5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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ROBOT OF SHERWOOD
Oh, suckness. We really hate reviewing this kind of episode.
When it comes to comedy, there’s no arguing with your funnybone. If you find something funny, you find something funny. Similarly, if you don’t, somebody telling you why it’s hilarious cuts as much ice as a polar bear with a sprained paw.
More to the point, neither side is wrong. If you thought this was hysterically funny, we’re not going to try and persuade you otherwise. But don’t say you weren’t warned, OK? In the awful silence chez Androzani as the credits rolled, up spoke a voice: “If shit could romp, that’s what it would look like.”
That’s right. Welcome to Rompbot Of Shitwood.
It’s not that we’re against fluff in Doctor Who. We love that the format is elasticky enough to accommodate tons of different approaches. Episodes don’t all have be pitch black and angsty: some of our favourites are the funniest ones. But whichever way they choose to come at it, we’d kinda prefer it if they do it well. That just didn’t happen here.
Let’s start with some of the easier stuff. Mark Gatiss’s record as a Who scriptwriter has been …well, if we say “uneven” we’re stretching charitable till it squeaks. However, to be fair, with the odd horrific exception (yep, Victory Of The Daleks), they’re mostly not terrible. They just go to die in the graveyard of Not Very Good.
Ironically, considering how much we dislike this episode, it’s far from Gatiss’s worst work. Some of the more tarnished Gatiss hallmarks are definitely here, like the dearth of decent writing for women (Marian, infuriatingly, is basically a toy to be handed to Robin as a prize for good behaviour). But overall, if you have to do Robin Hood with robots, which was the poisoned chalice handed over, he could have done a lot worse.
Robin Hood’s a story everybody knows back to front. So they decide to go with that by sending up its very legendarity. Legendousness. Legendiness. Sure, OK. Why not? What’s more, Tom Riley as Robin flings himself into it with a will (and also a Will). He’s charming, heroic, and blah blah. Nice work.
And he’s not the only one who’s any good. Jenna Coleman is again outstanding all the way through this. Ben Miller, too, as the Sheriff scrapes every morsel of potential from his lines, and his scenes with Clara are the episode’s highlights.
So, adequate premise. Great guest stars. A superlative turn from Jenna. Panto, and camp as hell, but that’s OK. So what’s wrong with it?
It stabs us to the heart to say this, but what’s mostly wrong with it is the Doctor.
When writing this script, Gatiss didn’t know what the new Doctor’s character was going to be. So, understandably enough, he wrote it not only with a bit of a default towards his beloved Third Doctor, but also in a way suited to the more recent Doctors. While we found a lot of it about as funny as a rat on a wedding cake, to be fair, on paper it’s not all that bad. Many of the lines in the hands of Matt Smith or David Tennant would have zinged. Imagine either of them saying the very first problematic line “I’m the Doctor, and this is my spoon”. Oh, yeah. David Tennant would have ladled on buckets of swagger and braggadocio to the entire, er, spoonfight sequence, and Matt, quite simply, would have charmed us out of our socks.
Instead - and like we said, heart-stabby - we cringed. We pointed out in our review of Deep Breath that whimsy by no means suits this Doctor. We cringed there, too, but in a regeneration episode it was more forgivable.
Let’s be clear. Peter Capaldi is an absolutely stellar actor with few equals, and that includes a ferocious talent for particular kinds of comedy. However, nobody can do everything. (Matt Smith, for example, was rubbish at doing old.) And none of the humour that runs through Robot Of Sherwood is Capaldi’s forte. Give him dry quips and dark sarcasm and he kills it. Give him whimsy, squabbling and gurning, however, and the result sends us running behind the sofa. It’s. Just. Awful. After Into The Dalek, where they got the funny just right for Capaldi, we’re absolutely crushed.
It doesn’t start too badly at all. The TARDIS scene is restrained and effective. But Robin’s pre-titles wink made us shift nervously in our seats, and with “Do people ever punch you in the face when you do that? Lucky I’m here then, isn’t it” the Malcolm Tucker tap is turned on a bit too hard. (We’re mad about Malcolm Tucker. But he shouldn’t get within a parsec of the Doctor.) We’re thankful for small mercies, however, and we love the Doctor’s discomfort as Clara touches him on the shoulder.
The Merry Men intro’s not exactly a comedy masterpiece. Here, we were divided about where the blame lay. One of us was uncompromising: “It’s a shit script and they’re shit at it. Sorry, guys. Stay merry, yo. But you know it’s true.” The rest of us were more merciful, as we can’t see anyone could have wrung any juice out of it. “And this is Friar Tuck, aptly named for the amount of grub he tucks into.” Come on, guys. That’s supposed to be funny?
The Doctor’s suspicion’s a nice counterpoint to the hahaha - but again, his lines fall horribly flat. For example, Matt could have made the not particularly side-splitting ‘“If you were real, you’d be dead in six months.” “I am real!” “Bye”’ thing work, but Capaldi’s reading just makes the Doctor seem ghoulish and spiteful.
