This week saw the Doctor and Clara arrive in Sherwood Forest, ‘1190-ish’ and meet one of England’s greatest legends. If you haven’t seen the episode you may want to read Geoff’s spoiler-free review here: http://sfcrowsnest.info/doctor-who-robot-of-sherwood-by-mark-gattis-tv-review/ . otherwise pull your green tights on and prepare to get merry…
What sort of show do you think ‘Doctor Who’ should be? Consider these two reviews of ‘Robot Of Sherwood’ from Michael Hogan in ‘The Daily Telegraph’ and Neela Debnath of ‘The Independent’. One is a glowing five star appraisal from Hogan who found the episode to be ‘exhilaratingly enjoyable’ and ‘proper family fun’ while Debnath decided it was a ‘disappointment’ going on to complain ‘Where has all the darkness that we were promised repeatedly gone?’ The reason I raise these two critiques is that they illustrate reviewers and, arguably viewers expectations of what ‘Doctor Who’ should be. The Doctor can go anywhere in time and space. This, naturally is going to throw up contrasts in story and situation. One of the first things Russell T Davies did on restarting the show was to introduce the tone meeting. This means that the production is all pulling in the same direction when it comes to making the episode and avoids the show’s past mistakes. It also means that the show can make a series flow together. When this doesn’t happen, such as the problematically reworked episode order of series 6, the show begins to feel samey and that, can arguably be ‘Doctor Who’s greatest threat.
Which is why I am perfectly delighted to have a Dalek assault squad brutally murdering human resistance fighters one week and a thigh-slappingly silly adventure the next. Meeting Robin Hood always seemed a little unlikely on paper, the show only has room for so many heroes, but for forty-five minutes writer Mark Gatiss and director Paul Murphy showed that the Doctor, baffled and angry by working alongside a myth and Clara doing what she does best, that is figuring everything out and inspiring heroism, could prove a lot of fun indeed.
Robin, played with necessary braggadocio by Tom Reily, also managed to portray a lot of self-doubt, without plumbing the depths of introspection that say Jonas Armstrong brought to the part in the BBC’s Saturday night series some years back. Ben Miller, looking exactly Anthony Ainley did as The Master in ‘The King’s Demons’ oozed unpleasantness. He came across like any good Sheriff of Nottingham, obsessed with power, at times charming and like Robin, an excellent swordsman. Intriguingly, the cut-scene from the episode, which had the Sheriff beheaded (removed after recent events in the Middle East) would have showed him to be a cyborg, augmented by the robots.
The robots themselves looked fantastic, the ‘cross’ effect of their face laser gun, echoing both the cross arrow-slits of the castle, as seen behind Robin and the Doctor, but also the crucifix of Christ. The robots’ back story is a little odd. The ship appears to have fallen back through time, being from the 29th century in its attempt to reach the Promised Land. Compare this to the 51st century vehicle that found itself stranded on Roman Earth in ‘Deep Breath’. So far, travelling to the Promised Land seems to rely on two things travelling in craft manned by robots, exclusively or not and either deliberately attempting to travel back in time to Earth’s past or being cast back in time having not reached their intended destination. Plus, if the Robot technology is gold-powered, what an excellent defence against the Cybermen.
Meanwhile, the Doctor doesn’t seem to have worked out the parallels, unless of course that’s what he’s been scribbling on the TARDIS chalkboard. He’s far too busy being grumpy and it’s a delight to watch. Capaldi and Coleman are so far delivering on their partnership brilliantly, he is sceptical and aloof, she carries the emotional intelligence and most of the common-sense. I’d argue it’s easily one of the best Doctor and companion pairings for a long time. It was also great to not see the Doctor overcome with fanboyish enthusiasm for meeting a legend. Under Russell T Davies’ watch this was mainly reserved for authors: Dickens, Shakespeare, Christie. Under Steven Moffat, things got serious and the Eleventh Doctor was meeting Churchill, Nixon and, disastrously, Hitler. For the Twelfth Doctor, though, he was just miffed at being wrong. Once again, it takes Clara to spell out for him that he needs to change his thinking.
‘Robot Of Sherwood’ then carries on a fine ‘Doctor Who’ tradition, bringing camp into history. The show has been doing this since the sixties with stories like ‘The Romans’ and ‘The Myth Makers’. The most notorious of these is ‘The Gunfighters’, a story which I heartily enjoyed but leaves others cold, polarising, much like the newspaper reviews above. I would argue therefore that ‘Robot Of Sherwood’ is a modern day version of ‘The Gunfighters’, playing fast and loose with history and legend, being utterly self-aware (‘Prince Of Thieves?’ ‘Last Of The Time Lords?’) and with some singing thrown in as well. In other words, archly camp and I believe all the better for it.
While we’re making past comparisons, worth pointing out this week’s references: ‘Carnival Of Monsters’, ‘The Time Warrior’, some good old Venusian Aikido and after ‘Silver Nemesis’, I’m hoping that one day the Doctor encounters a bronze arrow, too.
Now, what was the Second Doctor doing dressed as Robin Hood in that image montage?
© John Rivers 2014
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Doctor Who ‘Robot of Sherwood’ www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04gmmk1