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Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood (Review)

Shortly, I shall be the most powerful man in the realm. King in all but name, for Nottingham is not enough.

It isn’t?

After this, Derby.

Right.

Then Lincoln. And after Lincoln…

Worksop?

The world!

– the Sheriff outlines his plot to Clara

Robot of Sherwood is a functional piece of television, with a wonderful closing scene capping a very light forty-five minutes. Mark Gatiss is a writer who tends to trade on nostalgia, and who clearly holds a great deal of affection for the past. As such, Robot of Sherwood provides a fairly effective and straightforward counterpoint to the heavy moral questions of Deep Breath and Into the Dalek. Is the Doctor a hero? It doesn’t matter, because his story is that of a hero.

There is a sense that perhaps Gatiss is being a little bit too glib here, to the point where Robot of Sherwood almost plays defensively – a justification of the writer’s tendency to rose-tinted nostalgia and a rejection of critical approaches towards history or story. Nevertheless, Robot of Sherwood does pretty much what it sets out to do. It provides Peter Capaldi with a suitably light script and a chance to flex his comedic muscles, while providing a suitably fairy-tale-ish pseudo-historical.

Legendary outlaw...

Legendary outlaw…

This season is introducing a new lead actor, a risky proposition for any show. As a result, the first half of the season tends to play it rather safe. Robot of Sherwood is the only episode in the first half of the season not to credit Steven Moffat as writer or co-writer; however, it is still written by an established Doctor Who veteran. After all, Mark Gatiss wrote The Unquiet Dead, the first episode of the relaunched series not written by Russell T. Davies. He also wrote Victory of the Daleks, the first story of the Moffat era not written by Moffat himself.

Indeed, the season returns to the classic “home”/“future”/“historical” opening triptych structure that defined the Davies era; it is the first time that this structure has been seen since Matt Smith’s opening season. (For Davies, “home” was twenty-first century London; for Moffat, it is the Paternoster Gang.) Robot of Sherwood is the show’s first proper “celebrity historical” since Vincent and the Doctor in that same opening season. “Safe” is very much the name of the game for this stretch of the season. Robot of Sherwood is very safe.

"You'll ruin the paint work!"

“You’ll ruin the paint work!”

Still, there is an endearing romance to Robot of Sherwood, a story almost perfectly tailored to Gatiss’ storytelling aesthetic. It is perhaps telling that the Doctor spends most of Robot of Sherwood smugly dismissing Robin Hood as some sort of fake or collective delusion. “It is too sunny,” he reflects, with all the mopey cynicism of an internet comments section. “It is too green. And there is even a mean sheriff to oppress the locals.” The Doctor serves to nitpick and analyse and reject the very existence of a romantic childhood figure like Robin Hood.

The Doctor spends his time bitterly protesting that Robin Hood cannot be real. He has to be an alien or a robot or a hologram or something like that. However, the Doctor doesn’t just question the material reality of Robin Hood. He critically attacks the idea of Robin Hood, dismissing him smugly as “the opiate of the masses.” He ponders, bitterly, “Well, what does every oppressed peasant workforce need? The illusion of hope. Some silly story to get them through the day, lull them into docility, and keep them working.” How very post-modern of you, Doctor.

Taking a swing at it...

Taking a swing at it…

In some ways, this feels like Gatiss is having a bit of a go at his critics. Gatiss is a fine writer from a structural or plotting perspective. He knows how to construct an hour of television, and he knows how to put together an episode of Doctor Who. He has written for the franchise in print, on screen and on audio. He has also worked in television as an actor, a writer and a producer. He is fixture of the franchise in a way that no current writer apart from Steven Moffat can claim to be. It goes without saying that he is technically proficient.

