Monday, 8 September 2014

Meh In Tights

Doctor Who
Robot Of Sherwood
Series Eight, Episode Three

Oh, what joy, an episode about Robin Hood.  Do we have to?

This is purely a personal preference, but I'd stick Robin Hood next to Peter Pan and A Christmas Carol in the file marked Do Not Need To See It Again.  It's not that I don't like these characters or stories – it's that pop culture has faithfully assimilated them, reproduced them, re-interpreted them and taken the piss out of them more times than I can be bothered to calculate.  Robin Hood, plus swashbuckling, sword competition, evil Sheriff, for the umpteenth time?  Thanks, but I'd rather go and put the kettle on, and watch it boil.

Quick: moan like you're ill, wait for the guard, then beat him up!
Rated four frowny-faces in The Big Book Of Movie Clichés.
On the bright side, Robot Of Sherwood tries to do something different.  The Doctor refuses to believe Robin Hood exists, let alone as an amalgam of every trite Robin Hood stereotype imaginable.  Something sinister must be going on.  That's not a bad premise, but it does rely on having an interesting answer at the end of it.  Surprise!  There is no answer!  Robin Hood exists, and modern pop culture got every single detail right, including the spoofs!  Errol Flynn was, apparently, making a documentary.  This is either a post-modern twist, or an excuse for not coming up with a single remotely new thing to say about Robin Hood.  Having been bored rigid by equally derivative Mark Gatiss episodes in the past, I know what my money's on.

Take a look at the rest of the episode.  As per the title, the medieval setting comes with incongruous sci-fi elements such as a spaceship and (spoiler alert) robots.  This is truly trailblazing stuff, unless you happen to be a fan of, to pick one random sci-fi example, Doctor Who.  Historical settings (and alien worlds that look like them) scarcely come without a bunch of aliens, robots and spaceships (oh my).  It's a full-blown trope!  (And it's a bit boring, having the Sheriff of Nottingham engage in exactly the same sort of modern, spacey villainy as every Doctor Who villain ever.  Can't he be, y'know, from the past and stuff?)

Since the Robin Hood stuff is deliberately corny, I'm guessing the robot stuff has a little of that too, but being too aware of a trope just risks underlining that you're doing it all again.  So does having Clara dictate Robin Hood's history back to him, as well as the Sheriff's robotty schemes, without first being told.  Yes, we do know the Robin stuff backwards, and yes, the Sheriff's history with the robots is perfectly bleedin' obvious.  You could Autofill the entire plot on a mobile.  Speaking of which, there's a spaceship disguised as a building, futuristic robots nicking stuff from the surrounding humans, and a half-robot leader.  Is Series Eight missing a script editor, or are they deliberately re-using the plot from Deep Breath – something we saw two weeks ago that already wasn't any great shakes in the originality department?  Thanks to the ongoing arc, they even reference it directly.  "The Promised Land again?  Like the half-face man?"  You said it.

In my review for The Unicorn & The Wasp, this was roughly the point where I said I didn't mind how corny and derivative it was, because it was funny and well-performed enough to rise above it.  Robot Of Sherwood is dead set on being a Funny Episode, and there are some decent lines and successfully funny bits in it, but for me, it doesn't come close to compensating for how tired it is.  Frankly, it's not that funny.  At one point they try to invert the famous gag about Little John, and have him actually be really small.  Only problem is, Maid Marian And Her Merry Men got there first.  Twenty years ago.

Most of the comedy comes from Peter Capaldi reacting abrasively to his surroundings.  The Doctor's refusal to believe is the backbone of the episode, and it's intrinsically like this new Doctor, as well as being just a shade like William Hartnell.  (Again, still not wildly original re Robin Hood.  See Blackadder: Back & Forth for much the same material.)  That's all to the good, but the way it's handled is a bit too broad, boiling down to the Doctor and Robin yelling at each other until Clara tells them to shut up.  It's more monotonous than funny, and it doesn't give Peter Capaldi much to work with, or at least much that's good.  I'm against pigeon-holing the Doctor's personality; he thrives on strangeness, not predictability.  It's certainly too soon to stuff the Twelfth Doctor into a little box marked Rude And Grumpy, but that's what this one does.  Capaldi is better than this, not to mention all the dry exposition he's made to spout.  That bit on the spaceship is sheer one-sided yak, yak, yak.

