The third episode of Season Eight of Doctor Who, The Robots of Sherwood, pits one English legend against another. It’s a lighthearted romp penned by longtime Who and Sherlock scribe Mark Gatiss, who relishes the opportunity for another Doctor-meets-historical-figure episode. His script is light on plot and logic, but heavy on humor. And it’s just what the show needs.
After last week’s Into The Dalek continued to take the show on a darker path, Robots instead places an emphasis on the comedic aspects of Peter Capaldi’s new Doctor. His comedic timing and chemistry with both Jenna Coleman’s Clara and Tom Riley’s Robin is a joy to behold. Riley portrays Robin as the Doctor’s equal, and his character serves as a foil to Capaldi’s Doctor. Even the villains are on point: Ben Miller’s Sheriff isn’t the most threatening adversary, but he has a lot of fun and really sells the role. It’s also quite refreshing to see the writers place an emphasis on developing Clara as a character, rather than relegating her to use as a plot device, as she was last season.
The episode’s main strength stems from the continued existential angst of the Doctor. Last week, the Doctor questioned Clara, “Am I a good man?” This week, the Doctor continues his introspection. The best scene in Robots comes when Robin tells the Doctor that if they both simply pretend to be heroic, then perhaps they will inspire heroism in others as well. It’s an interesting reflection of the fallibility of the new Doctor, and it also reflects a basic change in the storytelling style of longtime showrunner Stephen Moffat. During the Matt Smith era, the Doctor was flawless, always having some clever plan or trick up his sleeve. Capaldi’s Doctor isn’t quite like that: He accepts his foibles, and questions the quality of his own actions. Although it borrows heavily from the Batman-esque idea that the titular hero is more of a symbol or a legend than a flesh-and-blood person, it’s still an interesting tonal shift for the show to take.
The weaknesses of the episode lie in the plotting. If you’re looking for an airtight Doctor Who story, this won’t be your cup of tea. Gatiss places an emphasis on characterization, and the “golden arrow” conclusion is one of the weaker ones of the rebooted series. Many Whovians will find themselves complaining about a lack of coherent storytelling; however, others will be able to place logic aside and simply enjoy the ride.
Overall, Robots is certainly not a flawless episode. But like the new Doctor, there’s still a lot to like. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, the performances are great across the board, and, best of all, the running themes of existential angst and self-worth continue. Next week’s episode, titled Listen, looks as if it hearkens back to the classic Moffat-style of storytelling, and expects to be far darker than this week’s episode. Robots is certainly a fun episode, and while the story won’t stick with you for too long, it still may be looked at as the day when Peter Capaldi officially became the Doctor.