A Carpenter Series That Needed More Polish

by Arthur B

Richard Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood was British TV's 80s attempt to revive the whole Robin Hood thing. It's only sometimes as good as people remember.
Before Prince of Thieves, before Men In Tights, before the more recent BBC adaptation, Richard Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood was - at least, according to its fans - the first really compelling update of the legend. Spicing the hoary old stories up with hefty implications of supernatural and pagan goings-on beneath the surface, the series was a collaboration with HTV (the ITV provider for Wales and the west of England at the time) and Goldcrest Films; the latter was riding high in the mid-80s, thanks to the success of Chariots of Fire and Ghandi, and therefore the series was able to enjoy a budget that was a bit more expansive than your average ITV drama series of the time.

For the first two seasons, the lead role was played by Michael Praed, whose Robin of Loxley is an Anglo-Saxon rebel against the established Norman order - a not uncommon take on the story. His tenure on the show was sufficiently successful that when he jumped ship for a Hollywood career, the producers not only swiftly recruited a replacement in the form of Jason Connery (Sean Connery's son), swiftly cooking up a background story for Jason's new character (Robert of Huntingdon) which allowed them to explore a different interpretation of the legend, they also extended the third season to thirteen episodes - as long as the first two seasons combined - in order to sell it to the American market. But at this point Goldcrest's fortunes waned, with several commercial flops in a row forcing them to pull out of the project, leaving HTV with a high-budget show they couldn't afford to finance themselves, and the series was cancelled.

Now, after having been issued on a rather bare-bones DVD release (with a picture quality sufficiently bad I suspect they just mastered the DVDs from old VHS tapes rather than remastering the footage), the first two seasons of the show have come out on a rather gorgeous Blu-Ray set, making this the perfect time to ask the burning question: is the show any good?

Season One

The series opens with Norman cavalrymen led by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Nickolas Grace) cornering and killing Elric, an Anglo-Saxon leader from the village of Loxley. (No, seriously, the dude's name is Elric.) Elric, as well as being a rebel against the Norman rule of England, was apparently the custodian of some mysterious silver arrow, which the Sheriff pilfers, hearing as he does so Elric's last words: "the Hooded man is coming!" Flash forward a few years and we find that Elric's son Robin has grown to manhood living with the local miller, to whom Elric gave Robin for safekeeping. Robin's managed to stay out of trouble to date, but the miller's son Much (Peter Llewellyn Williams), in an act of utter fecklessness of the sort which would be entirely typical of him over the course of the series, gets it into his head to steal Robin's bow and go hunting deer in the royal forests. This, of course, is punishable by death, and Robin knows it - and he almost succeeds at helping Much get rid of the evidence when they're captured by Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Robert Addie), a cruel and brutish local knight, and hauled before the Sheriff.

This, of course, is the cue for Robin to encounter a bunch of desperate men in Castle Nottingham's oubliette, escape with them to Sherwood Forest, and - over the course of Robin Hood and the Sorcerer, the two-part pilot episode of the series - find himself in conflict with the diabolist Baron Simon de Belleme (Anthony Valentine), who has designs on the Lady Marion (Judi Trott). Robin is not alone, though, for as well as attracting the attention of supernatural evil, he's also watched over by more benign forces too - not least of which is a mysterious forest-dwelling hermit (John Abineri) who claims to be Herne the Hunter, who declares Robin his adoptive son and the Hooded Man of legend.

The opening episodes of season one are a good showcase for the series' best qualities. There's a good level of attention paid to historical detail, particularly when it comes to locations and costuming - for example, the courtyard of Castle Nottingham isn't just some empty courtyard, as they often are in these things, but an active working environment with huts and farm animals and stuff. At the same time, Carpenter proves skilled at coming up with novel spins on old characters. Little John (Clive Mantle), for example, is introduced as a demon-possessed slave of the Baron, who is exorcised by Robin after knocking him out in their famous quarterstaff fight, whilst Will Scarlet (Ray Winstone) is obsessed with getting vengeance on the Normans after the killing of his wife and is willing to contemplate far more violent and murderous courses of action than Robin is. The character of Nasir (Mark Ryan), an ex-hashishim from the Holy Land who ends up joining the outlaws, is something of a cartoon and isn't really developed much (not least because he barely speaks), but it was an early instance of a Saracen character being incorporated into the Merry Men, a concept which led directly to the conception of Morgan Freeman's character in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - who was, in fact, originally called Nasir, before it was realised that this would make the lifting of Carpenter's own idea entirely too obvious.