Hey, cool shot!  Reminds me of Die Hard, aka Alan Rickman,
aka the Sheriff Of... god damn it!
Meanwhile, Jenna Coleman has fun, especially when she's wheedling information out of Ben Miller's rather pitiable Sheriff.  It's unfortunate that last week's moral tussle between her and the Doctor has gone temporarily out the window – but they're (very obviously) trying to reassure us he's not so bad after all.  Clara spends much of the episode drawing parallels between the Doctor and Robin for the same purpose, and this is exactly as embarrassing as it sounds, especially when you've made him the most cartoony Robin Hood imaginable.  It's illogical – Robin insists he's not a hero, but there's little practical difference between that and what he's doing – and sometimes poorly written.  "When did you stop believing in anything?"  "When did you start believing in impossible heroes?"  "Don't you know?"  That's actual dialogue.  Urgh.

The script has a slippery grip on this new Doctor, especially if you compare it to the last two (much better) episodes.  The grumpiness makes sense, even if it's a bit forced, like sticking a fez on Matt Smith.  What about his sword-fight, using a dessert spoon?  "I am the Doctor, and this is my spoon!" is something you might expect to hear from David Tennant or Matt Smith, and not at their best.  Coming from Capaldi, it's downright embarrassing.  I thought the new Doctor had outgrown whimsical show-boating.  Ditto him entering the archery competition, and cheating via a magic arrow; for a ghastly moment, I thought I saw Tennant's Doctor in his place, all over-the-top gestures and broad heroism.  If we really must yo-yo between Morally Grey Doctor and Bouncy Cartoon Doctor, I hope they find a more subtle way to do it.

I get a bit grouchy reviewing episodes like these, because there's nothing much to say apart from what I didn't like.  I just end up listing things.  Did I mention the robots?  They're apparently following the Sheriff's orders because, uh, they have nothing better to do?  Wait, aren't they heading for the Promised Land?  Why are they helping some random Sheriff stage a coup?  No matter: they continue to attack people with lasers even when they've seen other robots tricked into blowing themselves up that way, so obviously they're idiots.  They barely seem to register with the Doctor, who made a big thing of killing the Deep Breath robots to save some humans, and barely bats an eyelid killing these guys.  Meh.

As for the plot, negligible as ever, it involves melting down gold and turning it into engine parts (and circuits – mind if I borrow that, Fires Of Pompeii?).  I know, right – a gold-filled spaceship, nice and heavy, just what you need for breaking orbit.  When the ship needs more gold or it won't get far enough away to safely explode, one gold arrow will suffice.  Shooting it directly into the side of the ship will do the trick.  Ah, if it isn't our esteemed colleague, Mr Bollocks.  Pull up a chair!  (On second thoughts, euw.)

As for what I did like?  Some of the jokes hit the bullseye, which is literally the least you'd expect.  "Like I said, very sunny."  "So?"  "Have you been to Nottingham?"  Heh.  Best of all is this T-shirt-ready zinger from Clara: "Can you explain your plan without using the word 'sonic screwdriver'?"  That's a good question for all Doctor Who writers.  Long may they continue asking it.  I can think of a few others.  (On the other hand, as the fine writers of point out, it has the nasty side-effect of underlining how trite the sonic screwdriver is.  Too true, and it's not even the first time they've made that joke.)

Apart from a few irreverent laughs, this is filler.  Yes, it's a "funny" episode, a "romp" even, and we've had worse, but that's not a free pass to rely on plots we've heard a million times, limp along for 45 minutes and juggle tropes and clichés like they'll spit out bonus points.  Robot Of Sherwood mashes together a load of old stuff, none of which is a substitute for imagination or flair.  We can do better.


  1. ove your title. It's is the best aspect of this episode by a long shot. (And the rest of the review, of course. It seems so obvious it would be great that we almost forget to point it out.)

    Otherwise, we're depressed. Depressed depressed depressed. Good for you for plunging in and dealing with the crap robot stuff, because we ran out of steam by that time. It was all so crapular that we just couldn't be bothered.

    One thing we do disagree with, however, is re Clara's line "Can you explain your plan without using the word 'sonic screwdriver'?" We agree it's funny. But when we discussed it, we realised it was giving us a creeping sense of unease. Eventually we pinned it down to this: sending up your own show is a path fraught with peril. Sometimes it works brilliantly (the X-Files were sporadically very good at it, for example), but sometimes it can indicate that the rot is setting in.

    1. Glad you liked the title! I had more fun thinking of that, and mentally noting the Robin Hood spoofs that had been there/done this, than watching this tedious sucker a second time.

      Interesting you mention the screwdriver line and the dangers thereof - while I certainly agree, I'm reminded me of the similar line they had in World War Three. They were already taking the piss out of it in their first year! Of course, far worse was to come. :/

    2. Update: I've added The Trouble With Screwdrivers in your honour.