I make no bones about the fact that the first couple of episodes of Series 8 did not exactly move me, even declaring "Into the Dalek" the worst outing in the revived series of the show. Most of that centers around what I still feel was incredibly weak writing on behalf of Steven Moffat and Phil Ford determined to establish Peter Capaldi as the dark Doctor, the edgy, never-going-to-be-snogging-companions Doctor that they forgot to write an actual plot that made sense.
Mark Gatiss' "Robot of Sherwood" threw all that away and for the first time really let us sit back and look at Capaldi just being The Doctor without force-feeding an opinion on him. And you know what? It was absolutely fantastic.
The Doctor takes Clara to meet the legendary Robin Hood after offering her any choice of trip. He's reluctant because he says Robin Hood is just a story, but grudgingly obliges. Once they land, they fall straight into a fight between Robin and his Merry Men against the Sheriff of Nottingham and his robotic allies.
What makes "Robot" so wonderful is twofold. First, it really is the first chance to look at Capaldi's Doctor through a stranger's eyes rather than just Clara's. Think Liz 10 in "Beast Below" or the Forest of Cheem in "The End of the World". It's an essential part of the dynamic that gives The Doctor depth, exploring who he is not among those he loves, but those he helps just because of who he is.
Nearly every superhero franchise eventually makes a mistake in that they take the hero's love interest or friend or whatever and puts that person in danger. Then Spider-man or Batman or whoever has a reason to go help them, which is utterly missing the point of superheroes. Superheroes don't need a reason to help strangers. That's why they're heroes.
It's tempting to try and define Capaldi's Doctor by comparing him to his predecessors. God knows I regret spending so much of my platform calling Matt Smith "Patrick Troughton Mark II". It's clear that Capaldi draws from the quirky alien nature of Tom Baker while adding in a healthy dash of the grand petty anger that made the crotchety William Hartnell so much fun. Those are there, inarguably.
But if you want to get really honest on what aspect of himself he is tackling I would nominate John Hurt's War Doctor. Capaldi, for all everyone comments on his age and sickly complexion (Robin comforts him by claiming the Scots have never heard of vegetables) his Doctor seems younger than any of the modern five. In a way he is, with his complete new regeneration cycle ahead of him. He's like a cocky college junior with three semesters of poli-sci under his belt, and in that you see mirrored the desperate boyishness of Hurt trying hard to hold onto the last vestiges of the Eighth Doctor's Byronic playboy attitude amid the darkest of times.
That makes Twelve very faceted and very, very interesting.
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The other thing that really sells "Robot" is that it's fun. Just fun. It occasionally takes itself seriously, but never at the expense of fun. For one thing, it's one long Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves joke. From Clara outright saying the title with exasperated weariness to a reference to one of my favorite movie quotes of all time there's a focus on the concept of Robin Hood as something you read to your kids, not a man that walks around being real.
By the way, when Robin is being shown the nature of himself as a legend, keep an eye out for the greatest cameo from beyond the grave since Eleven flashed the First Doctor's library card in "Vampires of Venice". It's exactly that sort of thing that makes the episode tick. It has the guts to capture the campiness of the classic series in a modern light.
Part of what made the first two episodes a little heavy-handed was that it felt like we were being told how to watch Doctor Who, which was annoying. It was like we were being chided for ever enjoying Matt Smith or David Tennant in the first place.
Trust Gatiss, the old superfan, to capture the best of that sentiment in Robin's farewell to The Doctor. Because if there is anything that the Twelfth Doctor needs reminding of it's that he's a story.
And stories are the only true magic.
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