It's not just the good guys who get the re-imagining treatment either; the Sheriff and his allies are also made a bit more three dimensional. Particularly interesting is the regular bickering between the Sheriff and his brother Hugo (Philip Jackson), the Abbot of St. Mary's, which allows Carpenter to explore frictions between the Church and the secular authorities in the medieval period. In particular, the relationship whereby one noble-born brother takes a role in the secular power structure whilst the spare heir goes into the Church was not uncommon in the time, and in this case leads to a situation where the two family members hold the entire local power structure in their hands, enhancing their ability to act as antagonists towards Robin and his people.

Of course, any Robin Hood adaptation is going to have to deal with the problem of what to do with Maid Marion at some point. It is generally considered not OK to have her just sit around back in Sherwood Forest knitting whilst the Merry Men have all the fun; consequently, a certain amount of reimagining is called for in order to not completely piss off and alienate modern audiences. To his credit, Carpenter seems to have tried in good faithe to do this. Maid Marion is introduced not sitting around doing something typically harmless and feminine when she is introduced, but is busy tending to her beehives. There is kind of a love at first sight thing when Robin first encounters Marion, but they are supposed to be star-crossed lovers and all that, and part of the series' take on their romance is that it's this mad fling where Marion discards the responsibilities and rights her position as a member of the Norman aristocracy puts upon her in order to have this impossible idyll with Robin in the forest. Pretty much from the beginning, she accepts that their affair can't possibly last - to the point where at first she actually opts to go become a nun, even though Robin offers her an alternative, and only gives in and joins the outlaws when that is no longer a viable option.

Where Carpenter's take on the character falls down is the way he seems to on the one hand want her to be an active participant in the outlaws' activities, fighting alongside them in their battles - and yet, at the same time, he seems to be nervy about letting her take part in fights and is extremely reluctant to show her actually killing anyone, whereas the men are allowed to carve a bloody swathe through the Sheriff's men-at-arms. This might, in part, be due to a reluctance to show men hitting women, as would presumably have to happen if Marion got involved in the fights unless she were so capable as a warrior that her opponents never managed to get a blow in (which would mean she'd upstage more or less all the other combatants), but ultimately I think people have to bite the bullet on that sort of point and take the stance that you can't really have warrior women in your TV show unless said warrior women a) get to fight and b) have people fight back.

This problem is particularly visible in The Witch of Elsdon, which is the standard "women can be awesome too if they try really hard so it is rude to ignore and belittle them" episode that shows of this era tended to try to do and often did badly. (Garth Marenghi's Darkplace did a pretty decent parody of precisely this sort of thing.) The plot is fairly standard for episodes of this type: Marion is fed up and feeling ignored, this causes tension, some crisis occurs which she manages to resolve when everyone else was helpless, everyone commits to treating her better before reverting to behaving exactly as they previously did in the next episode.

Now, it's good that in this episode Marion refuses to be sidelined and treated like a glorified servant by the outlaws, and calls them on it when they do it. It's also nice that later, when they exclude her again and get into severe trouble, she is given her own vision from Herne which is her cue to start kicking ass and save the entire band after the rest of them are knocked out by a poisoner in their ranks; in general, Robin is the only member of group who interacts much with Herne, so Herne turning to Marion is a good way to underscore the point that they are meant to be equals.

But that said, the poisoner in question happens to be Jennet of Elsdon (Angharad Rees), the titular witch, which leads to the problem: in order to do his "women can do what men do too" episode, Carpenter sets things up so that Marion herself never has to go toe-to-toe with the soldiers - like the men often do - and instead ends up fighting a women, which the men don't actually do that much. And then, of course, Robin goes off to save Jennet's husband (Cornelius Garrett)who is being kept hostage by the Sheriff to ensure Jennet's co-operation, and does so all by himself, leaving the two women back at the camp which was precisely the sort of sidelining Marion was objecting to at the start of the episode.

