Review: ‘Robot of Sherwood’

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A couple of years back, I had an email from my brother. “We were just discussing Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in the office,” he said. “I couldn’t remember – wasn’t there a bit when they walk from Dover up to Nottingham in a single day, via Hadrian’s Wall?”

Prince of Thieves was released in the summer of 1991, spawning megastar status for Kevin Costner, a resurgence in interest in the legend of Robin Hood, and a song that made Bryan Adams so rich he probably could have retired. (Sadly he didn’t, but that’s a whole other story.) The film was over two hours of rip-roaring swashbuckling entertainment, full of romance and adventure, the clashing of steel and the satisfying thump of flint into wood.

It was also wildly ridiculed, as anything truly popular generally is. Chief amongst the complaints levelled against the film was Kevin Costner’s ‘appalling’ English accent. Having watched it again relatively recently, I don’t think appalling is the right word – ‘non-existent’ may be a more apt description. (Curiously no one ever seems to have a go at Christian Slater, who is frankly no better.) The film is also scant in its accuracy when it comes to period detail, with various dialogue anachronisms (which seems a forgivable offence, seeing as the alternative would have been to have them speak in Anglo-Saxon), as well as the apparent invention of printing some two hundred years too early.

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But the biggest complaint levelled against Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – at least by British people, who know their geography – was a matter of distance, and that’s what I explained when I emailed my brother.

“Here’s how it works. Robin and Azeem land on the coast and Robin kisses the sand and then tells the Moor that ‘By nightfall, we’ll celebrate with my father’. This is the film’s big mistake, because what they really ought to have said was ‘In a couple of days, we’ll celebrate with my father’.

But let’s actually look at what’s going on here. There are white cliffs, so everyone assumed it was Dover, even though it was actually shot at Eastbourne. Similarly, the wall doesn’t have to be Hadrian’s Wall; it could just a wall somewhere. And this changes everything, because if you don’t have to use Cumbria as a waypoint it shortens your journey time considerably.

Still, I was wondering if it was possible to walk from the coast up to Locksley, wherever that is, in a single day, so I looked it up. Now, the legend usually associates Locksley with a spot in South Yorkshire. It’s more or less equidistant from the coast, so at the risk of being wrong let’s say that Grimsby was the closest spot they could have landed where there could have been cliffs like that, allowing for erosion and the passage of time. I’ve never been, but for the sake of the argument we’ll assume it is. It’s marked on the map below, along with the most direct route they could have taken.

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Now, according to scale, that’s about 62 miles, give or take, and assuming they can walk in a completely straight line without having to cut round obstacles or hide from the Sheriff’s men. It’s possible to walk this sort of distance in a single day, but in order to do this, Robin and Azeem would have had to land on the coast at dawn (as it’s clearly light when they get there) on the longest day of the year, when it gets light at around 5 a.m., and then walk non-stop until ten o’clock. It’d be manageable with horses, but they don’t have them, so they’d have to maintain an average speed of four miles an hour (clearly faster than they’re going) and not stop for lunch.

Note that it’s clearly night when they arrive so they could have walked late into the evening, but either way, the whole thing’s bollocks really, isn’t it?”

I’ve long-since wondered whether the people who knocked Prince of Thieves for its general sloppiness were simply missing the point. This was a story based clearly on historical legend, with a character who in all likelihood either never existed at all or who almost certainly wasn’t the thigh-slapping merry hero we’d allowed him to become. To complain that they got a couple of period details wrong seems a little silly. But when I think about Doctor Who, I realise how our complaints of “THAT WOULDN’T HAPPEN!” are all too frequently met with derision and scorn. “You’re talking about a thousand-year-old alien who travels in time in a magical blue box,” the non-fans (or, even worse, ex-fans) will reply. “None of it would happen”.

This was bugging me over the last couple of weeks until I started thinking about ‘Victory of the Daleks’, which – as you’ll remember – includes Spiftfires in space, moving from a theoretical blueprint to the dark side of the moon (yes, I know it’s all dark) in under fifteen minutes. And I realised it’s not the concept that bothers me: it’s the in-universe execution. Fifteen minutes can’t be explained by any sort of reasonable dissection – it doesn’t allow time to scramble pilots or negotiate union fees with the engineers (and yes, I know there was a war on). A lot of the time it seems churlish to criticise Doctor Who for its scientific accuracy, but this was the point at which my suspension of disbelief – crucial in such things – abandoned me completely, although I still get postcards. If Gatiss had said “Oh, by the way, there’s an experimental warp drive function as well” I’d have rolled my eyes, but I wouldn’t have thrown my Tenth Doctor action figure at the TV. At least most of the stuff that defies the laws of physics can be explained with ‘alien tech’. This was just ‘rubbish writing’.

