“History’s a burden. Stories can make us fly.”
In the third episode of Capaldi’s stint as the Scottish Steampunk Doctor, Clara asks the Doctor to take her back to the time of Robin Hood. The Doctor, being the Doctor, is convinced that Robin never existed, and immediately suspects a trick when it turns out that, in fact, he does. His suspicions are apparently vindicated when the Sherriff of Nottingham’s men turn out to be robots, but what do they want, and why are they stealing gold?
Now, that could be a terrific Doctor Who episode. There’s nothing like a fleet of anachronistic aliens to brighten up your day – The Unquiet Dead, anyone? – and Mark Gatiss is doing some great things with the idea of stories and heroes and fame. But the thing is, the actual stuff that happens in the episode is just plain silly. For a start, the storyline is an entirely predictable Aliens Influence Man to Achieve World Domination affair. That can work, especially for a third episode – but only if the Doctor’s character is strong enough to drive the episode. And, I’m sorry, but Capaldi is still a little…unconvincing. Unsure. Wobbly. Possibly even wibbly-wobbly. He seems almost lost in a story driven by other strong characters, including the irritatingly merry Robin Hood (another cliche, incidentally) and a suddenly authoritative Clara, whose increasingly important role is one of the good things to come out of the Capaldi Administration. But this isn’t Clara’s story. This is the Doctor’s story, and whatever we think of his companions, it’s important that they don’t outshine him.
Really, though, the main problem with Robots of Sherwood is its uninventiveness. I’ve mentioned the predictable plot trajectory. But what about the fact that a castle apparently swarming with evil robot-knights has a dungeon staffed by only one easily-fooled human guard? Or the ease with which the Doctor and his peasant army defeats said robot-knights? (Surely, if we’re dealing with the Doctor’s moral ambiguity here, it would have been more effective to have the peasants struggling, really struggling, against their foe, while he dashes off elsewhere to blow up the alien spaceship or something?) What about the fact that the best explanation Gatiss can come up with for the Sherwood area’s mysteriously fairy-taleish weather is “radiation”? (Because that’s exactly how radiation works.) Or – and this is really, really stupid – the idea that one golden arrow fired at random at a moving target (and moving pretty fast, too – last time I looked, escape velocity was at eleven kilometres per second, which is, you know, fast) could possibly have any difference on said spaceship’s ability to leave the atmosphere? (And if that worked, why the hell did the robot-knights go to all the trouble of melting the gold down in the first place? Why didn’t they just make a big pile in the middle of the spaceship?)
Also, you can’t fire an arrow by consensus. Just sayin’.
Did anyone think this through at all?
Robots of Sherwood wasn’t, admittedly, terrible. I’d probably even watch it again, which is more than I can say for Into the Dalek. It’s a fun idea, and, like I said, I loved all the stuff about stories and how they begin. (Was I the only one expecting the Doctor to say “We’re all stories in the end”?) But, please, Doctor Who writers, learn some science. Or at least come up with some more convincing sciencey babble.