Sunday, 7 September 2014

Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood (Episode Review)

Much like Into the Dalek, this week's episode feel's out of place. It honestly does seem like a tale which should have been reserved for a few stories down the line, but unlike last week's disaster what we have here is outstandingly fun. Avoiding the heavy going themes, depression and attempts to combat the ghosts of the Doctor's past, it instead delivers exactly what the title promises: Robots, Robin Hood and a disbelieving Doctor.

Whilst mapping out certain diagrams on a chalk board, the Doctor stops to ask Clara where she wants to go next, offering her anywhere in time and space. While initially interested when she has an answer, he is just as quickly dismissive when she mentions wanting to go back to the era of Robin Hood. However, after begrudgingly accepting his terms the Doctor is shocked to be greeted by the seemingly mythical figure immediately upon arrival. Something is very wrong in Sherwood Forest and as ever not all is as it seems...

What the episode is ultimately aiming for towards the beginning is putting a playful spin upon an old story idea by adding in a wild card. Robin Hood is introduced as an Errol Flynn type character, the laughter and larger than life elements fully intact right from the very start, the same going for his merry men. It's played up, but in a manner which is less outright cartoonish than it is more like a plot and acting of an older era, allowing the Doctor to make fun of it and occasionally throw a spanner in the works. This is half the enjoyment of watching this episode, seeing just how the Doctor adapts to an earlier era and an old story he has absolutely no confidence in. In many respects it's a style quite familiar to anyone who has watched Pirates of the Carribean, with the other characters doing the heavy narrative work so the fan favourite can be free to mess about with things.

The unfortunate offset of this is that the Doctor is pushed a little into the background, but the story does find ways to keep him involved in events and remain more than just a necessity. Unlike Revelation of the Daleks, this is still clearly the Doctor's story and he is essential to it, there's just more work being done by other characters. That said he's also far more balanced out here, removing himself further from the trappings of Matt Smith's Eleventh, but lacks the fully psychotic tendencies seen last episode. It's more refined and Peter Capaldi clearly has a fantastic grip on the character. 

This isn't to say anything less of the supporting cast.  Jenna Coleman definitely has far more to do in this episode than previous ones and Clara has more life to her, with moments of far more intelligence and cunning than she has been offered in past tales. There is also far more of a range to her actions, going from fangirling over the idea of being with Robin Hood to merrily manipulating events to get ahead of the villain. Speaking of the villain, Ben Miller has donned the beard of the Sheriff of Nottingham and is quite obviously channeling Alan Rickman in so many scenes. This is hardly a criticism against him however, as it's playing towards the story's objective - an almost overblown pantomime tale which is more a celebration of the character's cinematic existence than truly mocking it.

The dialogue is as witty as you would expect from Mark Gatiss, but it's quite naturally fitted into the script and works to augment the story rather than being snarky for snark's sake. Thanks to the story's overall approach it's rarely out of place, and the overall style brilliantly balances out the more overt moments of the script.
Atop of all this the episode is brilliantly shot, easily being the best historical tale done over the last several series. It matches the right combination of energetic close-ups, cuts and action moments without ever feeling unfocused or too rapidly cut together. It's fast enough to keep things exiting, but never so much that it loses the audience, and director Paul Murphy obviously knows when to let the natural beauty of a location do its work.

If there is something to seriously criticise here, it's that the episode does feel insubstantial in parts. There's a few too many plot contrivances to not be noticed, and while the episode is trying to utilise the genre savvy angle of the TARDIS crew both as an asset and disadvantage, it does become predictable. The big twist which is supposed to be a double bluff of sorts is one you'll see coming some way off, and a lot of comedic elements are never really addressed beyond a brief moment. For example, the Doctor diagnoses one man to have only six months to live yet never returns to that at any point.

This is without getting into another issue, with the tale leading back into a plot thread established at the very end of Deep Breath. With this being the third episode so far that has done this, it's an element which is less Bad Wolf or like the cracks than it is increasingly intrusive into each plot, butting its way into it rather than feeling like a minor aspect fitted in at some point. This is the primary reason why it should have been saved for later, as it works well with the story which is being told, but so soon into the series it seems far too soon for it.

Despite this a fun and entertaining story with a great ending which furthers the ideas behind Capaldi's Doctor make this one well worth watching. It's not one you'd watch for serious drama, but for a bit of entertainment and time travel you couldn't ask for anything better. Unless you have a serious dislike for the Robin Hood mythos, a desire to see more serious storytelling or a far more focused science fiction angle, it's definitely one which will keep you entertained for the better part of an hour. Despite last week's writing, Robot of Sherwood proves that this incarnation of the Doctor has a fantastic future ahead of him.

Oh, and keep your eye out for a cameo by Patrick Troughton.

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