Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"Robot of Sherwood"

"Need a fresh bag Clara 'cause I'm so incredibly old."
Another series of New Who is upon us so it's time for the Mark Gatiss episode. I think I've come to think of Gatiss as Moffat's sidekick: they clearly have a much closer working relationship than Gatiss had with RTD, for whom he only penned two episodes. They also co-run the godawful Sherlock (which was always crap, not just the most recent series) and Gatiss has even done a few small performances in Moffat-era New Who as well. He seems to be always around: he's spoken about the Twelfth Doctor in talks, Paul McGann mentioned that he was there when they filmed 'The Night of the Doctor' and despite having no formal role in the New Who command structure whatsoever he seems very involved. I don't know what I think of Gatiss. I generally don't hate his episodes (although 'The Idiot's Lantern' is pretty dire), but they're rarely memorable. 'Robot of Sherwood' is more or less in the same Gatiss tradition. To his credit, we begin with no stuffing around, finding ourselves straight away in the TARDIS with the Doctor asking Clara where she wants to go, and her declaration that she wants to meet Robin Hood. There's some clunky exposition, where Clara points out that it's a story and the Doctor overtly describes the premise, a "heroic outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor." Was this for the benefit of people who don't know who Robin Hood is? I guess New Who gets sold to a lot of non English speaking countries these days. Clara suggests that the Doctor is an "old fashioned hero" like Robin Hood, but he responds that his tendency to 'stop bad things happening' is "just passing the time," which I like as characterisation. If the Doctor goes looking for trouble, or if he's written as some kind of space-unwritten-moral-law enforcement, he becomes the Establishment, which is kind of contrary to the premise. This, I would argue, is one of the two themes of this episode: the Doctor's moral interventionism, and the nature of "heroes." Not exactly fresh material, but there you go.
How Gatiss understands the Twelfth Doctor's personality.
Oddly enough, the Doctor suggests to Clara that among other things they go to Mars and visit the 'Ice Warrior hives.' Has Gatiss been reading my blog? 'Cause in my review of his first 2013 episode, 'Cold War,' I suggested something along those lines as a superior alternative to the Ice Warrior story we were given. Anyway, the Doctor gives in after I think making a smutty joke - one of Gatiss' more tiring writing habits - and conveniently enough the TARDIS materialises right in front of Robin Hood at the exact right moment. Well that was expedient. Pacing will be an issue in this episode: sometimes things happen too quickly, at other times they're far too drawn out. There isn't much middle ground. Capaldi gives a pure slapstick comedy jump when Robin's arrow strikes the TARDIS, which sets us up for the tone as well. I like the fact that Robin rationalises the TARDIS as a trick with mirrors, and I like that the exterior of the TARDIS repairs itself. I don't much like it when the Doctor flat-out tells Robin that it's a TARDIS. It wouldn't mean anything to him, and Robin had already given him a perfect excuse for appearing out of nowhere anyway. Robin wants to nick the TARDIS, declaring that "all property is theft" to him, which sets up a recurring political element of the script. We get more unappealing characterisation for Capaldi's Doctor as he threatens to punch Robin in the face before fighting him with a spoon. Could have been a reference to him having duelling experience with Count Grendel of Gracht here, but sadly it was not to be. The most egregious part is probably the Errol Flynn knob gag. The Doctor tricks Robin and knocks him into the water: I was almost expecting him to drown in the low stream Men in Tights-style and Capaldi would have to become Robin like it was The Santa Clause or something.
"And you've seen a few girls running in your time haven't you?
Usually to go fetch a policeman."
