One year on Tony Fyler returns to Sherwood.
On broadcast, Mark Gatiss’ Robot of Sherwood divided fandom, with some criticizing it as being too jokey, and others drinking it down like a cool drink of comedy water after the sturm of Deep Breath and the drang of Into The Dalek. Here at least was proof that the Doctor wasn’t going to be all dark, all the time – at least the world of Robot of Sherwood had a comedy component.
Watched with a year under our belts, how does it hold up?
The pre-credit sequence still works reasonably well, Mr Grumpy thawing to Mr ‘Take-a-Punt’ – the kind of offer all three previous 21st century Doctors made to their companions. What doesn’t particularly feel convincing with hindsight is that with the whole universe of time and space at her feet, the character of Clara Oswald as we know her would have ever been a fan of the Robin Hood story. It just feels random, like – as no doubt was the reality – Steven Moffat said he wanted a story with Robin Hood, and Gatiss went away and wrote one, crowbarring the justification in where really it jarred with the Clara we know. Just two episodes prior to this, she tells Vastra that her teenage pin-up was Marcus Aurelius, but all of a sudden she’s going gaga for knights, in armour, pretty castles and long-haired, laughing outlaws?
Also – I’m only going to mention this once, because it bugged me on transmission and still bugs me on rewatch – where does the Doctor suddenly get his ice-cream spoon from? Again, it feels like retro-writing – He’s going to need to fight Robin with something ridiculous. Cue spoon.
The build up to the fight though stands up beautifully – fans get a little bit of their geeky bucket list ticked off when Capaldi gives Robin the sly finger, and asks him if people usually punch him in the face. When told they don’t, it’s proper Malcolm Tucker Doctoring when Capaldi snaps back ‘Lucky I’m here then.’ Yes!
And yes, also to the blatant rip-off of Prince of Thieves that is the log-fight, though in hindsight we’re left to consider it’s probably the climate of staggering benevolence that lets the Doctor and Robin both get a dunking, but appear perfectly dry the next time we see them.
Enter Ben Miller as the Sheriff of Nottingham, giving us his Master in all but name, and damned effectively too – blending menace and almost Blackadder-style comedy. Marion’s insipid as pig swill though, and doesn’t convince when we later hear that she’s inspired Robin to be the hero he becomes. There’s more than a touch of ‘printing the legend’ about this, which feels like a wasted opportunity when you consider how much else is subverted in the story.
The Doctor’s encounter with the Merry Men is still pretty hysterical – his simple ‘Bye’ to Alan A Dale when the minstrel maintains he’s real is darkly joyous. But his continuing conviction that there has to be an alternative explanation for Robin and the Merry Men makes him the atheist at a party (and I speak as an atheist who used to go to parties. Mysteriously, the invites have rather dropped off, recently) – we know he’s probably right and everything, but Jeez, dude, way to be a total buzz-kill. We understand that this is characterizing the new Doctor, who’s funny in spite of himself and in quite a brutal new way, but it feels as though there’s too much of an attempt at gravel and gravitas to it, though that’s undercut spectacularly in the archery contest scene, when not only does he go along with the arrow-splitting shenanigans for a while, but when bored, he blows up the target with his sonic screwdriver. In retrospect this plays better than on broadcast, as we know the seriously bonkers Missy is waiting for him, and in the game of the Master as an Anti-Doctor, this moment of Capaldi-Doctoring feels as arbitrary as her eventual destruction of Osgood. Bang, one moment, I’m in charge here – a moment of mirroring which makes you smile in hindsight.
The dungeon scene still works brilliantly well, the hard-edged Twelfth Doctor and Robin Hood reduced to bickering schoolboys, but really, once this scene is over, things go downhill pretty fast. The gold circuitry plan looks conspicuously like the Pyrovile plan from The Fires of Pompeii, the Sheriff and Clara seduction scene feels like Miller carries most of the believability, and the spaceship scenes are both quite depressing as the Doctor maintains his spurious conviction that Robin’s part of the robotic army, and baffling – this is yet a third iteration of the Clockwork Robots? A third iteration just two stories after their last usage? They’re good, but they’re not really that good. In fact, they’re Moffat’s least impressive creation to date, being really quite stupid baddies who refuse to listen even to physics when it’s pointed out to them.
The escape plan/riot with Marion continues insane, relying on the robot knights to aim their deadly weaponry at the fairly small area protected by gold plates – one shot to the knees and the plan would crumble. The duel between the Sheriff and Robin relies on the idiotic conceit that the Sheriff turn off his robot knights to take on the outlaw himself, and a small but crucial line bit the dust in an edit for social sensitivity in the wake of beheadings by ISIS – the line where the Sheriff explains he’s been augmented to be more than a man: he is in fact the Robot of Sherwood of the title.
Finally, the climax is cheesier than the Attack of the Killer Camemberts From Mars – Robin, Clara and the Doctor uniting to fire a golden arrow at the fleeing robots’ ship. There’s no way this makes any kind of sense – an arrow sticking out of the hull does not productively add to the complex golden circuitry you’ve spent months making, surely, and push you into orbit?
Throughout all this though, and through his conversations with Clara and the Doctor, Robin comes most effectively to life, his whole pretence at being a hero a healthy analogue of the Doctor’s story – but then we knew that from very early on in Robot of Sherwood, it’s a point labored by Clara on at least two separate occasions earlier in the episode. You like your Who extra-cheesy?
Bottom line, there are whacking great holes in Robot of Sherwood, really massive potholes through which you could fly a spaceship that’s about to explode. But there’s one important fact to remember – it’s still terrific fun. Of the three episodes considered so far, after a year, it’s the one to go for on any given day. Deep Breath is a better story on balance, but for silly, knockabout Who – which is to say easy and engaging Who – Robot of Sherwood beats it hands down because it demands relatively little of the viewer, and so wins in terms of easy repeat viewing. It’s definitely worth a rewatch when you get the chance.
Still like to know where he got that spoon though.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk