Disclaimer: In 2013 I reviewed the second half of Series 7 for The Hairy Housewife and fully intended to do the same for Series 8 last year. Unfortunately, it proved impossible. Life and work and caring responsibilities called and at my lowest point, I was about five episodes behind everyone else. After speaking recently with Gemma, she thought it would be cool for me to do a re-tread of Series 8 to tide blog readers over until Series 9 airs. So that’s what’s happening. Every week I’ll re-watch and review an episode for this blog. Feel free to join me! Oh, and there will be spoilers.
Welcome back to another round of Maureen trying to swallow Mark Gatiss scripts on Doctor Who. I’ve said in multiple places that he isn’t my favorite writer for the show and truly, I am terrified of him taking over after Moffat. Robots of Sherwood was thankfully less awful then dreck like The Idiot’s Lantern and less boring then Cold War, but it still suffers from the mismatched tone and the slightness that has plagued every one of his Who scripts except The Unquiet Dead. I’m not saying that it’s not OK to have a bit of light hearted fun every now and again, but it isn’t what I prefer and particularly not in a potential show runner. In hindsight, Robots of Sherwood was one of the most comedic episodes of Series 8. Unfortunately, it is also remarkably average.
So what happened for those who need memories refreshed? Clara asks The Doctor to take her to see Robin Hood. After much snipery and ridicule, he obeys without much believing anything will come of it (nice set up for what happens in Dark Water, Moffat and Gatiss). The two find themselves in scenes lifted straight out of BBC Robin Hood (Still bitter about what you did on that one BBC) with bonus asides to Prince of Thieves etc, including having to save themselves from the evil Sheriff. It turns out he’s in cahoots with some metal robots who are after gold to power their ship to The Promised Land. Chaos ensues.
I liked that this episode started by furthering The Doctor’s personality yet again, with the re-occurring series motif of The Doctor scrawling equations across a TARDIS blackboard. This Doctor sees himself as a bit of an intellectual: the erratic and grumpy and half crazed Einsteinian Professor. This Doctor stops bad things happening because he’s ‘just passing the time’ after all. He’s also cruel, as he was last episode in Into the Dalek. This time he callously tells one of Robin’s men, ‘if you were real, you’d be dead in six months.’ The Doctor doesn’t believe in Robin and his gang’s existence and so he believes he has a free rein to do and say whatever he wants without consequence. Clara doesn’t agree:
The Doctor: When did you start believing in impossible heroes?
Clara: When did you stop believing in impossible things?
Clearly, this Doctor needs a dose of Alice in Wonderland, who believed in as many as six impossible things before breakfast! Eleven would have done so, but then, this Doctor is a reaction to the studied lightness of Eleven.
The episode also cleverly juxtaposes two legends side by side: that of The Doctor and that of Robin Hood. The two play constant games of one-up-man-ship – from Robin and his sword vs The Doctor and his spoon over a river, to the extended jibing in prison (Robin calls The Doctor ‘a dessicated man crow’ for example), to the exchange as The Doctor finds the alien ship – but the end result is the same. It doesn’t matter that both The Doctor and Robin are flawed heroes: the first sometimes callous and cold and unkind, the second full of false swagger and hubris, as long as we believe in them hard enough they transcend truth and become… legend.
Robin: History is forgotten. Stories make us fly… If we keep pretending to be [heroes] perhaps others will be in our name… may those stories never end.
As so often happens in modern Doctor Who, the quote is also a meta reference to the fans. In believing in The Doctor’s story long enough and hard enough, we have sustained it and kept the dream alive. At the same time, we are reminded of why The Doctor’s story matters… because he was moved by the plight of the oppressed and of the weak, so stole a TARDIS, just as Robin found the plight of the oppressed and the weak too much to bear so stole from the rich and gave to the poor.
Robin was told by Marian to stand up and be counted, but he was afraid. In Series 8, it is Clara who tells The Doctor to stand up and be counted, but deep down, underneath the crotchety mask, he is afraid (next week’s Listen attests to this). The Doctor is flawed and so the show turns to Clara to become a hero in The Doctor’s name, as Gretchen did last week, bringing us to a second ongoing Moffat series theme – The Doctor as enabler with companions as ordinary people made heroes through The Doctor’s friendship and extraordinary circumstance. It seems that Clara Who is truly underway. Luckily, Jenna Coleman is an excellent actress. Her scenes with The Sheriff (an odd knock-off of Richard Armitage’s Guy of Gisbourne in that black leather) are especially good as she tricks The Sheriff into revealing his story:
Sheriff: Tell me your story
Clara: But I do not have one… I was lying
She also speaks for the entire audience when she pronounces, ‘does your plan involve the words sonic and screwdriver?’ to The Doctor. To many times it does, we all say.This time it’s all down to Clara and all in a smoking hot costume and hair style too. (Aside: I enjoyed the return of name monikers with Prince of Thieves and Last of the Time Lords. It’s not Moffat Who without them. Thanks Clara.)
Where the episode becomes truly unstuck is in the final twenty minutes with the alien threat of the week taking on a bigger role within the story. Their reason for invasion isn’t particularly complex, and nor is the way Clara, The Doctor and Robin get rid of them. The ending cops out with a half hearted theme about working together and an improbably shot golden arrow, but at least the alien story does serve to get Missy’s Promised Land name checked for the week. Some of the acting was sub par (The Sheriff and the captured woman especially) even if I did get to play spot that actor with Master Quail (He played Sir Hector in Hallmark’s Merlin which is in my top 5 film list of all time) and the tone changed from thoughtful and melancholy under a veneer of frivolity to silly deux ex machina before returning briefly to more thoughtful again as The Doctor and Robin discuss the difference between history and legend. Aside from giving Clara further chance to shine and establishing Tweleve, nothing much to see here.
Robots of Sherwood: 5/10 inky stars
I know that this ranking is very low compared to how I ranked episodes in Series 7. In hindsight, I would probably re-rank the second half of Series 7 as this episode is infinitely more entertaining than Cold War or Nightmare in Silver for example. Unfortunately, it is still distinctly average, and as I am ranking out of 10, I feel that 5 is the right score for exactly average