07 September 2014

TV: Robot of Sherwood

Morris Style

Oh quit yer whinging Morris. Here ya go!

In a sun-dappled Sherwood forest, the Doctor discovers an evil plan from beyond the stars and strikes up an unlikely alliance with Robin Hood.

With all of Nottingham at stake, the Doctor must decide who is real and who is fake. Can impossible heroes really exist?

List of Bits That Spoiled it for Me:
  • flaws in the plan
  • the Doctor's lack of involvement in the climax
  • the contrived ending with Marion
  • continuity errors / direction

Loved: the Knights, especially their design

Mark out of Ten: 9/10

Whilst undoubtedly a fun and feelgood episode, Robot of Sherwood tackles some quite weighty material. Like all the best episodes, on the surface it tells one tale, but quite another if you look deeper. By setting this episode within what is often considered a fictional world, Mark Gatiss can afford to play with the audience's expectations a bit. Unlike with the ordinary 'celebrity historicals', the main guest star of the episode, could actually die.

The Robin Hood vs the Sheriff plot, as enjoyable as it is, doesn't seem to me to be what Gatiss is trying to get at with this episode. Robot of Sherwood tackles the matter of the Doctor's status more effectively than anything since Toby Whithouse's magnificent The God Complex, and certainly better than the latter half of Series 6 tried to deal with his increasing importance. There's a maturity to this piece that you might not necessarily expect. By taking the Doctor into the world of Robin Hood - with its implausibility, unpredictability and slightly larger-than-life characters - we can examine his own, which displays much the same traits. The central issue in question during this episode seems to me to be whether the Doctor is a hero or not. For me, the Doctor isn't a hero, despite the fact that his actions and attitude qualify. To put it simply, in my eyes he is heroic but not a hero (in the same way he shows humanity, but isn't human). Fortunately, Mark Gatiss seems to agree.

Over the course of these 46 minutes (one shaved off days prior to transmission) we examine what it takes and means to be remembered, and I was glad that Robin Hood was a much deeper character than I or the Doctor expected. It's only about three-quarters of the way through the episode that the Time Lord is finally convinced that Hood is a real person, and from that point on you can see the beginning of a trust and respect between the two men - in many ways equals. A lot of people have mentioned Ben Miller's similarity in appearance to Anthony Ainley's Master in this story, but I think the Sheriff of Nottingham could quite easily been viewed as Robin Hood's own Master. It's certainly not a complaint, but we get a lot more layers to villains nowadays. It's refreshing (for a change, as much as anything else) to be offered a different type of antagonist, in episodes like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, The Crimson Horror and now this. The Sheriff is just through-and-through bad, and I loved it!

In any other story, I think a lot of the scenes included in this episode would have been superfluous and possibly cut, but here they were the story. That's not to say it plodded or lacked plot, this was simply a different type of episode. In the vein of what we seem to be getting from Series 8, each scene was longer than it could have been during the more frenetic years of Matt Smith's Doctor. The archery scene might well have been cut for time were this the RTD era, but here it was essential that it was kept in, establishing the relationship between Robin and the Sheriff. One thing I would have liked to have seen was more scenes with the Sheriff robbing the poor. As it is, we only got one such scene, and in retrospect that was surely only to introduce Marion. Ask practically anyone what Robin Hood is most famous for, and they'll tell you it's for robbing the rich and helping the poor. At no point in Robot of Sherwood did I see any evidence of this. I know the story to be told was elsewhere, but it would've been nice to be able to reaffirm that that part of the legend were 'true'.

The plot itself was actually quite sound, especially for a Gatiss script. I don't mean to sound harsh, but in previous works such as The Idiot's Lantern, and especially Night Terrors, the monsters or villain didn't seem to have a tangible plan. The Knights' plan here may have been simple (to escape Earth, and seek the promised land) but it worked well for the characters and story. If you're reading this then you probably know that cuts were made to this episode, in light of recent current affairs. Approximately a minute of footage was cut from the final episode, which is why on the BBC iPlayer the BBC Wales title card stays on screen for almost 80 seconds at the very end. In this, it was made undeniably explicit that the Sheriff was the titular Robot of Sherwood; the 'sky ship' had fallen on him when it crashed, and the Knights had repaired him, making him a cybernetic hybrid. His association with them was credible if a little (brilliantly) short-sighted.

