“Robot Of Sherwood” is written by Mark Gatiss, who returns to pen Doctor Who’s usual celebrity historical episode, where the Doctor meets a famous figure in human history and teams up with them to defeat an alien invasion. Except this time, there’s a big twist to the show’s usual formula: the Doctor encounters a historical figure who’s supposed to be entirely fictional. Compared to some of Mark Gatiss’ previous horror-themed stories like “The Unquiet Dead“, “Night Terrors“, and “Cold War“, “Robot Of Sherwood” is a much more light-hearted adventure (that’s more along the lines of “The Crimson Horror“). Doctor Who always has a few romp episodes in each season, to give the viewers a reprieve from how dark and creepy the monster-of-the-week stories can be, and “Robot Of Sherwood” is probably the funniest romp episode the series has done since “The Shakespeare Code” in Series 3.
In particular, Peter Capaldi is really given his chance to shine in this story and show off more of his comedic chops, when his Doctor is pushed way outside of his usual comfort zone and dropped right in the middle of a conundrum that he considers to be insufferably absurd. While “Robot Of Sherwood” may be a considerably sillier story than “Deep Breath” or “Into The Dalek“, it is still another important stepping stone in establishing the Twelfth Doctor’s personality and exploring the way he sees the world, compared to his predecessors. Mind you, if there is a significant flaw with this story, it’s that there are times when it can create some unintentional mood whiplash. “Robot Of Sherwood” is filled with so many wacky hijinks throughout the hour that whenever we’re treated to a really bleak scene – like Maid Marian watching her friends get murdered right in front of her – it almost feels like we’ve wandered into a completely different episode, so the tonal shifts probably could have been handled better.
In “Robot Of Sherwood”, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) decides to grant his friend Clara’s request and take them both back to the 12th century to see if they can meet Robin Hood, even though he thinks it’s a silly idea – and to his surprise, they actually do come face-to-face with the Emerald Archer. For the second episode in a row, someone tries to steal the Doctor’s ride when Robin Hood lays claim to the TARDIS. The Doctor immediately steps up and lets him know that’s not going to happen – because nobody’s going to swipe the big blue box he pilfered himself a long time ago – which leads to one of those scenes you see in Doctor Who from time to time that’s so silly and so over-the-top that you can’t help but love it (like the highway chase in “The Runaway Bride“). In this case, we’re treated to the sight of the Doctor competing against Robin Hood in a sword-fight, using a spoon – and the Doc was winning most of it.
On average, the Twelfth Doctor can be a pretty stern and grumpy man, so compared to Clara’s boundless enthusiasm about spending time with Robin Hood and his merry men, he’s a real stick-in-the-mud over the course of this adventure. From where he’s standing, he’s surrounded by a bunch of overconfident, laughing fools, and it’s a lot of fun to watch him suffer. Naturally, he’s convinced that Robin Hood can’t be real – he’s just a story, a folklore character. His two immediate predecessors, Ten and Eleven, would be just as skeptical of Robin’s existence, but they would also probably have some fun on this trip. Twelve, on the other hand, is single-mindedly focused on proving that Robin is a fraud. Clara decides to compare the two men a few times – Robin was her old storybook hero, while the Doctor is her current one, and they have more in common than he thinks – though the time lord denies her assertion. He doesn’t see himself as a hero: in fact, he doesn’t know what to make of himself anymore after the end of Series 7.
We get to see a more immature side of the Twelfth Doctor’s personality for the first time, during a clash of egos between him and Robin Hood. The two men constantly try to one-up each other, competing to see which of them is more competent, and competing for Clara’s undivided attention. Because as we’ve seen before in stories like “Aliens Of London” and “The Empty Child“, the Doctor certainly isn’t above participating in a verbal catfight over a woman he likes. As a result, both men are at their most ineffectual as heroes because they can’t get priorities straight – and the scene where they’re imprisoned together in the Sheriff of Nottingham’s dungeon is pure comedy gold. Robin keeps going out of his way to annoy the Doctor with the laugh he knows he hates, and when Robin drags the time lord into his makeshift escape plan, the Doc does not pass up a chance to attack his ego.
