Sunday, 7 September 2014

Robot of Sherwood written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Paul Murphy

This story in a nutshell: Is the Robin Hood story fact or fiction?

Indefinable: This is a period of transition for the series as the new boy settles in to the role and sees how he takes to different types of episodes. After the (mostly) serious tone of the first two stories, this was our first chance to see how the grumpiest of Doctors fares when tackling an out and out comedy. Not too well as it happens. Capaldi is like a grumpy curmudgeon in the first half of Robot of Sherwood, not embracing the wonder of this heroic legend coming to life but fighting against it and trying to rationalise it. Why would anybody do that? Because he is so huffy his Doctor doesn't have a natural flair for humour and all that gravitas that was so impressive in Into the Dalek boils down to hectoring and one-upmanship with Robin, failing to highlight the character at his intelligent best but his intransigent worst. Eccleston (whose gift for comedy I have come to appreciate more as I have re-evaluated his season), Tennant (who would have reacted extremely enthusiastically to the living legend) and Smith (who this episode seems tailored for) all play comedy much more naturally than Capaldi. He's like the friend you feel as though you should invite to the party despite the fact that he is a miserable git and will drag everybody else down. There was an element of casual ageism in this episode too that found a little distasteful with a handful of comments deliberately pointing out that Capaldi is an older Doctor (although that was countered by just how energetic the Doctor is in this one). In my free time I do a lot of volunteer work with the elderly and trust me people do not need more of an excuse to look down upon those in their advanced years. Simon was appalled at the Doctor's general unwillingness to join in the fun, he said it actually kept him from engaging with the episode. If the Doctor objects so vehemently, why should we take pleasure in the daftness? One Foot in the Grave presented an impossibly miserable sod in Victor Meldrew, a guy who was so at odds with the madness of the world that his huffiness was riotously funny as a result. Robot of Sherwood tries the same thing but fails to work for two reasons, David Renwick is a masterful comedy writer and Mark Gatiss isn't and Victor Meldrew stayed true to himself throughout the series (he rarely lightened up) whereas the Doctor has his defences worn down by Robin at the end. If I were to take this culture clash approach with the Doctor I would have had him maintain his resistance to the bitter end. The biggest revelation for me about Robot of Sherwood though was that this episode could pretty much have taken place, beat for beat, without the Doctor's interference. When the protagonist is merely a cantankerous observer, failing to make a positive impact on the plot you have to question the quality of the writing.

Saying all that, I got more of a sense that this was the Doctor this week than I did in the previous two episodes. Hartnell, Pertwee and both Bakers could be remarkably juvenile at times and take an instant dislike to people as Capaldi's Doctor does to Robin Hood. I also loved the Doctor tempting Clara with some intriguing sounding adventures at the beginning, we've seen the Doctor do that in practically every incarnation. He's talking about punching mythological figures in the face, pure sixth Doctor. The mention of a miniscope tickled me. He touches his cheek uncomprehendingly when he is kissed like a hero, a complex touch. in an uncomplicated episode. He's furious that Clara is telling all and sundry about his past, the eyebrows of steel coming out in full force.

Mysterious Girl: The impossibly smug and self assured girl (see what I did there?). Clara has to go. Robot of Sherwood might have had an ounce of tension in it had she at least once shown a flicker of fear or concern. Clara waltzes through this episode in a daze of self assuredness, harking back to the worst excesses of season 7b. She's absolutely beautiful but completely vacant and complacency and self-satisfaction do not a character make. I wanted terrible things to happen to her just so she stopped treating the whole thing as a big joke (even comedy should have a dramatic backbone) and brought something other than arrogance to the tale. Clara is literally at the other end of the scale to the Doctor, too ready to jump into this genre head first and neither approach is entirely believable. When she was threatened by the Sheriff this should have been a genuinely tense moment but instead any anxiety is gutted by the way Clara brings her finger snapping savviness to every line. Compare and contrast to Sarah in The Time Warrior (which features a similar interrogation sequence with a medieval villain) and Elisabeth Sladen takes the cockiness to a point but then takes things very seriously when her face is gripped and it is clear that she is in very real danger. Even when Clara is threatened with rape she still retains her cool. In her tenure nothing has shaken her other than the fact that her boyfriend got old...what does that say about her? She has no sense of mystery either, too caught up with walking in the pages of a story and making facetious comments about climate change. 'This legend does not come alone!' 'Hiya!' - I actively disliked Clara at this point.