Meanwhile, some generic knights led by seasoned British comedy actor Ben Miller are shaking up a town of thatched-roof cottages and the like, in a fashion reminiscent of the 2006 BBC Robin Hood TV Series, although if you've ever seen that then you know it makes New Who look like the height of sophisticated high-brow entertainment. There probably was an episode of that where the Sheriff had robots and a spaceship that someone had 'brought back for him from the Holy Land' or something equally fatuous. It certainly had holograms, what was virtually powered armour, near-clockwork devices and a host of other equally moronic anachronisms. Ben Miller abducts a lady and murders an old man in cold blood so that we know he's the bad guy. Back in the forest, Capaldi wanders around being even more of a dick in an effort to prove that the Merry Men aren't real. He also gets a horrendously ableist line, asking them if they're "all simple" because they laugh so much. Pretty thoughtless insertion from Gatiss there. The Doctor suggests as reasons for the apparent existence of Robin Hood and his gang the sci-fi cliché of a theme park as well as a pointless Old Who 'Carnival of Monsters' reference to a miniscope, which instantly evokes the previous week's episode. The Merry Men explain the usual deal: they help out because the "tyrant" Prince John is bleeding the people dry while Richard is away fighting the Third Crusade. Does anyone ever point out in anything that by participating in the Third Crusade Richard was probably just as bad as John was? The Doctor observes that the climate is too pleasant for the time of year, to which Clara facetiously suggests climate change, which the Doctor of course dismisses because "it's 1190." I'm reading way too much into this, but this is potentially another politicised remark in the episode if you consider our current political culture where climate change is genuinely perceived by some ideological groups as some sort of communist conspiracy theory. Robin's conversation with Clara is kind of nice, and he's actually far more endearing so far in this episode than Capaldi's Doctor, who's just wandering around complaining about the "banter" of Robin and his Merry Men and scanning things with the sonic screwdriver like a Matt Smith era nightmare. He actually feels like something of a bit player in his own show. He asks Clara "When did you start believing in impossible heroes?" which of course continues one of our themes.
Only £29.99 in a four-pack with bonus Ben Miller action figure.
Next we're off to Bodiam Castle for an archery contest where Robin intends to stick one, community-morale-wise, to the Sheriff. The two of them end up facing off, despite the fact that neither of them look like they've ever used a bow before: are the strings drawn back far enough? The Doctor interrupts requesting enlightenment from the Sheriff, and apparently this is the best way to do it. Gatiss' biggest cop out arrives, however, when the Doctor simply waves the sonic screwdriver and this causes the archery target to explode. It's a rubbish way of moving the plot along which places way too much focus on this gadget. All is revealed, however, as the Sheriff's guards' helmets slide open to reveal robot faces with crosses on their foreheads that shoot purple lasers, and they start running amok shooting at everyone. It's a pretty weak excuse to give the episode a bit of additional action. In the second pointless Classic reference of the day Capaldi busts out a Pertwee-esque "hai!" Venusian aikido chop to disarm Robin, with Gatiss feeling the need to spell out what he's doing to the audience: "Quickest way to find out everybody's plans - get yourself captured." Subtlety has never exactly been New Who's strong point, but this is a pretty fearsome example even still. I think it derives from the New Who writers' fear that their glossy new version of the show will be associated with a stereotype of emotionally-repressed twentieth century science fiction fans if anything is ever less than completely obvious. We cut to a bunch of extras slaving away in some yellow-lit dungeons that feel like something out of every RTD era episode set more than about three hundred years ago: Tennant wouldn't be out of place here, probably sweating and jutting out his lower teeth. One of the robots kills a tired old man with his head laser, and we cut away and cut back to see his quivering form replaced with a pile of ash. I'm surprised a pair of smoking boots wasn't left behind.
I was going to make a fart joke, but Gatiss
already exceeded anything I could muster.
Elsewhere in the Castle, Robin, the Doctor and Clara have been manacled up good and proper. This is probably the worst scene in the episode, as Gatiss drags out a completely pointless scene featuring nothing but Robin and the Doctor playing the "who's got the biggest cock" competition. It's a dreadful scene for Peter Capaldi which feels totally out of place with his performance in the previous two episodes, and even Robin is suddenly far more petty than he was a few scenes ago. It's a cliché scene of pure farce with the Doctor almost completely out of character, evocative of Tennant at his most poorly written. Why would he be so competitive with Robin? He's always been relatively cold in the previous episodes, why would this bother him? There are also loads of remarks about his age which aren't exactly necessary, and a lame reference from Clara to his being "Last of the Time Lords." It makes this scene feel like pure RTD from the light entertainment shit grinder. The Doctor has no plan to escape without the sonic screwdriver - again too much focus is placed upon it - and Clara predictably gets taken away to see the Sheriff as the apparent "leader" of the gang because she's the only one not acting like a moron. In the forest, Gatiss realises he has no way of doing plot exposition given the narrative cul de sac into which he's written his characters, so the Merry Men muse upon the Sheriff's need of gold and we see the robots forging gold circuitry in giant moulds. It's awfully similar to what happened in 'The Fires of Pompeii,' which of course also featured Peter Capaldi.
"Hold me."
