REVIEW: Robot of Sherwood (2014)
Since cementing himself as a cinema icon a century ago, Robin has had a habit of popping up in other franchises, such as Looney Tunes, Star Trek, Shrek and Tom & Jerry. Recently, Doctor Who was added to that list with an episode of the 2014 series titled ‘Robot of Sherwood.’ Tom Riley, known at the time for Da Vinci’s Demons, took on the role of the Prince of Thieves, with writer and comedian Ben Miller as the Sheriff of Nottingham. In a script penned by Mark Gatiss, a regular contributor in the more recent incarnation of the show, Robin and his Merry Men were showcased as the storybook, swashbuckling band of rogues Clara remembers from her childhood, and it was an enjoyable romp – though it was a very big missed opportunity
The episode opens with the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) asking Clara (Jenna Coleman) to chose where they head next on their travels, and she choses to hunt down her childhood hero, Robin Hood. Skeptical of his existence, the Doctor obliges, bumping right into the man himself in the middle of sunny, verdant Sherwood Forest in 1190 ("ish"). Robin introduces his band of outlaws – Little John (Rusty Goffe), Allan a Dale (played by Gatiss’ partner Ian Hallard), Will Scarlett (Joseph Kennedy), and Friar Tuck (Trevor Cooper). They laugh heartily at their exploits and denounce the Sheriff in an all-too-jovial way. The Doctor, unconvinced by this all-too-picturesque scene, is certain there is more at work as the gang explain the Sheriff’s obsession with collecting gold from the unfortunate populace of Nottingham. Robin explains to Clara that he used to be Earl of Loxley, but after speaking out against the Sheriff, his lands were taken and his title stripped from him, and he was outlawed. His love, Marian, who he fears gone forever, encouraged him to fight against injustice, and so he does, with his friends. The following day, at an archery tournament, the disguised Robin is on fine form, defeating the Sheriff (Ben Miller) and winning the golden arrow; the Doctor sweeps in and causes a scene with his trick archery and his sonic screwdriver, discovering the Sheriff’s stoic guards are in fact androids. Deliberately acting up in order to get them captured, the Doctor, alongside Clara and Robin, are taken inside the castle, the Doctor now able to investigate his suspicions. Convinced by her intelligence, the Sheriff interrogates Clara, believing her to be the leader of Robin’s band. Through him, she discovers the Sheriff witnessed a ship crash in the fields near Nottingham. It’s implied the crash killed him, but the androids brought him back to life by augmenting his body. (In a scene infamously cut in the week of broadcast due to real-life violence, the Sheriff’s head is cut off and he simply reattaches it!) Robin and the Doctor, arguing like mad in the dungeon, manage to escape, and the Doctor discovers the castle is the crashed ship, merely disguised as the castle. Using the ship’s database, he shows Robin images of himself through time, as a fairytale, a myth, and demands he come clean about his identity, believing him an android too, which confuses Robin. The Doctor finds the ship is powered by gold, the Sheriff using a slave labour force to melt the collected taxes into functioning parts to make the ship function again. The Sheriff finds them, Robin escaping with Clara, but the Doctor is captured again, taken to the dungeons where the slave villagers work. The Doctor, along with a young woman from a nearby village (Sabrina Bartlett), rallies the villagers together to fight against the robot guards, destroying them. The Sheriff confronts him and initiates the ship’s take-off, despite not having enough power to break through the atmosphere. The Sheriff reveals that Robin is not, in fact, a fictional addition to the androids, confounding the Doctor who thought it all a story. Robin then arrives with Clara, duelling with the Sheriff off and sending him tumbling into a vat of molten gold. The ship takes off, the Doctor warning the lack of power will trigger an explosion powerful enough to destroy the town. Robin fires the golden arrow into the ship as it leaves Nottingham, giving it the boost it needs to clear the planet before exploding safely in orbit. The Doctor and Clara leave, with the Doctor bringing the young woman from the dungeons with him - Robin is elated, as it's revealed she is, in fact, Marian.
