Background: Long before the advent of modern storytelling media, folk tales filled the few hours of leisure time the masses had to appreciate. The written word was largely confined to limited numbers of nobility and clergy, making different versions of common fantasy characters a generally accepted idea (unlike these days when fanboys argue over who is the "best" Joker, Batman, and others with multiple takes). Given that entertaining said masses was the easiest way to a warm meal and place to stay for the night, the tales usually pandered to the audience at hand, essentially giving them what they wanted to hear. Poverty being so commonplace in their lives, they loved hearing about the rich nobles being attacked almost as much as they loved the idea about those that would redistribute wealth to the poor, the peasants of feudal systems in particular having little of their own to begin with. Such demand resulted in the legends of figures like Robin Hood, the featured character of today's review.
Series: Robin Hood Season One is the latest series out of Britain to make it to our shores, the Blu-Ray boxed set of four discs coming to me a few weeks after the release date. Having seen the legend in numerous iterations, last reviewing one called Robin of Sherwood last year, I was up to see what the 2006 version would look like in high definition and if it would favorably compare to the older, admittedly quirky, version from the mid 1980's. To save money, the 13 episode season was shot in Budapest, a region best known for other low budget efforts I review elsewhere, but the production values were in keeping with BBC standards (for better or worse). This time, Robin of Locksley is played by Jonas Armstrong, a young man with wisps of facial hair making him look barely out of his teens. Returning from the Crusades with his former serf Much (Sam Troughton) after 4 years of devastatingly bloody combat, Robin returns to find his lands ruled harshly by Sir Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage) in a particularly ruthless manner. Guy is about as subtle as a frat house party and lords it over the land without any sympathy for the commoners that he basically owns, punishing them at will and going overboard in doing so according to Robin. The law of the land is the Sheriff of Nottingham (Keith Allen), once again played in semi-buffoonish style, with the actor looking much like Jean Reno in designer clothing. Robin seeks out the former Sheriff (Michael Elwyn) and his daughter Marian (Lucy Griffiths) to find out what has happened, going to the castle to reclaim his lands from the Sheriff as well as set some peasants free.
Guy doesn't agree with losing his current status and the Sheriff prefers one of his lackeys so it doesn't take much to push Robin into forfeiting his holdings under the guise of challenging the lawful rule of the crown. Robin uses his legendary skills with the bow and arrow to assist some others in gaining their freedom as well, thus establishing the latest band of merry men. The band starts off small as a result of an encounter in the woods of Sherwood Forest but grows as the series progresses, folks like Little John (Gordon Kennedy), Will Scarlett (Harry Lloyd), Allan A Dale (Joe Armstrong), and "Jack" (Anjali Jay) joining Robin and Much as they pillage the Sheriff and nobles to hand out food to the poor. The show takes the folklore really lightly this time, described by one of the creators as "Robin Hood for the Playstation generation" in one of the interviews, with only slightly less camp and humor than the Hercules series of awhile back. The stories for each episode largely stood on their own with minimal evolution of the characters, this version of Robin being a lovesick whiner to the point of the entire show being best labeled as Robin Hood 90210 in some ways. I understand the desire to bring in a younger audience but dumbing the material down so much weakened it for me at times that I almost sent my copy to another reviewer to finish off.
The general dynamic is this though, the Sheriff schemes to squeeze more taxes out of the populace or capture Robin Hood, the specific method used surprises the gang of outlaws and they need to regroup, then in the final chapter of the episode, they manage to thwart the evil plan. The main reason some people look for shows like this is the fighting and to be extremely generous, the "boot camp" the cast took to familiarize themselves with shooting a bow, sword fighting, hand to hand combat, and even riding a horse wasn't nearly enough to make any of it look "real" or even fun in the campy sense but those looking for the least common denominator attributes might overlook this. Generic action series puff piece that it is, one is expected to overlook how Marian willingly hooks up with Guy, knowing full well the atrocities he has committed to the people she claims to care about, his giving a trinket or two vanishing her cares almost immediately (disproving the belief that she was doing it strictly to use her position to help Robin as when she asked Guy if he really had any part in the plot to assassinate King Richard). That she dons a mask and serves to help the people as "The Night Watchman" is so laughably weak an attempt at political correctness (giving the female viewers someone to root for as an empowered woman in a time when they did not exist) that one would think this was made by committee. The language and setting is largely anachronistic too, even more than Robin of Sherwood though without the repeated tributes to pagan gods this time. Without any supernatural elements to speak of, the writers simply followed the most basic formulas and held to the most timeworn plots we have all seen before, giving me a sense of déjà vu but again, modernizing the language to the point where I wondered why they just didn't set it in current England. In fact, the closer you look at the show, the worse it looks in some ways, such as how sparkling clean everyone looks at all times, despite the likelihood given the fact that they were in dirty times in a forest setting. If you're looking for mindless action where Robin Hood never kills unless absolutely necessary (had he just shot Guy and the Sheriff in the throat during the first episode, the entire shire would have been better off and many lives spared), you've found it in this first season set but even then this should be a Rent It for anyone but the slavering fanboys (and fangirls) of the show (the third season being the last for Jonas per recent reports just as Lucy left in season two).
