Airdate: September 6, 2014
Written by: Mark Gatiss
Directed by: Paul Murphy
The Story So Far: Clara asks the Doctor to take her to Sherwood Forest, where it’s the year 1190 and the cruel Sheriff of Nottingham is brutalizing the local population. The Doctor’s suspicion that “Robin Hood” is too good to be true, is only furthered when robot knights and a flying castle make an unexpected appearance.
To be honest, I just loved this episode. A witty script by Gatiss; a healthy amount of swashbuckling; a number of either direct references to, or close parallels with, some of my favorite Classic Series adventures; and, oh, did I mention it was witty?
If you’re looking for a more critical, analytic review, Stuart Milne of Stuart Reviews Stuff does a rather sophisticated breakdown here. Maybe, when I revisit Robot of Sherwood a few years hence, I, too, will be dismayed by the story’s flaws. Right now, though, let’s just talk about what I really, really liked. This could take awhile.
1. Mark Gatiss
As I mentioned in the past, when reviewing one of Gatiss’ early Doctor Who novels, I’ve never quite loved the man’s Who TV scripts. One of the better ones, his first episode for the revived series, 2005’s The Unquiet Dead, was something of a historical romp, in which the Doctor teams up with Charles Dickens to fight an incursion of ghosts into 19th-century Cardiff.
This began a tradition of the Doctor teaming up with a true-life historical figure every season during the Russell T. Davies era, and into the first Steven Moffat season as well (Vincent and the Doctor). But we haven’t had an episode like that now in over four years now. This episode was thus a bit of a throwback, and, though it was much less weighty and grim than Capaldi’s first two outings, I enjoyed it unreservedly.
2. Making out with the past
When producing the 1996 TV Movie, producer Philip Segal announced that he was going to include several “kisses to the past” — Classic Series references meant, perhaps, to assuage fears that his American co-produced film was still going to honor the spirit of the first 26 seasons of Doctor Who.
Robot of Sherwood doesn’t so much as blow kisses to the past, as engage in a full-on make-out session, with heavy petting and everything. We learn that the Doctor studied sword-fighting with “Richard the Lion” (they met in 1965’s The Crusade). The Doctor at one point disbelieves that he’s in the real Sherwood Forest with the real Robin Hood, and insists that they must be inside a miniscope (1973’s Carnival of Monsters). During a fight scene, Capaldi’s Doctor shouts “Hai!”, and karate-chops a bow and arrow out of Robin Hood’s hand (just about any Jon Pertwee episode). The Doctor sneaking around taking medical samples from the Merry Men is, consciously or not, an homage to Patrick Troughton’s similar antics in 1967’s The Moonbase.
And, of course, bearing in mind that the first actor to portray Robin Hood on the BBC was Patrick Troughton, the future Second Doctor himself, and bearing in mind that, on the alien spaceship featured in this story is a computer data-bank containing all of Earth’s myths and legends pertaining to Robin Hood, the production team very cleverly inserts a photograph of Troughton as Robin Hood into the episode. Love, love love.
3. “History is a burden. Stories can make us fly… and may those stories never end.”
Because, as some of you have accused me of over the years, I’m often more interested in examining the influences on any new Doctor Who episode than in talking about the episode itself, I really can’t talk about Robot of Sherwood without talking about the Classic Series first. Knowing Mark Gatiss’ encyclopedic love of all things Who, it is virtually impossible that he was not influenced by the following three stories:
The Time Warrior (1974): A Sontaran lands in medieval England, and arms a local bandit with anachronistic firearms and a robot knight. Said bandit then attempts to conquer a neighboring castle, only to be foiled by the arrival of the Third Doctor and, more importantly, by the Doctor’s stowaway, Sarah Jane Smith. And if you thought Ben Miller as Nottingham chewed the scenery, you’re forgetting David Daker as Irongron.
The Androids of Tara (1978): The Fourth Doctor lands on a planet still subject to feudalism, but with crossbows that fire explosive bolts, and with, as the title suggests, androids. The Doctor has an epic swordfight with Count Grendel of Gracht, the scheming local warlord who, upon being vanquished, runs away, and cries “Next time, I shall not be so lenient!”
The King’s Demons (1983): The Fifth Doctor takes the TARDIS to a British castle in March 1215, where King John is shaking down the local nobility for Crusade-funding. There’s some lute-playing with a catchy song, and a scheming French knight played by an actor who bears no small resemblance to Ben Miller.
4. “Robin Hood, Earl of Locksley”
The key element in Robot of Sherwood is Tom Riley’s performance of Robin Hood himself. Riley’s an actor I can safely say I’ve never seen before, in anything. And Robin Hood as scripted by Gatiss is quite a demanding role: two swordfights, rapid-fire dialogue, a lot of posing and “Ha!”-ing, flirtation with Clara, and, of course, endless measuring contests with the Doctor, who feels more than a bit threatened by the legend.
