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Much Better to Be A Story—Doctor Who: “Robot of Sherwood”

Doctor Who/Robin Hood crossover? This is me making grabby hands as irritatingly as possible. See the grabby hands? Give. Give episode. Give it to me for cuddling.

That’s actually pretty close to my true impression of the episode, as you will see below.

Summary

It’s one of those “free pass” adventure days, where the Doctor asks his companion what they would like to see most in all the universe. Clara says she knows he’ll insist that the man’s not real, but she wants to meet Robin Hood. The Doctor does insist that he’s not real, but takes her to Sherwood Forest anyway. Once there, Robin Hood promptly shoots an arrow into the TARDIS and starts posturing.

He challenges the Doctor to the duel for his blue box, which the Doctor gamely takes up with a big spoon. The fight ends when the Doctor does some tricky footwork and knocks Robin in the water. (Robin returns the favor promptly afterward.) The outlaw takes the duo to his hideout and introduces them to the Merry Men—which Clara accidentally dubs them for the first time. The Doctor is suspicious and analyzing the whole band, convinced that they’re not real.

In the meantime, the Sheriff of Nottingham is taking gold (not jewels and other things of value, just gold) from the people. He sends a young woman to work under the castle and kills her father. Robin Hood attends the famous archery contest for the golden arrow. Though he wins, splitting the sheriff’s arrow in twain, the Doctor shows him up. This goes back and forth for a while until it comes clear that the knights and guards of Nottingham are robots. They capture him, and Robin and Clara, which had been his plan from the start. Of course, once captured, he has no actual plan, so he and Robin begin to bicker. Clara finally puts an end to it, which results in her being pegged as the “leader,” and getting brought to the Sheriff. She tricks him into giving up his story; a spaceship crashed to the ground and brought the robots, who the Sheriff plans to use in his bid for world domination. (Turns out, he’s not a fan of Prince John either.) They need gold to power the ship.

Doctor Who, Robot of Sherwood

The Doctor and Robin do eventually escape, making it to the castle’s control room—the palace is actually the spaceship in disguise, and the Doctor realizes that it, too, is headed for the “Promised Land” that the control node of the S.S. Marie Antoinette spoke of two episodes back. He figures that they created Robin Hood from their databanks of Earth history and legend, keeping the peasants complacent in the takeover by giving them a hero to look toward. The Sheriff comes in with Clara, and Robin takes her hostage and escapes. When Clara wakes the next day, he interrogates her about what the Doctor knows of him and his story.

The Doctor is locked up alongside the young woman who was captured earlier. He knows that the ship doesn’t have enough gold, and that the damage is too extensive; if the ship tries to take off, it’ll blow up and destroy half of the British Isles. He teaches the peasants to arm themselves against the robots with shiny platters and trays, and they stop the work on the ship, calling the Sheriff to them. The peasants escape while the Doctor continues to insist that Robin Hood is another robot… until the Sheriff points out that it makes no sense for them to create someone who is always trying to foil their plans. At that moment, Robin and Clara arrive—the Merry Men have taken the castle, and Robin is there to stop the Sheriff. During the fight, he cuts off the Sheriff’s head only to find out that he’s a robot as well. The spaceship landed on him when it fell.

They fight over a vat of molten gold, and Robin uses the Doctor’s trick to knock the Sheriff into it. The ship starts to take off once they’re out, but it won’t break orbit, so the Doctor and Clara and Robin fire the golden arrow together to give it an engine extra boost so it explodes in space. It is the greatest archery feat ever attempted by three people at once. Before they leave, Clara tells Robin to never give up on finding Maid Marion (they’d had a chat about her early on). Before the Doctor exits, Robin asks if it’s true that he’s only remembered as a legend and not a real man. The Doctor confirms this, and Robin says it’s good, better than history. That Clara told him the whole story of a man who saw people oppressed and couldn’t stand it… so he stole a TARDIS. Robin tells the Doctor that perhaps neither of them are heroes truly, but their stories are what matter. Clara wants the Doctor to admit that he likes Robin Hood, and he tells her that he left the outlaw a present. When the TARDIS dematerializes, Maid Marion is behind it—the same young woman who was working in the depths of the ship.

