Mark Gatiss brings it with his first story/script of season 8 with “Robot of Sherwood,” a hokey, campy, and riotous good time that keeps pace with this season’s new structure and takes us back to the Middle Ages with a visit to a familiar English legend.
Placing Robin Hood at the center of the episode hearkens back to older visits to other familiar figures, like Vincent Van Gogh or William Shakespeare, but with far less seriousness. There’s also an interesting twist on this “historical figure”: his perceived real-ness. In fact, this is really the framing device for the whole episode: if the Doctor and Clara find Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest in the 12th century, does that mean he is as real as the other historical figures that the Doctor has visited on his journeys? It’s a pretty theory-heavy question for an episode that’s fairly simple at heart, but it provides a nice, thoughtful intellectual core to the episode while it gets down to business: being another solid, stand-alone-yet-somehow-connected episode of Doctor Who.
The Doctor and Clara dig into the situation in Sherwood Forest straightaway: the Sheriff of Nottingham is up to no good, collecting taxes and abducting young women, all with a familiar variation to make it very much a Who story first and foremost. With all of the discussion of the Doctor’s moral fiber, his status as a hero and as a good man, pairing him with another gray-area hero as they fight an all-bad villain as they seek to save the forest together is a great episode. But as bad a guy as the Sheriff is, the episode is as heavy on humor as any this season so far, including some downright absurdity and some situational jollity.
Peter Capaldi balances both expertly, and it already feels like he’s been around for longer than three episodes–more like three seasons, as he’s already so much made the role his own that the show is done with any kind of transition and fully its own, new version of itself. As with last week’s “Into the Dalek,” “Robot of Sherwood” won’t go down as an all-time great episode for the show. But it again illustrates the seeming pledge from the showrunners to simplify things and get back to character-based stories and questions operating within a larger, more threatening circumstance that will pull together the brief, one-at-a-time looks we get into that circumstance in a two- or three-part season finale.
8/10 – Season 8 trucks along with another solidly written and directed episode, this one a little lighter and freer with the humor and refusing to take itself too seriously. Still, the questions surrounding the Doctor’s persona and role as a galactic hero are very much alive as he meets the “historical” Robin Hood. The showrunners seem to be keeping up this formulaic brand writing and storytelling, and paired with Capaldi as a rock-star Doctor, all is well in the new-look TARDIS.