In the third episode of Doctor Who‘s eighth series, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) goes somewhere that I’m sure he’s been before in the 50 year history: the company of a fictional character. In this case, Clara (Jenna Coleman), the Doctor’s companion, expresses a desire to meet the charming hero of Nottingham, Robin Hood (Tom Riley), despite the fact that he may not be entirely real. Nonetheless, when the two arrive in medieval England, they are immediately met by the goateed archer in green, and all the trials and tribulations he brings along.
The episode, written by Sherlock‘s Mark Gatiss, mostly concerns itself with the Sheriff of Nottingham’s (Ben Miller) rather extraterrestrial plan for world dominance, but in the end the episode is really just a delivery mechanism for Doctor-Robin Hood sexual tension and more seeds of show-runner Steven Moffat’s season-long storyline.
There is a lot of playful bickering throughout “Robot of Sherwood,” and while some of it is entertaining, it does begin to grate, especially when the Doctor and Robin can’t stop even when it’s in the best interest of their continued existence. Early on the Doctor expresses disdain for the bantering of the Merry Men – more evidence of the Twelfth Doctor’s hypocrisy (or perhaps self-loathing). Doctor Who – at least in its modern incarnation – is built on banter, and the Doctor realizes that towards the episode’s confusion, going so far as to chastise himself for his own playful phrasings.
It’s all part of the Doctor’s attempt to distance himself from the man he once was. His main effort is in restructuring his personality – becoming less the handsome cad, and more the disapproving father with childlike tendencies. But try as he might, he can only change so much. Death and destruction follow the Doctor wherever he goes, and this season has been no different. But Capaldi shows us the pain and regret in the Doctor’s hearts when he can’t save someone, whether they deserved it or not.
But someone is picking up these discarded pieces. Moffat’s overarching plot for the series involves a possessive and mysterious woman named Missy (Michelle Gomez) who is gathering Doctor-adjacent casualties in some place called “The Promised Land.” Sometimes it seems like Moffat cares more about these big ideas than he about the individual episodes, so it’s nice to see Gatiss attempt some more personal stuff.
The episode isn’t wholly successful, however. As I mentioned the bickering gets quite distracting, and often feels like padding for an episode that wasn’t quite 42 minutes. But one very successful aspect of “Robot of Sherwood” is how it deploys Clara. She is still mostly defined by her crushes, as that’s what attracts the two to Robin Hood in the first place, but once she and the Doctor find themselves in Sherwood Forest, Clara regains some of her agency. Now that the Doctor isn’t some handsome boy, the character is finally discovering her dynamism, and I’m almost ready to buy-in completely.
I do think the episodes are getting better, but they’re still nowhere near the quality of the Tennant days (though the picture quality is just as bad). Capaldi’s portrayal is getting more assured by the day, so all he and Coleman need is a truly great script that they can play around in. Maybe next week.