Dwarfed by the storm-in-a-teacup controversy preceding its transmission (surely nobody might genuinely have thought that the BBC were wrong to decide against broadcasting a decapitation in a children’s programme with current events such as they are), Robot of Sherwood had a lot to live up to before it even got to the screen – and would have to have been pretty impressive to overshadow the preambulatory furore. Sadly, as entertaining as it undoubtedly was, it’s no classic.
Mark Gatiss is a likeable writer with a penchant for pastiche, but tends to run aground when confronted with injecting real life into his otherwise hugely enjoyable scripts. Sadly his Doctor Who episodes have tended to suffer from this problem, with two notable exceptions. The Unquiet Dead presumably gained from being supervised by Russell T. Davies, while The Crimson Horror was Gatiss’ most successful story to date, simply by virtue of being pure pastiche with barely a nod to reality to restrain it. There’s no doubt this is Gatiss’ forte, and his latest episode seems to have been devised entirely to examine this hypothesis. Because Robot of Sherwood is all about the dichotomy between fantasy and reality, the contrast between pathos and pastiche; it’s there in the very first scene (a lovely look slightly deeper into Peter Capaldi’s new professorial TARDIS interior), where given the choice by the Doctor of anywhere, anywhen and anybody, Clara chooses Robin Hood, the “made up” mythical hero she’s loved so much since she was little. And as the story unfolds around the mystery of whether the Robin Hood we meet here is real or robot, so a mirror is held up to Gatiss’ writing, begging the question of whether he can deliver equally on the rip-roaring runaround that the premise promises, as well as on the more philosophical debate regarding being and self. Can he, in other words, inject enough humanity into the episode to sustain the potential alternatives?
One thing that all writers have to contend with is the expectation that what’s in your head – and what you think is on the page – isn’t necessarily going to translate entirely painlessly to the screen. And this is perhaps one of two areas in which Robot of Sherwood is rather less sure-footed than The Crimson Horror was last year. There is a definite problem with the pacing, and whether this is down to the writing, the directing, or even the editing, is difficult to judge. There are instances where the punchline isn’t given quite enough snap, and you would have to lay this at the director or editor’s door, but there are other occasions when scenes run on far too long for the amount of substance they contain. The dungeon sequences, for example, take up a goodly chunk of the running time, but for what they actually achieve they struggle to earn it. The Doctor and Robin’s sparring might easily have been just as effectively realised elsewhere. Which is not to say there isn’t value in these scenes, and indeed on at least one occasion the dialogue was given enough space to breathe before arriving at the gag, rather than truncating the preamble so much that the joke felt rushed as is more often the case. But because these scenes were given so much screen-time and in the one geographical location, Robot of Sherwood felt a touch stretched across the middle and concertinaed at either end, and it appeared like Gatiss was falling into the trap of writing the comedy first and the character second.
And that brings us to the other area in which Robot of Sherwood is slightly problematic. Yes, that name.
It’s a relatively poor pun, and one that makes little obvious sense once the episode is under way; there is more than one robot in Sherwood, and prior to the screen being replete with automatons, the suspicion that Robin himself might be one isn’t voiced (even if he were, his Merrie Men would have to be robots too). So the singular in the title is a red herring for a plot contrivance that isn’t made clear until the story has advanced beyond its relevance.
What’s more problematic is whether the title or the story came first. Because the very best writing depends upon having a number of elements that all pay service to a central theme, while here it feels like the pun was dragging the story behind it, and so the ingredients don’t quite cook up the most satisfying of meals. It never feels quite right that the Doctor should suspect the Merrie Men of being note-perfect android replicas, for example, when the other robots in the story are anything but. And when the central intrigue is one of Robin’s authenticity, surrounding this with blatant inauthenticity tends only to undermine the ambiguity. The pieces never quite feel as if they’re intended to fit together.
Having said all that, Robot of Sherwood is abundant with ripe dialogue, and while Robin’s band of brothers get little more than passing cameos (and the ending feels appended as some kind of reward rather than as a natural destination for Robin’s character arc), both Tom Riley as Robin and Ben Miller as the Sheriff of Nottingham acquit themselves well, neither overplaying into caricature, but both having fun with the roles nevertheless. Peter Capaldi is still a magnetic presence on the screen as he settles into the part – he’s going to be a Doctor who stares aghast a lot, by the look of it – and Jenna Coleman is an absolute delight this week in a more relaxed but proactive situation than the usual.
Gatiss’ episode, while not quite a remake in the way that Night Terrors was of Fear Her, is strongly reminiscent in many aspects of The Curse of the Black Spot, and although that was an underrated story this trumps it by virtue of its colour and verve. All of the pre-expectations any audience might have had of “Doctor Who meets Robin Hood” are contained within its 45 minutes (and there’s a fantastic surprise for fans of the second Doctor too), and if many of them aren’t dwelt upon, then that’s because the meat of this thing is there in the description. It’s about those two characters, and they share plenty of screen-time and exchange a wealth of dialogue, and Gatiss even finds room to puncture one or two of the show’s more recent conventions along the way.
And in the end, it was impossible to tell that the episode had even been edited – although ultimately Robot of Sherwood was no more than an enjoyable but inessential diversion between two far weightier instalments. With plenty to laugh along with and more food for thought than the story really warranted, this was a desert dish of a Doctor Who; fun and flavoursome but on the whole, rather slight.