 

Doctor Who, Robot of Sherwood

Commentary

This is a Mark Gatiss penned episode, which might have worried a few fans to start—his episodes have a middling track record (remember the WWII fighter planes in space against multi-colored daleks?). But in my opinion, this sort of episode is exactly where Gatiss shines. He does an excellent job with history, with fictional figures and legends. He’s at his best when the science fiction aspects of the episode require little-to-no explanation. He knows how to make myths out of spaceships and robots, which is a particular plus in my book, being the sort of person who has always leaned more toward fantastical sci-fi.

And he made me cry this time, the bastard.

Sure, the episode seems a little contrived for the first half. And there’s some weirdness in progression of events—the fact that the Doctor happens to find Robin Hood on a first go (gosh, the TARDIS must have really wanted to prove him wrong on this trip), that the world is set up in a sort of skeletal fashion off the assumption that we all know the tales, that Robin himself is hard to take seriously at all first the first half of the episode—it makes for an interesting brew that could have easily not panned out. (Also, Clara faints when Robin Hood flings them into the moat? Did she hit her head on a rock?)

There’s also a very basic storytelling problem here: Gatiss is pulling primarily from more modern Hood legends, ones that moviegoers will recognize best. It’s a good practical decision, but a bad one historically speaking—the events in the episode would ring truer if they’d been mined from the older ballads, but then you don’t get the great background of Robin Hood as a dispatched nobleman, and all the cues that viewers know best. I do get it, but Clara loves the legends and she’s a teacher, and it’s an awkward suspension of disbelief for my part.

Discounting that, there’s also the fact that Robin and his merry band are played somewhat less than genuine for the first half of the episode, almost camp. It seems to be a diversion tactic—if they come off too accurate to the figures we know and love, the audience will be less inclined to believe the Doctor when he insists that they’re fake. And without that little niggling chance hanging over our head, most of the episode doesn’t work. As a result, the Merry Men and Robin himself have a sort of frat bro vibe at the beginning, man-children who are incapable of taking anything seriously. I am with the Doctor: the laughter is creepy.

The Doctor’s insistence that Robin Hood can’t be real is a very specific departure from previous Doctors, especially Eleven. At first glance, it seems to be just a way of differentiating them, but it goes deeper than that; the Eleventh Doctor lived something of a fairy tale, with his child friend Amy who he appeared to like some kindly wizard one night. But he didn’t exactly do well by Amy, did he? Poor Amy Pond, left behind and then left again, and then zapped back in time where he could never lay eyes on her. The Doctor did a lot of damage to the people he loved in his last incarnation. Is it any surprise that he doesn’t believe in heroes and fairy tales anymore?

Doctor Who, Robot of Sherwood

So that’s the heart of the episode. The Doctor telling Clara over and over, no, this man can’t be real because people like this don’t exist. He would know. Clara is a perfect avatar this episode because the audience is getting the same buzz off the encounter—it’s the Doctor and Robin Hood! The Doctor! Robin Hood! AAAAHHHHHHHHH. Look at them fight like little boys! Look at them try to outdo each other! (Honestly, I laughed until I nearly choked at his Time Lord pride for being the one who would starve out last in their cell.) The Doctor fought Robin Hood with a spoon! Which may be the most Doctor Who thing to ever occur in a Doctor Who episode. He used trick arrows to win the archery contest! Everything about this episode needed to happen. It was a perfect stew of “have not”s that needed to be “have”s. The world suddenly seems more right.

Clara gets a lot of credit this episode, again being treated like a character with intelligence and her own agenda (a trend that I hope will continue for the rest of her tenure and extend into the future). She gets pegged as the leader by the guard because she’s the only one who can command focus. She gets the Sheriff to spill a lot of information, then thoroughly enjoys admitting that she lied to him. I also give Gatiss a lot of credit for not going too overboard with the “look, boys—a woman!” scenario that often happens in these narratives—Robin Hood flirts because that’s what he does, but he’s not trying anything, and none of his comrades do either. Other historical scenarios sometimes result in the companion getting a slew of unwanted advances (like Shakespeare and Martha, for example), but everyone here treats Clara with respect. Though we see very little of Maid Marion, she also stands out as someone compassionate and capable. On the other hand, I really do wish we’d gotten more of her. Particularly since this is a very dude-heavy episode.