Riding through the Glen: What a towering central performance from Tom Riley as Robin, providing all the charm and charisma that was lacking in the regulars this week. Oh how I would have loved for Robin to skip in the TARDIS at the end and slam the door in Clara's face. He would be an amusing counterpoint to Capaldi's huffy Doctor, especially in the hands of a writer that didn't highlight the childishness of their personality clash. It is impossible not to have a stiffy for Robin such is the personality and wit at his disposal. The way he winds the Doctor up is very funny at times, having an answer for pretty much anything the Time Lord throws at him. His fit of manic depression in the cell was probably the highlight of the entire episode, either deeply embarrassing or hilariously funny depending on the sort of humour you enjoy. Riley brings a real conviction to the scenes where Robin has an identity crisis, trying to come to terms with the idea that he might be a legend that was never meant to be. The acknowledgement that Robin Hood is real but he isn't a hero, just a man trying to do his best in an unfair world (just as the Doctor does in the universe) is a nice conclusion to draw. Riley plays the part with a smile in his eyes and I found it impossible to dislike him.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'History is a burden. Stories can make us fly.'

The Good:

* I love love love that console room. It might just surpass my love for the coral of series 1-4. It's dark, brooding and full of character. Let's hope it rubs off on the Doctor.
* My word this episode looked gorgeous. The direction in general was superb this week around and you can tell from the off that Ben Wheatley isn't helming Robot of Sherwood, such was the fluidity of the action and the careful framing of the camerawork. There is a beauty to some of the shots, slavishly capturing the sunniness of the location, that quite took my breath away. They get to shoot in and around a real castle which adds a layer of authenticity to the look of the story and check out the lighting in the cell that the Doctor and Robin languish in, striking light spilling through a crucifix window.
* Whilst I might object to their presence I cannot deny that the titular robot of the episode is stunningly designed, and that is coming up against a manifest of previous automatons that have graced the series with their presence. There was a touch of the Gundan robots about these beauties but these felt more arty and ceremonial. They bring with them a higher action content than usual and these scenes have a pace to them that really helps the episode chug along amiably. I especially liked the silver trays deployed by the Doctor and company, turning their lasers on themselves.
* I don't want to appear as much of a curmudgeon as the Doctor and there were some really amusing gags and reactions in this piece that contributed to its sunny nature and made the pill a lot easier to swallow. Genuinely funny moments in Robot of Sherwood that tickled me: the Doctor fighting with a spoon and being tossed in the river, 'This isn't a real sandal!' 'Yes it is!' 'Yes it is...', the Doctor's woeful Akido ('Hai!'), 'Can you explain your plan without using the words sonic screwdriver?', 'Soiled myself?' 'Did you? That's getting into character...', the Doctor being smacked around the head and the Derby gag.
* I've read some people dismiss the climax where the Doctor and Robin discuss the nature of living up to the myth that surrounds you and how you might have to pretend to be heroes. Are you kidding me? That was the most substantial moment in the entire episode, beautifully tying this piece into the overall puzzle that is building a picture of this new Doctor.
* What are those equations that the Doctor has been scribbling? Is he trying to find Gallifrey? Plus with clockwork men and myth made flesh are Missy and her Neversphere connected to The Land of Fiction?
* Troughton's cameo. Gorgeous.

