There are certain TV shows and movies that I never, ever get sick of, no matter how many times I watch them. The first two episodes of ROBOTECH are like that for me. The DOCTOR WHO serials “The Deadly Assassin” and “City of Death” are like that, too, as is the first episode of the season just past, “The Eleventh Hour.” TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE (1986) is something I can actually quote, and given how bad I am with quotes, that should say something right there. Alex Cox’s brilliant and weird punk sci-fi black comedy REPO MAN is up there. The original ROBOCOP, too. And so is the final episode of series 2 of this 1980s UK import …
If you’re my friend on Facebook, you’re probably aware that I’ve been slowly marching through the twenty-six episodes of this brilliant mid-1980s take on the Robin Hood legend. I’m sure I saw some of it back when Showtime was airing it back when it was new, but my strongest memories of it are from watching my parents’ VHS copies of several episodes, taped off of Showtime, when I was in middle school. They had taped most of series 2 and the beginning of series 3, and I watched them over, and over, and over again. Most of all, I kept fixating on that series 2 finale, “The Greatest Enemy.”
Richard “Kip” Carpenter is cited as the creator of this take on the Robin Hood legend, and wrote all of the first two years of the show, thirteen episodes total — thirteen episodes of medieval politics, ancient religion (including not only Christianity but paganism and devil/demon worship; five of the first thirteen episodes feature our heroes having to fight highly effective demon-worshiping sorcerers, including a coven using a convent as a front) in addition to exciting swordplay and the whirlwind love-at-first-sight romance between dashing, long-haired Robin of Locksley and Maid Marian.
One of the things that I think drew me to ROBIN OF SHERWOOD was the fact that I was knee-deep in my anime fixation when I found it anew on my parents’ old tapes, and specifically in my anime fixation, and here was a British import from the 1980s whose version of Robin Hood was very much cut from the same mold as the lanky, long-haired anime heroes I was watching at the same time; Michael Praed’s dashing young Hooded Man was very much of a kind with Cam Clarke’s two ROBOTECH characters, Max Sterling and, even moreso, Lancer (fighting for freedom against an oppressive regime, leaps through the trees, spends a lot of nights sleeping in the forest), as well as the long-haired vampire-slaying swordsman of few words Vampire Hunter D. (During the Google image search I used to populate this post with images I found a 1993 fanzine cover with the entire cast all anime’d up; I guess I’m not the only one who made that connection!)
Another thing that pulled me in, of course, is that theme song, by the Irish folk/new age group Clannad. Simple, catchy, obviously synthesized and yet it somehow feels right for the period and the mood of the series. The version that plays over the first two years’ intro is perfect, and yet during the third series they played with it a bit, added a few bells and whistles, beefed up the synth drums in a couple of spots, and just ruined it along the lines of the extra prismatic rainbow video effects that appear over the Colin Baker version of the “neon logo” DOCTOR WHO opening. They had a nice thing going there, and then they tweaked it and ruined it. Terribly frustrating.
Most of all, what I love about the series is how despite a few fantastical elements, there’s a grounded sense of reality about the whole thing. It isn’t winking, jokey, and at times eye-rollingly anachronistic like other shows of its type that would come, say, about ten years hence, in the wake of the HERCULES/XENA explosion. I’ve watched a little of the BBC ROBIN HOOD series that popped up in the wake of the DOCTOR WHO revival, back in ’06, and it still suffered from a bit of that tone — just enough to annoy me. Then again, there was a part of me that didn’t want to like the BBC ROBIN HOOD; as I said in the caption above, when I close my eyes and think of these characters, it’s the actors from ROBIN OF SHERWOOD whose faces I see. It would take a hell of a good approach to shake them in my mind.
One more fabulous asset ROBIN OF SHERWOOD has is a fantastic band of villains, led by the brilliantly boggle-eyed Nickolas Grace as Robert de Rainault, the Sheriff of Nottingham. He played the role as a screaming, largely impotent scheming loon, eager to stamp out the “Wolfshead” making a fool of him out of Sherwood Forest but incapable of doing it day-in, and day-out. He is joined about half the time by his brother Hugo, the Abbot of St. Mary’s, who is equally as scheming and corrupt. The third rail of their triumvirate is Sir Guy of Gisbourne, all brute force with a touch of sadism, but tempered by his constant humiliations and defeats at the hands of Robin and the Merry Men of Sherwood. If someone is going to get repeatedly dunked in the water, by our heroes in Sherwood, it’s Gisbourne. If someone’s going to get stuck in the mud fighting Robin, it’s Gisbourne. If someone’s going to get locked in the dungeon of Nottingham … well, the Sheriff actually does the one time, but that was in an awful episode not written by Richard Carpenter, so it’s best forgotten. But it’s to actor Robert Addie’s credit, and to Carpenter’s credit as a writer, that Gisbourne comes off as a sympathetic character on several occasions, despite being a sadistic, violent, and lustful boor.