However, Gatiss’ scripts tend to leave him open to certain criticisms. He is a writer who tends to favour nostalgia and familiarity, with no real tendency to question or analyse his work. The League of Gentlemen is an affectionate throwback to a certain style of horror, and one that opted to play the racist and sexist clichés associated with that style of horror entirely straight. Gatiss seems to have so much fun playing with these ideas that he never stops to think about what they actually mean. This tendency towards nostalgia finds its way into his Doctor Who work.

Merry good, sir, merry good...

Merry good, sir, merry good…

With The Unquiet Dead, Gatiss established the celebrity historical for a new generation, evoking The Talons of Weng-Chiang. However, the episode also inherited the xenophobic undertones of that story, suggesting that strange cultures are just trying to get a foothold in a romanticised version of Britain. The Idiot’s Lantern suggested that a family is obligated to take back an abusive father, because he is the father. Cold War suggested the Doctor was okay with genocidal bullies, as long as those genocidal bullies were established classic Doctor Who aliens.

So Robot of Sherwood seems to be written as a rebuke of that approach, a rejection of this sort of criticism. With Robot of Sherwood, Gatiss finally casts lose of event the pretence of history and jumps right into the idea of myth and legend. After all, the version of Robin Hood presented here is just as much a myth as the version of Winston Churchill found in Victory of the Daleks. Although modelled on a real historical figure, Victory of the Daleks reduced Churchill to an iconic piece of British history.

Knight watch men...

Knight watch men…

Robot of Sherwood does the same with Robin Hood, but is more candid and frank about it. While the Doctor tries to deconstruct or critique that legend of Robin Hood, Robot of Sherwood suggests that it is ultimately pointless. It is a good story, even if it is just a story, so why get all worked up about it? “Perhaps we will both be stories,” Robin suggests to the Doctor at the end of the episode. “And may those stories never end.” It is a very sturdy defence of some of the more common criticisms of Gatiss’ work.

After all, Gatiss seems to suggest, if you are going to criticise these other story elements, why not critique the Doctor himself? As much as the Doctor criticises the idea of Robin Hood as a nostalgic romantic fantasy that could not possibly exist, Clara spends a significant portion of the episode critiquing the stock Doctor Who tropes. Why does the Doctor talk so much, when his enemies could be listening in? Isn’t the sonic screw driver a bit of a convenient plot resolving tool? “It’s always the screwdriver.”

The surprise twist is that the sheriff isn't Anthony Ainley in disguise...

The surprise twist is that the sheriff isn’t Anthony Ainley in disguise…

Robot of Sherwood closes with a lovely conversation between the Doctor and Robin Hood. Robin provides his own answer to the Doctor’s attempts to determine whether he is a good man – and it is an answer that feels perfectly Gatiss-like. Robin explains that it doesn’t actually matter if Robin Hood and the Doctor are good men, as long as they are remembered as such. That’s a lovely defence nostalgia – if the two inspire good, does it matter that they are actually good? “I’m not a hero,” the Doctor states. Robin replies, “Perhaps others will be heroes in our name.”

It’s a solution that seems perfectly in keeping with Gatiss’ approach to potentially problematic corners of nostalgia and history. It also seems like a counter-argument to the stock critiques of Gatiss’ style. Any of these legitimate issues or concerns are offset by the fact that it is something that makes people happy, and that it potentially inspires them to do good things. So it does not matter whether the Doctor’s criticisms of Robin Hood are valid, or whether a script glosses over something potentially bothersome.

A straight arrow...

A straight arrow…

It is not entirely convincing as logic goes, but it works reasonably well. Indeed, Robot of Sherwood is almost perfectly suited to Gatiss’ storytelling style, stepping away from the real world and firmly towards fantasy. “History is a burden,” Robin observes during that final conversation. “Stories can make you fly.” It is a very sweet sentiment, and a fairly sturdy defence of any liberties that the show has even taken with historical or scientific fact, even if the episode occasionally hammers the point a little bit too hard.

