JON KANEKO-JAMES says the latest Doctor Who episode ‘Robot of Sherwood’ has more than a few laughs
As might be already filtering though social media, a few of the Spooky Isles crew went on holiday to Transylvania this weekend and took in a few of the Dracula-related sights, so my review of Mark Gatiss’ Robot of Sherwood is coming in a little late. Nonetheless, I’ll be endeavouring to give a spoiler-free review, and I’ve avoided encountering anyone else’s opinion of the episode online.
First impression: I really liked it.
I wasn’t expecting to, in fact I had similar trepidations with this episode as I did when I sat down to watch Into the Dalek (forgetting that it wasn’t the first time Doctor Who had ‘paid homage’ to the movie Fantastic Voyage).
It’s a comedy episode, and although humour is incredibly subjective, there were several gags that made me laugh out loud; Capaldi is a great comedy actor and I don’t blame Moffat at all for wanting to get his money’s worth.
Not only that, I’m very impressed at the way Moffat is using humour to give the Doctor a sense of vulnerability. The new Doctor is a clueless curmudgeon. He’s incredibly capable but he’s capable of being wrong, which is one of the things that makes him the most endearing.
I can’t think of a single moment when Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor is out and out wrong, Tenant’s Doctor was wrong very occasionally (hardly ever towards the end of his tenure, when the onanistic ‘Doctor as Legend’ stuff got really out of hand), and Matt Smith’s Doctor could never be wrong because Smith didn’t have the bearing to pull it off without spoiling the character.
The fact that Capaldi’s Doctor can be wrong means that I can empathise with him more than any Doctor I’ve seen for years. There are spheres of understanding where the Doctor is unbeatable, but his human skills are non-existent and his instincts slightly skewed.
This sort of writing resets the story balance to a much more enjoyable position: the Doctor exists as a sort of plot-cpu, with his companions showing us what’s going on (by asking questions and getting tangled in the story) and his peripherals (companions, and supporting characters) working under his direction to resolve the action.
This is awesome. If the Doctor can be wrong (and if it’s okay for him not to be able to do things) he doesn’t have to be a one man army, which gives other characters a role beyond the decorative.
In fact, one of the reasons I’m going to be sad to see Jenna Coleman leave is the fact that this season’s scripts have given Clara so much more to do, and so much more purpose within the stories, that I’ve finally started to bond with her.
As to the humour itself… again, I admit that humour is incredibly subjective, but I really found this episode funny. Part of it is the Doctor being clueless in an endearing and character-consistent way.
Another thing I enjoyed was the extremely well written banter between the Doctor and Robin Hood (also, the Doctor’s slightly fourth-wall-breaking self-awareness).
Most of all, I liked the fact that someone is quite obviously curating the tone of the series: Into the Dalek’s grimness needed to be followed by some light relief.
It might come as a surprise after my first two reviews, but I never wanted Doctor Who to become a 13-episode account of broken, unpleasant people dying in a mire of blood, pain and faeces (I could read Joe Abercrombie’s work, or the Thomas Covenant books for that). I just wanted Doctor Who to be well written, with a Doctor I could take seriously.
I just wanted Doctor Who to be believable and, although some readers might raise an eyebrow as I write this, I think Gatiss’ Robot of Sherwood managed to give us a swashbuckling comedy romp that still achieves that.
You can make something gritty without making it believable. Conversely, believability isn’t about making a show where doctors, soldiers and physicists can sit down, watch an episode, and afterwards say, “Yes, this is exactly what my career experience has taught me is the case.”
Believability is making a consistent, tonally sound fictional environment where the viewer or reader knows the rules and can can feel secure that they understand the chain of cause an effect: it’s a very fine balancing act.
Robot of Sherwood sets its colours out very early. Errol Flynn is referenced, as is Cyrano de Bergerac. Ben Miller, an actor who has straddled comedy and sci-fi in his career before, is brought in as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and definitely plays the role in a way that tips its hat to Alan Rickman’s Sheriff in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (in fact, Prince of Thieves is explicitly referenced during the episode.)
From the start, we know what we’re going to see: a swashbuckling adventure, the sort of thing that would happen if you sat in the pub and asked, “What would happen in Doctor Who had been in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves?”
It works. It really works. It’s a nice bit of light relief after Into the Dalek and before whatever creepy shite is coming next. When things got silly I felt as if the show was fondly joshing with me rather than taking the piss.
There are even some wonderful callbacks to other Doctor Who episodes where (real world) fiction and reality mingle (which I won’t specifically enumerate for fear of accidental spoilers), and we see a great clip of Patrick Troughton playing Robin Hood.
The finale is great, with a fantastic visual reference to Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate, with Robin using a sword to descend a flag, cutting it in half as he goes.
Most of all, I think I just saw one of the most positive developments for the future of writing in Doctor Who, so I’m going to leave you with this swashbuckling cliffhanger: Did you see the Sheriff of Nottingham ever give back the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver? Does he have another one? Is this the end of the screenwriter’s magic wand?
JON KANEKO-JAMES of Boo Tours, which runs ghost and supernatural tours around London, including talks about human skin covered books. Check out Boo Tours website is www.bootours.com.