Getting to know Capaldi’s Doctor better and better remains the treat lately, though. Never have I seen a Doctor who manages to balance grumpiness with just enough softness that it doesn’t sting. This was a problem that occurred often for the First and Sixth Doctors; they were both wonderful in their own way, but also a bit too mean sometimes. Twelve’s grouchiness comes off more internal—he’ll let you know he dislikes something, but not insist on your agreement or try to make you feel stupid in the process. When Clara calls him on his attitude, he takes the rebuke. It doesn’t mean he listens, but he is aware in a way that he has never been before—he’s not for everyone. Whereas previous Doctors were convinced of their own superiority (Six in particular), Twelve has no illusions of perfection. He’s not even sure how much he likes himself, let alone that he deserves to be liked by others.

Doctor Who, Robot of Sherwood

Which bring us to the conclusion of the episode, the reveal that Robin Hood is a real man, that he lived and did the things the legends said. And the Doctor can’t believe it because he knows he’s not a hero anymore, so how could Robin Hood be?

What the Doctor has forgotten is that people don’t think of themselves as heroes—they are made into heroes according to the perceptions of others. And Robin Hood takes the time to explain that to him through Clara’s voice. He asked her what the Doctor knew of him, who the Time Lord was, and she told the story of a great hero who helped the downtrodden. (Doctor, you taught peasants to fight laser-shooting robots with buffet trays! YOU WIN.) It doesn’t matter if the Doctor doesn’t feel like that man… that’s still his truth. Sneaky, sharp Clara saw something that the Doctor could never see, that he and the infamous outlaw happen to have a great deal in common. They are both angered by oppression, they are both outcasts of somewhat noble stature, they are both kind and romantic and larger than life.

They cannot be contained by history. They must be stories.

This acknowledgement both plays with and manages to be more satisfying than the narrative we received from characters like River Song in previous seasons, regarding the universe’s view of his adventures. Yes, in some cultures the word Doctor means “warrior” because of their encounter with the Time Lord, but one story does not make a life. Clara has seen the Doctor through countless points in time, and this is the story she tells. Robin Hood is a hero to her, but the Doctor is her hero. Even grumpy and childish, even spoon-wielding and sad, even befuddled and disbelieving. Even when he can’t see it. Especially when he can’t.

And Robin Hood, who starts off the episode with an unconvincing laugh and an annoying cadence, ends as the hero that folklore has known for centuries. He is wiser and warmer, he’s willing to do more for the people who depend on him. And just when he thinks he’s got so much farther to go, Maid Marion is hiding behind the TARDIS and he gets his happy ending.

Because the Doctor and Clara wrote this story. And those are always the sorts of endings they’re working toward.

Awesome asides and hints:

  • Robin Hood fans would have instantly recognized the fight between the Doctor and Robin as a mirror of the initial fight between the outlaw and Little John because it occurs in practically every modern retelling of the story. What’s great is seeing the Doctor get the drop on Hood this time around, along with the fact that Robin takes the move for himself when going up against the Sheriff.
  • There are nods to famous versions of Robin Hood and the actors who protrayed him all over the place, but my favorite is probably the knife-to-the-banner slide Robin does with Clara toward the end. Pure Douglas Fairbanks.
  • When the Doctor is looking through the ship’s databanks at various versions of the Robin Hood story, there is a shot of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton! He was in the television series The Adventures of Robin Hood in the 1950s. (No, he did not play Robin. But he’s got a bow and arrow, and that’s all that matters.)
  • The Doctor being able to duel is actually a skill he has displayed several times in as many incarnations. On a hilarious (to me) note, he has dueled the Master more than once (as Three and Five), and also fought as the Tenth Doctor as well.
  • Of course, the robots were headed to “the Promised Land.” Which means that this isn’t some glitch in one ship’s system. Someone is clearly sending out the signal. Is it all Missy’s doing? Time will tell….

Emily Asher-Perrin also keeps a dueling gauntlet in her coat pocket. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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