Ben Miller has a cliché dining room scene with Clara, where again too much emphasis is placed upon the sonic screwdriver. Some have compared his performance here to Anthony Ainley's Master, especially in 'The King's Demons,' and I must admit that he does a decent enough turn as the generic villain of the piece. Heaping cliché upon cliché, in the dungeons Robin and the Doctor bust out the old "sick prisoner" routine, and the Doctor gets to look like even more of a dick as he claims that Robin's deathly afraid and pettily opines that Robin's "soiled himself." Not all of these clichés can be intentional. After the guard is knocked out, I smile guiltily when Robin incredulously exclaims "Soiled myself!?!" and the Doctor retorts "Did you? That's getting into character." They of course lose the key while dicking around. Get them out of this cell! Prison cells are where serialised fiction goes to die! Ben Miller starts getting a bit sleazy, but Clara keeps a pretty cool head. I guess she's been in tighter spots than this, like the time she was in all those horrific Series 7 episodes. She convinces the Sheriff to fess up about the robots. He himself is awfully blasé about them, but Ben Miller pulls it off by playing the role completely straight. The jokes about conquering Derby and so on are not, perhaps, necessary, however, verging upon pure comedy. In the dungeon, with the door open, Robin and the Doctor just pick up the manacle block and walk out. Right, well that was difficult. The Sheriff wants Clara's side of the story, but she admits that she was lying: why bother? Why not just give him a version of her own story, keep him talking and occupied for a while? Between scenes, Robin and Capaldi conveniently manage to free themselves, Capaldi tokenistically rubbing his wrist as they emerge into a room with a suspicious door.
Oh my giddy aunt.
On the other side is a spaceship set with a navigation computer aiming for 'The Promised Land' in a rehash of the robots from 'Deep Breath.' It's obviously part of the running story, but when ascribed this motivation it becomes clear that the surrounding premise - time travelling robots trapped in the past exploiting the human populace to help them repair their ship - isn't just consistent, it's pure repetition. How does the computer have its destination as 'The Promised Land' anyway? Do they have coordinates? I assumed the Promised Land was an epithet for an unknown location. By this logic you could put in 'My Ideal Holiday Destination' or 'Your Mum's House' into the computer and expect it to know what you were talking about and take you there. Capaldi decides that the radiation from the ship's engine is keeping the climate warm, and that the Sheriff and Robin are puppets the robots are using to establish a 'narrative' for the peasants to keep them docile. He flicks through some records of Robin Hood, glancing upon an image of Patrick Troughton playing the character of Robin. Does that mean Patrick Troughton exists in the Doctor Who universe? I guess the Second Doctor already had one identical double, Salamander. Why not two? Seeking Robin and the Doctor, the robots smash down the door of their own ship for no good reason and start shooting at but conveniently missing Robin, who grabs Clara and escapes. Why does Clara pass out, and get carried off by Robin? Makes her look like the weak one. Capaldi gets thrown in the dungeon after Ben Miller reveals his plan to take over England, which the Doctor claims will fail because the damaged ship will simply act as a "gigantic bomb." Could he really expect this twelfth century Englishman to know what a bomb is?
"Shoot your purple laser all over my gold plates you big robot."
Anyway, Capaldi meets the lady who got captured at the beginning of the episode, and they spontaneously manage to set up a rushed, generic Tennant-style battle where all the slaves are suddenly free and equipped with perfectly reflective gold plates that cause the robots to all blow themselves up. That's New Who for you: when in doubt, blow the bad guys up. The pacing has completely collapsed, events that would presumably take some time suddenly happening virtually instantly. Why did they have to spend so much time arseing around in that stupid dungeon scene? I can imagine Gatiss furiously typing away, realising he's only got ten pages left with which to wrap up the story. There's an unnecessary comedy scene with the Sheriff where he complains about "this turbulent Doctor," a horrifically cliché reference to the killing of Thomas Becket, before confronting him. The Doctor claims that Robin is part of the robot's plan, the "opiate of the masses" to keep them docile. So he's outright quoting Marx here, establishing further the political content of this episode. Both sides dismiss the theory as stupid, however, which completely kills anything vaguely interesting about the scenario. It's not that stupid. Robin reveals himself, and claims that "This legend does not come alone." Instead of the Merry Men all dropping in, however, it's just Clara, who we would have expected to be there anyway. Wasn't Robin interrogating her? Must have gone pretty bloody well. Robin has a big sword fight with the Sheriff, who reveals that he's a cyborg: "half man, half engine." Part of the set up for the finale, I think, although a scene showing him putting his head back on was cut as a matter of current taste. Clearly they needed a more elegant way of showing he was a cyborg in any sense, although in this instance it actually makes the scene far more subtle. Robin ultimately uses the Doctor's trick from earlier to dump him into a vat of molten metal like the Terminator.
