After some time off to recharge my batteries on holiday, I’m back after playing catch up with a couple of “Doctor Who” episodes.
‘Why is he deciding to write a joint review of “Robot Of Sherwood” and “Listen” on the same post?’ you may ask. Well, despite the differing tone of the stories – one, a pseudo-historical comedy, and the other, a story that plays upon one of our primal fears , they both deceptively leave the over-arching reason for the whole adventure until the very end of the story.
“Robot Of Sherwood” sees Mark Gatiss play upon the idea of two legendary champions of the underdog meeting to take down tyranny in their own inimitable style. Gatiss uses our modern day viewpoint of the too good to be true Robin Hood legend – the laughing hero with his band of Merry Men who resides in the evergreen Sherwood Forest and who opposes the Sheriff of Nottingham – to wrong foot not only our leading man, but the audience as well.
Like Clara, who starts this whole adventure, we want to believe in the hero who will ride to our aide, so it’s easy why a man who wants to run away from this role, in the Doctor, would find a man like Robin difficult to beldoubting The fact that we are carried into an adventure with the familiar, such as the contest for the Golden Arrow, and the Who-inspired devices such as time travelling spacecraft and robots designed to look like knights make the audience associate more with the Doctor’s stance of the whole situation being too good to be true – something that is thrown back in the Doctor’s face twice. (By Clara when she refers to the fact that the Doctor is an impossible hero and Robin when he recounts the Doctor’s own legendary status).
“Listen” sees Steven Moffat return to using our childhood fears as the catalyst for this story. The man who has given us the ultimate “Grandma’s footsteps” in the Weeping Angels or monsters in the shadows in the Vashta Nerada now returns to a fear that was previously touched upon briefly in “The Girl In The Fireplace” – that something exists underneath your bed.
You never think of the Doctor being afraid of something of this nature. After all, he has faced down a lot of big, bad monsters in his 2000 years, but the story shows, but his behaviour in the opening when he has a debate with himself about creatures who can perfectly hide as a defense mechanism borders on the disturbing and sets the tone for the “A-story” of the Doctor obsessively looking for an answer to his theory by attempting to search through Clara’s timeline and, instead, accidentally interfering in Danny Pink’s past which creates ripples in Clara’s “date from hell” with Danny and creating a potential future timeline for the Pink dynasty with the future Colonel Orson Pink – his face looks familiar – taking family stories of time travel as the inspiration behind his accidental time shot to the end of the universe.
The “B-story” for this episode is the aforementioned first date between Clara and Danny which manages to be a screw up before the Doctor’s apparent intervention. However, as we should know by now from Steven Moffat’s stories, time is wibbly-wobbly and timey-wimey with the Doctor and Clara’s actions in the past by visiting the young Danny in the children’s home inspiring the older Danny to join the Army, which in turn provides his mysterious back story and his attitude to Clara’s earlier teasing.
Whilst it may seem like Steven Moffat has simply used “Blink” as his template – mixing childhood fears and time travel – he cleverly uses the tale to not only act as one of the planks for a potential companion’s back story but to add another layer of mystery to the Doctor’s own mythos.
The over-arching theme of both stories though is the Doctor himself. In “Robot of Sherwood”, the Doctor is eventually described as a hero who ran away to fight tyranny whilst “Listen” uses Clara’s reminder of the “Doctor’s Promise” as a means to inspire the young Doctor to become that hero. There is a second example of the Doctor being inspired by Clara’s actions in his early timestream between the two stories. “Robots” also shows the Doctor bringing a spoon to a swordfight as his non-violent method to subdue Robin, whilst “Listen” uses Clara’s knowledge of the Doctor’s methods to inspire that non-violent methodology by her giving him the gift of Orson’s and Danny’s toy, ‘Dan Dan The Soldier Man’, a soldier without a gun for a man who becomes the ultimate soldier without a gun.
The direction for both of the stories very much suits the style of the tale that is being told. Paul Murphy transports us to the Robin Hood myth with rich colours and an “evergreen” feel to the story to match the light-hearted setting in “Robot” (complimented with what is, in my opinion, Murray Gold’s best score for Series 8), whilst Douglas MacKinnon marks his return to the series after resurrecting the Sontarans, the Ice Warriors and the latest incarnation of UNIT by giving us a story that genuinely unnerves the viewer with a darker colour pallet predominant throughout the episode – even to the point of setting Clara and Danny’s date at night.
The casting is also markedly different between the two stories with “Robot” having a large ensemble whilst “Listen” is, appropriately, smaller and more intimate given the nature of the story.