As far as the acting goes, Praed in particular is great in the action sequences, making up for sometimes feeble-looking swordplay with huge amounts of energy. The fight scenes are also enhanced by the stunt men playing the Norman soldiers, who show an uncanny knack for falling off horses in an exciting manner. The male outlaws are all very tactile with each other and aren't afraid to jump in the water together and splash about, which will please some viewers. Out of the supporting cast, Ray Winstone as Will is a particular treat; it's strongly implied that he was an outlaw or worse before he met Robin, setting him apart from the rest of the Merry Men, and it's usually down to him to put the case for using excessive and overwhelming violence to solve problems, which seems to be Carpenter's way of making the odd grim point about the reality of resistance movements and Robin's struggle. His line at the end of the first episode - "You should've killed him... you'll have to, one day" sets up the interactions between him and Robin for the rest of the season, with Robin espousing an idealistic vision of what the outlaws can achieve and Will pointing out that they'll have to cut a few throats to do it.

With respect to the presentation, season one's episodes were all directed by Ian Sharp and written by Richard Carpenter, so the style is fairly consistent from episode to episode. At points, the editing seems a little choppy, and lots of scenes seem truncated, as though they just cut off suddenly. What makes this particularly grating at points is the fact that, there are a brace of extremely brief, extremely pointless scenes which don't really convey much in the way of information and could have quite happily been cut, leaving room for the others to breathe a little. For example, one scene in the first episode depicts Guy and his men riding from one side of the screen to the other, deciding that it is too dark to keep searching for the outlaws, and then turning around and riding back the other way - and that's it.

In addition to this, the series veers regularly between impressively grimdark material for the pre-Game of Thrones era on the one hand and extreme 80s cheesiness on the other, occasionally combining the two. For example, in the first episode Robin's adoptive father is killed by Gisbourne and his goons and dumped in the river, so that his body clogs up his own water-wheel (you don't actually see it happen, but you see the soldiers move to kill him, you see his wife screaming, and you see the wheel stop). This is followed up with Robin hearing of the killing from Much and shouting "GISBOURRRRRRRNE", which echoes throughout the forest.

That said, Sharp does turn out to be really quite good at picking out gorgeous locations for shooting scenes in the forest, varying them enough to create the impression that Sherwood really is quite massive. The use of the various castle locations are also quite good. The location work trips up a bit when it comes to villages - in general, the villages all look as though they were built very suddenly in fields mere days ago, presumably because they were - the ground isn't nearly churned up enough to have had people strolling about on it for years, and in general the villages look a bit too much like small LARP encampments to really take seriously - which is a shame, considering that these are precisely the communities that Robin is meant to be defending. And the use of colour filters on the sky to indicate foreboding! or to enhance day-for-night shots is so heavy handed as to be pathetic.

Speaking of embarrassing things from the 80s, I admit to being completely in love with the Clannad soundtrack to the show, though I do find that there are some parts of the soundtrack that are overused. This might have been less apparent when the episodes were originally broadcast, since people would have been watching them on a week by week basis rather than watching the entire thing in big chunks. Even so, it becomes very apparent that the series only really has one bit of fight music, one bit of happy skippy music, one bit of twue wuv music, and so on, and each of those bits will be used at least once per episode and occasionally several times. It's as though they only really had money for Clannad to record a third of the material they'd have actually needed to stop the soundtrack becoming repetitive.

Like I said, the first two episodes of this season (Robin Hood and the Sorcerer) are actually the best ones, being a real showcase for the series' merits. Even though the second half seems rather padded - the archery contest, whilst an iconic feature of the Robin Hood legend, still goes on for way too long - the slow, quiet pace does end up working quite well for the confrontation at Castle Belleme, where it lends this otherworldly air to proceedings, like the show is replaying a dream you once had. It's also impressively grim for a family fantasy-action show from the 1980s; a whole bunch of the Merry Men get slaughtered towards the end, and the decimated band spend the end of the episode shooting burning arrows into a lake in commemoration of their fallen before Marion and Robin are married by Herne in this weird pagan flower glade ceremony.

The rest of the season is far less consistent. I've already gone into the failings of The Witch of Elsdon. Seven Poor Knights of Acre, the obligatory Templar-themed episode, is actually pretty good - it doesn't wallow in sub-Dan Brown conspiracy theories, and the depiction of the Templars is quite well thought through - for example, their religious observances tend to be simple open-air ceremonies, clearly adapted for use on the battlefield.

