Robot of Sherwood

Blogging Doctor Who, New Series 8

 

 

The Doctor, the Outlaw and Clara

 

Image: Clara, the Doctor and Robin Hood chained in the Sheriff of Nottingham's dungeon.The Doctor and Robin Hood share some bondage time. Clara is not amused. Screenshot from 'Robot of Sherwood'. Doctor Who Copyright © 2014 BBC.

My lord, but did I have low expectations for this one! Robot Robin Hood? Is this, I thought, really the best we can expect from Doctor Who nowadays — a Westworld rip-off set in medieval East Midlands instead of Texas?

Three cheers for being wrong, wrong, wrong.

Mark Gattis, whose previous stories have ranged from pretty good ("The Unquiet Dead") to pretty bad ("The Cold War"), has this time served up a winner.

"Robot of Sherwood" won't be to everyfen's taste (what episode of Doctor Who is?) but for those of us who from time-to-time enjoy some camp with our adventure, "Sherwood" serves up delicious stew of rapid-fire dialogue, a very funny Peter Capaldi in obsessive crank (and cranky) mode and a mystery whose resolution hardly cheats at all. Throw in some genuine horror in the actions of the villain of the piece and a moving coda on the importance of myth, and we had ourselves a pretty complete meal.

The story starts with the Doctor in a generous mood. "Pick a planet," he tells Clara, "wherever and whenever, in time and space."

Clara is hesitant. She has something — or rather, someone in mind, but, "you'll say he's made up."

"Go on," the Doctor urges and Jenna Coleman nibbles, just a bit, at the scenery. A taste of things to come. "I want to meet ... Robin Hood!"

"He's made up," the Doctor snaps, his good mood gone in a puff of romance. "There's no such thing."

Coleman's reaction is lovely. Girlish disappointment with an equal measure of exasperation. This is the companion who has known the Doctor in all his incarnations, for better and for worse!

The Doctor goes on to pontificate. "... old-fashioned heroes only exist in old-fashioned story-books, Clara."

But what about you?

"I'm no hero," quoth the Doctor, but he gives in and sets the controls for "Earth, England, Sherwood Forest, 1190 AD ... ish," as Clara hops about with entirely unsuppressed excitement, even if it's clear she knows he's doing it to teach her a lesson, not to grant her wish.

All that was barely more than the first minute of the episode. Gatiss doesn't waste time in getting things moving, or in filling the time he has. With a subsequent vorp-vorp-vorp we've landed in Sherwood forest and an arrow is quivering (yes, I went there) just aside the Tardis' front door.

The arrow belongs to Robin Hood of course (or to something that looks like Robin Hood, the Doctor is certain!).

Image: The Doctor flips Robin Hood the bird in preparation for a duel. Screenshot from 'Robot of Sherwood'.
Yes. Yes he did. Peter Capaldi's Doctor prepares to face sword with spoon. Screenshot from "Robot of Sherwood." Doctor Who copyright © 2014 by BBC.

The Doctor and Robin don't hit it off at all. Robin wants the Tardis ("All property is theft, to Robin Hood!") and laughs too much. The Doctor wonders whether anyone has punched him in the face for his joviality and before we know it, the two are recapitulating the famous joust between Robin Hood and Little John, though this version does not result in a sudden friendship. Indeed, an almost sibling sort of rivalry between the two becomes an ongoing (and mostly very funny) joke. (Later on when all three are chained in the Sheriff of Nottingham's dungeon, Clara is forced to insist that, "It is not a competition about who can die slower." The Doctor will not be corrected: "Well, it would definitely be me, though, wouldn't it?")

Some might see the Doctor's petulance as out-of-character, but I think even a Time Lord can sometimes run into someone who just sets him off, who pushes all of his wrong buttons.

Capaldi plays up the conflict to the limit, serving each of his lines with 500 mg of ascerbic acid (and shows some delightful physical comedy, as with the bit of "English" he added to the donning of his duelling glove — see image at right — that were surely missed by the Beeb's censors. If I hadn't already taken to Capaldi's Doctor, that gesture would have sold me.)

The plot is pretty straightforward (there are robots in Sherwood Forest and they're up to no good) and its resolution is familiar. The fun comes through the twists and turns it takes to get from start to finish.

If Capaldi's performance is the episode's winner, both Tom Riley as Robin Hood and — I'm happy to report — Jenna Coleman as Clara prove able chew the scenery with equal relish.

Not that there isn't tension. In fact, quite early on, the Sheriff of Nottingham makes an appearance that is both cruel and blood-thirsty, leaving an old man dead and his niece in chains. It's not all bickering and banter in the Doctor's Sherwood Forest; the villains' threats are all-too real.

Similarly, the inevitable robots are familiar-looking, but scary enough for the young ones. Director Paul Murphy keeps the action sequences both funny and exciting, a feat easier to prescribe than to fulfil.

Better still, after the excitement and the laughs, Gattis gives us something philosophical to chew on. When the Doctor tells Robin that he will be forgotten, his name living on as only a story, a legend, Robin pauses, but decides, "Good. History is a burden. Stories can make us fly."

An apt epitaph for a program that, at its best, has always been about the importance of story, of striving to be better through the inspiration of of myths and legends. After all, if the Doctor wasn't real, someone would have had to invent him.

Are there flaws in "Robot of Sherwood"? Of course there are! And probably yours are not quite mine. But for once in a very long time, I'm happy to say, Just watch this episode! It's funny, it's exciting, it's moving, and leave it at that.

Mark Gattis, I'll accept your arrow of "Of Random Plot Resolution" with pleasure.

Spread the word!

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I had expected a Westworld

I had expected a Westworld variant too - and so was the Doctor. In the end, I think we were both glad to be proved wrong.

All three of us, isn't it?

Regardless, nicely-put and welcome.

Incidentally, I've taken a glance at your blog. Quite interesting, in large part because you're doing (as a critic) something I think a lot of fan-fic writers (and just plain fans) do with Who when it isn't very good. Namely, filling in the gaps, taking what is there and spinning a lot of cloth out of that and what isn't there.

Such as, just for example, "The new Doctor is repenting of the excesses of his Matt Smith persona, and where the eleventh Doctor found his female companions subjects of investigation, the twelfth seems determined to discover the self he has obscured beneath manic jollity and forced youth, and alongside this the reasons why he has become this physically older person.".

Personally, I'm highly sceptical of this kind of criticism, and have been pretty much as far back as I've recognized it for what (I think) it is.

All that said, you make a very convincing argument and were it not for (what i believe is) the fact that Moffat doesn't think or plan with that kind of detail in mind, I might be convinced.

I fear that all that sounds like a put-down. It isn't meant to be. In fact, I've signed up for your mailing list. I have a feeling I'll want to yell at you quite a lot, but that you'll also push me to think outside my own comfort zone.

Okay, that's it. I'm heading

Okay, that's it. I'm heading over there to check and see if you've been replaced by a robot double or a Dalek or one of those flesh things.

(I enjoyed it too. The blink-and-you-missed-it bird flipping killed me; I saw a gif of it somewhere and assumed it was a deleted scene. So glad they left that in.)

Re: Okay, that's it. I'm heading

I know, it's a weird feeling, this liking business. I was really expecting the second go-round to reveal that my earlier pleasure had been an illusion. (Is Moffat writing the next one? That should send things back to normal.)

I'm not sure which I enjoyed more, the bird-flip or Capaldi's so sour expression. Well, I guess the bird-flipping, the expression on his face is pretty priceless.

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