Doctor Who Robot of Sherwood review: a superb, witty, heart-warming encounter between two heroes

The Doctor joins forces with another charismatic legend

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Zounds! What a dazzling episode! I didn’t have hopes. The Doctor crossing swords with Robin Hood and his Merrie Men seemed a daft notion, and the photos and clips of Tom Riley (raven-haired heart-throb from Da Vinci’s Demons) in a dodgy flaxen wig didn’t help. But how wrong I was. Robot of Sherwood is one of the most charming episodes in eons.

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Masterly Mark Gatiss has fashioned an elegant, hugely witty script that delivers a coherent plot and everything you could want from an encounter with Robin Hood: ribald banter in leafy glade, log fight over river, archery contest, swordfight in castle, escape from dungeon… Call them clichés if you will but I’d feel shortchanged were any of these timeworn elements omitted.

But Mark also gives each a little tweak. The Doctor defeats Robin on the log with a spoon and a hip wiggle; he cheats at the archery using arrows with a homing device; the heroes don’t escape from the dungeon quite according to plan; and the Sherwood glades are so verdant because of radiation leaking from the spaceship.

If you’re scouring for shortcomings, you could whinge that the Merrie Men aren’t given much to chew on, but Mark ensures that each gets his moment in the sun. For once, Little John really is a little man, peering out through the legs of the gargantuan stereotype. Otherwise, as a group, they’re free of the sops to the PC Patrol seen in other modern retellings, and are mercifully allowed to be merry, unburdened by the angst seen in the BBC1 series (2006–9) or ITV’s superior Robin of Sherwood (of the mid 1980s). Did you spot Alan-a-Dale is played by Mark Gatiss’s real-life partner Ian Hallard?

In a compact 45-minute drama the focus needs to be on the Doctor, Clara, Robin and the Sheriff – and in that it succeeds, with pearly interplay between the quartet. Robot of Sherwood evokes the breezy joy and buckle-swashing of the 1938 Hollywood classic with Errol Flynn. Tom Riley is a lithe, good-looking hero with a sunny disposition – a stark contrast to Peter Capaldi’s “grey old man”, as Robin calls him, or even funnier, “desiccated man-crone”.

Russell T Davies had an edict that the Doctor and his friends should never be incarcerated. It slowed down so many 20th-century Who adventures and rarely featured in RTD’s tenure. Here it delivers proper entertainment as the heroes bicker and posture, until Clara explodes at them. You can see it coming, but the moment when the jailer identifies her as the “true ringleader” is still funny.

Capaldi’s Doctor steps out of the shadows of the earlier episodes yet remains resolutely dour, hilariously so, questioning the reality of Robin and his surroundings, and discomfited as the truth dawns. Like his predecessors long ago in the 1960s and 70s, he’s a strange senior figure, authoritative but not always correct in his assertions. Also like those earlier times, it’s the companion who achieves results with her instinct, intuition and empathy. Jenna Coleman is absolutely superb, nailing each moment, every nuance with a natural ease, and she looks ravishing in her Maid Marian ringlets and garb.

Mark Gatiss has said his episode recalls the leafy, sun-dappled Tom Baker serial, The Androids of Tara from 1978.  It does. But I’d cite an earlier antecedent, penned by every Who writer’s hero Robert Holmes. The Time Warrior (Jon Pertwee, 1973–74) featured a medieval setting, an ace archer, a robber baron, a flamboyant serious Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith in a wench’s gown, even a robotic warrior and a ship from the stars that blew up a castle on take-off. Robot of Sherwood is the third story in a row to feature stranded robotic or semi-robotic creatures. Is this accidental or a developing theme?

With admirable sensitivity (and at considerable expense) the BBC has made a last-minute edit to the final swordfight, which showed the Sheriff being beheaded. I saw the unexpurgated version. It was staged “cleanly” and bloodlessly, in that the Doctor draped the Sheriff in a tapestry while Robin swung his sword, knocking the villain’s block off. The Sheriff’s head then spoke to them from the floor.

Given the appalling murders of journalists abducted in Syria, the “lightness” of this decapitation would, in my view, have been inappropriate and in poor taste. Alas it was also the only clear sign that the Sheriff is semi-robotic and indeed the eponymous Robot. Now, the action jumps to the Sheriff’s line about himself being “half man, half engine” but it’s lost in the commotion, so for the programme it’s a significant loss.

For me, the definitive Sheriff will always be Robin of Sherwood’s lascivious, blackly camp Nickolas Grace but Ben Miller is excellent here, in Basil Rathbone mode (from the 1938 movie), and looks like he’d have made a terrific Master.

Ultimately, Robot of Sherwood is about the collision of two legends: Doctor Who and Robin Hood. We see that Clara has hooked up with the Time Lord because he’s her own equivalent of her childhood hero Robin. More than that, once the two men have settled their differences and accepted each other’s existence, we are almost tricked into thinking of them both as real. Or as real as any folk hero can be. “Remember, Doctor,” says Robin. “I’m just as real as you are.”

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The implication is that the legend of the Time Lord will endure like Robin Hood’s. “May those stories never end!” It brings a tear to my eye.