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.'
* 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.
* 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