‘Doctor Who’ spoiler-free review: ‘Robot of Sherwood’

In trying to apply meaning to what’s just a very good family drama, it’s all too easy to over-analyse and get pretentious when reviewing Doctor Who. Especially when the show takes itself too seriously.

But there’s no chance of that this week.

Barely have we stepped two minutes outside the TARDIS and into Robin Hood country when there’s the silliest sword fight in history, a quiver full of clichés, and a joke about the size of Errol Flynn’s penis. There’s really not a whole lot of serious-speak you can apply to that without sounding as churlish as The Twelfth Doctor.

This is ‘Robot of Sherwood’, an episode that is unmistakeably by Mark Gatiss in its execution and which is as pun-packed as its title might suggest. Gosh, it is fun. Incredibly fun.

Doctor Who Robot of Sherwood Tom Riley

You get so used to Doctor Who being all angst and shadow and portent that you forget it can be something else so very well. It can just be funny: smart and silly and fourth-wall-shatteringly amusing all at once. Don’t over-analyse this one. Think with your funny-bone this week and you’ll have a great time. This is as close as Doctor Who will ever dare come to time-travel comedy, and probably as close as it will come to pulling it off.

No doubt the fans who prefer their Doctor darker will moan, but they won’t be alone, for in the sunlight-dappled forest there’s no bigger critic to the laughs than the ‘desiccated man-crow’ that is The Doctor. He’s the only person not having a good time amid the tick ’em off Robin Hood tropes, and yet it’s when he is the frictional force against the laughter that the episode is at its best.

When Twelve asks ‘Why are you always laughing? Are you simple or something?’ it’s not hard to imagine he represents the cynical viewer, arms folded, who’s adamant that 21st century adventures in Space and Time should be all moral ambiguity and regret. But that’s all part of the joke: Capaldi is the caustic straight-man, the Blackadder to Tom Riley’s thigh-slappingly joyful, Rik Mayall-ish, Robin Hood.

Doctor Who Robot of Sherwood Clara

Both Gatiss and Riley succeed in balancing Robin Hood somewhere between caricature and character. Ben Miller’s Sheriff of Nottingham is panto-grade villainy, but when isn’t the Sheriff? No matter who plays the git – Alan Rickman, Melville Cooper, Tony Robinson – he’s always a magnet for boos and hisses and children’s theatre-lobby sweets, just as Robin Hood is a legend to attract applause.

And yet levity is no excuse for laxity. As too often happens under Moffat’s tenure, the villains’ plot is not only paper-thin but a re-hash of the familiar and sadly what would otherwise be a 5-star 45 minutes of fun is punctured by a resolution of pointed ludicrousness. It’s a shame that the most outlandish bit of a superbly comic episode is the part that’s meant to be serious.

Early on The Doctor references in passing the Miniscope from 1973’s ‘Carnival of Monsters’; a device used to spy on creatures in a sealed-off habitat. That’s probably the best way to view ‘Robot of Sherwood’. It is splendid in its isolation: a fun distraction until we move on to next week.

images_Stars_4star

Airs at 7.30pm on Saturday 6 September 2014 on BBC One.

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  • Kevin1960

    Yeah, the plots are so thin under Moffat. I long for the days of farting aliens, Peter Kay in a puked up pizza fat suit, pig astronauts etc. The golden era of ‘substantive’ drama and plot…..

    • James Grayh

      Not that that description surmises the RTD era accurately, at all…

      • Sutekh’sGiftOfUnlimitedRicePud

        Yeah, he forgot to mention Doctor Dobby Jesus floating on the healing prayers of the people of Earth.

    • Ben

      Yeah new Doctor Who has always been this way and it just seems people like to beat up on Moffat. Personally, I’ve liked both RTA and Moffat equally. This is high art it’s a family show.

  • Dan Allen

    Being called Robot of Sherwood and the trailer revealing Robin Hood to be fiction in the Whoniverse I have assumed this will be a parody of West World and The Doctor will find himself in a medieval theme park.

  • ?

    I must say I didn’t think it was excellent. I would have given it three stars, perhaps, but not four. Mainly due to poor script-writing, the episode’s plot was confused and badly explained, which is even more unforgivable when you realize that there was barely any actual plot there to be explained at all, which should have been an easy task. The comedy was over-played in places, the Doctor suddenly seems to be Matt Smith again instead of the scheming, dark antihero that we saw in episodes one and two, the Sheriff of Nottingham was a rubbish stereotype and a disappointment, all “darker” parts of the episode such as the murder of the Quail at the beginning and the robot executions seemed forced in just to make sure the episode still qualified as “dark” to fit with the other two, and the resolution was stupid. Simple as that.

    Other than that, it was excellent.