To the Doctor’s shock, he’s proven wrong for a change. Robin is indeed a real man instead of an alien impostor, whose story became exaggerated into a legend by future generations, so the Doctor begrudgingly gains respect for him. He wouldn’t have been able to save England without Robin’s help, and by the end, he can see that they do indeed have more similarities than differences. They’re both aristocrats who rebelled against their societies, and decided to devote their lives to helping the less fortunate (at one point, Twelve even pulls off a very effective peasants’ revolt against the sheriff that would make Robin proud). After squabbling with him for most of this episode, the Doctor learns something from Robin in the end, when the outlaw decides to share some personal wisdom with him, and in return, the Doc decides to do Robin a kindness by reuniting him with his love. Even though Twelve spent most of this episode grousing and complaining, he did loosen up and let his hair down a lot more in this story compared to the last two, and because of that he feels a lot more well-rounded now: Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is growing on me rapidly.
In “Robot Of Sherwood”, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) gets to pick where she and the Doctor will go on their latest adventure, so she asks him to take her back to 12th century England, to see if they can find Robin Hood, her childhood hero. She knows it’s a completely ridiculous idea, but after all the fantastical things she’s seen with the Doc in the TARDIS, she’s just about ready to believe in anything these days. And once her improbable wish comes true, she loves every minute of it. Clara usually tries to take every weird thing that she sees in stride, so watching her embrace her inner child and live out her old dream of rubbing elbows with the prince of thieves gives her an extra layer of humanity that makes her more endearing (it reminds me a lot of “The Rings Of Akhaten“, the episode that led me to warm up to her in the first place).
During her one-on-one talks with Robin Hood, Clara once again demonstrates that she’s quite good at reading other people’s faces and seeing past the walls they’ve built up over the years to protect themselves. It doesn’t take her long to realize that Robin is not quite as cheery and carefree as he acts, and that he’s actually hiding a good deal of regrets (it makes sense that she would recognize the signs of depression, since Eleven was her first Doctor and he was a textbook Stepford Smiler). She sees Robin Hood’s true humanity as a troubled soul long before the Doctor does. Clara pretends to be a noblewoman passing through Sherwood forest with her eccentric friend, but she gets a bit too ahead of herself, a bit too excited. She gives herself away several times, and repeatedly lets on that she knows more about Robin and his gang of rogues than she should. At times, she almost seems to treat this man’s tragic life like the fun fairy tale that it is in her time, which naturally rubs him the wrong way.
Throughout the hour, Clara acts as a grounding force between the Doctor and Robin Hood, a peacekeeper, and she tries to see the best in both of them. The comedic highlight of this episode is when Clara is locked up in a dungeon with them, listening to them bicker and argue the whole time, and she looks like she’d rather be executed than have to sit through another minute of it. Clara works with kids for a living, so I imagine it must be a truly cringe-worthy experience watching two grown men behave more immaturely than her pre-teen students. Desperate times call for desperate measures: since the Doctor and Robin Hood have both decided to abandon their usual common sense in favor of pointless competition, Clara decides to step up and take charge herself to straighten them out. And that decision unfortunately backfires on her, when the Sheriff of Nottingham and his men decide she must be the leader of their merry band and call her in to be interrogated.
The scene that follows is an excellent example of Clara’s gradual character growth throughout Series 8: just compare how she handles her dinner with the Sheriff to how she handled a similar face-off with the Half-Face Man in “Deep Breath”, where she was scared out of her mind the whole time. This time around, she’s more confident and she feels more in control of the situation, even though she’s still just as powerless. The Sheriff is already predisposed to underestimate her, since she’s an attractive woman, so she decides to use his ego to her advantage to get the information that she wants out of him. She puts up a good bluff, and she’s officially getting better at lying to people with a straight face – which, depending on the circumstances, is both a good thing and a bad thing. Clara also shows her usual willingness to go against the Doctor’s wishes and make big decisions without him when the situation calls for it, when she decides to let Robin Hood in on their time-traveling secret to gain his full trust. To her delight, the Doctor and Robin Hood eventually make peace with each other, and she has a blast helping them save the day, having been proven right that there’s plenty of room in England for both of her heroes.
Naturally, the biggest supporting character in this episode would be Robin Hood himself (Tom Riley), the 12th century outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Right from the start, Robin is shown to be a cocky, charismatic, and almost overly-confident guy: he’s the best at what he does and he knows it. He likes to portray himself as quite the Casanova, with a devil-may-care attitude. But despite playing up his lovable rogue persona, he’s really not as jovial and carefree as he acts. He’s been separated from his love, Maid Marian, for quite some time now by the start of this episode and he misses her terribly, and he harbors his share of regrets for not doing more to stand up to the Sheriff’s tyranny sooner than he did. He tries to be a hero to his fellow Brits, do everything in his power to help them and set a good example for them, so he can live up to the myth they’ve built around him.