Alan a Dale is a fairly lightweight episode which will be mainly interesting for people who want to find fodder for fanfic of the man-on-man variety. There's a bit in this episode where the Sheriff is sitting naked in the bath and having a rant at a fully-clothed Guy of Guisburne, who he makes towel him off. And there's another bit where Robin and Guy mud wrestle. And then Guy and the Sheriff share a naked bath at the end and Guy scrubs the Sheriff's back. Oh, and the special effects for the "bees" towards the end of the episode have to be seen to be believed, and not in a "wow, how on Earth did they manage to get such a realistic and well-animated special effect in the pre-CGI era" way. The big problem with this episode is that it's the second one in a row in which the whole thing where the outlaws are servants of Herne fighting an ongoing campaign against Norman rule falls almost completely by the wayside, making it seem as though the series has completely lost track of the plot.

The other really top-class episode in this season is The King's Fool, the season finale, in which the outlaws rescue a knight (John Rhys-Davies) in the forest from being murdered by random bandits (they'd much prefer the knight were ransomed for a good cause - specifically, their cause). They discover, to their surprise, that this knight was in fact King Richard, returning to the kingdom incognito after being bailed from his capture by the Saracens. Richard offers them a pardon, promises to see to it that their grievances are addressed, and brings the outlaws to dine with him at Castle Nottingham - where he intends to convince Robin to come with him and fight by his side in his foreign wars.

This is an excellent episode in which Carpenter's writing really is the star of the show; the major peril here is not some mere plot by the Sheriff which can be wriggled out of with a cunning plan and a bit of fighting, but the temptation offered by the charismatic King's promises and the threat of Robin and the outlaws forgetting their cause. There's some really nicely done scenes which put across the point beautifully; for example, there's a bit where Robin is trying to put the case of the Saxon poor before the King, as servants set up a banqueting table in front of him - so he ends up being gently nudged step by step further away from the King, until he's shouting at him from across the room - at which point Richard cuts him short and tells him to sit down and eat. It's a fantastic visual representation of the way Richard uses fine gifts and kind words to create the impression that he's doing right by Robin and the outlaws when, in fact, it's a tactic to derail what they were trying to say and shut them up.

Also there's a bit where Guy of Gisbourne staggers out of a burning building, on fire himself, as he pursues Robin and Marion, which is really awesome and terrifying. It's a bit of a shame that they turned the character into comic relief for most of this season and the next when he's also consistently had this violent, obsessive side from the start - it's particularly irritating when Much, Friar Tuck (Phil Rose), and to a lesser extent the Sheriff and half the Merry Men get used as comic relief from time to time as well. Gisbourne does evolve more into a fully-fledged villain over the course of the next two seasons, but that doesn't change the fact that he's been rather wasted this time around.

In fact, season one is dripping with wasted potential. It's got a really strong start with the two-parter, and a great ending, but it slackens off horribly in the middle, with two limp episodes and the admittedly alright Seven Poor Knights of Acre not quite living up to the standards set by Robin Hood and the Sorcerer or The King's Fool. In particular, season two would do a better job of alluding to the realities of the outlaws' struggle, with the team building up contacts with the local serfs, encouraging a pagan revival, and generally trying to build up their movement into something substantial. For the rest of this season after the pilot eposide, the outlaws spend a lot of time simply being reactive, responding to the Sheriff's latest gambit rather than hatching any plans of their own.

For the season one episodes, the Blu-Ray treatment is absolutely gorgeous, especially in terms of picture quality - a major improvement over the DVDs, though it would be disappointing if it weren't. That said, the sound and image quality does vary from episode to episode - in The Witch of Elsdon the sound levels seem off, with lots of parts being overquiet whilst others are blaringly loud, and the picture quality looks a bit washed-out, though this may indicate an irrepairable problem with the master tapes.