The Bad:

* Mark Gatiss is less of a writer these days, he's abandoned being the architect of a narrative. He's not writing a story but assembling a handful of elements without building up his foundations first. Even by his standards this has an insubstantial plot, far more concerned with giving you a good time than making any sense. He almost gets away with it here because the direction is so strong but I object to the way that the regulars are so aware of the tropes of the myth surrounding Robin Hood that the episode holds few surprises for them. The main shock twist (and one that I object to because of the intrusion of SF in a story that didn't need it) is spoiled by the title. I also dislike how the characters don't discover anything via means of investigation, the plot is simply relayed to us (previous romps - Wasp, Closing Time - were presented as mysteries that were solved in stages) and often important twists (such as the gold forging the printed circuit) are dropped on us without a reason for doing so and the regulars completely absent. It highlights again how unimportant to the episode the Doctor is that we don't even need him to work out what is going on. Even the climax with the arrow (shudder, I thought spitfires in space were bad) could have been handled by Robin without assistance.
* It has been pointed out that I am focussing far too much on comparing what is to what has been in an unenthusiastic way and so I will change my tack. This episode is not a slavish copy constructed out of old elements of Doctor Who (whilst in its 50th year it is hard to present anything that has not been alluded to before in some form, the identifiable elements of the last handful of stories that can be traced back in their entirety does suggest a creative drought) but is influenced by a number of previous Doctor Who stories. You have robots repairing their spaceships in history (like Silver Nemesis before it, this is the only other example of a plot mimicking elements of a story only two spaces back in the schedule), printed circuits being made out of the local materials (The Fires of Pompeii), a spaceship establishing itself in a medieval setting and taking off at the climax (State of Decay), medieval sporting competition (The Kings' Demons) and a treat being left behind the TARDIS as it takes off for the guest star of the week (School Reunion).
* Somebody fire the continuity advisor. During the action sequence the TARDIS door manages to be both open (long shot) and closed (mid shot).
* Mark Gatiss has gone on record to say that he doesn't find work for his husband, Ian Hallard, and that he gets the roles on his merits as an actor. That's all well and good (because he is a genuinely good actor) but it is a remarkable co-incidence that he has just happened to be the best actor for the roles in Gatiss' audio and TV Who and his Sherlock scripts too.
* Some of the comedy is painfully predictable and signposted. Simon commented that Clara was going to be the one who was dragged off for interrogation long before we reached the punchline.
* Once the characters of a Robin Hood adventure are assembled in a spaceship surrounded by robots then you know the plot has completely gone off the boil.
* If you thought the climax of The Crimson Horror saw an episode plunge over a cliff face (a macabre comedy horror descending into terrible science fiction) then you aint seen nothing yet. The golden arrow allowing the spaceship to break orbit is the most retarded thing we've seen on the show since spitfires in space. Who wrote that one again?

