Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Medieval Times of The Doctor



STORY 247: ROBOT OF SHERWOOD

This is the third and final Doctor Who script that I read (even though I have the next two stories as well).  Perhaps by now a certain weariness has set in, as Robot of Sherwood read as the dumbest of the three.  No surprise that self-professed 'genius' Mark Gatiss was behind this rollicking romp through Merry Olde England, as his output has becomes more and more embarrassing.  I loved The Unquiet Dead and still hold that The Idiot's Lantern was a solid story.  However, nothing excuses the horror that was Cold War, and as for Robot of Sherwood?

Well, if Gatiss was aiming for parody: parody of the Errol Flynn classic, parody of the Robin Hood myth, parody of Doctor Who, well then, he's achieved the...saddest parody in television, for few things in Robot of Sherwood would have anyone (except the hopelessly rim-happy Nerdist) think this is anything other than junk, plain and simple.  Try as I might, I could not shake the idea that Gatiss simply doesn't care.

Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) wants to meet one person: Robin Hood.  Never mind that he isn't real.  The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) insists that Robin Hood never existed, but Clara will not be denied.  To placate her, he whisks her on the TARDIS to the appropriate time, and as soon as they exit, they encounter a laughing man in green tights.  That would be Robin Hood himself (Tom Riley of Da Vinci's Demons fame), who delights in merry thievery, especially against his arch-nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Miller).  The Doctor, insisting that this personage cannot possibly be THE Robin Hood, continues to look for a solution to who and what he and his gang, whom Clara quickly dubs his "Merry Men", really are.


Ye Olde Town Wench...
However, there is evil afoot.  The Sheriff has been stealing from the poor, but curiously the only thing he's interested in is gold.  He also is taking peasants to work at the Castle, including a young girl who is taken against her will.  Robin, meanwhile, laughing his way through life, knows that an archery contest is all a rouse to trap him, but he goes anyway.  As he is about to claim his Golden Arrow, a new contestant enters the picture.  It's the Doctor, determined to make sense out of a seemingly senseless situation.  Tiring of this nonsense, he uses the sonic to blow up the archery contest, and finds robots disguised as knights. 

NOW we're getting somewhere.  Robin, The Doctor, and Clara are all captured and taken to the dungeon, where the first two banter (even though earlier, the Doctor mentions he hates bantering).  The guard takes 'the leader' (obviously Clara) to the Sheriff, who tells her the whole story.  Strange beings from the stars crashed near him, and mistaking him for a leader, they've built up this castle to repair their ship.  They need gold to repair the engines, which is why he takes gold only.  The Sheriff will use the spacemen to take over the world (making him the Medieval version of Blofeld).

The Doctor and Robin, still chained together, eventually escape and discover the ship.  The Doctor keeps insisting Robin is another robot, but Robin denies this, even after seeing various images of him from the ship's memory banks.  The Robot(s) come in, Clara and Robin escape, the Doctor is captured again.  Robin demands to learn the truth about the Doctor, and then after The Doctor leads a successful revolt against the Robot(s) of Sherwood, Robin, laughing gleefully as ever, comes swinging down to fight the Sheriff.

After the Sheriff's defeat, everyone flees the Castle, which by now has unmasked himself as a spaceship determined to go to "The Promised Land" (wow, now THERE'S a shock).  The ship takes off but the Doctor knows they don't have enough gold to power it off the atmosphere and into space.  If only they could find a source with just enough gold...Wait a minute, what about that Golden Arrow, which the Merry Men so helpfully stole earlier.  Of course.  However, seeing as it is flying off into space, how will the arrow reach the spaceship.  By Bow and Arrow, Of COURSE!  Robin's arm was injured in battle, the Doctor won the archery contest by cheating (putting a homing device on his quills), but together, The Doctor, Clara, and Robin can laughingly launch the arrow into the ship, which gives it enough of a surge of power to push it to outer space...where it promptly explodes. 

The Merry Men cheer some more, the Doctor accepts that Robin Hood is indeed a real, historical figure, and Clara is proven right once again.

Personally, I feel Robot of Sherwood was an embarrassment to all concerned.  I figured that the show was going to be awful as soon as I finished reading the script.  However, even if I hadn't read it but came across it on the screen without the benefit of the script, I think I would have felt Robot of Sherwood would be a sad affair.  I know its defenders will say it was all meant to be a romp, a slight and even purposefully silly spectacle, but there is simply so much wrong with it.

Let's mention a few things that I like to think of as 'points of logic'.

When the Doctor lands the TARDIS, he says there are no pretty castles, no damsels in distress, and no Robin Hood, only to be greeted by an arrow landing at the TARDIS' door and a grinning Robin asking if they were calling for him.   Robin must be more than fifty yards away across a running stream.  The Doctor is not shouting but speaking in a normal tone of voice.  How did Robin Hood hear his name so clearly?

In the end, we find that the young girl we met turned out to be Maid Marion herself (Sabrina Bartlett).  If we go STRICTLY by the legends, Marion was the King's Ward (which is why Prince John didn't dare strike against her, for she had Royal Protection).  What then was she doing with this peasant, and wouldn't the Sheriff recognize her?

Why does Clara so quickly believe Robin Hood and not the Doctor about who or what Robin Hood is?  Furthermore, why would Clara honestly believe Robin Hood to be a real, historical figure when she would have been told repeatedly otherwise?  For a schoolteacher, she is rather dim.

When Robin and the Doctor escape the dungeon, they go seeking a blacksmith to break the chains.  Either they managed to get OUT of the castle, go to a village, find a blacksmith, and go back INTO the castle all unseen and in remarkably fast order, or they found a willing blacksmith INSIDE the castle all while avoiding detection.  How ever did they pull THAT off?