After all, Moffat has transitioned Doctor Who away from the real-world grounding of the Davie era into a world that is more obviously fictional and fantastical. Indeed, the biggest problem with Robot of Sherwood is that Last Christmas ends up covering the same ground in a much more interesting (and insightful) manner. As in Robot of Sherwood, Last Christmas teams the Doctor up with a fictional character so that the episode can reflect on the importance of stories and how characters like the Doctor and Robin and Santa no less heroic for not actually existing.

Lock-down...

Lock-down…

Still, despite its lightness and its redundancy, Robot of Sherwood has some significant charm. It is a story well-suited to its writer. Gatiss seems more at home in the fairy tale version of Sherwood Forest than he did in the council estates of Night Terrors or the British suburbia of The Idiot’s Lantern. Robot of Sherwood is able to disentangle itself from anything even remotely related to the real world, meaning there’s less chance for some unfortunate clash or subtext to work its way in.

In particular, there is something very charming about the way that Gatiss positions the Doctor as a spiritual successor to Robin Hood. This is the story of the “Prince of Thieves” meeting the “Last of the Time Lords.” At the end, Robin ponders, “Is it so hard to credit? That a man born into wealth and privilege would find the plight of the weak too much to bear? Until one night he is moved to steal a TARDIS, fly among the stars, fighting the good flight?”

Arresting drama...

Arresting drama…

This is, of course, a fallacy. The Doctor did not leave Gallifrey to fight injustice. He seemed to leave so that his granddaughter could grow up away from the Time Lords. The First Doctor was not originally a hero. He was very much an untrustworthy imp, very much interested in his own well-being. Into the Dalek admitted as much, with the Twelfth Doctor conceding that the character only came into his own when he faced off against the Daleks in his second adventure. So Clara’s story is a tad revisionist.

The airing of Robot of Sherwood directly after Into the Dalek suggests this is intentional. This is myth-making. This is nostalgia. This is storytelling. It is more heroic and romantic to believe in a crusader who left home to fight for the weak, rather than an old man willing to smash a stranger’s head in with a rock. Gatiss weaves his own nostalgia into the fabric of the show, suggesting that Doctor Who itself has reached the point where it can comfortably mythologise its own past. (It’s also – like time travel – a great way to side-step continuity gaffes.)

I see you've played knifey-spoony before then...

I see you’ve played knifey-spoony before then…

Sadly, this closing conversation – and all its implications – make for the most interesting part of the episode. The rest is a generic pseudo-historical with the twist that it stars a mythological figure rather than a “real-life” individual. So there is a lot of running, some nice costuming, plenty of bantering, some lovely production design, rapid-fire jokes, generic villains and a very clear lack of substance. This is a light episode. It is meant to be a light episode. After all, this is only Peter Capaldi’s third episode in the role. The show is breaking in a new lead.

Gatiss gets to indulge his abiding affection for the mythology here. Robots of Sherwood borrows many of the same basic Doctor Who plot elements as Deep Breathrobots! space-ship! repairs! spare parts! promised land! – but it feels even more deeply steeped in the iconography of Doctor Who. The plot is a curious blend of The Time Warrior, The Androids of Tara and even The King’s Demons or The Visitation. It is a collection of stock parts fitted together. This feels strangely appropriate for a show about a ship trying to repair itself.

All good in the Hood?

All good in the Hood?

At the same time, all these references serve a clear purpose. We are still in the “finding the Doctor” phase of the regeneration process. It is good to have the Doctor surrounded by the familiar, to help him settle in. Peter Capaldi has been in the role for three episodes. This is the first episode featuring Capaldi that does not credit Steven Moffat as a writer. Deep Breath was about getting the broad strokes of the character, and establishing theme. Into the Dalek gave the Doctor some pretty weighty subject matter.

In contrast, Robot of Sherwood is about proving that Capaldi can do “light.” This feels a little odd. Of course Capaldi can do “light.” The actor’s most iconic screen role is comedic, and there’s a sense that Robot of Sherwood is pitching the lighter side of the Twelfth Doctor as a family-friendly twist on Malcolm Tucker. There’s a jaded sniping cynical exterior hiding a surprisingly romantic core – this is a character who cares deeply, but who conceals that potential weakness trough snarky one-liners and attempts to control the chaos unfolding around him.

