriff in “Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves” wanted to use a spoon, because the Doctor chooses to use a spoon expressly because it will hurt less.
The actual alien plot is very similar to the Pyrovillians’ antics in “The Fires Of Pompeii” but this time the bad guys are robots – again. At least they have a great design and the fact they kill people by projecting the cross onto their victims is a nicely pointed dig at religious colonialism and The Crusades. But the villain’s schemes are largely incidental to Robin Hood’s shenanigans despite a bravura turn from Ben Miller as the Sheriff Of Nottingham – looking so much like Anthony Ainley I was genuinely expecting him to be revealed as The Master in some meta-twist on “The King’s Demons”.
There was a lot to like in this week’s episode, dozens of delightful little touches (Clara cleverly manipulating the Sheriff with flattery, the subtle way the TARDIS ‘healed’ itself after Robin’s arrow was extracted) but again the story was used to tell us what the Doctor isn’t – ‘I’m not a hero’ and it’s starting to wear a little thin. Enough of what the Doctor isn’t, it’s time to show us what he is. I want to see Capaldi have that hero moment where he steps forth and does something truly heroic rather than solving problems with sarcasm and ruthless pragmatism. It’s the last puzzle piece missing from what will be a terrific Doctor. Still cannot stand the theme tune arrangement though.
Next week’s episode looks hella-scary. Think I’ll give that a watch before I let The Mertmas see it!