We don't even need to go into the impossibility of the arrow made of gold, a far heavier object than a wooden arrow, flying from their vantage point to the spaceship after being launched from a wooden bow.  The golden arrow would have needed the firing power of a cannon to fly so high so fast, and how would the arrow striking the SIDE of the spaceship increase the gold content WITHIN the engine?

The Merry Men cheer when the ship explodes, but the explosion took place outside the Earth's atmosphere.  The ship was already in outer space when it exploded.  How could the Merry Men have seen the explosion from their vantage point?  This wasn't like the Challenger explosion, which took place within the Earth's atmosphere, but out in space, where it would have required a telescope to witness.

Alan-a-dale (Ian Hallard, who happens to be Gatiss' real-life partner), starts singing a song about this latest Robin Hood triumph.  Besides being a bad song, the last line heard before his lute is taken is, "Robin Hood was in a jam".  Granted, I'm no medieval music scholar, but isn't the phrase, 'in a jam', a bit 20th century? That's as likely as a Victorian singing "Jeepers Creepers, where'd you get those peepers?"

Merry, Merry, Quite Contrary...

While all those little things gnawed at me while watching Robot of Sherwood, even if they had all been addressed or corrected, it wouldn't have made for a better or reasonable episode.  The big problem with Robot of Sherwood is that the characters are not 'real'.  I don't mean 'real' in the historical sense (and while I'm willing to say they MIGHT have been based on real people, this group is as real and historic as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table or the Baggins family of The Shire), but 'real' as in they might exist even in 'their world'.  What Robot of Sherwood did was not treat the Nottingham gang as actual, living, breathing beings.  Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe's versions of Robin Hood, as bad as they are, at least attempted to take the premise seriously and create a believable world. 

Robot of Sherwood, conversely, was drawing heavily from the 1938 Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Many times the episode played almost like a spoof of the Flynn flick, more Robin Hood: Men in Tights than any attempt to make the IDEA of 'Robin Hood' a real person.  Riley's laughing, merry-making, egotistical Robin was a parody of what people THINK was the Flynn version.  Yes, Errol Flynn laughed heartily in Adventures of Robin Hood, but he was also serious when the scene called for it.  Riley, on the other hand, never appeared to be serious.  Instead, he played it like the popular (and incorrect) idea of what 'Robin Hood' was, all laughing, all the time.  Maybe it was Riley's intention to be so camp and over-the-top. 

Similarly, the Merry Men were equally stereotypical (if mythical figures could be stereotyped).  If Gatiss had wanted to have some real fun, he would have made Friar Tuck a thin fellow, intellectual, spiritual, but it was much easier to make him the jolly fat friar.  Maybe Alan-a-Dale could have been a lovelorn poet, but no, he had to be this singing fool.  As for both Little John and Will Scarlett, why bother having them there if they served no reason for being there at all?

This isn't to say there wasn't at least ONE good performance, though it wasn't in Coleman's Clara (making goo-goo eyes at Robin) or Capaldi's incessantly disbelieving Doctor (though maybe he couldn't believe he was in this nonsense).  It was Miller's evil Sheriff.  At least he got that he was playing EVIL, so he went all Anthony Ainley-as-the-Master mode of camp evil. 

Gatiss' script also has two bits of dialogue that annoyed me to no end.  The first is when the Sheriff talks of taking over 'this sceptered isle'.  What, was William Shakespeare writing Robin Hood ballads too?  That was already bad enough, but when the Sheriff asks, "Who will rid me of this turbulent Doctor?", I'm surprised none of his robot knights ran off to Canterbury Cathedral to try and kill the Archbishop.

Finally, there were other things that just went wrong.  The plot itself was predictable and clich├ęd.  Clara being mistaken for the leader...didn't see that coming (insert sarcasm).  The crowd being 'shocked' at Robin Hood unmasking himself at the archery contest (insert sarcasm).  The embarrassing 'bantering' as Robin and the Doctor do a metaphorical penis-measuring contest (seriously, this was suppose to be the 'dark' Doctor?).  Clara using her feminine wiles to get information from the Sheriff...wow!

As a side note, my personal theory is that the cross-shaped laser beams the Robots use to kill people is Gatiss' subtle dig at Christianity (i.e. Christianity Kills), particularly its opposition to both homosexuality and same-sex marriage.  I have no proof of this, but this is just food for thought.

I don't know how 'dark' a Doctor will be if he has to fight a swordsman with SPOONS (which is especially odd since we've seen in past Classic Who episodes where the Doctor can handle himself with a sword extremely well: The Androids of Tara, which in turn was inspired by The Prisoner of Zenda, a particularly good example).  Then again, that was when Doctor Who took even its most outrageous plots seriously, not appear determined to mock everything around them.  The special effects were shockingly cheap-looking to where I thought they were done at the last minute on someone's laptop.

Robot of Sherwood (given there were more, why the singular?) was not even trying to take this seriously.  Rushed, unoriginal, and downright idiotic, it was a waste of everyone's time. 

"The Doctor and Robin Hood locked up in a cell.  Is this seriously the best that you can do?"  Clara tells this to the Doctor and Robin after ordering them both to shut up.  Somehow, I imagine Ian telling his 'husband' Mark the same thing after reading the script.



I leave you with this little query.  Doctor Who, if I understand it, will eventually explain why the 12th Doctor looks exactly like the character Caecilius in The Fires of Pompeii.  Will Doctor Who similarly explain why one of the Robin Hoods from the spaceship's memory banks looks exactly like the 2nd Doctor? 

I think not, because as far as NuWhovians are concerned, anything that took place pre-Rose (save for the 4th Doctor, or rather his image) never happened.  It is as real to them as Robin Hood is to the rest of us...

1/10

Next Episode: Listen

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