I just finished the twelfth of thirteen episodes of the Jason Connery series of ROBIN OF SHERWOOD, and while I don’t have time to watch the final installment tonight, I do have some time to write about what I’ve liked and haven’t liked about the third and final year of what has proven to be everything I thought it was: a brilliantly iconic take on the Robin Hood mythology.
It reminds me of the third season of BEAST WARS. That, too, was hobbled by coming off a brilliant second season and a glorious cliffhanger; the other key similarity they both share is that their heroes are likable bands of misfits, and their villains are endlessly bickering and fantastically over the top. And while I do think that the two-part opener “Herne’s Son” is a stronger season premiere than “Optimal Situation,” it still feels disjointed coming off of the end of “The Greatest Enemy,” like Richard Carpenter wrote himself into a corner and realized he’d have to pick up one year later, with Herne’s new “chosen one” having rejected the “job offer” and having to be pushed into it.
I’m not sure if the reason the third series is weaker is because it’s been diluted; it’s thirteen episodes where the first two were six and seven, respectively. The dilution comes in with the fact that not all of the episodes are written by Richard Carpenter; Anthony Horowitz writes and co-writes a few episodes in the middle of the series, including the worst and most cartoonish of the lot, “The Sheriff of Nottingham,” in which de Rainault loses his position to the very serious Philip Mark, whose right-hand-man Sarak is a Saracen like Nasir, and not only that, the two men have a history together. Sarak talks in a wildly overplayed gruff evil voice, and Mark Ryan wildly overplays his anger at Sarak, or anger with himself over what he had to do to Sarak, or something. Nickolas Grace is brilliant as ever as the ex-sheriff, except for a sequence where he’s captured by Robin Hood after being driven out of Nottingham and has to make a terrible speech about why he hates Robin Hood. Just poor writing all around. There are a few good moments, but overall it led me to think that no good could come of a ROBIN OF SHERWOOD episode not written by Richard Carpenter.
And then we got “The Betrayal,” written by Andrew McCulloch and John Flanagan, and guest starring Max Headroom himself, Matt Frewer. The episode starts with Robin Hood and his men appearing to destroy a village; Marian and Much come upon the village soon after and are told what seemed to happen. Later we meet our heroes back in the forest laughing about the look on a woman’s face as they made off with the roast pig they’re enjoying, so we’re led to think maybe, just MAYBE …
Then King John arrives at Nottingham being terribly sweet to the people and pious and claiming to have taken up a fast. It’s like we’ve entered Bizarro-Land. Only we soon find out that it’s all an act to increase the King’s popularity and destroy Robin Hood’s reputation among the people. Robert de Carnac, the knight played by Matt Frewer, is leading a band of ersatz Merry Men to raid villages and ruin Robin’s good name. It’s very cleverly written, and is also a great showcase for Philip Davis as the randy, nasty and loathsome King John.
After the resurrection of Simon de Belleme, the sorcerer Robin battled in the very first two-part episode who worshiped at the dark altar of the demon Azeal, I’d hoped he’d come back for one more battle with Herne’s Son, but he was a foe of Robin of Locksley. Robert of Huntington winds up instead with Gulnar, a wiry and fey Viking mystic who worships Fenris, the monstrous wolf. Robert kills Gulnar’s master at the end of “Herne’s Son” and rescues Marian from him, fights him again in an illusory village out of time in the episode “Cromm Cruac,” and is forced to face him one last time in the final two-parter “Time of the Wolf.” He does suffer from the same problem all the magical villains have in this show: the heroes have no defenses against them. Either Herne has to provide a solution to one of the heroes not in danger, or they have to succeed through dumb, blind luck. On the other hand, the stories with a magical element are often the most interesting, most often when there’s a hint of ambiguity about the use of magic, as with Herne the Hunter, who sometimes appears to be as mortal as the rest of the Merry Men and their friends, and sometimes appears to be something else entirely.
I wouldn’t call Jason Connery’s Robert of Huntington a problem with this series, but after the joyful Michael Praed as Robin of Locksley, he brings a very different and more serious energy and air to the series. He tries to be carefree and fun like the first Robin, but too often he falls prey to the Rodimus Prime problem of trying to live up to another, well-respected and well loved man’s memory. As I said last time I discussed ROBIN OF SHERWOOD, I am glad they stretched out the building relationship between Marian and her dead husband’s replacement as long as they did; they decide to marry in the first half of “Time of the Wolf,” the finale, where she married Robin of Locksley at the very end of the second half of the first series premiere. Robert also carries with him the albatross of the big reveal in “The Cross of St. Ciricus” that he’s Guy of Gisbourne’s half-brother. I thought the Sarak thing was bad enough, but making Robert and Guy half-brothers is just taking things too far; the original Robin and Guy’s rivalry was based on circumstance. This just felt like a way to wring some extra cheap dramatic tension out of a rivalry that already had some good legs based on Guy’s suspicions in the first two episodes and his discovery that the Earl of Huntington’s son is the new Robin Hood come the third episode.
The fact that Jason Connery is not a particularly good actor doesn’t help matters. He gets less wooden as the season wears on, but he just doesn’t have Praed’s charm or presence. Connery wouldn’t have been able to pull off that speech Praed gives at the end of “Robin Hood and the Sorcerer” about how in death their friends are now free, and that the freedoms they have in death the survivors will have to now fight for in life. He could try, and Carpenter could try to put something like that in his mouth, but it wouldn’t be the same. I spent most of the first half of the season wondering how much of what I was seeing was stuff that was half-hashed out for Robin of Locksley but had to be rewritten for Robert of Huntington. I will be very curious to watch the extras after work and see how this series took shape following the show’s loss of its leading man.
I said the other night that I’d be moving on to MAX HEADROOM, which I still want to do. I’m also tempted to break out my discs of THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW; the complete series box just came out, which is making me at least want to watch what I already own of it (the first season and “Not Just The Best of …” set). I’ve also got the recent DVD release of the Production I.G. anime series EDEN OF THE EAST just begging to be watched; I’ve seen the first two or three episodes already, and it’s high time I watched the rest.
But first, to bring ROBIN to an end …