As for the episode in question itself … it’s a tour de force of iconic moments and lines, beautifully acted by Michael Praed and Judi Trott (Maid Marian) — and the rest of the cast. The opening has always been a little odd to me, beginning with a sequence where the Merry Men suspect Middle Eastern ex-assassin Nasir of possibly betraying the group in his own little subplot, and even in context it doesn’t really work except maybe to throw the viewer off Carpenter and company’s scent; “Oh, they’re just going to kill Nasir — wait a second, they’re doing WHAT?!” But once the messenger from the king comes to de Rainault and tells him that he has to kill Robin Hood or “you’ll lose everything,” the bug-eyed Skeletor-like scheming is gone and he’s all cool confidence with a winning plan. The Saturday morning theatrics are over, and it’s down to business — and the business is killing Robin Hood.
It is important to note that in ROBIN OF SHERWOOD, Robin is chosen by the shaman/pagan god Herne the Hunter to free the people of England from their bondage at the hands of the Christian Normans. Armed with his longbow and the sword Albion, he is Herne’s Son, the Hooded Man. And thus, when Michael Praed decided to move on to Broadway to star in a production of The Three Musketeers, Richard Carpenter had his out: if Herne chose Robin of Locksley, then he could always choose another …
The ten minute stretch of Robin’s last stand is riveting television. Every line out of Praed’s mouth is quotable gold, and when Marian realizes what this is, what is about to happen, Judi Trott sells it magnificently. And breaking up the emotional moments, Nickolas Grace’s Sheriff of Nottingham grows more and more desperate as the sequence goes on, until he too realizes what has happened. “How many arrows does the man have?!” he asks moments before Robin fires his last into the air. Kudos also have to go to the music editor, who underscores every moment with the perfect piece from Clannad’s soundtrack, right to the very moment when, cornered, Robin breaks his bow and the crossbows are fired …
And if you’re all like, “WHOA, SPOILERS!” bear in mind that A) this show is over a quarter century old, and B) this was the first episode I watched about fifteen years ago when I was rummaging through my parents’ vast VHS library. I’ve already told you what happens, but really, it’s worth watching for yourself.
I always forget — and by “always” I mean, I’ve watched it twice in the last week and I STILL forgot the second time — that there’s a good long stretch of show after Robin is taken down by the Sheriff’s men’s crossbows. There is the rescue at the hands of Herne’s new champion, who up to that point is faceless and is probably not actually played by Praed’s successor, Jason Connery, son of Sean — which is also truly great, because A) it sets our heroes up for a deliciously brutal bait-and-switch when they return to Sherwood and find Marian standing there with Albion in hand, meaning that yes, Gisbourne was telling the truth and Robin is dead, and B) when the newcomer, face concealed by a hood, points his longbow at the Sheriff’s men, they find themselves unable to fire on him because they are all positive that they’re being threatened by a man they killed just a few hours ago. “Killlllll that MAN!” the Sheriff intones. “KILL HIM!” But they do not, and he turns and quietly walks into the forest.
At the moment I’m halfway through the Jason Connery episodes, where the fair haired but not quite as pretty Robert of Huntingdon throws his life as the Earl’s son away to live in the forest with Marian and the Merry Men and become the new Robin Hood, and it’s worthy stuff, but it’s not quite as good. It’s hobbled by the fact that, as I said above, not every episode is written by series creator Richard Carpenter, so you do get some episodes that feel a bit juvenile or at least off-tone, and the fact that Jason Connery, while looking the part and doing a good job with the physicality of the role is kind of a wooden actor. He improves as the series goes on, but his delivery too often feels leaden, like he’s reading off cue cards.
On the other hand, one thing I really like about the third series is the way we actually watch Marian’s relationship with the new Robin Hood develop slowly, chastely at first. Marian and Robin of Locksley were in love at first sight, when he ran through her bedchamber while trying to escape the Sheriff’s men; they were married by the end of the two-hour pilot, and rarely left each other’s side throughout the two-series thirteen episode run. Where even at the halfway mark, I just saw Robert of Huntingdon and Marian just exchange a cute look, and then the credits rolled. Not even a peck on the lips. She says it herself, that it’s too soon for her; the love of her life was shot down by the Sheriff’s men over a year ago, and while this man clearly loves her and has taken up the fight in her lover’s name — well, it’s all just kind of weird, and Judi Trott somehow manages to play a very odd situation with the right level of conflict mixed with admiration.
There’s so much I haven’t even touched on here, like how what was supposed to be a throwaway character turned into not only one of the most memorable figures in this series — the Saracen assassin Nasir, played with moody panache by Mark Ryan, who is today probably best known as the voice of Bumblebee and Jetfire in the awful Michael Bay TRANSFORMERS movies — but an archetype that’s cropped up in pretty much every TV and movie version of the legend since. He’s like the Snake Eyes of Robin Hood, a leather-clad Muslim ninja badass. Or how surprised I was to see John Rhys-Davies show up as King Richard the Lionheart, and how doubly surprised I was that this version of Robin Hood had him ally himself with the heroes of Sherwood only to set them up as grist for his war machine mill, forcing Robin to turn his back on his king.
After I’m done with it, I’m throwing in another short-lived 1980s classic, MAX HEADROOM. Funny thing is, after I decided this — I’ve got the DVD box at the ready — I scrounged up a copy of the original 1985 TV movie from the UK, and who did I find in it as the head of Network 23 but Nickolas Grace, playing the part with the same sort of smarmy aristocratic anti-charm and mad panic that made his Sheriff of Nottingham so memorable! What a strange bit of synchronicity.