The Reality of Stories, Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood, Reviews, 07/09/2014

“We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?” — The Doctor, The Big Bang.

In Robots of Sherwood, a sci-fi alien manipulates a local
warlord to repair his ship when it crashes in medieval
England. Wait, this isn't right, is it?
Phil Sandifer, my inspiration on this philosophical review project, started the TARDIS Eruditorum with the notion that Doctor Who is a figure about which we can always tell new stories. We don’t have to be concerned with whether each story is consistent in every detail with what has gone before. All we need to know is that the Doctor is a hero, both for our time and for however long the human future lasts. 

In just the same way, Robin Hood became a hero in British culture, and all the cultures around the world that the British influenced. Through their military empire, and then their creative media, that was the entire world. Mark Gatiss made the point clearly and explicitly, because he isn’t really a writer deft enough to make a philosophical point without stating it didactically. 

“That a man born of wealth and privilege could find the plight of the oppressed and weak too much to bear . . . until one night, he is moved to steal a TARDIS and fly among the stars.”

I cut the last phrase in that quotation because it’s such a cliché. The point is that the Doctor is the latest in a long tradition of British heroes who turn against a society where class hierarchy and the accumulation of unfair wealth and power cause terrible suffering. Like the Doctor, Robin Hood is such a mythical figure in British mythology. Unlike the Doctor, it is generally believed that he was also a real person. This is the conceit around which Gatiss structures his episode.

The story does play to Mark Gatiss' natural strengths as a
writer of comedic banter, however.
The peculiar nature of Robot of Sherwood as a story creates problems for the episode,* which suffers from the tension of its pretensions to realism and both its science-fictional and mythical settings. I’m not going to post my SPOILERS heading yet, because what I’m about to discuss can be gleaned from such ordinary parts of public discourse as the trailers and press photos. 

* I should say, though, that this was actually a wonderfully entertaining episode to watch. As a straight adventure story, it’s one of Gatiss’ best, and he’s really quite good when he’s good, as he is here. Both my girlfriend and I got a huge kick out of Robots of Sherwood.

There are basically three layers to Robot of Sherwood’s story:
1) Sci-fi. The Sheriff of Nottingham has an army of robots, after all.
2) Heroic Myths. The legacy of Robin Hood as a cultural myth plays a significant role in the plot.
3) Realism. The narrative explicitly positions its Robin Hood as the real historical person.

The TARDIS lands at semi-random in Sherwood Forest after Clara requests that she meet Robin Hood, even though the Doctor doesn’t believe he exists. He’s a myth, just a bunch of stories. I like to imagine that the TARDIS likes Clara after she saved the Doctor’s timeline in The Name of the Doctor (she was able to snap her fingers to shut the door in the Anniversary Special), so materialized literally in front of Robin Hood. The Doctor spends the next few set pieces trying to figure out a science-fictional explanation for why a mythical figure that doesn’t exist is standing in front of him swashbuckling in archery contests and swordfighting on bridges across small streams. But eventually, he has to admit that Robin, Earl of Locksley, was a real person.

Despite their protests, these Merry Men are too Hollywood.
But the Robin that Gatiss presents us with has nothing to do with, historically speaking, who the real Robin Hood could have been in the actual 1100s. Gatiss has clearly done no historical research whatsoever to work out how actual 12th century English lived, aside from the usual two-story thatch-roof houses and castles. The Merry Men (though Clara baptizes them as such here, because you can’t not make that joke) are just as they’d appear in any contemporary Robin Hood adventure show. Tom Riley’s Robin is an Errol Flynn pastische, complete with banter and theatrical laughter. The Doctor even makes a reference to Errol Flynn during his ‘swordfight’ with Robin, lampshading the artificiality of the character.

