In it’s long and storied history, Doctor Who has attempted the ‘Robin Hood’ story twice. The first time was in it’s original season in 1964, the second during Tom Baker’s Key to Time arc. Both proposals, although written by two different writers, both had similar storyline; it would have been revealed that Robin Hood was infact a selfish thief, and it was due to the Doctor’s interference that his heroic legend began. Although an interesting premise, when the story inevitably came to fruition in Peter Capaldi’s first series in 2014, historic revisionism was eschewed in favour of a ‘greatest hits’ Errol Flynn-style romp that spins the story of the Prince of Thieves in all it’s colour.
After two ‘darker and edgier’ episodes, directed by A Field in England‘s Ben Wheatley no less, Mark Gatiss, Doctor Who‘s master of the campy historical romp, wrote a story that makes no effort to make the Robin Hood legend more realistic. In contrast to the BBC’s rather anachronistic effort of 2006, this Robin Hood is colourful, theatrical and raucously joyful. The Doctor in this episode returns to a more scientific, skeptical approach, spending the entirety of the story doubting that Robin Hood and his surroundings are real- the heroes are too good, the villain too evil, the day too sunny. In contrast to his predecessor, who said ‘impossible things just happen’, this Doctor continues the theme of “Into the Dalek” by being disgruntled that he might be proven wrong.
The main message of “Robot of Sherwood” is what it means to be a hero, continuing the ‘Am I a Good Man’ arc for the Twelfth Doctor, and comes to a similar conclusion as “Into the Dalek”- the Doctor is not a perfect hero, but he tries to be, and ultimately inspires others to do great things, like stirring up the peasant’s revolt in the dungeons of Nottingham Castle. Much of the episode’s laughs are down to the Doctor and Robin butting heads. Both are shown as men of noble upbringing, one as Earl of Loxley, the other a naturally arrogant and aloof Time Lord, but both forsook there privilege to help the needy and oppressed. The Doctor thinks that Robin is the titular robot, implying that the Sheriff built him to be a source of false hope to the villagers, the ‘opiate of the masses’ as he quotes Marx. But this is a statement that can apply to both men in the end. In addition, when the Doctor was viewing the images of Robin Hood on the ship’s data banks, it was nice to see Patrick Troughton in a still from the original 1953 TV series. Either Patrick Troughton existed as an actor in the Whoniverse, or Ramon Salamander was a prolific cosplayer before he was a Mexican dictator.
Of Robin Hood himself, Tom Riley does an excellent job as the character, all mirth and braggadocio. Robin shares virtually all his scenes with the Doctor, allowing for lots of Pertwee-Troughton-esque bickering. In the grand tradition of the William Hartnell era, the regulars are incarcerated not once but twice. Being locked up in dungeons was a mainstay of the classic series, but has largely been absent in the fast-paced revived run. After the Doctor sabotages the famous archery contest just to prove his point, both he, Robin and Clara end up shackled in the dungeons of Nottingham Castle, complete with comedy skeleton. Both end up bellowing to the guard to execute the other, Robin calling the Doctor a ‘grey haired fool’ and a ‘desiccated man-crone’, before Clara screams at both of them to shut up, since there isn’t actually a guard. It all plays out like a ludicrous parody of the scene in “The Day of the Doctor”, where the three Doctors come up with a brilliant, emotionally resonant plan to escape, only to realise that the door they’d spent centuries preparing to disintegrate was, infact, unlocked. Later, the Doctor takes great delight in telling a guard that Robin is a coward who has soiled himself, and in the resulting scuffle the keys they were trying to get fall down a grate, meaning that the two remain shackled together, heaving a concrete block around.
Elsewhere in the story, the Merry Men are fun enough archetypes, although with 45 minutes they were never going to get enough development. Ben Miller plays a deliciously evil Sheriff, an it’s refreshing to see a Doctor Who villain who is does his despicable deeds merely out of ambition and ego. From terrorizing the villagers and taking there gold, and making preening advances on Clara, his portrayal has more than a bit of Anthony Ainley’s Master in it, with perhaps a dash of Graham Crowden as Soldeed in “The Horns of Nimon”.
In terms of story, there’s nothing simpler; a spaceship has crashed in Sherwood Forest, and the ambitious Sheriff is collecting gold to repair it’s engines in order to conquer Derby, possibly Lincoln, and then the world! The Robot Knights are nicely retro, the whole tone of the episode resembling a hybrid of “The Time Warrior” and “The Androids of Tara”. Much was made at the time of broadcast to remove a beheading scene in the wake of events in Iraq, and details released since then have revealed that it was the Sheriff who would be decapitated, only for his head to speak. It turns out that the ship crashed on the Sheriff, and he is now part robot, the titular ‘Robot of Sherwood’. In the event, the revelation is not very explicit, but the BBC did a good job at editing the battle together into a cohesive narrative. However, robbed of it’s one moment of horror, it does leave the climax slightly toothless, if you don’t count the Sheriff plummeting into a vat of molten gold.
Since it’s release, “Robot of Sherwood” has been oddly maligned by received fan-wisdom, but I’ve always found it a charming, joyful romp and a much-needed burst of light in an often dark and morally ambiguous series of Doctor Who. The high camp and theatrics might not be to everyone’s tastes, but as Robin puts it at the end of the story- “History is a burden. Stories make us fly.”