The back cover of the set said it like this:
"This all-action Robin Hood is jam-packed with colorful characters, gripping stories and outrageous scams as well as breathtaking archery and incredible swordplay. Robin of Locksley heads home from the Crusades to find his people starving and brutalized under the tyrannical rule of the new Sheriff. Robin quickly discovers that the only way to reason with this Sheriff is with bow and arrow - even if it means sacrificing his title and his lands and consigning himself to life in the forest. Along with trusty companion Much, trickster Allan A Dale and passionate Will Scarlett, Robin teams up with forest outlaws Little John and Roy, leading his gang to help Nottingham's poor. His ally in Nottingham is Marian, the sweetheart he left behind when he for the Crusades. As the series progresses and the gang fights on, how long can Marian keep amorous Gisborne at bay, will the Sheriff succeed in cornering Robin Hood, and what will Robin make of the sinister truth behind Gisborne and the Sheriff's secret plotting? The state of England is rotten and Robin and the gang will learn that doing good deeds in Nottingham is a dangerous business indeed..." The episodes for season one are as follows:
Robin Hood: Season One
1) Will You Tolerate This?
2) Sheriff Got Your Tongue?
3) Who Shot The Sheriff?
4) Parent Hood
5) Turk Flu
6) The Taxman Cometh
7) Brothers In Arms
8) Tattoo? What Tattoo?
9) A Thing Or Two About Loyalty
10) Peace? Off!
11) Dead Man Walking
12) The Return of the King
13) A Clue: No
Picture: Robin Hood Season One was presented in a widescreen color with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 as shot on HDTV Video in Hungary by various directors for the BBC. The blu-ray version was presented in 1080i resolution using the VC-1 codec with a bitrate tending to hover in the upper 19 Mbps range when I spot checked it. At first, I had to double check my settings to make sure this wasn't a standard definition release given the amount of grain and soft focus areas on the episodes, only every once in awhile were the scenes looking even close to a recent high definition show. The fleshtones were largely accurate but the video noise and artifacting were more common than I have come to expect on such a title, even moiré and edge enhancement observed on a regular basis. The blacks were fairly deep though and the softness of the night shots was the worst part of the show, well, that and the dungeon scenes that simply were not properly lit to take advantage of the digital format they were shot on. I have not seen the standard definition version or the show on cable television but suffice it to say, I expected more quality than this.
Sound: The primary track I listened to was the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround in English track that used a 48 kHz sampling rate and had a 640 Kbps audio bitrate, a much weaker 2.0 version ( with 192 Kbps bitrate) offered up as the default unless you specifically selected the surround version. The vocals were straightforward and clear enough that they might have been dubbed in the studio but the separation and depth was always lacking here. The special effect and ambient noises were so rare on the rear speakers that I wondered if I had accidently pulled the plug on my system and the bass was practically nonexistent. It's a shame that the aural qualities proved to be such a tough sell to the producers though since that lacking element could have helped sell the admittedly weak visuals much more effectively otherwise.
Extras: Each disc had some extras, some of them graced with a lot more than others. There was a forced trailer for Planet Earth to begin each disc, then there were offerings like four audio commentaries for episodes #2, 4, 8, and 13 (some of the cast and production crew giving light remembrances of their time in Hungary during filming more than saying anything specific about particular episodes), a short feature called "Hood Academy" where the stuntmen trained the cast as best they could given the timetable (many of the stuntmen seemingly used to flesh out the ranks of the guards and townspeople in the show), a Making of Robin Hood that gave more anecdotes about the way the show came together, a long set of interviews and clips for a Profiles section that gave all the main characters some time to familiarize the audience with their quirks (as seen not only by the actors but the producers too), a short feature on the sets in Hungary called Designing the Hood, and a similar look at the costuming called Dressing Hood where the wardrobe staff were ecstatic at the facilities in Hungary. The totality of the extras was not bad compared to some TV-on-Blu-ray titles of late but they still fell short of giving fans a big reason to upgrade to high definition as they were presented in SD in the MPEG-2 codec.
Final Thoughts: Robin Hood Season One is currently shooting the third season of episodes and major cast changes aside, I can only wonder if the creators decided to keep the watered down camp, the overdone use of formulaic scripts, or even try to get the cast up to speed on the fighting but the first season was so full of errors and issues that even an action TV lover such as myself had some serious problems watching the whole thing. Watching it all at once might not have helped in that sense but it did keep me in touch with the sameness of approach each episode used and the logical plot holes needed to make certain events "work", but I imagine that fans of the show will appreciate the marginal improvements of this high definition version even at the great extra cost they will incur to get them in the set. In short, Robin Hood Season One in Blu-Ray is definitely geared to those that don't care about historical accuracy, prefer modern language used in their shows, and have set the bar mighty low in regards to what they want out of a show. Teen angst in medieval times might be all the rage in England these days but it did not add anything to the legend of Robin Hood for this long term admirer of the characters so your mileage may vary considerably.