Thursday, November 6, 2014

Robot of Sherwood

The Doctor: Old fashioned heroes only exist in old-fashioned storybooks, Clara.
Clara: What about you? You stop bad things happening every minute of every day. That sounds pretty heroic to me.
The Doctor: Just passing the time.

Robin Hood is an odd choice for a British national hero - he is, after all, not only a wealthy man who chooses to be poor so that he can eliminate poverty rather than compromise his morals and continue to live in wealth, but he’s explicitly revolutionary. Sure, sometimes it’s so the “rightful king” can be restored, but it’s fundamentally about overthrowing the existing oppression and power.

Which is not to say America doesn’t have revolutionary heroes - we revere George Washington and the Founders, and, to a lesser degree, Robert E. Lee. But the former weren’t trying to overthrow our government, and the Confederates we do venerate weren’t straight-up outlaws trying to wipe out poverty by taking everything from the rich; they were trying to restore what they thought of as their rights. And our heroic outlaws, The James Brothers or Bonny & Clyde, were primarily out to make themselves rich, whatever their occasional gestures toward any particular ideals. Our revolutionary heroes are first and foremost individualistic. Our nearest equivalent is probably Davy Crockett, and his only revolutionary stand was against Mexico.

Robin Hood, at least in most worthwhile versions, is a utopian vision. A man who fights to overthrow the corrupt and evil in order that the oppressed can live fruitfully. Rather like the Doctor, who abandoned a life as one of the Lords of Time, and who’s been a revolutionary since his second story, and a noble one since not long after that. So the meeting between these two fantastic figures should be the most revolutionary and politically explosive episode since…

… oh, wait, no, it’s a Gatiss script.

So we get the Sheriff of Nottingham working with generic evil robots defeated by gold (after this and Deep Breath, I was already convinced the Cybermen were showing up in the finale), and that’s about it. The only parallel made between the Doctor and Robin Hood is something or other to do with the nature of legends vs. history. Which would be a lot easier to forgive if it at least went through the Robin Hood bits cleverly, but outside of one scene, it doesn’t even try to engage with any  of those stories.

On the other hand, well, it is a Gatiss script. Sure, it does nothing worthwhile with the Doctor and Robin Hood being together. Sure, the Merry Men are completely interchangeable and only get a couple of lines all around. Sure, Maid Marion is barely even in it. Sure, the only thing it actually does with Robin Hood himself is an amusing variation on the archery contest. But it is amusing. It’s got a pair of very engaging guest performances from Tom Riley as Robin Hood and Ben Miller as Nottingham. There’s some fun banter, some action, and a castle turning into a spaceship. A failure to be interesting doesn’t require a failure to be watchable. It may be pretty much the least you can do with the premise, but it lacks ambition with great competence. It may not be The Time Warrior, but it’s not The King’s Demons, either.

And the closing conversation about legends really is lovely. “History is a burden. Stories can make us fly.” There's something particularly frustrating here, of course - Robin Hood explicitly parallels his rebel nature with the Doctor's, which would be far more satisfying if we had actually seen any of it. But it's a nice scene, anyway.

For all that I don’t care for most of Gatiss’s Who episodes, I’m glad they exist. For one thing, a lot of people really do enjoy the occasional Who episode that’s just simple and nostalgic. And it’s good to have some of those. I wish Gatiss’s were all as good as Crimson Horror, but they still need to exist. If every episode is some huge, crazy epic, it all becomes meaningless after a while. You need the little silly ones. Yes, they can be better than this, but they exist for a reason, and even if I don’t much care for Robin of Sherwood, I’m glad it exists. I doubt Listen would have had quite the impact that it did if it didn’t follow a little romp like this. I do hope the show keeps hiring him every season to do one of these, though equally I hope he’s pushed to make them just a little better. He’s certainly capable of it.

Also, after three 3000+ word reviews and even topping 2k on Into the Dalek, it’s a relief to have one of these where I have to stretch to not just repeat my Idiot’s Lantern review, let alone eke out a page and a half.


* * ½

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