Riley’s never anything short of “super-awesome”, though; he nails all his moments, playing properly larger-than-life, and the dialogue sizzles when he’s bickering with Capaldi. I’ve read some complaints that the bickering goes on a bit too long, which may be a fair point, but it’s all made up for by their end conversation, where they discuss being seen more as legends than as real people. Doctor Who has been dark and gritty this season, without a whole lot of sentimentality; this moment hits all the right “Aww” notes, without ever descending to schmaltz. In my opinion.
5. The Sheriff of Nottingham’s head
As was previously announced, a decapitation scene in Robot of Sherwood was removed before transmission, out of respect for the two journalists beheaded by ISIS. But, as this was one of the leaked episodes, the scene in question has already been viewed and described online.
Frankly, I don’t think much is lost from the edit. The scene as described probably pushes the envelope a bit too far, and is not entirely in tone with the rest of the episode. There was already a gruesome scene in which a robot knight vaporizes a peasant and the camera lingers over the ashes; the scene taken out was probably a bit much, even compared to that. And the Robin Hood/Nottingham fight flows pretty seamlessly even without it.
6. The Promised Land
While not really the focal point of the episode, the eponymous Robot of Sherwood (and by “robot”, I mean “several robots”) stalk the countryside under orders of the Sheriff, sliding aside their helmets to reveal evil-looking robotic faces, and shooting deadly blue laser beams out of their crucifix-shaped noses. These robots, whose origin and true name we never learn, resemble a cross between the Cybermen, and 1977’s The Robots of Death.
Their relevance to us is that, when the Doctor breaks into their computer banks, he learns that they are in search of “The Promised Land”, just like Half-Face Man from the season premiere — “but more sophisticated”, he explains. There’s no appearance for Missy this week, but this season’s apparent story arc rears its head again.
I could glean no useful info about what the “Promised Land” may be from a freeze-frame of the robots’ computer screen. We also get the hint that these robots, like the clockwork men, can travel in time, as they have amassed a library on Robin Hood lore (including the above photo of Patrick Troughton).
7. The Dark Doctor
Peter Capaldi is a bit lighter than usual this week, sword-fighting Robin Hood armed with only a spoon, leaping about the robots’ computer library (although director Paul Murphy buries this so deep in the frame that I missed it the first time), and generally rising to the script’s comic level. There is one neat exchange, though, when he learns that Alan a-Dale isn’t long for this world:
The Doctor: So sorry. Blood analysis. Oh, all those diseases. If you were real, you’d be dead in six months!
Alan-a-Dale: I am real!
The Doctor: Bye.
Alan-a-Dale, by the way, is played by Ian Hallard, who just happens to be in a civil partnership with the episode’s author, Mark Gatiss. I think this is the first time a Doctor Who scriptwriter has written a role specifically for their spouse since 1971’s The Mind of Evil. Only the spouse’s character in that story wasn’t given a death sentence.
8. Clever Clara
Clara gets a lot to do here, apart from dress up in period costume (and hairstyle) for the second time in three stories, and appear smitten with Robin Hood. During a very clever scene, while the Doctor and Robin are squabbling in a dungeon over who’s the leader of their little group, it’s Clara who’s identified as actually being in charge. She gets to tell the Doctor to “shut up” several times, although in her accent it sounds far, far more polite than were I to say it in my accent.
Also neat is the scene where the Sheriff attempts to seduce her, and she tricks him into revealing the plot.
Sheriff: Enough questions. I’m impatient to hear your story
Clara: Oh, but i do not have one. I was lying.
Clara: Yeah, people are so much better at sharing information if they think the other person has already got it.
9. “Free For Use Of Public”
The TARDIS’ front door sign gets a significant amount of screen time in this episode; it’s the most prominently that an inanimate block of wood has been featured in a story since Paul Jerricho’s role in 1983’s The Five Doctors.
I may be the only person who cares about such things (actually, if you read what others have written about the evolving history of the TARDIS prop, I clearly am not), but it still bugs me to see the New Series-era TARDIS advise that “Officers And Cars Respond To All Calls”. During (most of) the Classic Series, most famously during the police-box-centric episode Logopolis, it was “Officers And Cars Respond To Urgent Calls”. Somehow, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor strikes me as much more of an “Urgent Calls” kind of guy than an “All Calls” guy.
10. End Credits
During the 1960s, Doctor Who scrolled its end credits. Starting in 1970, the credits became a series of title cards, a format which continued through the end of the Classic Series in 1989. For the 2005 revival, we were back to a long scroll…. until 2014, when it’s title cards again.
11. Next Time
What’s that in the mirror, or the corner of your eye?
What’s that footstep following, never passing by?
Perhaps they’re all just waiting.
Perhaps when we’re all dead,
Out they’ll come a-slithering from underneath the bed.
Tom Baker’s Doctor, at least during Philip Hinchcliffe’s years as producer, used to like to recite poetry in creepy, hushed tones. Well, in the trailer for next week’s episode (Listen), Peter Capaldi does the same thing, except that he ramps the creepiness factor up to, on a scale of one to ten, about, oh … a zillion.
By all accounts, Listen will be quite special indeed.