“Old-fashioned heroes are only found in old-fashioned storybooks, Clara.”
After a season opener freighted with the need to establish a new Doctor, and last week’s dark morality tale, this week saw Doctor Who return refreshingly to an old-fashioned, undemanding romp with the groan-makingly entitled Robot of Sherwood. Very close in style to some of the classic show’s tongue-in-cheek stories, especially season 17, this saw the Doctor grudgingly agreeing to take Clara to 12the century Sherwood Forest to meet her hero – Robin Hood. Only to find the time-travelling pair caught up in a somewhat contrived plot involving the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham purloining gold from the locals in order to help some robots from the future relaunch their crippled spaceship.
All of which is, of course, very, very silly. Intentionally so – this was a deliberately humorous script from Mark Gatiss, who seems to do his best work for the show when he writes with tongue firmly in cheek. And yet, despite the camp romp, there was some very clever subtext in here, metatextual musings on the nature of heroes, history, legends and stories, which cleverly counterpointed the established legend of Robin Hood with the ever-more cemented legend of the Doctor himself in modern culture.
To that end, Gatiss deliberately gave us a very old-fashioned, even cheesy, version of Robin Hood, improbably handsome in the guise of actor Tom Riley and possessed of so much pantomime joie de vivre that you almost expected him to keep slapping his thigh. His propensity to give a hearty laugh at the slightest provocation led to much eye-rolling from this newly snarky Doctor, who found himself in an amusingly played pissing contest throughout as to who was the bigger hero – despite his own unwillingness to admit that that’s what he is.
The tropes of both legends were cleverly deconstructed and subverted throughout. Hence, we got Robin’s famous bridge battle with Little John, here restaged as Sherwood’s finest came up against the challenge of the Doctor and his spoon; while that renowned trap of the Sheriff, the contest to find Sherwood’s finest archer, was rather derailed by the appearance of the Doctor with his homing arrows (“I cheated”).
Turnabout is fair play though, and Gatiss also poked fun at the established tropes of Doctor Who itself. Nowhere was this more evident than the Doctor’s determined attempts to prove that Robin wasn’t real (“They’re holograms”; “You’re a robot!”). But there was also much fun to be had from the standard Doctor Who scenario of our heroes being locked up in a dungeon, as an exasperated Clara pointed out to the squabbling Doctor and Robin that there was, in fact, no guard whose attention they could attract; and lampshaded one of the show’s more tired clichés by saying “tell me your plan in a way that doesn’t involve the words ‘sonic screwdriver’”.
Indeed, the dialogue throughout was witty, despite the occasional knob gag about Errol Flynn and his enormous… ego. The sparring between the Doctor and Robin served to show how different this new Doctor is from his predecessors, as he snarkily derided the old-fashioned heroism of his 12th century counterpart. It’s hard to imagine either of his immediate predecessors countering Robin’s heroic declarations with the very Glaswegian response, “and do people ever punch you in the face when you do that? Lucky I’m here then.”
Robin gave as good as he got though, with equally snarky comments about the Doctor’s advanced age, and “desiccated frame”. In effect, it was a buddy movie story, with two squabbling heroes who eventually came together to defeat the bad guys, and ended up recognising how much they had in common. Yes, that’s very clichéd in itself; but it was hard to bear a grudge for that in a story so determined to homage the clichés of both legends. And the whole thing was so good-natured in its execution that it would have been hard to dislike anyway – though I’m sure many of the more dissatisfied fans will find a way.
I’m starting to warm to Capaldi’s Doctor, after a couple of episodes of uncertainty. Yes, he’s very different to Tennant or Smith, but that’s actually a good thing; I’m not sure I’d want yet another floppy-haired pretty boy for the companion to moon over. This is, in fact, the closest to the classic series portrayal of the character we’ve had since Christopher Eccleston, whose departure took me most of Tennant’s smug first season to get over.
This Doctor is very much a broody, remote figure, but by no means without the whimsy of his predecessors – who else would bring a spoon to a swordfight, and win? His humour is of a very different stripe, more akin to the sarcasm of Blackadder; indeed, I’ve heard several friends comment that his dynamic with Robin in this episode was very reminiscent to that of Blackadder and similarly old-fashioned hero Lord Flashheart. I now think I was a little harsh last week comparing him to Colin Baker’s more overtly bullying portrayal, though he does have a similar acerbic wit. There again, so did Tom Baker, in his early, more serious seasons – when I mentioned the new Doctor’s cavalier treatment of Clara, a few people pertinently reminded me of Four’s patronising attitude to the good-natured, old-fashioned hero that was Harry Sullivan.