Gatiss clearly chose the very modern and more widely-known version of the characters to play with; Robin and his men are cheerful storybook figures, laughing in the face of danger, much to the annoyance of the Doctor (“Robin Hood laughs in the face of all!” “And do people ever punch you in the face when you do that?”). There are several classic tropes in the episode, namely the archery contest and splitting the arrow (in this case, splitting several!), Allan as a minstrel, Will literally in scarlet, and so on. The episode opens with the famous bridge fight, but in this case, instead of Robin and John, it’s the Doctor fighting Robin (using a spoon) after the latter wishes to rob the Doctor of his TARDIS. Dialogue places this story in the typical modern setting, during the Third Crusade, with Robin and Allan explaining Prince John's abuse of power in Richard's absence. Aesthetically, it's a classic Robin Hood tale, with castles, knights and forests - no gritty rebooting here! As well as staples of the legend, there are also cardinal sins; the amount of arrow pinching when drawing a bow is crazy!
This Robin is an archetypal version, with the dashing deeds, expert archery, a softer romantic side and hopeful, wistful attitude to life and his fight against oppression. He speaks in poetic flourishes when he first meets the Doctor and Clara (“Dame Autumn has draped her mellow skirts about the forest”), evoking the faux-historical language of Howard Pyle’s 1883 novel ‘The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.’ It’s a enormous shame that we only get Tom Riley as Robin for this 45-minute guest appearance; he’s a very comfortable, commanding Robin, able to one-up even Capaldi’s comic timing expertly, but also brings a great deal of weight to Robin’s more serious, calmer side. One of the highlights of his performance is a mere minute-long conversation with Clara, where he speaks of his old life and Marian, which is surprisingly moving. The Doctor and Robin end their time together in a genuinely passionate chat about being a hero - Robin asks if what the Doctor showed him is true, and that he'll be remembered in years to come as a story, and not as a real man; he comes to accept this fate wholeheartedly, saying, "History is a burden. Stories can make us fly." Robin tells the Doctor Clara considers him her hero, and he dismisses this, yet Robin tells him, "Neither am I. But if we both keep pretending to be, perhaps others will be heroes in our name." Hear hear. Riley looks and sounds the part, and is a natural fit; this is the Robin Hood you’d hope to meet, not a guy in a Robin Hood costume.
Speaking of costumes, there’s more than one connection to the BBC’s last adaptation of the legend. Costume designer for the 2014 series of Doctor Who, Howard Burden, also worked on the 2009 series of Jonas Armstrong’s Robin Hood, updating Frances Tempest’s costumes for the main characters. Some were minor, like the Sheriff and Gisbourne having more flourishes and colour, John having a loose surcoat to replace his heavy, tree-like coat, but the biggest change was in Robin’s attire. Burden took the suede hoodie away and replaced it with a leather tunic, with bark-like stitching running down the panelling, giving him an entirely different look, more militarised, harder, as this Robin had now become. For Riley’s Robin for Doctor Who, he took a leaf out of his own book and effectively recreated Jonas Armstrong’s costume, changing the colours from brown to bold Lincoln green. I remember seeing photos from the filming of the episode, and this was the first thing that caught my eye – it was Jonas’ outfit! The bark-like stitching is still there, though more muted, but the leather straps connecting the limb panels are still present; the trousers are the X-stitched pants of Armstrong, though green instead of brown; even the hood poking out from the tunic is there! It’s a wonderful little nod to Burden’s past work that certainly didn’t go unnoticed.
In another connection to the Armstrong series, Joseph Kennedy features in Doctor Who as Will Scarlett, the quiet member of Robin’s band. Kennedy previously played Carter in the second season of Armstrong’s series; Carter was hired by the Sheriff to infiltrate Robin’s gang and kill him, motivated by his belief Robin was responsible for his brother’s death in the Holy Land. Robin explains that Carter’s brother was hot-headed, and ran into a Saracen ambush, defying Robin's orders. Carter then helps Robin steal the bounty promised to him from the Sheriff. He returns to the Holy Land, giving King Richard news of the Sheriff’s treachery. In the season finale that same year, Carter reunites with the gang and helps Robin fight not only against the Black Knights, but the King himself.
Robin’s band of Merry Men (a name Clara coins for them, with Robin saying, “Aye, that is an apt description!”) are very much supporting players, only having a handful of scenes. John is a man with dwarfism, played off for a single joke at the ‘Little John’ name when he surprises Clara by crawling from under the legs of a taller (strangely unnamed?) man. Allan takes his traditional role of minstrel, carrying a lute and singing a lament to the Doctor and Robin’s capture (and being stopped by Will singing a celebratory song at the story’s end!). Will isn’t the fop of tradition, or the craftsman of more modern iterations, instead he’s just a namecheck member of the band, his costume with red accents to differentiate him from the rest. Tuck is the portly, older man typically seen in stories with the traditional angle such as this, in the style of Alexander Gauge.