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What you’ve just read was a very long detour around last night’s episode, so I hope you’ll forgive me. But essentially, I’ve decided I’m going to cut Mark Gatiss a break. It’s not that I’ve been overly harsh on him. I am still bemused by his repeated commissions, despite the fact that his episodes are full of paper-thin characterisation, questionable motivation, nonsensical stories and rubbish dialogue. There must be other, better writers out there (and no, I do not include myself amongst that number).

‘Robot of Sherwood’ was one of those episodes that shouldn’t have worked. At all. It was a masterclass in how not to write dialogue. Every trick from The Adventures of Robin Hood was used. Lutes were played. Little John was improbably tall. Ben Miller’s Sheriff of Nottingham was a walking cliché, even once his dastardly scheme was revealed. Most distressingly of all, Gatiss actually has him say “Do you really think your peasant’s revolt can stop me?”, leading the Doctor to reply “I rather think you’re the revolting one around here”. The only thing that was missing was the thigh-slapping, and that’ll probably show up in a deleted scene they’re saving for the Blu-ray.

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I was going to write that it was almost inconceivable that we’d reached fifty plus years of Doctor Who without really dealing with Robin Hood – the closest example being, perhaps, the First Doctor’s encounter with Richard the Lionheart back in ‘The Crusaders’ – and then I remembered that forays into the past generally do need to have some sort of historical accuracy, and that Newman and Lambert would not have approved of the sort of frivolity we had last night. On the other hand it didn’t stop JNT touching on Arthurian legend in ‘Battlefield’, even going so far as to establish the Doctor as the archetypal Merlin figure.

Perhaps the only reason Doctor Who has never done Robin Hood is that he simply doesn’t fit in the story, as this weekend’s episode proved. The Doctor was the most reluctant of chaperones, only taking Clara to Sherwood so that he could prove her wrong, two minutes before he duelled Tom Riley with a spoon and fell off a log. The use of cutlery for this purpose may or may not have been a nod to The Blue Raja in Mystery Men, but it was certainly an improvement on its use as a percussion instrument, even if it still bore the residue of Häagen-Dazs, which in turn made me think of Aslan. “Rise up, Sir Doctor of Gallifrey. And, whatever happens, never forget to lick your spoon.”

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It’s curious, but the last time Doctor Who was this guilty of cliché mining was ‘A Town Called Mercy’, which I hate, largely because it tried to be a serious episode when the subject matter was always going to work against it (and because Toby Whithouse clearly thought sticking the Doctor in a Spanish desert with a Stetson would mean he didn’t have to write a script). ‘Sherwood’ neatly sidestepped this in its first five minutes by pairing the time travellers up with someone who was ostensibly fictional, or at least thoroughly incongruous, meaning that we instantly accepted the silliness that followed, because we knew that some sort of twist was coming.

The fact that the twist doesn’t come at all was a bold move, and one that paid off. It’s established fairly late that Robin Hood isn’t actually fictional, but a flesh and blood person who exists in the form of a heroic, impossibly groomed bowman, simply because he does. Thus, Errol Flynn’s portrayal isn’t just definitive, it’s eerily accurate. The point (which Gatiss makes in the form of several heavy-handed dialogue exchanges, but then subtlety never was his forte) is that just because heroes are legendary, it doesn’t follow that they’re imaginary.

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It’s about the only thing that worked. There was a confessional heart-to-heart between Robin and Clara that read like a script from Neighbours. And sorry, but the robots were rubbish. Superficially they resembled a cross between the Vocs of ‘Robots of Death’ (almost certainly intentional) and Michael Jackson’s robot form at the end of Moonwalker. (That scene’s always bothered me a bit, by the way. It stands to reason that if you’re cornered by hordes of gunmen and an angry Joe Pesci, a passing shooting star is going to be very handy. But wishing you could turn into a giant robot? Really? Wouldn’t it be easier to wish for a convenient lightning strike, and keep the CG budget down so they could spend the balance on hiring children who could actually act?)