Americanisation: Simon and I were enjoying a breakfast in a five star hotel (ooh, get us) whilst we discussed the merits of this episode and he made a point about Robot of Sherwood that quite took my breath away. He said that there was nothing remotely British about this presentation of the Robin Hood myth. It wasn't interested in the culture of the time, or in teaching us anything about the period. It was a Hollywood version of the Robin Hood myth, one with exploding castles and robots with lasers. It got me thinking about the show in general and why perhaps it is going down so much more successfully in the US than it is in the UK (and why, incidentally, I genuinely believe that it would never be cancelled even if the ratings over here were to hit a record low). The BBC have a hit in America and as low as that remains the case they will continue to support the show. More than that though, even since Moffat has become aware of it's popularity in the US I think he has started to tailor the show to appeal across the pond, Doctor Who is being made in Britain for the American market and unsurprisingly they are lapping it up. We've visited America three times in the last two years and the very structure of Matt Smith's final season was to make mini Hollywood movies on a BBC budget, nuggets of cinema. The Day of the Doctor was the ultimate expression of cinematic Doctor Who with some astonishing action sequences and effects being plastered all over the local cinemas. Look at where the Matt Smith era began...all rural villages and quirky British tics. Look at where it ended... heroic speeches, a menagerie of monsters, style over substance and convoluted and unsatisfying resolution of arcs. The Americanisation of Doctor Who started with season six and it's impossible astronaut arc and it hasn't looked back. Capaldi was a chance to bring the show back to it's humble, idiosyncratic British roots. Instead we've had a Hollywood version of Victorian London (complete with a roaming dinosaur), a Hollywood version of a Dalek story (Honey I Shrunk the
Regulars, Reservoir Daleks) and a Hollywood version of Robin Hood (replete with spaceships and robots). I'm not saying this approach is a bad thing, I'm just saying that it isn't quite for me. With the help of my husband I have figured out why the show isn't quite gelling for me. Don't get me wrong the Americanisation started in Davies' era, with him favouring big set pieces over decent plot resolution but he somehow managed to ground the show in this country with his salt of the Earth characterisation, natural dialogue and obsession with London. With Moffat it is style over substance, lacking character, originality and logic (the Sheriff of Nottingham can accept and comprehend technology from the future?) because it is always trying to get to the money shot (the spaceship splitting free of the castle and taking off). Pure Hollywood baby. It's probably why the Doctor is so at odds with the story too, all British dourness and lunacy (fighting with a spoon). He doesn't fit into this Hollywood world.

The Shallow Bit: One positive about Clara that can never be denied is just how beautiful Jenna Louise Coleman is and that fact is highlighted extremely well in Robot of Sherwood, decked out in striking red finery.

Result: Romps. Some Doctor Who fans come out in hives at the mere mention of the word. Filler episodes that are designed to do nothing but fill an hour with energy, excitement and amusement, I rather like them when they are written with care and brought to the screen with some oomph. The Unicorn and the Wasp set the romp benchmark very high for me; a witty, beautifully cast and filmed mystery and a poignant character study to boot. Style, substance and humour. Robot of Sherwood doesn't reach anywhere near that lofty position but it is a step up from Curse of the Black Spot (it is more energetic and amusing) and a step down from The Lodger (it lacks the drama) in the romp stakes (hohoho). The biggest drawback to this episode is the intrusion of a SF story (signposted in the title, spoiling the surprise reveal of the robot) which is half baked and a bit embarrassed to be there amongst all the high jinks, peeping through the comedy tentatively. I question why this couldn't simply have been an exploration of myth (because that is much more interesting than slavishly copying the plot of Deep Breath) because the SF elements bring with them gaps in logic, irritating questions and an mortifying resolution. I want the show to be daring and attempt a pure historical without any SF trappings. The first half worked better for me in that respect but then the robots came stomping in on the fun and rob us of a genuine historical romp. I would have happily have accepted that the myth was real without all the is he/isn't he a robot nonsense. The biggest strengths of Robot of Sherwood are the superb central performances by Tom Riley (I think I fell a little bit in love with Robin) and Ben Miller, the generally gorgeous direction, light tone and stylishness of the whole affair. Gatiss isn't a comic genius so his humour misses as much as it hits but the moments it hit genuinely left a big smile on my face. A plot so light a gentle breeze would carry it away, a curmudgeonly Doctor spoiling the good heartedness of it all, charismatic guest performances, the impossibly smug and self assured girl, beautiful locations and a rousing score, terrible presentation of the narrative - I'm torn between the jolly mood and the moronism (ooh I've invented a word) of the writing. Robin Hood, Hollywood style, like a beautiful piece of art without intellectual worth: 5/10


Dave said...

I do agree with what you're saying about the Americanisation of the show, Joe. I'd thought of it differently, but it does amount to the same thing. Moffat's approach to an episode premise seems to involve the annoying Americanism "cool story, needs more dinosaurs" (sometimes literally). It's not a direction I'm very happy going in, and I think it's also prevalent in his pseudo-Edwardian characters like Tasha Lem and Missy. There is absolutely no point in dressing them up (literally and characteristically) in this way. You just know that under the last showrunner, they would've been strong, smart women either with or without a strong connection to the Doctor, not floating awkwardly somewhere in between.

