Robot of Sherwood, episode 3 of Series 8 (or season 34 if you roll that way), wasn’t always called Robot of Sherwood, but Robots of Sherwood. Why Gatiss/Moffat/the boys club chose to change it last minute (post script leak – so rather recently) I can’t say. There is definitely more than one robot inhabiting Sherwood in this story. Perhaps the title refers to the fact that the Doctor is under the impression that Robin Hood, the legendary outlaw himself, is indeed a robot, despite the mounting argument to the contrary. Whatever the reason, it makes little sense, not unlike the episode as a whole.
But what I took from this episode was an enjoyable, certainly laughable, romp through the ancient English countryside as we visited the revered Nottingham and Sherwood Forest, alongside the Doctor, companion, and friends. Those friends, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, include the famed Earl of Locksley himself, so fun is sure to ensue. Although the Merry Men were as shallow as the story gets, the underlying theme of Robin’s sadness manifested in his own merriment façade was well conceived. We arrive at a pivotal moment in this version of the legend’s timeline – soon after his love is taken as a prisoner/slave and his lands and titles have been stripped from him by the sheriff, he is forced to put on this mask of merriment. And the Doctor hates it. Some of the best bantering yet, despite how much the Doctor purports to hate it, comes from his dealings between the thief and himself. It’s so ridiculous that it’s hilarious. And very Doctor Who.
The episode is actually a breath of fresh air. Although it’s still weighed down by Moffat’s ever-expanding idea of showcasing the Doctor as a thing of awesome legend and fairy tale, it’s also slightly reminiscent of Russell T. Davies run of the series. It’s been a long while since the Doctor and companion duo just went and visited a moment in “history” without the story being bogged down by a story arc-heavy narrative. Although the episode touches on the story arc (which I’m afraid will begin to annoy if it persists week after week), it’s brief and in-passing. Instead this adventure felt like one of the lighthearted stops that the Tenth Doctor and companions would often find themselves stuck in, and because of that the episode held together for me.
In typical Mark Gatiss fashion the episode evokes classic Who in one fashion or the other. Despite not being quite as good, the story is very reminiscent to Tom Baker’s The Androids of Tara story. It further references classic Who in a slightly more direct fashion when the Doctor is introducing Robin Hood to the legend he will become via pictures. If you notice, there is one black and white picture of Robin Hood that looks remarkably like the Second Doctor – that’s because it is. Patrick Troughton once played the role of Robin Hood and Gatiss felt it important to throw that little Easter egg into the mix. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gatiss wrote the episode solely for the merit of including that Easter egg alone.
Could this episode have stood on its own without the added SciFi elements? Maybe. The robots definitely didn’t add much to the story. But they didn’t detract from it either. I thought they looked very cool, with their cross shaped laser burst foreheads. Formidable, with a little bite, but quite dumb in the end.
But what was their plan? We understood that the Sheriff was using them as his personal servants to rule the world, but what? They needed gold to get their ship moving to get to the promised land? In any of the scenes with the prisoners carrying gold to the giant melting pot… How much gold do they possibly need to melt to get their ship up and running that they need an entire team of slaves to carry out ceaselessly? How much gold could there have possibly been in those small villages pillaged to begin with? Why is that room littered and decorated with gold ornaments and plates that haven’t already been melted down and why don’t they just melt everything on sight to save themselves a lot of trouble and get it done with quicker? And what about when the Doctor is imprisoned with Robin Hood? They dropped the keys down the grate… Next scene Robin and the Doctor are exiting the cell carrying a block meant to hold them down in their cell? Was this block always cut out like that? Could they have lifted it from the get go? And then how did they open the door to exit? And then in the next scene they’ve abandoned their shackles and whatnot altogether. No explanations. Why does the Sheriff’s wooden table have a holographic/hand sensitive display screen that provides video footage (over 800 years prior to video recording footage even being a thing) and how does he know how to use it? How on earth does that golden arrow striking the exterior of the ships hull aid the movement and/or golden matrix within? Like really! Let’s just go back a bit further – what exactly was Robin’s plan in entering the tourney anyway? Sigh. Some things we won’t ever know. But the episode is littered with plot holes. Maybe one or two would be answered if the BBC hadn’t removed scenes previously deemed pivotal enough to be worthy of airtime.
But despite the mounting argument that this episode just might not have been any good to begin with, I kinda feel guilty because I like it. The sets were gorgeous, the costumes flattering, the CGI consistently superb, and the Doctor was very fun, even with his darker, angrier side bubbling forth often. The next time trailer for “Listen”: Much spooky. Very scare. Can’t wait. I’m hopeful this season will deliver to us an episode to rival Blink, and the next episode could be that very one. Till then.