When he crosses paths with the Doctor, we get to see two British icons pitted against each other in a truly bizarre crossover: first when Robin tries to steal the TARDIS, and again when the two men start competing over Clara’s attention. The Doctor makes it no secret that he finds Robin Hood to be incredibly annoying, and Robin certainly does his part to piss off the Doc in return, once he gets sick of his constant complaining. “Robot Of Sherwood” is meant to be a parody of your usual Robin Hood story, and it has a lot of fun with that angle: from the Doctor’s opening spoon fight (that puts a silly spin on Robin Hood and Little John’s first riverside meeting), to the Doctor rudely crashing the Sheriff of Nottingham’s trap to capture Robin Hood. Eventually, we do get to see a more stern and serious side of Robin as a gang leader, when it becomes very apparent that the Doctor and Clara are not what they seem and they have knowledge of the future. He officially puts an end to their little charade and demands the truth from Clara, if he and his men are going to help her any further.
Doctor Who is a show that’s full of strange phenomena that are way too weird to be true, especially in celebrity historical episodes: there’s always a rational explanation for things that are seemingly supernatural, even if it involves a lot of technobabble and pseudo-science. Usually the answer is that aliens are behind it somehow, and “Robot Of Sherwood” certainly sets the audience up to believe that that’s the case for Robin Hood’s implausible existence. But for once, the show subverts our expectations. In this series, where seemingly anything can happen and anything goes a lot of the time, Robin Hood is an actual person who lived in 12th century, who’s heroic deeds were exaggerated into a legend throughout British history. I really love this outlandish twist, because it fits right in with the fairy tale aesthetic of the Moffat era.
The lasting power of stories that are passed down from generation to generation is one of the biggest and most defining themes of the Moffat era. In “The Big Bang“, the Doctor shared his opinion that stories are our legacies and the only thing that remains of us long after we’re gone. In “The Rings Of Akhaten”, we saw how whole worlds can pivot around stories and the traditions they create. By “The Angels Take Manhattan“, Amy saw the fantastical life she shared with the Doctor as one great story for both of them to remember for the rest of their days. “A Good Man Goes To War” explored how the Doctor has become a living legend around the universe, for better or for worse. In Robin Hood’s case, the memory of him will linger for centuries, to the point where it eclipses the person he actually was in life, and while he feels a bit intimidated by that, he also feels pleased that he managed to make a positive impact like he was aiming for. After all, the best any leader can hope for, when they’re trying to set a good example, is that other people will be inspired by them and go on to do greater things than they did – be better people than they were. It’s a surprisingly insightful and heartfelt note for such a campy and silly episode to end on all, and it definitely helps “Robot Of Sherwood” to have more of a lasting impact than you would expect it to.
As you would expect in a Robin Hood themed story, the Sheriff of Nottingham serves as the main villain of this episode, alongside an army of metal menaces. He’s a cruel tyrant who taxes the local citizens heavily, executes anyone who steps out of line, and frequently kidnaps people for some free slave labor. Right now, he’s in league with a bunch of robots from space, helping them repair their ship with melted down gold, because he’s always been a social climber. They promised him a certain level of high status and unimaginable power that he feels he deserves, in exchange for his service. The robots are heading towards the mythical ‘promised land’, the same place the Half-Face Man was searching for in “Deep Breath”. The return of that vague concept in this adventure confirms that it will be our new story arc for Series 8, in the same vein as ‘Bad Wolf’, ‘Vote Saxon’, the missing planets and the cracks in time.
Foolish, greedy humans working with a bunch of amoral, untrustworthy aliens towards a common goal is a very common trope in Doctor Who, and it feels like an especially fitting set-up for the Sheriff of Nottingham, who’s always been portrayed as a lustful, power-hungry sort of man, with or without Prince John’s influence. The sheriff has a bitter rivalry with Robin Hood, who has humiliated him many, many times, and the two men have basically been having a contest of wills for years before the start of this episode. Originally, the sheriff would have been decapitated by Robin Hood in their final duel, where it would be revealed that he had become a cyborg. However, this scene was cut fairly late in the game, because the crew felt it would have been in poor taste in light of recent terrorist attacks where people were beheaded. You can feel the absence of this scene in the final cut, even if it’s subtle: there’s an odd line in the climax where the Sheriff claims he’s now half-man and half-machine, that never seems to receive any pay-off.