The problem is, because you know the story is science-fictional, you know that someone is going to turn out to be the Robot of Sherwood. So, engaging with the episode, the Doctor’s doubts about Robin Hood’s authenticity are immediately going to ring true. The Robin Hood we see is the product of a century of cinematic and televisual storytelling. He’s Errol Flynn’s personality put through a filter of Jonas Armstrong's messier aesthetic

Yet the ultimate denouement of this theme is that the Robin we see is real, despite his obvious nature as the Robin of our popular culture, not one who could ever have lived in medieval England. And this Robin who fails to capture the character of medieval life has his allegedly real medieval world invaded by robots and spaceships. Most importantly, Robin’s world has been invaded by the Doctor, the TARDIS, and Clara Oswald. 

The Doctor has encountered British foundational myths
tempered with sci-fi concepts before. I strongly recommend
Battlefield, in which Sylvester McCoy's Doctor and Brigadier
Lethbridge-Stewart must stop Morgaine from hijacking a
nuclear weapon for her trans-dimensional spaceship to fight
King Arthur.
A Robin whose reality is schizzed with his Hollywood image maintains his reality. Yet he does so in a world where the Doctor is real. Their final conversation calls special attention to their reality. When the Doctor asserts that he’s no hero, Robin responds that he isn’t either, but that their stories can make them heroes, and encourage others to do heroic deeds in the conflicts of their own times. 

They are talking as real men, but we are watching them talk as real men in an episode of science-fiction television, an episode that is consciously about the collision of a modern myth of a hero who gives up a life of privilege to fight injustice with an ancient myth having the same ethical structure. The story intends to parallel Robin Hood and Doctor Who as myths, placing Doctor Who as the latest in a long line of such myths of just rebellion. The myths claim they’re real, but only myth appears.
• • •

Quick review-like notes. I don’t think Gatiss is very good at compressed storytelling when it comes to introducing new characters to the main world of the show. The Crimson Horror was brilliant, but the only characters with any substantial screen time aside from the campy villain and her daughter (herself defined largely in terms of her torture and disability) were the regulars or already-established recurring characters, the Paternoster Gang. Cold War was similarly a story of stereotypes from other film traditions (Klingons and a comedy take on Das Boot, specifically). 

The episode also included an image of the first actor to play
Robin Hood on television, Patrick Troughton, whose
performance was unfortunately lost to the BBC's short-
sighted tape-wiping policy. A decade later, Troughton
would become Doctor Who's first engagement with the
Robin Hood mythos, albeit para-textually and
I say this because his Marian was atrocious. She plays a key role in the margins of the story, first illustrating the oppressive apparatus of the Sheriff’s robot army, then helping the Doctor destroy most of that army in the slave quarters. But she is always marginal, barely present. Her final reveal as Marian isn’t even as a character, but blatantly (even in the Doctor’s own words) as a “present” to Robin. If I can put on my Anita Sarkeesian hat, this is atrocious, and Gatiss should either learn his lesson or retire his writing duties to Neil Cross.

And the beheading scene that was not. Originally, Robin was to have beheaded the Sheriff, much to Clara’s delight, only for the apparent corpse to begin talking, revealing that the robots’ spaceship originally landed on him, and they restored him with a cybernetic body. This would tie in more clearly with the theme of cyborgs taking shape this season, and better explain how he could have swum through molten gold before finally succumbing to his injuries as it hardened around him at the lip of the tank. Now that I know what the original story included, I think it suffered for the cut.

However, given the terrible timing of how many beheadings have been in the news lately, I can understand why Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin decided on the cut in the production office. Not only have American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley recently been beheaded by ISIS militants in Iraq, but there has been a rash of beheading murders among the civilian population of Britain recently, the most recent being the death of an 82 year old woman

There are no direct connections between the ISIS and British crimes, but it makes sense to avoid needless controversy, given the understandable public sensitivity about decapitation at the moment. Over-sensitive social conservatives among the British public have a special hatred for Doctor Who and a history of getting their way. The episode order for this and the following season was already cut from 14 to 13 for austerity’s sake. So any move to keep the show from coming under further fire is a good one.

Still, I hope we get an option to watch Robot of Sherwood with the beheading sequence on the DVD release. Then, we can at least see for certain who the robot of Sherwood is.

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