We were quite relieved to see a change of scene. Ben Miller is magnificent as the villainous Sheriff, but it’s like a tiger toying with a knitted mouse: with this script, the possibilities are limited. And the light-hearted romp takes a decidedly Game Of Thrones turn as in the middle of the banter and moustachio-twiddling poor old Mace Tyrell takes a slab of cold steel to the pancreas. Um, what? There’s light and shade, and then there are slices of totally different episodes hacked apart and cobbled together.
Back to the Doctor, alas. “That wasn’t even funny. That was bantering.” Actually, it wasn’t bantering. He was just making a joke. “I am totally against bantering.” We’re the world’s biggest fans of bantering, but not when done like this. The arrow scene’s a cleverish take on the classic, but again the Doctor sounds awkward and strained all the way through. And then they drag them off to the dungeon and things take a turn for the terrible.
Robin and the Doctor squabbling as they try to impress Clara is wrong in every direction. We hate to keep coming back here, but while Tom Riley acquits himself with honour, Capaldi simply can’t do this kind of funny. It’s painful to watch him try. But that’s not all that’s wrong with it.
Like we said, the idea of the Doctor being suspicious of the whole setup is no problem in itself. The difficulty is that for it to work, it requires the Doctor to behave like a complete boofhead. We’re not sure we’ve ever seen him as frankly stupid as he is here. When the Sheriff later points out the flaws in the Doctor’s theory (“Why would we create an enemy to fight us? What sense would that make?”) it just underlines the idiocy with big red scrawly lines. Sure, we know what they’re getting at. Due to his own doubt about how good or otherwise he is, the Doctor is allergic to the whole concept of a hero. This bias makes him completely unable to see Robin for the real man he is, thus forcing him down the track of not entertaining any idea other than that Robin’s a fake. Yes, yes, got it. But come on. That’s folding the Doctor way too far in an unnatural direction.
What’s more, in the dungeon scene this isn’t enough to explain the Doctor’s behaviour. The showing off and putting Robin down in front of Clara, the Doctor later saying that the bright side is that Clara didn’t see them kick the keys down the drain: none of it makes any sense unless the Doctor is motivated by jealousy. And that is absolutely not who this Doctor is. It can’t even be put down to the Doctor being jealous of Clara’s hero worship of Robin, because he knows Clara hero-worships him too and he wishes she wouldn’t. He’s just jealous that Clara likes Robin. This would have worked for Matt Smith, and probably for David Tennant too. Given that they knew they weren’t going in that direction with this Doctor, why the hell did they let this go ahead?
Oh, the agony. And from there, happily, to the Clara/Sheriff scene, which is by far our favourite in the entire thing. None of it rings with originality, but they both do a fabulous job with it, making it an order of magnitude funnier than it looks on the page.
And then gold lasers spaceships robots. Pretty boring, actually. First of all, it’s the same plot as Deep Breath. Oops. It’s also moronic beyond reckoning. We’re not even going to think about the gold arrow thing, because argh.
But also, it’s the other problem we had with Deep Breath: we like originality, they like endless callbacks to earlier stories. We’re not going to list them, but it’s full of them. Ugh. We think that if a show is throwing in endless dollops of nostalgia for itself while it’s actually running, it’s courting the imminent setting in of rigor mortis. Can we please stop looking longingly back over our shoulders? We know the people working on Doctor Who now grew up with it and are thrilled down to their toenails that they’re actually there. The best way of showing that, however, is to keep the bloody thing invigorated. Otherwise they’re going to kill it with reverence.
And then finally, here comes the tidy little parcel-tying they’re so fond of. In case you’d managed to miss the whole Doctor versus heroes thing that this whole thing is about, Robin carefully explains it all to him. Sigh. Awkward to the end.
It could have been a delightful, sugar-spangled confection, light as helium but none the worse for that. Instead, it aimed high, but missed the target.
The way the arrow hole in the TARDIS heals is nice.
SHUT THE FRONT DOOR
During the opening dialogue with Robin Hood, the angle of the open TARDIS door keeps changing
A GENETIC ADVANTAGE
Robin amputates the top button on the Doctor’s jacket, but after his line “Like I said, my box” it’s back.
ALL THAT GLISTERS
If the Sheriff is so desperate for every scrap of gold, why is he wearing a gold necklace?
MISSED BY THAT MUCH
Considering how much arrow-twanging there is in here, it’s a shame none of them have obviously ever come within a hundred miles of a bow before.
THE JOFFREY SCHOOL OF EMPATHY
The scene cut from this episode of the Sheriff’s beheading makes the fact that he's a quasi-robot a bit murky (and the plunge into the vat a lot nastier). But we’re still glad it’s gone: not just for the obvious reasons, but because in the scene when Robin beheads someone they all think is human, Clara squeals “Brilliant, Robin, brilliant!”.
THE TWIN DILEMMA
True, we don’t like the callbacks (pack of sandwiches in the Doctor’s coat, sigh), but we’ll let them get away with the shot of Patrick Troughton as Robin Hood.