“Robots Of Sherwood” is directed by Paul Murphy, who does a phenomenal job of handling the tone and style of this episode, giving the comedic scenes a charming sort of breeziness to them, and the action scenes plenty of energy, liveliness and vigor, especially during the forest scenes in the first act and last act. Location shooting for the woodland setting of Sherwood forest was done inside of Fforest Fawrn in Powys, Wales, giving us some lush and beautiful scenery throughout the hour. To capture the authentic look of 12th century architecture for the Sheriff of Nottingham’s castle stronghold, the cast and crew of Doctor Who once again set up shop inside of Caerphilly Castle in South Wales (the same location where “The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People” was previously filmed in Series 6), as well as Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, for any exterior shots that they needed.
CGI is used sparingly in “Robot Of Sherwood”, because this really isn’t an episode that requires a lot of special effects, but there are some very nice shots of the robot disintegrating people and the robots’s ship taking flight scattered throughout the episode, that are up to the CGI artists’ usual quality of work in the Moffat era. Murray Gold’s score for “Robot Of Sherwood” is very lovely this week, as it manages to be both romantic and raucous when the situation calls for it in a swashbuckling medieval adventure. In addition to granting Robin Hood his own one-off leitmotif (that wouldn’t feel out of place in a “Pirates Of The Caribbean” movie), Murray also gives Clara’s theme and the Twelfth Doctor’s theme plenty of reprises in tracks like “Old Fashioned Hero“, “This Is My Spoon“, “Robin, Earl Of Loxley“, “The Legend Of Robin Hood“, “Robin Of Sherwood” and “The Golden Arrow“. The “Mad Man With A Box” theme that’s been carried over from the Eleventh Doctor’s era turns up again as well in “The Last Thing We Need“, the final track of the episode that underscores the Doctor and Robin Hood’s farewell.
Out of the various stories Mark Gatiss wrote for Doctor Who over the years, “Robot Of Sherwood” is certainly one of the better ones, since it finds just the right balance of comedy and heart, and it sits alongside “Listen” as one of the standout stories from the first half of Series 8.
* “Robin Hood laughs in the face of all!” “And do people ever punch you in the face when you do that?” “Not as of yet” “Lucky I’m here then”.
* It seems Clara has a real talent for always being able to pull off period clothing, because she once again looks stunning in the medieval red dress that she chose for herself.
* After Robin gets the last laugh in their duel, the Doc looks super salty as he drags himself out of the river, soaking wet.
* “Oof, all those diseases. If you were real, you’d be dead in six months” “But I am real” “…Bye” Savage.
* “Stop laughing! Why are you always doing that? Are you all simple or something?!”
* “Right, that isn’t even funny! That was bantering! I am totally against bantering!”
* “I had the situation well in hand” “Long haired ninny versus killer robot knights? I know where I’d put my money”.
* “GUARD, HE’S LAUGHING AGAIN! YOU CAN’T KEEP ME LOCKED UP WITH A LAUGHING PERSON!!!“
* “The Doctor and Robin Hood locked up in a cellar. Is this seriously the best you can do? You’re determined to starve to death in here squabbling!”
* “Doctor, this is not a competition over who can die slower!” “It would definitely be me though, wouldn’t it?”
* “Can you explain your plan without the words ‘sonic screwdriver’? Because you may have forgotten the sheriff has already taken it. I’m just saying, it’s always the screwdriver!”
* “You have a sickly aspect to you” “I have a what?!” “You’re as pale as milk. It’s the way with Scots, they’re strangers to vegetables”.
* “Well, there is a bright side” “Which is?” “Clara didn’t see that”.
* “After this, Derby. Then Lincoln. And after Lincoln-” “Bishop?” “THE WORLD!!!” Oh wow.
* “This explains everything, including you!” “It does?” I kind of love Robin’s disturbed expression when the Doc starts to talk a bit too crazy for his liking.
* “Stop pretending, you and your fancy robots. I get it, I understand” “Oh, so you too know my plans?”
* “You have long been a thorn in my side!” “Well, everyone should have a hobby. Mine is annoying you”.
* “You kept it?” “Of course we did, we’re robbers!” “I love you boys!”
* “Still not keen on the laughing thing?” “No, no”.
* “Is is it true that in the future I’m forgotten as a real man? I am but a legend?” “I’m afraid it is” “Hmm… Good. History is a burden, stories can make us fly”.
* “I’m not a hero” “Well, neither am I. But if we keep pretending to be, perhaps others will be in our name. Perhaps, we will both be stories, and may those stories never end”.
* “Goodbye Doctor, time lord of Gallifrey” “Goodbye, Robin Hood, earl of Loxley” “And remember, Doctor, I’m just as real as you”.