Season Two

The running order of season two is a bit different on this Blu-Ray set from the original broadcast order, but internal evidence from the episodes reveal that this was, in fact, the episode order originally intended by Richard Carpenter, who once again wrote the entire season. It seems that Nickolas Grace had schedule conflicts that prevented him being present for much of the season, and so Carpenter gets around this by having what was originally intended to be the opening two-parter (relocated to just before the final episode in the broadcast order) take place in a location away from Nottingham, and having the Sheriff be away in London on business for several of the other episodes. As originally planned, this trip would be ongoing for the episodes The Prophecy and Lord of the Trees, and the Sheriff would return in The Children of Israel, but when originally broadcast Lord of the Trees was shown after The Children of Israel, making it look as though the Sheriff had gone to London, come back, and then almost immediately ran off back to London again. Furthermore, Will Scarlet's confrontation with Robin in Lord of the Trees over Robin's refusal to just murder Guy of Gisbourne already neatly foreshadows Will's conflict with Robin in The Children of Israel.

Ian Sharp bowed out of directing this season, and so most of the episodes were directed by Robert Young, with James Allen directing two and Alex Kirby directing one. Robert Young's episodes tend to be more exciting and memorable, and they include the season's two parter - The Swords of Wayland, one of the best stories of Michael Praed's tenure as Robin. It opens as a former servant of Marion's father (her father being missing presumed dead in the Crusades) arrives in Sherwood to seek Robin and the band's help against the Hounds of Lucifer - strange, silent riders who are tormenting the countryside where the servant has retired to, and who are rumoured to be demons. As it transpires, the Hounds are seeking out the seven Swords of Wayland - magical artifacts of a pre-Christian age, infused with the "powers of light and darkness", which when gathered together have the power to unleash Satan himself. And one of the swords is Albion, the blade Herne gave Robin when he took on the role of the Hooded Man...

The opening scene depicting the Hounds of Lucifer silently riding their dire mounts under a blood-red sky lets you know that season 2 is going to bring back some of the Hammer Horror-brand Satanism and supernatural grimdarkery that was present in the pilot episode but was otherwise neglected in season 1 in favour of light-hearted swashbuckling with the odd sprinkling of hippy Hernery. The budget for this episode was clearly bigger this time too, and this shows in the small details as well as in the expanded scope of the action - for example, for the first time in the series village locations actually look like villages, with straw and muck and buildings strewn about over a wild area, rather than a tiny number of huts thrown up in the middle of an empty field, and the special effects on Satan's manifestation are actually pretty good.

Even better, Marion actually gets to do something! It's her speech that convinces the villagers to trust the outlaws and let them lead them against the Hounds' incursions, and she's sent into the local lord's castle in order to negotiate for Robin's release, slip the information he has out of the castle (with the help of Tuck), and free Robin. It appears that in the downtime between seasons Carpenter has realised that as the least socially unacceptable member of the group Marion's the perfect candidate to be their main spy and diplomat - and on top of that, he lets her muck in and get her hands dirty inflicting proper violence on people, playing a full part in the final fight with the Satanists in the cellars of Ravenscar Abbey. All of these are good ways to make the character more important, so it's kind of a shame that Carpenter doesn't really follow them up during the rest of the season.

It isn't just Marion whose treatment gets reassessed by Carpenter this season, of course. At the same time, there seems to be an acknowledgement on Carpenter's part that Much is just a liability and should just be kept out of the bloody way. Likewise, Guy isn't a full-on moron this season: in The Prophecy, another one of Robert Young's episodes, he even manages to put together a decent plan to catch the outlaws which would have had a good chance of working were it not for the intervention of Prince John (Phil Davis), who happens to be visiting. Prince John is actually quite awesome in The Prophecy - he's blatantly scheming and avaricious, but he's always able to come up with a justification for his actions by reference to the stability of the Angevin Empire, and Phil Davis's portrayal of the infamous Plantagenet temper is suitably shouty and terrifying.

Probably the weakest episodes this season are those directed by James Allen. In terms of concept, Lord of the Trees should have been a lot of fun - it was, for once, a fully Herne-centric episode, in which the people of Sherwood gather for a celebration dating back from pagan times in an explicit resurgence of pre-Christian beliefs in response to Norman oppression. This is hardly historically accurate, and in general the episode is stuffed with inaccuracies and anachronisms - the Merry Men's mummer's play is of a format which dates back to the 17th century, and the pagans say "Blessed Be" which dates back to Gerald Gardner's front room in the 1940s - but still, it's a good chance to develop Herne and flesh out exactly who he is and what he represents. Plus, it's another welcome sign of Sir Guy actually being competent for once, hiring in the scuzziest band of mercenaries he can find to infiltrate Sherwood Forest and wreck the Blessing.