Parting shot?

Parting shot?

For all that Robot of Sherwood compares Robin Hood to the Doctor, it is most interesting in the way that it contrasts them. “Why are you so sad?” Clara asks Robin Hood at one point. When he wonders how she saw through his mask, she replies, “Because the Doctor’s right, you do laugh too much.” The idea of a man who “laughs too much” to conceal his sadness arguably applies to the Tenth or Eleventh Doctors. (And maybe the Ninth, on a good day.) So it’s interesting that the Twelfth is moving away from that.

It is a nice way of suggesting that perhaps the Doctor is moving through his greatest trauma. Perhaps, because he is no longer nursing that incredible pain and anguish, the Doctor can allow himself to be cynical and wry and downbeat. He no longer has to pretend to be enthusiastic and frantic and relentlessly cheerful all the time. That would be a delightful paradox, suggesting that a more solemn Doctor is ironically the sign of a happier Doctor. Or, at the very least, a version of the Doctor more comfortable in his own skin.

Scot free?

Scot free?

Robot of Sherwood also plays into some other recurring themes of the season. Once again, the Twelfth Doctor is presented as a character who desperately wants to be a working class hero, even if he is a member of the upper class. Robot of Sherwood throws out some stock Marxist philosophy, as one might expect from a story about a hero redistributing wealth. “Well, don’t you know all property is theft to Robin Hood?” Robin Hood demands as he plots to confiscate the TARDIS.

Whereas the Tenth Doctor posed as a substitute teacher in School Reunion, the Twelfth becomes a janitor in The Caretaker. In Into the Dalek, the Doctor plots to infiltrate the Dalek through the larder. In Time Heist, he infiltrates the bank through the service corridors. Robot of Sherwood positions the Doctor as a hero of the people. Together with Robin Hood, he stands against the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, described as a “jackal of the princes who seeks to oppress us for ever more” and who bullies the local community into providing “labour and gold.”

There's a new sheriff in town...

There’s a new sheriff in town…

Of course, The Caretaker allows Danny Pink to tear into the Doctor’s attempts to pass as a member of the working class; it suggests that the Doctor is nothing but a tourist. Although Robot of Sherwood does not have the same anger or energy as The Caretaker, it does draw attention to the fact that the Doctor has a blue box that allows him to travel anywhere in time and space – and that he comes from a life of wealth and privilege. It seems like the Twelfth Doctor might emphasis – just a little – with Common People.

There are some other minor problems. Following the brutal murders of journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, a sequence involving the decapitation of the Sheriff of Nottingham was cut from the episode. The original sequence revealed that the Sherif was a cyborg, reattaching his head directly after the decapitation; it could be trimmed with no continuity issues. However, the dialogue still references the missing reveal. “I’m too much for you, outlaw,” the Sheriff boasts. “The first of a new breed. Half man, half engine. Never ageing. Never tiring.”

Making merry...

Making merry…

Other problems are native to Gatiss’ script. With the exception of Clara, Robot of Sherwood lacks any significant female characters. Marion appears, as one expects in a Robin Hood story. However, she is largely secondary to the plot. Most of her sequences could feature an unnamed extra, with no major addition. Marion’s primary function is to serve as a “gift” from the Doctor to Robin Hood at the end of the episode. It feels like Robot of Sherwood could have done more to flesh out the character.

Still, Clara works quite well here. Gatiss was arguably the writer with the strongest grasp on Clara as a character during the second half of the seventh season. Clara seems more like a real person in Cold War and The Crimson Horror than she does in most of the surrounding episodes. As such, it is no surprise that Robot of Sherwood continues to develop and expand upon Clara’s character. Notably, it is the last episode of the season without any reference to Coal Hill; the last episode without ties to Clara’s life outside the TARDIS. However, it works.