In the former story, Tom Riley plays upon our idea of the idea of Robin Hood to present us with a character who owes more to the likes of Errol Flynn than more recent incarnations such as Russell Crowe or Jonas Armstrong. It’s easy to understand why the Doctor can be more than a tad annoyed with his constant laughing and showing off. After all, despite his attitude to the contrary, is this not the Doctor from the last couple of personas – all brash and full of youthful swagger? As a result, it could be uncomfortable for a less accessible version of the Doctor to be confronted with what he’s lost.
Of course where there’s a Robin, there has to be his Merry Men and the gang’s all here with Will Scarlett, Alan A Dale, Friar Tuck (portrayed by Trevor Cooper who previously appeared in the 1985 story “Revelation Of The Daleks”) and Little John. There is also a surprise as part of the story involves the loss of Robin’s one true love, Marian… only to find that she has been helping the Doctor in Nottingham Castle with the Doctor and Clara repaying Robin’s heroism by returning her to him. Who says that “Twelve” doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body?
Ben Miller makes a great appearance in the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham. There has to be license for a touch of the over dramatic with this role – after all, he has to compete against the likes of Alan Rickman, Keith Allen and Nickolas Grace who have all given fantastic interpretations of one of England’s legendary bad guys. Miller ensures that he is menacing, whilst being menacing enough to be a threat to the Doctor, Clara and Robin. It’s almost as if the Sheriff took his inspiration from the Master in the 1983 story “The King’s Demons”.
However, where Riley and Miller really score is in maintaining the mystery throughout the story as to whether they are flesh and blood or constructs of the spacecraft – wrong footing the audience throughout.
In “Listen”, the only guest cast member is Remi Gooding in the role of Rupert (aka Young Danny) Pink. Remi holds his own alongside Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as the trio seek to confront Rupert’s fear of the monster under the bed. Remi’s performance is very natural selling Rupert’s fear whilst not being the child version of a screamer and allowing the character to have fun at the Doctor’s expense, alongside Clara, especially when he points out the Wally doesn’t appear in every book in existence.
All three leads get their chance to shine in the course of both episodes.
Peter Capaldi shows that his grumpy incarnation of the Doctor is adaptable to the story in which he appears – as the Doctor should. He gets the chance to use the grumpiness and aggression to have the mickey affectionately taken out of him in “Robot” as he competes against Robin in the hero stakes with Lord Locksley laughing in the face of danger whilst Mr Attack Eyebrows glowers at the opposition, whilst the Doctor uses his grumpiness as a bravado to appear brave in “Listen” so he doesn’t have to face his own fears.
Alongside this, Capaldi adds a layer to the Twelfth Doctor that we haven’t seen since the episode “Twilight” – the Doctor showing fear (in this case, fear enough to drive him to obsession to vanquish it and his own personal demons).
It will be interesting to see where he takes the character forward in the future – whether the Doctor remains the angry old man of the universe or becomes humanised by his adventures.
Samuel Anderson only appears in “Listen”, but he uses his screen time well to add to the mystery of Danny’s back story. Whilst Series 7B was devoted the mystery of the “Impossible Girl”, Series 8 has a more homebound mystery of Danny’s experiences in the Army and how they shape the person he is now. Anderson sells the mystery by making the character of Danny spiky when it comes to his military past and uncomfortable in relating to Clara.
Alongside this, he portrays Orson equally as well selling the fact that the character has been trapped at the end of the universe with only his personal bogeyman to accompany him, parallelling the Doctor’s own fears.
But it’s Jenna Coleman that really gets her story..e to shine in both episodes as Clara. In “Robot”, she manages to make Clara an effective comedic foil showing her exasperation to the Doctor and Robin’s squabbling, whilst using her initiative to extract details of the Sheriff’s plot and using her knowledge of the Doctor to get Robin to help him at the end of the story.
In “Listen”, Jenna builds upon Clara’s character by using her abilities as a schoolteacher to act as a caring figure for Rupert and the young Doctor whilst accepting no truck for the Doctor’s irrational behaviour to the point of calling him an idiot. Jenna also manages to show the potential damage that Clara’s controlling nature can do by not hearing out Danny’s experiences in the restaurant scenes.
However, I have to admit that, in some ways, the character of Clara is becoming at risk of the same complaint that has been levelled to the sonic screwdriver of being too closely bound to the resolution of the story. Granted, this may be plot driven throughout the series as hints regarding the challenges to Clara’s and the Doctor’s friendship build pace – especially when real life and “Doctor Life” collide in the forthcoming episode “The Caretaker”.
Whilst there are also links to the “Missy” and “Promised Land” arc (certainly in “Robot”), it’s good to see two adventures that compliment each other in giving us an examination of our hero. That said, I’d be daft not to think that the writers and Peter Capaldi himself will have some surprises in store before the end of Series 8.