The problem is in the presentation. This episode appears to have had horrendously tight budget constraints, which do so here and there. I'd swear that the sound of the child yelling "Father! Father! Soldiers, soldiers!" at one point in the episode is dubbed in from child-Robin's dialogue way back in the pilot episode, and the end of the episode in which Guy gets lost in the forest and is driven half-insane by nature spirits is packed with a long segment of flashbacks and repeated footage from earlier in the episode. (I'm only guessing that he gets lost and is tormented by nature spirits there - the scene in question is so confusing that I may be entirely misinterpreting it.) The structure of the Blessing itself is also quite confusing, and is hurt a bit by the circumstances of the production - the scene in which Herne emerges towards the end to bless the gathering was clearly filmed at the same time as the earlier scene in which he opens the festivities, to the point where everyone's even seated in the same positions, a sure sign that the episode was being rewritten and chopped about on the fly.

The end result is an episode which becomes an absolute chore to watch. To be fair, a lot of Robin of Sherwood episodes end up having a somewhat disjointed, nigh-dreamlike structure - that choppy editing I mentioned earlier is still present this season - but this one is barely coherent, the pacing stinks, and the ending drags on forever. It also sees a return of Marion being firmly kept on the periphery of the action: in the bar fight at the end when Robin and company track down the mercenaries, Marion hangs around inside with Friar Tuck ambushing people trying to escape rather than getting in the thick of it, whilst Much of all people is permitted to take part in the fight. And then of course she gets captured by one of the enemy and Robin has to rescue her, in a tedious and lazy "girl gets taken hostage" sequence which Carpenter could have copy-pasted from a billion other shows without modifying it.

The other Allen-directed episode The Enchantment, fails more due to the script than the direction. It features a witch called Lilith (Gemma Craven) who casts a love spell on Robin - no, I'm not making this up. This love spell is so powerful that he sets Marion and the Merry Men aside completely and, without delay, runs off to dally with Lilith in her filthy hovel (which naturally her spell makes him perceive as a majestic domain of riches). It turns out, of course, that Lilith's not just doing this for shits and giggles - she's one of Baron de Belleme's ex-concubines and is dominated by his will from beyond the grave, and seducing Robin is key to the plans to resurrect the Baron for... some reason which is never adequately explained.

As well as the cringeworthy "wicked slut with a love spell" plotline, the episode severely suffers from the fact that it exists only to create plotlines for future episodes - Carpenter intended the return of the Baron to be picked up on at a later point in the series, but unfortunately never got around to tackling that before the series got cancelled. (Which, when you think about it, is pretty inexcusable - season 3 consisted of 13 episodes, you'd have thought the Baron could have fitted into one of them.) Still, it's not absolutely worthless; the brainwashing concept is a neat way to take Robin out of the equation so that Marion and the Merry Men have to muddle through on their own, which makes sense since in the planned running order this episode took place immediately before Michael Praed's exit - the perfect point to explore whether the Merry Men could survive without Robin. (It turns out they don't do a bad job at all.) It also sees Guy fully graduating from comic relief to full-on villain in his own right when he cold-bloodedly murders a rival who'd been competing with him for the Sheriff's favour.

Alex Kirby's episode The Children of Israel, uses the gritty fantasy author's favourite tool - "historical accuracy" - to help the Sheriff of Nottingham finally cross the line from mildly buffoonish antagonist to all-out black-hearted villain. Specifically, it has the Sheriff ordering Sir Guy to engineer a pogrom against the Jews of Nottingham, in order to both get the Sheriff out of his debts and to steal the riches they're convinced the local money-lenders are hoarding. There's a reasonably competent use of historical facts to get across some of the complexities of medieval antisemitism in England. For example, on the one hand Joshua de Talmont (David de Keyser) as the head of the Jewish family the episode focuses on counts on the protection he theoretically enjoys from the King (as provided since the time of William the Conqueror) to shield him from the Sheriff. Guy and the Sheriff, however, were both in London during the coronation of King Richard and witnessed the spontaneous antisemitic riots that broke out at the time, so they know precisely how fragile that protection really is and how easy it would be to goad the masses into flaunting it.