Take a bow, Doctor...

Take a bow, Doctor…

Robot of Sherwood is an efficient – if unexceptional – piece of Doctor Who. It is perhaps the safest story of the entire season, the story that is probably the least likely to go horribly wrong, but also the least likely to be spectacular. The result is a fairly clean, fairly enjoyable run-around that never feels particularly ambitious. There are worse sins, particularly at this stage of the season.

You might enjoy our other reviews from Peter Capaldi’s first season of Doctor Who:

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4 Responses

  1. I haven’t watched it yet, but am about to on iPlayer. I can’t help but feel that the Moffat and Gatiss are trading in story for sentiment, but going light on the sentiment. I would be interested to see what you think of this video I came across earlier on Cracked. I can’t help but feel that they have a point…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHp1MwBpSjg&list=UUjD2KyAEm84yVH8cTilID7Q

    • Truth be told, I like the Moffat era. I’m a big fan, even if I can understand why people are frustrated. There were people complaining during the Davies era, and there were people complaining during the Hinchcliffe era. And I fully admit that – if Gatiss ends up running the show – I will likely spend a significant portion of his run on the outside looking in. But that’s okay, because there’s always another regeneration waiting in the show’s future.

      As to your point… I would argue that Gatiss is very much trading in nostalgia, but I’m not sure Moffat can be accused of trading in story for sentiment. Particularly when compared to his predecessor. Davies had a “the Doctor is resurrected by the power of love” ending, and a plot hinging on every phone on Earth calling the TARDIS at the same time.

      While Moffat did “remember the Doctor” resolution at the end of The Big Bang, it made a lot more story sense than “pray to the Doctor.” If anything, I’d argue Moffat’s biggest weakness is his lack of sentiment. Amy was a well-formed character by the end of the run, and Clara is developing a great deal – but neither of the two major companions feels as fully formed (emotionally) as Rose or Donna.

      Indeed, Clara’s first half-season presented her as a logical riddle to be solved. Even though Moffat was very clearly teasing the audience (the reveal is “ha! she isn’t a trap or a trick – she’s been a character all along!”), it wasn’t the shrewdest move. Up until around Deep Breath, Clara was the most generic companion since Mel, if not Peri. If anything, the problem was a distinct lack of sentiment.

      (Which is arguably why Gatiss’ two scripts from that half-season are the best scripts for Clara – Gatiss does cheesy sentiment very well, and Clara needed some of that, after spending so much time as a human puzzle box.)

  2. A great review as always.

    Sadly I know we will never, ever get a ‘pure historical’ Who story again but I think this episode showed how far the show can go towards it. The robots and spaceship are pefunctory, there because they have to be but they could easily have been dropped. Its fascinating.

    Another thing I found very interesting – and tying in with your analysis of the nostalgia factor – is how old fashioned the Robin Hood here is. It has been literally decades since we’ve had the laughing loveable rogue of Sherwood. Since at least the early 80s pop culture Robin has been a stoic, rather gritty and tragic figure – think ‘Prince of Thieves’ or the ITV Robin of Sherwood or Russell Crowe. Even the Jonas Armstrong version we’ve had recently (that aired in the Doctor’s timeslot) was essentially a modern man in a mock medival setting.

    Here we have a full blown classic Robin of the kind we haven’t really seen since… well Disney! It’s a fascinating choice.

    • My better half said exactly the same thing about Disney.

      Part of me would love to see a subversive historical – the show having a bit of fun at the “it’s always aliens” thing, by doing a pure historical that is disguised as a pseudo-historical. It seems the only way you’d get away with it, and even then you’d be pushing it – it’d be as divisive as Love & Monsters. Black Orchid may have been a pretty dodgy piece of television, but it was still fun to revive the format. Indeed, I’d even love a historical minisode or something.

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