And it was all going so well… Turns out that pun of a title is the cleverest thing about an episode that brings the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure in the TARDIS down to Earth with a dull thud. A light, comedy outing like “Robot Of Sherwood” was always going to be one of the sternest tests for Peter Capaldi’s darker Time Lord, and he never seems at home in a story that’s predictable, short on ideas and light on genuine funnies. This often feels like a script left over from the Matt Smith era.
The ambiguity of this less jovial Doctor has been one of the most satisfying things about series eight, with the fact that you never know what he’s going to do next adding extra fizz to the drama. In the first two episodes it didn’t matter that he was rarely likeable, because his wit and brains made sure that the inner Doctor shone through. That’s not the case here – he’s a fool, with that trademark intelligence nowhere to be seen. Sure he’s been arrogant before. Yes he’s missed the blindingly obvious. But rarely has the Doctor been an idiot, as he frequently is here. When he’s not acting like a petulant 2000-year-old child sparring with the Robin Hood he refuses to believe is the real deal, he’s making questionable decisions and doing little to save the day – only when he encourages the slaves in the castle to turn on their robot overlords is he the one making things happen.
It’s a good job that Jenna Coleman’s brilliant Clara has come into her own this series. She’s a crucial anchor for the show – no longer just acting as the Doctor’s conscience, she’s his brains now too. Indeed, the biggest mystery about this episode is why Clara would choose to travel anywhere with the Doctor – the dynamic here is a fun, intelligent woman hanging out with an unpleasant, crazy uncle, and it’s difficult to believe.
While the episode is clearly going for lighthearted romp territory, it never quite hits the target. If you’re doing silly, the jokes have to work, but little in “Robot Of Sherwood” raises more than a light titter. Robin and his Merry Men are supposed to be annoying, we get that, but they don’t have the gags to balance it out. Ben Miller’s Sheriff of Nottingham has all the menace of a pantomime villain – how we’d love to have seen the Alan Rickman version facing off against the Doctor.
Nottingham’s robot lackeys do have their moments – vaporising the old and past-it with a cross-shaped laser is a very creepy image – but the only good thing to say about their scheme to rebuild their spaceship using all the gold in the land is that it’s less silly than defeating them with a golden arrow. And even that contrivance is surpassed by Clara getting to christen Robin’s gang the Merry Men, and the revelation that Marian was in the castle all along. Really?
Some redemption comes in the final scene as Robin and the Doctor have a poignant natter about the things they have in common, the nature of a hero and the importance of creating a legend. But this episode is a disappointment, the wrong Doctor in the wrong episode. Hopefully next week he’ll get back to being as intriguing as Capaldi has hinted he can be. Otherwise it’s a waste of a wonderful actor.
This has to be the first dastardly plan for world domination that has conquering Derby on its agenda.
Art Imitating Life
“You can take the girl out of Blackpool,” says Clara, indicating that like Jenna Coleman in real life, the Doctor’s companion hails from the seaside town.
Little John being diminutive of stature is not a new riff on the Merry Men mythos – Little Ron in Maid Marian And Her Merry Man was also literally little.
No Missy this week, but like the Half-Face Man, the robots are searching for the Promised Land. Surely it can’t be a coincidence – presumably that’s where we’re heading for the season finale.
Doctor Who airs on BBC One on Saturday nights.