On the Merry Men side, the episode also sees a serious disagreement breaking out between Robin and Will Scarlet giving Ray Winstone some much-deserved spotlight time and amping up the drama tenfold. In terms of pacing and structure, the episode is perhaps the tightest of the first two series. However, the otherwise sensitive handling of the subject of antisemitism takes a sharp left into exoticism when the Sheriff opens a book full of Kabbalistic lore - the consequences of which are little bit Raiders of the Lost Ark, though more along the lines of temporary insanity and hallucinations than actual face-melting.

Robert Young returns to the director's chair in Michael Praed's final episode, The Greatest Enemy, in which a herald from the King arrives with a simple message for the Sheriff: kill Robin Hood within the month or lose his position, and all the associated benefits and riches. The Sheriff succeeds in capturing Will Scarlet, Little John, Friar Tuck, and - after he returns from an ambush set up by his former Hashishim colleagues - Nasir, leaving just Robin, Marion, and Much free with the Sheriff's men on their tail. (Well, effectively it's just Robin and Marion, burdened with also trying to stop Much dying of stupid.) Who's the greatest enemy? Why, of course it's fear of one's own death, which Robin has to grow up and stop being such a baby about if he's going to sacrifice himself for the sake of letting Marion and Much get away.

Cliched as it is, this is still a really good episode - Nasir gets some spotlight time in the assassin ambush subplot, and whilst the ambush itself seems to exist only to pad out the episode and provide a lazy excuse to separate Nasir from the rest of the band, it does mean that when Nasir comes back and finds that Will Scarlet has been captured he gets to kick all kinds of ass in a rescue attempt. Once again, Carpenter swallows his reluctance to let Marion to take a full part in the action and lets her kill some people, and the end of the episode sets up some nice parallels with the first one. Towards the end, a mysterious hooded figure emerges from the shadows, and after preparations which mirror Robin's initiation by Herne in the pilot episode he springs free the Merry Men; the end of the episode sees the group firing burning arrows into a lake in Robin's memory, as they did at the end of Robin Hood and the Sorcerer, only to be startled by that same strange figure shooting an arrow into the lake himself. The episode sets up a wonderful implication that this entity is Robin himself, unleashed from the spirit world by Herne for one last foray against evil...

...which, unfortunately, is sabotaged by the start of season 3, in which it turns out that the individual in question was Robert of Huntingdon, the protagonist of that season. In some respects it might have been better if the series has been cancelled then - not because Jason Connery's season was especially more inconsistent than Praed's tenure, because I think I've established above that Robin of Sherwood was always incredibly inconsistent, but because if you ignore that revelation and accept the possibility that it's Robin's ghost then The Greatest Enemy becomes one of the few episodes in which the series lives up to the image its fans have built for it.

As a matter of fact, in this set it's generally the two-parters and the season finales that live up to the show's reputation of being a dramatic, magic-infused, thoroughly modern update of the Robin Hood legend; with a few exceptions, however, the middle episodes of each season seem to be little more than filler, though I admit to being quite fond of Seven Poor Knights of Acre and The Children of Israel. I can't put hand on heart and say Robin of Sherwood is truly brilliant - it is, by any measure, quite flawed. But it's flawed in quite a beautiful way; I tend to find my recollections of the episodes are more interesting than the actual episodes themselves, mainly because Richard Carpenter has this knack for hinting at the sort of series that Robin of Sherwood could have been but wasn't. On balance, I'm not sorry I upgraded to the Blu-Ray set because it's a big improvement over the DVDs, but at the same time I can't say I'd blame anyone who on the strength of the DVDs didn't bother. The Blu-Ray treatment makes the series very, very pretty, but it doesn't cover any of its flaws.

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Comments (go to latest)
Michal at 04:56 on 2011-07-31
I have to agree, all television series would be improved if they had a few more Polish people in 'em.

I remember watching Robin Hood and the Sorcerer way back when and thinking it was pretty rocking, but as far as I can tell, that was the only part of the series that got any sort of wide release in North America during the VHS era.

Aside: A game ostensibly based on the Kevin Costner movie actually owed a lot more to this series (even if it tended to poke fun at it). It's actually an altogether adorable game and perhaps the only good thing that resulted from the Kevin Costner film.
Robinson L at 20:02 on 2011-08-01
Michal: I have to agree, all television series would be improved if they had a few more Polish people in 'em.

[Looks back at article title] I see what you did there.
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