Just when I had lost all faith in Mark Gatiss, he goes and delivers this, which has to be the most enjoyable, entertaining, eminently watchable script he’s ever written for Doctor Who. I didn’t have particularly high expectations for this episode beforehand. The synopsis and the teaser trailer indicated that this one had “mediocre early series filler episode” written all over it, à la The Curse of the Black Spot, The Shakespeare Code and The Beast Below. And Robin Hood and robots aren’t exactly the kind of story ingredients that get your Whovian heart racing (unless you’re Clara, who makes for an adorable fangirl). But I was pleasantly surprised — this has to be the most engaging writing Gatiss has ever produced for Doctor Who, even if only because it was so terrifically funny. To be sure, it was fairly light on plot, and it’s obvious Gatiss expended minimal time in conceiving its villains, generic robots from outer space, but I’m willing to forgive it these faults because everything else — the dialogue, the characters, the comedy — was done so well.
There are so many memorable scenes I could watch over again and again. The Doctor’s spoon-fight with Robin Hood had me grinning from ear to ear. I’m not entirely convinced Gatiss didn’t just start with the totally awesome idea, “the Doctor sword-fights Robin Hood with a spoon” and wrote the rest of the script around it. The Doctor and Robin Hood’s testosterone-fuelled alpha male rivalry throughout the episode was an absolute lark to watch, made all the funnier by the two actors’ hilarious performances. You wouldn’t think that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor could make you laugh as much as that, but Capaldi’s most famous role before Doctor Who, of course, was the comedy character Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, and it’s obvious Capaldi is consciously channelling Tucker in the Doctor’s fiery, wit-laden exchanges with Hood. In particular, I was clutching my sides watching the Doctor and Hood tearing into each other while chained to the floor of a medieval dungeon. I’ve honestly never laughed more at a Doctor Who episode than I did watching that.
After the very dark and heavy Deep Breath and Into the Dalek, this episode puts the Doctor in a more congenial setting, and we get to see another side, or at least the suggestion of another side, to our new Doctor. The Doctor spent a lot of time in his first two stories brooding and generally being grumpy. To be sure, he was substantially grumpy in this episode, too, but, through the generous displays of his dry wit, and the way he behaved around Hood, it’s clear that he at least has a sense of humour, and that there’s more to him than brooding amateur philosopher. The positively adolescent way he behaved around Hood, and the way he vied with Hood for Clara’s attention, showed there’s still a whimsical side to this Doctor, although it’s expressed a little differently to how it was Matt Smith’s and David Tennant’s Doctors.
Something I would have changed about the episode would have been to make Robin Hood and his Merry Men conform less to their storybook depictions. It’s just that if Robin Hood were real, he almost certainly wouldn’t have resembled the way he’s portrayed in storybooks and remembered in folk legends anywhere near the Robin Hood in this episode did. Hood surely would have been closer to an unscrupulous highwayman with delusions of moral rightness, more like a Ned Kelly figure, than the positively camp figure portrayed here who looks like he’s wandered in from a Laurence Olivier Shakespeare set. I don’t blame the Doctor for being so ardently sceptical of him. It would have been more consistent with the theme of the episode, of the legends of great men like Robin Hood and the Doctor consuming the actual persons themselves. We all know that the Doctor is just an idiot with a box and a screwdriver, but the rest of the universe, it’s been made clear several times, sees him differently.