If the last two episodes were kinda linked by a theme of presenting the new Doctor and his inherent darkness a bit, these two are linked by the theme of being completely diametrically opposed to each other. You might say that doesn’t sound like a theme, but seriously, have you seen what I’ve got to work with here?
Robot of Sherwood is a farcical joke-around with a bunch of disease-ridden merry men and their larger-than-life leader. Listen is a tense, harrowing and structurally daring story harkening back to previous one-word episodes like Blink and Hide. So, y’know, gotta work with what you got, and what I got are two episodes that’ll be difficult to intertwine. But let’s try anyway; not like I’m known for sticking to normal review conventions.
It’s a wise choice that Sherwood is a lighter, fluffier affair than its two predecessors which, while good, laid on the dark and heavy a bit thick. The simple premise of Clara’s one and only major desire being to meet Robin Hood in the TARDIS, much to the Doctor’s chagrin, gives way to a simple story that also happens to have a robot plot involving gold powering a spaceship. Ok, so maybe it’s not that simple, but it’s a welcome breath of fresh brevity.
Listen, on the other hand, is a deconstruction of childhood fears about what lives under the bed that later turns into a reconstruction as it turns out even the most fearless Time Lord in all of ever has something to be scared of. It’s not really a dark story per se, but it’s definitely got a much heavier atmosphere than Sherwood.
Actually, on reflection, maybe there is a connecting theme between the two; one could, if you squint hard enough, see them as applications of external moods actively working against the Doctor’s newfound ‘darkness’. Sherwood throws humour at him like a catapult throws a severed head, and Listen undercuts the dark and brooding figure with a very real, relatable fear that speaks to the heart of most of us. This is the dark man put against backdrops that respectively juxtapose and undermine his new persona, in ways that are not dissatisfying.
That theme’s brought across primarily in Sherwood‘s comedy-centered script, but Listen plays with it towards the end as well. For most of the latter episode’s runtime we figure this is another childhood fear story masterfully executed by Steven Moffat, finding another alien that articulates an irrational juvenile as something other than such, and having that…thing underneath the blanket averted from both ours and the characters’ gazes certainly emphasises that play. Indeed, the story almost feels like it starts over again after the Doctor and Clara leave young Rupert Pink behind in the children’s home, until a future man in a spacesuit walks into a restaurant.
Hey, no-one said anything about not being allowed unintentional comedy.
As much as I liked both episodes, they each felt structurally lumpy. It’s particularly evident in Listen, which feels less like a streamlined narrative and more like “Ok, this scene is done, but now I have this cool idea to put on top of its aftermath and make it retroactively have more impact!” While the end result was definitely not amiss, it did make it hard to get engaged with the narrative’s weird pacing until Clara enters that barn and the rest of it clicks into place. A story that relies on retroactive fitting-together is a risky move, especially for a series that is for all intents and purposes still forging its own new identity. The fact Moffat pulled it off is a bit of a refill in the old confidence meter.
And hell, even a goofy episode of like Robot of Sherwood ends up being kind of alright. It’s oddly shaped but entertaining, coasting mostly on the humour value and the charisma Capaldi continues to bring to the Doctor. The alleged world-ending threat posed by the robots and their gold-powered spaceship is as stakes-raising as the moments when a Captain Planet villain vows to destroy the Earth, which is to say not really stakes-raising at all, but there’s some nice little interrogatives regarding the myth of the Doctor in both his own series and the real world. For the most part the episode serves primarily to let fly a few jokes and indulge in the setting a bit, as well as irritate the Doctor with spinning his wheels finding the truth about Robin’s realness, but it’s a fun little jaunt and the villains are fairly standard. Tell you what, though, those robots remind me of the eponymous ones in the 4th Doctor serial The Robots of Death who are also highly creepy and voiced by a resident of the uncanny valley.
I feel like we’re fortunate to be coming back to a run of episodes more indicative of Doctor Who before it started taking long winter breaks for no better reason than amping up the brief exclusivity (remember all those early Season 7 posters meant to make the first 5 ordinary eps look like MOVIES?). We’ve got an ebb and flow between dramatic and light-hearted, and it feels more like a return to the narratives kids and adults can enjoy. Part of what crippled Season 7, besides a general lack of interest in most of the plots utilised, was the distinct shift towards either end of the adult-children extreme depending on the story, with very little room to get in the middle a la The Day of the Doctor.
Now, thank goodness, we’re getting that back. Just took us a jaunt through Sherwood and an encounter under the bed to do it.
ON ITS OWN: Robot of Sherwood
– SPOON FIGHT.
– While no-one can ever replace Roger Rees as my favourite Sheriff of Nottingham, Ben Miller does a pretty awesome job here.
– A minor quibble, but have we previously established the TARDIS can heal itself as when the Doctor pulls that arrow out? I swear it’s been shot and hacked at before – and, in the War Doctor’s case, made to look like it rose from beneath the Sahara – and didn’t do the same.
– The Doctor now joins Loki, the Joker, Raoul Silva and a slew of other characters using deliberate imprisonment to their utter advantage. I should be tired of this overused trope, but dammit if that scene between the three in the dungeons wasn’t funny.
– “At least Clara wasn’t here to see that.”
– Whoever did the voice of the robots (quick IMDB search says it’s a bloke named Richard Elfyn) needs to spend a season voicing the Cybermen, because holy crap that voice was easily the scariest thing about them.
– So, in the end, was Robin real? I spent most of the episode waiting for the expected reveal of otherwise, but then it got kinda flaky at the end. I dunno, maybe the Doctor should’ve hacked off a limb just to check.
EPISODE MARK: 7/10
ON ITS OWN: Listen
– Am I the only one who felt the first two-thirds were a bit lumpy? The structure was odd, but I guess it came together in the end?
– I can’t decide if I should be mad at Clara for accidentally implanting the “Dan the soldier man” in Mr Pink, or feeling warmed at her motherly scene with the young Doctor at the end. Goddammit, episode.
– “Fear is a superpower.” And then Clara became the Scarecrow.
– While I like the idea behind the War Doctor coming back to the barn for his bit to end the Time War, doesn’t it seem a little unlikely that the entirety of the rest of that place would be reduced to sand except for the barn? I know, I know, nitpicking.
EPISODE MARK: 8/10
NEXT TIME ON TARDIS 8:
Doctor Who meets Ocean’s Eleven as our heroes rob a very strange bank in Time Heist, and worlds collide when Danny and the Doctor (or, to quote Mickey Smith, “the missus and the ex”) meet for the first time in The Caretaker.