While we're on the subject of the tyrannous tin-heads, I'd just like to complement their design. It's hard to design a good humanoid robot these days without it being compared to countless other examples, but I thought the work that went into these guys was really good. Although the main part was obviously the face, I thought the whole look of them really suited their origins and the time period. Their weapons, whilst a bit incredible in concept, worked really well in practice. I especially liked the purple cross it shone onto its victims. That's another possible hero interpretation: the legend of Jesus, who so many now (literally) worship beginning as a real man before his actions and teachings were transpired for all eternity. If you look for it, there's a lot of Biblical imagery present in this episode.

To be honest, I've never been much of a fan of British history between about 1000 and 1800. It's not a particularly dull or quiet period, it just hasn't interested me. Of especially little interest is the twelfth to thirteenth centuries. However, Mark Gatiss managed to win me round with a slightly modernised take on the era. The design still did nothing for me (although it was all highly authentic, to the wardrobe department's massive credit) but I adored the Knight's ship. From the moment the Doctor and Robin entered it, I was loving it. The design is so simple, but so elegant. I'd love to see more 29th Century pieces if this is what they're capable of. Not only was it a beautiful ship in itself (I loved the wall-computers that reminded me of the Daleks' crap old ones from the '60s) but it completely matched its disguise.

You can't fail to have noticed there were a couple of sword fights in Sherwood. I personally thought the second was far superior, but I loved how they mirrored each other, in ways both acknowledged and not. The first obviously wasn't supposed to give us the impression the Doctor would come to any real harm, but it was an excellent introduction to our main guest star. The arrow in the TARDIS was unnecessary, but I suppose it worked well while it lasted. The second fight worked well not only due to the superb performances given by Ben Miller and Tom Riley, but because of the dramatic climax had been building to throughout. There was a tangible tension between the characters, and it needed to be visualised like this to really sell the conclusion I think. The only downside is that the Doctor and Clara stood there doing absolutely bugger all. Could this be an indication of their importance to this episode? I personally don't think so.

I'm far from anything approaching a novice with the tales of Robin Hood; my experience extends as far as Blackadder's brief trip, and that's it. The Merry Men all seemed to be caricatures to some extend, but that was an unfortunate side effect of having little time to develop them. They had the desired impact, and gave a convincing impression as a group of men that have fallen together in hard times. I'm sure Gatiss researched his subject within an inch of his life, but I'm not really in a position to comment further.

I do have a few issues with the story of this episode. For one thing, if the ship didn't have enough power to escape Earth's atmosphere (and didn't it do that quickly, by the way?) why did the Knights take off at all? And if the arrow was all that was needed to boost them by a final 17%, then they were fools to let the Sheriff give it away. It did strike me a bit of the Seventh Doctor's Machiavellian nature in both Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis, but to a lesser extent. McCoy would've given them the arrow (golden, not silver as in the latter of those two) in the first place if he knew they were to be destroyed. It's nice to see our expectations (even those of more experienced fans) can still be subverted. Speaking of which, it surprised me that we didn't see Missy this week. Just as Steven Moffat shocked us with her inclusion, he shocks us (in a smaller way, admittedly) with her omission. I wonder how much we'll see her over the next seven episodes, and I don't doubt she'll pop her merry head round the door before the finale.

Clara comments that she'll miss Robin. Were this the Hartnell era, she and the Doctor would have stuck around for a few months, not the two days (even that's pretty long, by New Who standards) they do. Re-reading Joe Ford's reviews of the Hartnell era for a project I'm working on over the last few days, Robot of Sherwood almost seems like it could have come from the pen of Dennis Spooner. What a fun episode this was, and I could happily have spent one more in the company of this motley crew. Despite all his protestations (although I must say I'm with him on the laughing, it did grate after a while) the Doctor would have allowed Clara to stay if she'd wanted.