However, I personally did think this was one of the stronger episodes Gatiss has contributed to. But as you highlight, the direction could well play a large part in that. Of the first half of the series, this is the only one Moffat doesn't at least share the co-writing credit, which is in the hands of perhaps his most trusted writer. Gatiss has now written the third episode of three Doctors and his are usually early on in the series. I think I'd like to see him tackle something pretty different for his next one (which he reportedly starting writing early this year), else it might be time for a bit of a rest.

Sorry for rambling on Joe. Hope you two had a great weekend!

Tango said...

Honestly RTD was transformed London into a parody of the United States: "Aliens of London" was his 9/11 and the Big Ben was the World Trade Center, Torchwood is an abominable mix of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Angel", in "Voyage of the Damned" we saw paranoid people feeling fear towards Christmas as if a terrorist attack, the Homeworld Security in "The Sontaran Stratagem" and Harold Saxon is a wild and crazy George W. Bush, the whole Rose/Doctor romance is worse than Twilight, and explosive and constant invasions Dalek to London would make Michael Bay blush.

Compared with that, Moffat is more subtle and humble. The episode is good, as the cheerful episodes of Series 4 I would rate a 7/10, it's not perfect but it is nice to see. I agree that Clara was a little annoying in this episode (but you must admit that is more sympathetic that Rose in Series 2) and it shows that his character has evolved more that the Mary-Sue princess of Series 7.

Atte. Tango

The reason that the Sheriff of Nottingham can accept and comprehend technology from the future is because in the deleted scene where he is beheaded is revealed that he was a robot.

Mica said...

Well, I have to say I really liked this episode. Maybe because I wasn't expecting much (Gatiss episodes usually aren't so interesting).
Unlike you I thought the Doctor really good this episode and funny as I have never though he would be. Maybe because I was also distrusting Robin Hood and thinking alike the Doctor during the whole episode.
I think the thing I disliked the most was that Robin Hood was real. I don't know, I think I wasn't expecting Doctor Who would do a legend be so literal. I was hoping it would have some other explanation. I wasn't happy at the end.
But the episode itself I liked and I thought it was fun and definitly way better than the last one (I thought the Dalek episode was terribly boring).
But now that you mentioned it, Clara was really too confident, she hasn't shown any fear during the whole thing. It was not cool.

Anonymous said...

Robot of SHITwood.

Pol said...

Eccleston thought he could do comedy but there is no evidence of that in series one or in The League of Gentlemen. Nor could he do 'light' - mugging for the camera was not a replacement for the lightness of touch which is needed in the role. As to the idea that it was an American idea of Robin Hood - surely that was the point?

Anonymous said...

Didn't you make the same cunt of a pun about Deep Breath?

Anonymous said...

I do see Moffat as more respectful of Americans than RTD's satire of Americans. Even Americans aren't as respectful of Nixon as Moffat. IF the Doctor started shooting guns regularly rather than screwdrivers and spoons I might agree that the show was turning American. Nor did I see this episode as particularly American. Personally, I saw it as a high tech but inferior version of Androids of Terra or Time Warrior. A somewhat historical episode with science fiction elements. I agree with your complaints about the regular cast though. Capaldi still has time to find his Doctor while Clara seems there just because of her super cuteness.

Anonymous said...

This episode is more humorous and fun than the Monty Python poor imitation called "Castle of Fear" with the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa.


Jamie K said...

I agree with your review but would probably give a lower score because the balance of Doctor to companion is so off. The Doctor comes across as a useless old buffoon while Clara takes care of business. Sorry but what happened to the screaming sidekick whose job it is to ask the Doctor what's going on? I think the best romps (Unicorn & Wasp) are some of the best episodes, but I think they need to give it more time for the Doctor/companion relationship and balance to stabilize.

