Who has more fun than Mark Gatiss? The man’s career is like a giant toy box, full of all the characters and story books he ever enjoyed. This is someone who can seemingly pluck out at will a new plaything, have a jolly old time with it and chuck it back in again, safe in the knowledge there’s plenty more in there to keep him entertained. His best-loved show from when he was a kid. His favourite character in literature. England’s most enduring legend, older even than a Time Lord.
It’s an unfair picture, of course, and allows no credit for his genuine talent, originality and hard work in getting to where he is in the industry. The years of slog to get noticed. The long nights in front of a computer screen when the words just won’t come. The train journeys to Cardiff.
But it’s easy to imagine him guffawing at his desk as he dreamed up Robot of Sherwood, a swashbuckling romp of an episode. Gatiss told us in advance to expect frivolity and light-heartedness and he wasn’t kidding. He can’t be accused of not setting his stall out – early on we get the Doctor fighting Robin with a spoon, and how you feel about that sequence probably sums up how you feel about the rest of what follows.
If you like your Doctor Who (and indeed, your Robin Hood) with its tongue planted in its cheek, this was for you. In the last outing we saw the Doctor taking Clara ‘into darkness’, but this was the week when the sun shone. And there was no room here for the eerie mysticism or moody angst we’ve seen in other TV versions of the Hood legend, with Tom Riley’s Robin cast firmly in the Errol Flynn mould.
Three episodes in to the programme’s new era, and it could be argued that there’s a certain familiarity in the story telling. Larks with the Paternoster Gang in Victorian England; a lone Dalek, captured and forced to confront its warped psyche; an encounter with a character from history which plays with our preconceptions. We do at least get a twist on the celebrity historical here, with the character in question being one from legend rather than fact. This leaves the Doctor like a grumpy dad dragged along unwillingly to a magic show, trying to debunk the evidence of his own eyes at every opportunity. A welcome variation on the norm but it did leave the Doctor looking rather dim, so long did it take him to conclude that Robin was the real deal.
Peter Capaldi’s comic skills were well used though, and those hoping his casting would see Malcolm Tucker at the controls of the TARDIS will surely be feeling gratified – “do people ever punch you in the face when you do that?” being a favourite moment for me. He’s also sufficiently lean and spry to carry the physical stuff, even if Gatiss couldn’t resist poking fun at his age (‘desiccated man-crow’), appearance (‘bony rascal’) and Scottishness (‘stranger to vegetables’) at every opportunity.
Jenna Coleman continues to seize the opportunities denied to her in her first season with both hands. No longer a plot device, Clara shows herself to be more than capable of deviousness as she again lures the villain into revealing what he’s up to. Nice too, to see her displaying a bit of blunt-speaking earthiness as she tells the two legends she’s chained up with to button it.
Tom Riley captured this Robin’s slap-worthy and caddish persona rather well – “are there any more in there?” he asks as he catches sight of Clara emerging. I can well understand anyone who felt that the running gag of the merry men’s constant laughing for no reason grew thin after a while, but I will admit to finding it funny, and was pleased to see a healthily subversive attitude to the Errol Flynn movie, effectively this episode’s source text. Ben Miller’s Sheriff stayed the right side of high camp, his best moment coming when he slapped the robot in frustration.
Modern Doctor Who writers do enjoy their ‘kisses to the past’ and Mark Gatiss was no exception here. Long term fans will have spotted references to Doctors One (Richard the Lionheart), Two (Patrick Troughton as Robin Hood way back in 1953) and Three (Carnival of Monsters‘ mini-scope). Perhaps the most indulgent of these was the Doctor’s ‘Hai!’ with Capaldi in full-on Pertwee mode as he delivered a blow, but what the hell? It was that sort of episode.
Viewers who like their plots to be intricate and complex would surely have known this wasn’t to be their week. The old ‘spaceship crashes and leads to perilous goings on’ has been done before and will be again (an aside: who else thought for a moment we were in for a ‘war of the robots against the Cybermen’ backstory when it was revealed that the Sheriff was only interested in gold?).
It was a shame, then, that the episode’s big twist (in summary, Robin lopped the Sheriff’s head off, revealing him to be a robot) fell victim to the pre-announced decision to cut it on taste and decency grounds. Much has been said and written about the BBC’s judgement in this regard, but what did the edit mean for the programme as transmitted? To this viewer, the cut was made cleanly enough for it not to be noticeable, and the Sheriff’s subsequent line about being ‘half man, half engine’ was sufficiently lost in the melee of the fight so as not to prompt unanswered questions. The fact that the duration (apparently a minute or so) and the content (the Sheriff’s decapitated head rolling across the floor and speaking) were rather more substantial than many would have assumed in advance perhaps makes the BBC’s decision more understandable. But it’s always sad for any finished programme to be altered in this way, whatever the reasons, and it’s to be hoped that future screenings and DVD releases will see the cut restored.
The resolution was, it has to be said, complete bobbins. Doctor Who has never exactly been known for its slavishly plausible depiction of science, but the golden arrow boosting the rocket into orbit was particularly nonsensical. Closely followed by deflecting the robots’ death rays with serving trays which, as well as being absurd, managed to render these otherwise well-realised creations virtually totally ineffective.
Things we learned from this episode… Clara, like Jenna Coleman, comes from Blackpool. The Doctor is from a background of ‘wealth and privilege’. Robots really do want to get to this promised land, don’t they? And you most definitely do not want to miss a night out with the tumescent arrows of the half light.
A nicely written closing scene this week, as Robin mused on the nature of heroes, legends, who will be remembered and how. But is it unkind to suggest this made the preceding 45 minutes feel more significant than it really was? “This is getting silly,” said the Doctor at one point, and there were moments when it was impossible to disagree. Robot of Sherwood made for good Sunday afternoon fare. Uncomplicated, unserious, unpretentious, but maybe also a little unchallenging. It’s time to bring the darkness back…