Paul Murphy makes his debut with a really stylish episode, employing lots of nice tricks and camera work. The scenes set in the forest lacked a little tension thanks to slow long shots, but this was made up for elsewhere. Of particular note for me was the archery contest. The entire sequence was handled really well and was one of the most accomplished segments in a long time. Murphy also assembles a strong guest cast, even the parts such as Marion, with only a handful of lines. There was one continuity error that stuck out to me (apart from the TARDIS door opening and shutting) and that was with the sun. With the Doctor and Robin have their sword fight, the sun is low, implying it's late afternoon. Later, when the Sheriff arrives at the settlement, the sun is high in the sky. Later still, when the Doctor meets the Merry Men, the sun's position implies it's mid-afternoon. This could all be blamed on the effects of the sky ship, but y'know... Given that Paul Murphy's directing Gareth Roberts' episode, starring Samuel Anderson, in a few weeks, I can't wait now. Such an abundance of talent is almost guaranteed to succeed.

Clara was handled much better than last week in this episode. Whilst she was still a little over-confident and immodest, she wasn't smug. Gatiss also wrote well for her in Cold War and The Crimson Horror (for the few scenes she was in) so it's nice to see that consistency. Jenna Coleman is of course instantly likeable, it's just her character isn't always. The Doctor written here was quite clearly Matt Smith's. Look at almost any piece of dialogue from this episode, and tell me it couldn't have fallen straight out of the last Doctor's mouth. Phil Ford's interpretation was somewhat different, but you can hardly blame Gatiss. It's not like he was written badly, it was just a bit of an Eleventh Doctor rehash. One standout moment I must mention was destroying the archery target. That got a big laugh from me.

Overall, then, this was another clue on the way to uncovering what the Brian Minchin era is going to look like. This does fall into a similar pattern to the last two episodes in some respects. Whilst a number of scenes only served to stall the episode plot-wise, they did the reserve in terms of character development, which seems to be where the emphasis lies this year. No complaints here. It's interesting to get another angle to examine the Doctor from (both the Twelfth Doctor and the Time Lord in general) and there's some genuine and enjoyable interplay between Capaldi and Riley. Their rivalry is brilliant to watch, and it's nice to see another side to Capaldi's incarnation. The direction was overall highly accomplished, but the music was often lacking the punch scenes required. Robin's theme was pleasant, and recurrent, and pretty much the only new piece I could spot in this episode. Whilst not better than The Unquiet Dead or The Crimson Horror, Robot of Sherwood certainly matches them in my estimations. Some people have been complaining about Gatiss' recurrent status on the writing schedule. If he still has the potential to produce episodes of this quality, I don't think they've a leg to stand on. The two stars of this episode were Peter Capaldi (who looked much better in the darker shirt) and Ben Miller, but there's no duff performances to be found. There's a few plot niggles, but they really shouldn't be taken into consideration as that's not what this episode was about. A triumph.

Shades Of: The Time Warrior, The King's Demons, Battlefield and The Shakespeare Code.

Top Three Lines:
  • "'Soiled myself'?" / "Did you? That's getting into character!"
  • "After this... Derby. Then... Lincoln."
  • "Usefulness expired."

I watch the show every week with someone we'll call Larry. He grew up with the show, but isn't a 'fan' and has never been a huge fan of the Moffat era. On the whole, though, he usually enjoys episodes written by the showrunner the most. 

Larry's Line: "Pretty good, not the worst one this series."

In a Nutshell: An enjoyable character piece that examines the nature of the Doctor in a completely fresh way, all set against a satisfactory backdrop.

UPDATE: Having thought about this for a few days. I've decided to downgrade this episode's rating. Having considered it properly, I don't think Robot of Sherwood is deserving of such a high rating. It's a good episode, but not better than things I've rated lower. Its flaws bother me more than I originally thought, despite the fantastic four that front it. Sorry, but I now rate this:

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