The Merries are only ever seen together, whether they’re cheering on Robin at the archery contest, planning his rescue from the castle or simply being merry at the camp. It’s a shame we don’t get more of them but, at the end of the day, this is Doctor Who does Robin Hood, not Robin Hood does Doctor Who. As for Marian, she's a minor player, but is instrumental in organising the revolt against the robot guards in the dungeons. She's more of an unseen motivator for Robin than anything else, hanging on the periphery too, but the reveal comes at the end of the episode as to her identity; we don't even know we're with her until the last second!
Ben Miller features in the episode as the Sheriff. This version takes almost all his cues from Alan Rickman’s turn in Prince of Thieves, being a flowing-locked, van-dyke’d, black-clad and cruel ‘ruler’ of Nottingham, hated by all. He's a quiet but rage-filled man, aligning himself with the androids due to their promise of absolute power, vowing to claim the world by the time he’s finished. He is very familiar with futuristic technology, using a hologram-based table and having a remote for the androids around his neck (no trust issues there!). The androids replaced parts of his body, and he is now a new breed of human – as he says, “half man, half machine.” This is a jarring line, as there was no indication of his augmented nature until he says it; this is because immediately beforehand, the scene where he loses his head was cut. This is a shame as, though sensitive to then-current events, it diminishes the plot a little, leaving the audience to pick up the pieces, and even then there's not a lot in-episode to pick up! More known for his comedy work, Miller certainly puts these talents to use, either subtly, such as with his interrogation of Clara, or obviously when he strikes a robot in anger. Dressed in black and with jewels galore, he's certainly a more pompous kind of Sheriff, playing up to his social status and control over the people rather than any of his characteristics.
Probably the sweetest teaser in this episode is during the Doctor’s confrontation of Robin, showing him images of Robin Hood throughout history; amongst the paintings and the books is an image of Patrick Troughton, in character as Robin in the BBC’s 1953 live-action series. Troughton, of course, played the Doctor himself from 1966 to 1969.
The episode is fun, and is supposed to be; it’s more comedic than dramatic, with camp costumes and dialogue, sword fights and killer robots. It’s a huge shame, therefore, that they didn’t push it to where it naturally should have gone. For Capaldi’s run, the emphasis was on this new Doctor’s darker nature and self-doubt, a theme of the season being his insistence he’s not a hero, and his denial that he’s inherently a good man. He and Robin discuss their responsibilities at the end of the story, with Robin telling him that maybe they should be heroes because that’s what people expect them to be. It’s a shame, therefore, that Gatiss chose for his Robin Hood story to be Errol Flynn (who gets a name-drop!), to be the storybook, colourful, gung-ho version of the legend. I’ve been a Doctor Who fan for a while, and the thing I’ve always thought would be interesting for a crossover like this is if the Doctor meets Robin and he’s not a nice guy; he robs from anyone, kills anyone, has no loyalty. It’s through the spreading of his legend and the responsibility placed on him, reinforced by the Doctor’s disappointment and reassurance, that he then becomes the hero he’s now remembered as. I think this would have been a more fitting version of Robin for this story specifically; the season is about the Doctor’s coming to terms with his own heroism; he and Robin could have learnt a thing or two from each other. Instead, we get a fun, touching, though admittedly colour-by-numbers version of both Robin Hood and Doctor Who. Murray Gold's score is worth mentioning for this reason; Gold's scores for Doctor Who had been becoming similarly simplified towards his departure from the show, but it's clear he's having fun with the material in this episode. There's a repeated motif for Robin and the Merries, with strings and tinny percussion heavily evoking Michael Kamen's main theme in the Prince of Thieves score.
What we’re left with is a pretty standard run-around episode of Doctor Who; as for its treatment of the Robin Hood legend, it’s a familiar, nostalgic dive into the world for one-night-only, the fun coming from the Doctor and Clara exploring the world, like the audience, than it is an exploration of any kind of deeper theme or motivation. Doctor Who is either touching drama or good clean family fun; this was the latter, but it could have been much more if they went down one road instead of the other.
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