Once again, the new dynamic between the Doctor and his companion led me to see Clara in a very much more favourable light, now that their relationship is no longer shot through with ambiguous romance. Jenna Coleman’s performance throughout was assured and witty, as Clara frequently got to deliver the punchlines to the gags; and she more than held her own in that long scene with the ever-excellent Ben Miller as the Sheriff, effectively doing the James Bond thing of getting the baddie to explain the whole plan in a clever and calculated way.
As ever with Gatiss, the ep was chock full of fan-pleasing references to the classic show. It was already very reminiscent of previous sojourns to the Middle Ages such as The Time Warrior (robot knights) and The King’s Demons (Ben Miller almost seemed to be channelling Anthony Ainley in his performance). We also got the Doctor wondering aloud if they were caught in a Miniscope, as in Carnival of Monsters, and the lovely, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Patrick Troughton in an earlier incarnation, playing none other than Robin Hood.
The actual plot was sheer hokum, of course, but the whole thing whizzed by so enjoyably you’d have to be a bit of a sourpuss to take issue with the details. Yes, it was a contrivance that Marian was, unbeknownst to Robin, in a nearby village and then in Nottingham Castle’s dungeon. And I did wonder how that golden arrow could have added to the engine power when the effects shot appeared to show it bouncing off the ship’s hull. Because I generally enjoyed the episode, to me that feels like quibbling; but if you didn’t enjoy it, I daresay its flaws stand very large in your view.
I should probably address the much-discussed issue of the last-minute edit made by the BBC – the removal of a beheading scene, in deference to the current sensitivity over the beheadings by terrorist fanatics, not to mention one perpetrated by a nutter in London. Some have said the cut was cowardly on the part of the BBC, one of the more extreme fans claiming that it “let the terrorists win” (I sincerely doubt ISIS’s stated goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate includes a victory criterion of making the infidels edit popular television programmes).
On balance, I think it was probably the right decision – the show is designed for family teatime viewing, and apart from any sensitivities relating to the real life incidents, the scene’s inclusion would have been inviting controversy from the sort of people who found the “lesbian kiss” (actually nothing of the sort) so objectionable in Deep Breath. Whatever your feelings on the edit, I didn’t find that it interfered with the plot at all; in fact, I’m not even sure where it would have been. I’ve heard that it was actually the Sheriff that got beheaded, to make the point that he was at least part-robot himself; but then the dialogue already does that, when he claims to be “part man, part machine” during his final duel with Robin. Having said all that, I would prefer the scene to be reinstated for the DVD/Blu Ray release – let’s hope it is.
No sign of the mysterious ‘Missy’ this week, but the ongoing mystery got at least a nod when the Doctor discovered that the alien ship’s stated destination was ‘The Promised Land’. Between that and Missy’s residence in ‘Heaven’, it looks like the plot arc will very much have Judeo-Christian religious overtones; something that has the potential to spark far more controversy than a ‘lesbian kiss’ or a beheading. The show has never treated religion very well, which is understandable as it tends to have a rationalist, scientific perspective, but I do know quite a few people of faith who count themselves fans, and a plotline debunking their faith could be tricky. I doubt Steven Moffat is that insensitive, and hopefully won’t go down that route. And if nothing else, perhaps his detractors will be somewhat mollified by the fact that the ongoing plot arc is so much less dominant of the season this time, almost like the ‘Bad Wolf’ references way back in season one.
Robot of Sherwood was fun, funny, but somewhat insubstantial, even with its clever musings on heroes and legends. Having said that, I think I enjoyed it more unequivocally than any of the Capaldi episodes so far; perhaps because, like Clara, I’m a big fan of Robin Hood in all his guises. I like when the show doesn’t feel the need to be doomy and dark all the time, and always have room for a bit of whimsy. And despite my general dislike for the heart-string tugging RTD was so fond of, I found the final exchange between Robin and the Doctor quite affecting – “history burdens us, but stories can make us fly.” It’s a measure of how different the new Doctor is that, in earlier incarnations, I would have imagined it was he who would have got Robin’s earnest, heartfelt lines. This is a Doctor who’s almost embarrassed by the notion of being a hero; and despite his egotism in other areas, that’s like a breath of fresh air.