The theme thus far in Doctor Who's eighth season seems to be "deconstructing heroes," most notably the Doctor. The Doctor's questioning whether he's a good man, but also the validity of his battle against evil. It's somewhat grim stuff — until this week's Robin Hood episode, when it turns swashbuckling and hilarious.
Given how many times the Doctor's been to Atlantis and met some version of the Minotaur, it's kind of amazing he's never met Robin Hood before. But "Robots of Sherwood" has a pretty clever spin on the Robin Hood mythos — the Doctor doesn't actually believe Robin Hood ever existed, even after the two heroes meet.
A few ways this is excellent
There are a few really brilliant things about the interaction between the Doctor and Robin Hood:
1) The chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Tom Riley (who plays Robin) is just spot on, and the rivalry between the two men is completely wonderful. Starting with the sword-spoon fight, and carrying on until through the archery challenge where the Doctor upstages Robin. It's great to see the Doctor actually faced with a rival, who has in some ways an equal claim to legendary status, and Riley plays a laughing, merry adventurer (with a wellspring of hidden sadness) perfectly. And for once, the Doctor can't use his sonic screwdriver, and he's stuck relying on action-movie clichés. Which brings us to...
2) A lot of the funniest bits are when they explicitly deconstruct all of the tropes of classic action-adventure (especially when they're locked up and run through all of the usual gambits). The whole "get interrogated and turn the tables" thing, and the "pretend to be sick so the jailer will come in" thing. These are soft targets, but the episode manages to make them fresh and hilarious again — and the episode shows how they're partly about the hero's ego, but also how heroism is made out of wonderfully silly clichés. The clichés are what make heroism fun and also part of the mechanics of it.
3) The Doctor takes an awful long time to stop doubting Robin Hood's reality. And the show pulls a pretty neat fake-out. You sort of assume, from the episode's title and the setup, that Robin Hood and his Merry Men are actually robots themselves, and the whole thing is some kind of scheme. Or holograms. Later, the Doctor suspects that Robin Hood is somehow in collusion with his foe, the Sheriff of Nottingham, because what better than a fake hero to give the downtrodden peasants hope? The Doctor shows Robin Hood his own legendary image from the databanks of the robots' spaceship, to prove that he's just made up from whole cloth — when in fact, what it proves is that Robin Hood has passed into legend. (I half expected the final shot of the episode to be Robin Hood removing his disguise to reveal he's a robot after all.)
In fact, the robots in "Robots of Sherwood" are the Sheriff's knights. (And the Sheriff himself is some kind of cyborg, he claims at the end.) The robots have crashlanded in Medieval England, and they're gathering enough gold to get repair their spaceship engines, while trying to blend into the local culture. But they don't repair the engines enough, and they're going to blow up and destroy half of England. It's pretty similar to previous historical romps by writer Mark Gatiss, including "The Unquiet Dead" and "Victory of the Daleks," but it's elevated by the rivalry between the two great heroes.
The heroism thing
This episode is explicitly using Robin Hood to comment on the Doctor and his own status as a fantasy adventure hero. And the Doctor's notion that Robin Hood is in some ways supporting the status quo by opposing it comes from the same place as the idea that Batman creates the Joker (or that the Doctor makes the Daleks worse.)
It's the theory that we create our own opposites, but also that we strengthen things by opposing them. And also, that heroic tales just provide an escape from reality, instead of actually making a difference in the real world. And that you can't escape being part of the system, even if you fight against it. It's all the stuff that people use to knock down things like Doctor Who, in fact.
This episode makes a case that the Doctor and Robin Hood are both the same — both rebels who gave up privilege to fight for the oppressed. And the Doctor's refusal to believe in Robin Hood is sort of part of his reluctance to believe in himself these days. He's not sure that he's really a good guy, and that he can live up to his own billing (which makes a huge change from the Tennant-and-Smith-era "self-promotional speechifying" trope.) Clara points out that the Doctor saves people from bad things every minute of every day, and he says he's just passing the time.
In the end, this week's resolution to the Doctor's angst is similar to last week's: last week, Clara said that if the Doctor tries to be a good man, that's what counts. This week, Robin Hood says that as long as he and the Doctor pretend to be heroes, maybe they'll inspire others to be heroic in their names. And that plays into the idea that they're better off being legends and stories, rather than real people, because stories can make you fly.
It's actually a wonderfully upbeat take on heroes and legends, and you have to admire the deftness with which this episode lampoons some of the Doctor's own tropes and foibles — like the over-reliance on the sonic screwdriver — while still reaffirming that saving people is awesome and you can make a difference.
And after several years of the Doctor being shown in hero poses, with the floodlight and the wind machine and the smoke machine and the dramatic speech, he actually seems like a greater hero when he's portrayed as a fallible person, with jealousy and other foibles. Capaldi has enough gravitas to make the Doctor slightly the butt of the joke without losing his stature, so let's hope this is the beginning of a bit of a trend.
Oh, and the ship of robots was on course for the Promised Land, which is our one nod to the ongoing plotline with Missy and Paradise and so on this week. Sadly, when the Sheriff of Nottingham falls into molten gold and dies/is deactivated, we don't get to see her join up with Missy — maybe because he doesn't sacrifice himself willingly?