Goldfinger did it more efficiently.
Everyone rather expediently escapes outside and to the other side of the moat before the robot ship takes off, but it doesn't have enough power and is going to blow up. It needs a boost, so they take the golden arrow prize from earlier and fire it at the ship where, chiefest of absurdities, the mere act of the arrow striking the side of the ship gives it enough power to make orbit. This is lazy writing at its finest, Gatiss either lacking the budget or the means to even show the robots catching or absorbing the arrow and adding its material to their circuitry. Nope, it's just a golden arrow somehow causing a rocket to fly. It's Tennant shoving the phone into the phone-shaped hole all over again, but probably lazier. This really does feel like an especially crap RTD episode, albeit in my opinion less offensive. The ship makes orbit and, like everything in New Who, simply blows up. I guess this is a theme - if your means of getting to the Promised Land involves exploiting and killing people, maybe you don't really deserve to get there. At least in this case it's not stated. Back at the TARDIS, Clara tells Robin to keep his chin and slash or pecker up and so on, and he muses to the Doctor that he'll be only a legend in the future, finding the situation agreeable. Somehow, he's completely believed Clara's story about the Doctor, laser-head robots apparently being enough to not only convince him of the existence of Time Lords from Gallifrey but also capable of rationalising such a concept even though it would have been completely incompatible with medieval religious culture and cosmology. Robin applies his own story to the Doctor, arguing that it's true of him as well that "a man born into wealth and privilege should find the plight of the oppressed and weak too much to bear," arguing that it's not just true of him becoming Robin Hood but also the Doctor leaving his home planet. That's not really the case though, is it? He's always been presented as having left through a combination of boredom, frustration and a desire for self-exile, and at the beginning the First Doctor seemingly couldn't give a shit about the 'plight of the oppressed and weak' until he'd mellowed out a bit in the company of Ian and Barbara, so that's not exactly very convincing. It seems like an effort to explain the Doctor as a figure of political opposition to the Establishment rather than how I feel like he's usually portrayed as someone who's actually outside conventional systems of politics and authority. The Doctor claims that Clara shouldn't have told Robin any of this, but he himself told Robin the instant he met him that his box was a TARDIS. He also claims that he's not a hero, but Robin argues that "perhaps others will be heroes in our name." This arguably concludes the episode's other theme, about the power of fictional characters to inspire us to do good: "I'm just as real as you are," which is to say not real. There's a really clunky "Goodbye Robin Hood, Earl of Locksley," farewell and we're done, with the last moment being virtually a complete objectification of our only other female character in the episode, Marion, who is basically left as a "present" to Robin from the Doctor.
"Let us never speak of this again."
'Robot of Sherwood,' then. Is it any good? Not really. It's let down by very bad pacing and a pointless and irritating characterisation of the Doctor, who's needlessly unpleasant and petty for much of the episode. The episode's protestation of the value of "old fashioned heroes" also forces Clara into the very 'damsel in distress' role that the Doctor mocks at the beginning, not really allowing her to do anything but give emotional support to the male protagonists and weasel some information out of the Sheriff that never amounts to anything. Ben Miller, like so much of New Who's guest cast, is wasted in a virtually throwaway role that doesn't allow him to really establish his character, and the robots are just so many arbitrary New Who goons who need a human spokesman because the writers are terrified that their audience, whom they contemptuously perceive as complete morons, will turn off in droves if so much as a character without a human face is given a major speaking role. It's lightweight comedy fluff but with a more serious or at least more thematic edge, but the two are fatally imbalanced from moment to moment, especially as a result of the awful dungeon scene with Robin and the Doctor. Robin himself is probably one of the best parts of the episode. I could almost see a story like this working back in the very early days of Doctor Who, with Hartnell and his companions having adventures in the forest and incredulously encountering fictional characters, but here the Doctor's just too unpleasant and the scenario's too limited and too consistent with the typical New Who routine for it to work. There are a few ideas that could be brought out, but they just aren't sufficiently allowed to with all the typical New Who time wasting, particularly due to the consistent lack of sub-plots. Plenty of people online who can't handle criticism of New Who think this episode should just be treated as meaningless comedy, but it actually isn't just meaningless comedy, and its failure to fully balance its halves lets it down. Even if it was pure comedy, you'd be better off watching Men in Tights again.

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