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But the robots strode about a bit, and decimated with their lasers, and the only scene in which they’re actually interesting is the one in which they’re upstaged by Capaldi – who, bored with the archery contest, annihilates the target, Indiana Jones style. It’s the funniest bit in the episode, along with the climax, in which the Doctor, Clara and a wounded Robin manage to fire a Chekov’s gun golden arrow into the side of a spacecraft (cue this week’s arc reference), conveniently providing it with enough gold to send it into orbit, where it safely explodes. You can picture the chief robot staring sadly down at his Map To The Promised Land, clutching a rosary and murmuring “Now I’ll never know if I was right…”.

The Doctor leaves, reuniting Robin with the missing Marian (Sabrina Bartlett, playing a character whose mystery we’re never really interested in solving) as a parting gift. It means, at least, that we’re spared the indignity of more sparring between the two male leads – and who knows, Capaldi may even actually have something to do next week besides spout tedious exposition and complain about the laughing. I come across as flippant, I’m sure, but essentially his role in ‘Robot of Sherwood’ was to stand about looking awkward while Tom Riley (who was, it must be said, the best stereotype I’ve seen in years) did all the work. At least Clara had that scene in the banqueting hall. It’s still early days for Capaldi, but the Doctor was so generally useless this week I almost felt like I was watching Eccleston again, except there were fewer gay jokes.

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Perhaps it was the wine. It says something for the quality of the writing when you and your spouse have an unspoken agreement that 2014 Doctor Who can only really be endured under the influence of alcohol. Or perhaps it was the cast, who were clearly having a ball this week. You’ll notice that there are no silly captions in this week’s images, because I didn’t think it would be appropriate. A few years back I had the misfortune to watch National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1, which fails as a motion picture experience for the same reason that Scary Movie failed: they were both sending up films that were already half-pastiche. How do you spoof something that’s a spoof?

Last year I singled out ‘The Crimson Horror’ as the best of a dreary series – its light-hearted, old school approach the perfect foil to Moffat’s posturing about the Impossible Girl and the wretched River Song. I sincerely hope that series 8 doesn’t go the same way, but the worst case scenario is that Emily and I spent the best part of an hour or so last night being thoroughly entertained. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures – as far as I’m concerned there’s good TV and bad TV – but perhaps a bad episode that doesn’t take itself seriously (and perhaps the biggest flaw amongst Whovians is that we take ourselves, and the show far too seriously) is better than an average episode that does. This was a bad episode that urged you to just forget about everything except enjoying yourself, and that’s what we did. And as much as my past form of criticising Mark Gatiss is urging me otherwise, I simply can’t bring myself to write that up as a loss.

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5 thoughts on “Review: ‘Robot of Sherwood’

  1. Dodisharkicorn

    When he pulled out the spoon, I quoted the Rickman from Prince of Thieves. My kids didn’t get it.

    I spent the 45 minutes scoffing and rolling my eyes, but the kids loved it.

    • reverend61

      You’re not going to believe this, but for all my rambling about Prince of Thieves, the spoon connection had completely passed me by. I’d completely forgotten about it! I’d bet that Gatiss hadn’t, of course.

      We just watched it with the boys, all of whom sat for the whole thing. So that’s Ok.

      • Dodisharkicorn

        Oh, see – pretty much *every time* someone asks for a spoon in this house, husband or I will ask “why a spoon, cousin?” so it wasn’t much of a leap for me.

        We are boringly predictable in our references.

        I realized last night that Gatiss seems to write the episodes my boys like best. Even youngest son climbed up on the couch next to me to watch last night, and he’s still taking the lack of Rose as a personal affront.

      • reverend61

        Crumbs. It’s like Donna Noble never happened.

        We watched Prince of Thieves over and over when I was a teenager but the only copy i have is region 1, and my US DVD player was out of action until recently. I intend to watch it with the oldest child at some point soon, if only so I can get another chance to watch the Pierce Brosnan documentary (in which he mentions his own name at every possible opportunity).

        Our household references are mostly tied to the various moments in 24 when someone gets shot IN THE NECK, and that bit in Muppet Christmas Carol when the Ghost of Christmas Present says “No, I’m a LARGE ABSENT-MINDED SPIRIT!”. And whenever a previously deceased character returns from the grave in something we’re watching, we’ll say “And X – who did NOT die….”

      • reverend61

        I know what you mean about Gatiss and children’s episodes, by the way. My sons all loved Night Terrors, even though it winds me up.

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