Interesting point about the "Americanization" - as an American I have to say it still feels like a very British show to me - especially during Matt Smith's tenure, when the dialog went by so fast in various unfamiliar accents that it was often very difficult to follow along.

My more briefly compiled thoughts on my blog/review.

Ed Azad said...

Coming here is like taking a cool sip from a tough of water (or hatred) after watching yet another vaunted Who episode that I didn't quite 'get'.

That said, I thought this was one of Capaldi's stronger episodes being as he's plainly playing the role as a Dr. Gregory House (the bit with the hypodermic needle) and I always loved the idea of Hugh Laurie as the Doctor. And it's a standard Gatiss runaround, ensuring that it will offend and impress no one.

I even liked Clara in this one! Granted there is no getting around the fact that Clara is one of the worst author self-inserts ever put to film, and her hero worship of Robin (while a nice palliative to her ridiculous idolization of history's great thinkers as a teenager - fuck off, Moffat!) does little to humanise her because there's so little foundation to her personality. I observed in another one of your reviews that Clara is a metatextual analysis and not a character. And while the showrunners are experimenting with provoking genuine affection for this cypher from the rest of us (a thankless exercise being that Doctor Who is going to be beloved by everyone regardless), I am practically counting the minutes until we get a new companion and the Capaldi era can begin in earnest.

Michael said...

Although I enjoyed the episode as I was watching it, your review certainly highlights many of the deficiencies.

I liked the caustic humor of the Doctor and his disbelief at Robin Hood's existence, but did feel this went on way too long. I enjoyed the interrogation scene in part because of Clara's confidence, but yes overall she is rarely scared of anything.

An awful lot of story was signposted in advance, and yes you're right about how the Doctor was irrelevant for much of this. In retrospect however, particularly as it was signposted twice ahead of the missing reveal, I thought it was interesting that by not having the sheriff shown to be a robot, it made the Doctor wrong about two major aspects of this story..... But this did then leave a massive plot hole with how the sheriff was okay with all the future tech.

Apart from the dialogue around being a legend I don't think if liked anything about the ending.... The escape, the arrow, Marion, ugh! All too rushed and lacking substance.

Very interesting point from Simon about the Americanisation of the series.... I will have a ponder on this.

While a fun, breezy episode, I can't help thinking it was a missed opportunity. Whilst it would forfeit the humor, the story may have been stronger if the Doctor and Clara had landed, realized something was odd, investigated, met the sheriff first, been captured, and then perhaps been rescued by Robin... At first the Doctor is right about there being no Robin Hood, Clara has to accept this, then this gets turned on its head later.... And it would eliminate the silly tournament scene!!!

Thanks Joe for including more "good" in this review, and being as enthusiastic about what you liked as what you found problematic (and yes,I realize I haven't done the same above). It did make for more enjoyable reading and make the 5/10 score more meaningful..... Although I can't help wondering if that was all to do with Tom Riley :-)

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David Pirtle said...

I really thought Clara was terrific in the first fifteen minutes of this. She was so full of childlike delight at the possibility that she could and then did actually get to meet Robin Hood. Yeah, for the rest of the episode she's back to being as irritatingly cocky as she was in the last series, but those early moments were some of her best. I do agree that the story as a whole just doesn't work, even if the guest stars are doing their best. I also agree that this Robin Hood as a companion would have been an amazing idea.

As for your bit about "Americanisation," I think it's more specifically a "Hollywoodization" (I'm a Yank and I love my Z's) you're talking about, and I can't argue with your point. I think the new show as a whole has been more Hollywood than its predecessor from the get go, and it's gotten more pronounced as the show's global popularity has grown. I don't think it's always been for the worse, but it does really get in the way of telling what should have been smaller stories, such as this one.