Doctor Who Series 8 Episode 3 review: Robot of Sherwood

Posted: 13 September 2014 in entertainment, television
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Gadzooks! It’s thigh-slapping farce and clashing egos all round as two legends cross sword and spoon. But how can Robin Hood possibly be real?

No castles, no damsels in distress, no such thing as Robin Hood!

It appears that Mark Gatiss didn’t receive the special memo from Steven Moffat. The one detailing how Peter Capaldi’s incarnation was to be a darker, more brooding, and intense presence than any previous Nu-Who Doctor. Robot of Sherwood (a not-so subtle pun on Robin of Sherwood) proved to be a decidedly mediocre romp from the pen of the normally reliable Mr Gatiss (surely the next showrunner when Moffat calls it a day?).

Whereas Deep Breath and Into the Dalek were stories only tellable with the Twelfth Doctor in place, Robot of Sherwood is easily adaptable as an adventure for any of the Doctors. It’d be perfect for Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor duelling with Roger Delgado’s Master, or Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor trading barbs with Anthony Ainley’s Master. Think The Time Monster or The King’s Demons, and then imagine the Master parading around a studio at the BBC as the Sheriff of Nottingham with his tongue firmly in cheek.

Doctor Who - S8 E3 Robot of Sherwood

For much of the time Peter Capaldi looks like a guest star in his own programme, mainly bitching about how happy Robin and his band are, whilst Jenna Coleman’s Clara goes all fangirl over meeting the legendary outlaw. For once the companion throws herself into an improbable tale more than the Time Lord. The frivolous scenes where the Doctor attempts to prove that Robin and his Merry Men are androids, robots, or replicants of some nature, through the taking of various samples, is another of those moments (as with the colour of kidneys line from The Time of the Doctor) that simply don’t work for the Twelfth Doctor.

Mark Gatiss is on record as being a huge fan of the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, which remains the definitive telling of the Robin Hood legend. The appearance and mannerisms of Tom Reily’s Robin Hood and Ben Miller’s Sheriff are clearly based upon Errol Flynn’s hero and Basil Rathbone’s villain from this cinematic classic. Kevin Costner’s “Indiana Hood” film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves gets a name check from Clara. And is the Doctor’s use of a spoon as a weapon a subtle homage to Alan Rickman’s classic line, “Locksley, I’m gonna cut your heart out with a spoon”?

The Doctor meeting Robin Hood isn’t a new idea for Doctor Who, with the first proposal coming way back in 1978. Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor was due to meet the legendary outlaw in The Shield of Zarak, the planned fourth instalment of The Key to Time season. The narrative twist in the tail was to be that Robin Hood was in fact a villain, the antithesis of his legendary status as a hero. Ultimately The Shield of Zarak was shelved (due in no small part to the writer turning up to meetings drunk) and replaced by The Androids of Tara, a swashbuckling romp with androids/robots in English-like woodland. That seems oddly familiar…

Doctor Who - S8 E3 - The Doctor, Clara and Robin

It’s a pity that Robot of Sherwood didn’t take such an innovative approach as the concept of The Shield of Zarak to proceedings. Although all the familiar beats of the legend were followed; the Merry Men, the archery competition, the final duel between Robin and the Sheriff, everything felt flat. Gatiss’ script felt as if it needed a couple of more drafts before it went before the cameras in order to nail down the plot and characters. The revelation of a spaceship concealed within Nottingham Castle came so fast that it seemed that a linking scene had been omitted from the final edit. In a way it’s a shame that the Doctor wasn’t right about being trapped in a Miniscope, as was the case in Carnival of Monsters.

Given the singular lack of passion or conviction in many of the performances it often felt as though a casual rehearsal had been surreptitiously filmed and used. Though the direction by Paul Murphy (Casualty, Wizards vs. Aliens) was workmanlike enough it was plodding dullness personified in comparison to the innovative and atmospheric techniques employed by Ben Wheatley in Deep Breath and Into the Dalek.

Is it so hard to credit? That a man born into wealth and privilege should find the plight of the oppressed and weak too much to bear… until one night he is moved to steal a TARDIS? Fly among the stars, fighting the good fight?

Gatiss normally delivers hugely entertaining romps (his Cold War being the only decent story of the 2013 series) but Robot of Sherwood is decidedly his most lacklustre contribution out of the seven adventures he’s weaved for 21st century Doctor Who. Perhaps expanded to a length equivalent to the old four 25 minute episodes of the classic era, with room to develop the secondary characters and the world in which they operate, Robot of Sherwood might have been a richer experience. Part of the enjoyment of Deep Breath comes from it being the longest episode produced for Nu-Who with room to dwell on character and atmosphere.

Perhaps the most effective moment of the episode comes with the comparison of the natures of the Doctor and Robin. Both being high born nobles who rejected their heritages and societies in order to defend the weak and vulnerable from tyranny and enslavement.

The evolving Capaldi/Coleman double act was one of the few positive aspects of Robot of Sherwood. A refreshing change was seeing the Doctor and Clara already aboard the TARDIS as the story opened. Too frequently time is wasted by the Doctor collecting his companion from contemporary Earth before setting off on a new adventure. A key feature of Doctor Who used to be the companion being separated from their own time and place (perhaps forever) due to the unreliable navigation of the TARDIS. In the 1960s the TARDIS could never be guided to a specific point in space and time. Nowadays it feels as though the time ship is a coach taking Clara for a day out at a theme park. How about getting back to some genuine wandering in the fourth dimension?

Although there’s another mention of the “Promised Land”, an underlying theme of Series 8, ultimately Robot of Sherwood is a frothy tongue-in-cheek lightweight romp that can be enjoyed with a couple of alcoholic beverages without worrying too much about its place within Moffat’s grand schemes.

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