• 11th September 2014 • Review by Karl Eisenhauer •
He’s doing that thing with the chalk again.
Episode Three for “All Thirteen!” and the kinks of our new Doctor are beginning to reveal themselves. No more brainy specs! No more wavy hands! No more catchphrases! In their place come snark and chalk equations. And “No bantering.” The Doctor is totally against bantering.
Hello. Long term reader, first time scrawler. As a URP! debutante, I feel obliged to acknowledge my earliest memories of the the Doctor, a childhood spent cowering from the Daleks behind a sofa… except of course that never happened. To anyone. Ever.
That’s not to say Saturday teatimes were devoid of adventure, but as a child of the ’80s I remember Doctor Who as a show bumped to weeknights, all bright colours and wobbly plots. Prime time post-football-results viewing belonged to new heroes.
A favourite was HTV’s Robin of Sherwood, a truly amazing show that introduced an earthy, modern tone to the Robin Hood legend. Heck, there was even a regeneration of sorts as the lineage of ‘The Hooded Man’ passed from Michael Praed’s Robin of Loxley to Jason Connery’s Robert of Huntingdon. But he was a bit shit, so let’s end the nostalgia and get back to the plot.
For “Robot of Sherwood” we find ourselves on Earth, England, Sherwood Forest, 1190AD-ish (Wha-aaa-at are the chances of that happening, eh?) for a tantalizing team-up: Lord Locksley and the Lord of Time, or as writer Mark Gatiss describes it, “The Doctor and Robin Hood in 45 minutes.”
The title pun and high-concept pitch imply a light-hearted nature and that’s just how the episode plays out. The story is little more than a whistlestop tour of the Robin Hood myth with an obligatory alien menace thrown in for good measure. Much to Clara’s delight, it’s all here: The Merry Men, an archery contest for the golden arrow, a dastardly Sheriff and a thigh-slapping, hearty-laughing bowman dressed head to toe in finest green. None of which, according to the Doctor, should exist.
So the game’s afoot, and as Gatiss flies us through the best-known beats of Robin Hood folklore, Capaldi’s cynical Doctor tramples all over it. The Doctor’s desire to expose the “long-haired ninnie” as a fraud turns out to be a fool’s errand. If you will excuse me an excruciatingly painful pun, he’s barking up the wrong – Major Oak – tree. It is however, his very literal prodding and probing that ultimately speeds us to the real danger. A sinister Sheriff of Nottingham has allied with “Robot Killer Knights” and his ambition knows no bounds, he wants dominion over Nottingham. Derby. Lincoln. Worksop. The world!
Yes, yes, yes, it’s all nonsense, but it’s wonderful nonsense. A ripping yarn that unravels with wit and gusto. The Robot henchmen angle might be stale, great chunks of the plot are clunky and contrived and the less said about the finale (something something Golden Shot) the better, but such matters needn’t be troubled over. These moves are simply wires holding things in place. And if you’re looking at the wires you’re ignoring the story. If you go to a puppet show you can see the wires. But it’s about the puppets, it’s not about the string. If you go to a Punch and Judy show and you’re only watching the wires, you’re a freak.
We live in the era of Marvel Cinematic Universe and the super-hero team up movie. Here we have a British take on the same idea, and that’s the real story. To capitalise on this potential, Gatiss positions his Robin as a dashing, larger-than-life, Prince of Thieves. A version of Robin we’ve not seen employed since Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The swashbuckling Errol Flynn inspired heroism provides a perfect foil to a sceptical, sardonic Doctor. When egos this big clash it’s only ever going to end one way: petty squabbling and one-upmanship. The bickering and put-downs here evoke memories of a multi-Doctor episode as “Hoodie” and the “Decrepit Man-Crone” trade insults and archery trick shots.
Huge credit really must go to Tom Riley as Robin for one of the best guest performances of recent times. In just 45 minutes he manages to enthuse more charm and appeal into his Robin Hood than the BBC managed in three entire series of their mid-noughties revival. Across the course of the episode Riley walks a tightrope, as he’s required to subtly bestow depth and motivation, behind showmanship and vigour, whilst all the time maintaining our suspicion that he’s the robot of Sherwood in question.
All of which rather overshadows Ben Miller’s fine performance as a lunatic fringe Sheriff. Any comparisons to Alan Rickman’s tour de force in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves would be unfair. Here the Sheriff has less screen time and is far more one-note, an unhinged blend of malicious intention and anger management issues.
So what of our new acerbic Doctor? He’s blunt, he’s belligerent, he’s curmudgeonly, however to linger on his “nastiness” is to err. He’s not nasty, he’s just Scottish! It’s evidently a bit of a front too, just as Clara calls out Robin’s predilection for jest as concealing his true nature, so to do the barbed words of Capaldi’s Doctor pair up with moments of self-doubt and vulnerability.
The early adventures of any new Doctor are a period of adjustment. It takes time for an audience to feel comfortable with a new Doctor and time for the production team to tailor the show to maximise an actor’s full potential. At times this episode feels suitable for the Tennant, Smith or even Pertwee eras, but that’s to be expected: it’s part of the post regeneration audience hangover. What zings are the moments of pure Peter Capaldi. Who else could greet Robin Hood by threatening to punch him in the face and then moments later best him in a sword-fight using just a spoon? There’s real promise here in our new Doctor’s most rounded performance to date.
What we don’t get this week is a visit to Missy’s Heavenly Tea Party. Which is a bit of a bugger as I’m eager to speculate wildly on our celestial gatekeeper. So here’s some lazy conjecture to pad out this review. To date we’ve seen two recently-deceased characters show up for tea and scones at the gates of the wherever-sphere: Half-Face, our cyborg chum from “Deep Breath”, and Gretchen, the valiant fallen soldier from “Into The Dalek”. If anything ties these characters together it’s self-sacrifice – or rather, sacrifice for the benefit of the Doctor. Note how the other on-screen deaths we’ve witnessed so far – Master Quayle, the Sheriff and Soldier Ross – have all come about due to their own aggressive tendencies.
The other potential Bad Wolf for this season is that of the promised land. Are we to assume this episode’s mechanical Knights Templar were off in search of a digital afterlife? The Doctor’s already stated an atheist’s disdain for the premise of silicon heaven, but should we share it? After all, where do all the calculators go?
Ultimately, what “Robot of Sherwood” provides is comedy with a purpose, both for the audience and the Doctor. The sucker-punch ending to “Into the Dalek” cut deep, revealing a blackened heart of hatred within the protector of Gallifrey. Clara’s closing words there sought to re-assure the Doctor as to the importance of simply trying to be a good man. For all his froth, Robin here reveals similar levels of insecurity in a poignant farewell where our two heroes are finally able to find some common ground.
The Robin Hood known to history is now more myth than man, but somewhere back in time the actions of an ordinary man (or men) inspired fables and tales retold. Riley’s Robin both learns of and accepts this fate and then reminds both viewers and the Doctor that heroes are seldom more than the ordinary people inspiring others through acts of courage. It’s a confirmation of Clara’s sentiment and perhaps, right now that’s the story the Doctor needs to know.
For us, this is also the right adventure at the right time. The next time trailer for “Listen” suggests a waking nightmare, and the series as a whole appears set to wade deeply into the Doctor’s internal gloom. So let this instalment stand for what it is: a straight-out romp, and one of the most outright fun episodes of Doctor Who in recent memory. Sure, hijinks and excellent adventures won’t be to everyone’s liking, but Doctor Who never has and never should be about hard-science fiction concepts every single time. If that’s what you want, look elsewhere. As a wise man once said: “Babylon 5‘s a big pile of shit!”