When Doctor Who came back in 2005 and became a huge success it didn’t take the BBC long to realise that there was a family audience ready and waiting for more of the same. For years there had been a bizarre assumption that it was impossible to achieve a big audience for any kind of drama that was not completely grounded in reality, which looks ridiculous in hindsight with plenty of sci-fi and fantasy big hitters in the USA throughout the 90s and early 2000s, just at a time when the BBC was avoiding it all. To give them their due, the BBC were quick to capitalise on the success of Doctor Who, and one of the first things they had a go at was Robin Hood. With that series long gone, it is time for Doctor Who to have a go at the Robin Hood legend, but the approach is remarkably different.
Writer Mark Gatiss embraces all the clichés about Robin and goes for a much more simplistic take on the legend, but that’s fair enough because a certain amount of shorthand is necessary due to the 45 minute format. He also makes a deliberate comparison between Robin and the Doctor, and to make the point he wants to make he has to look at the myth more than the probable reality. He goes to great lengths to establish Robin Hood as a mythical character so he can twist things around and show him as real. We will have a similar trick at Christmas, although done with much more ambiguity, subtlety and skill.
The Doctor’s insistence that Robin did not exist is a little odd, because he probably did. Yes, he has been exaggerated by ballads and plays, and more recently films and television, and the episode goes out of its way to show us the exaggeration rather than any serious attempt at showing us a realistic version of Robin. A more interesting approach would have been for the Doctor not to have claimed he didn’t exist, but to have taken Clara to meet the real Robin, who was doubtless far removed from his legend. But this wouldn’t have fitted with Gatiss’s attempt to show the Doctor and Robin in parallel, as legendary figures, a point that is somewhat hammered home, to the extent that it almost shouts “the Doctor isn’t real” at the viewer. As anti-establishment anarchists who try to redress the balance, the Doctor and the legendary version of Robin are perfect for comparisons, just not in such an unsubtle way. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with Doctor Who being silly at times, because silly is better than dull, but I would rather it was clever while it’s being silly.
And this episode certainly is very, very silly. Probably the example that will wind people up the most is the resolution, with a golden arrow shot at the spaceship to add a little more gold to its propulsion mechanisms (or something). I have to admire the sheer absurdity of the spaceship having a target on it for the convenience of this scene. Doctor Who often gives us alien science that is magic-plus-technobabble, and that’s fine. In fact, the more of that the better for reasons I have discussed in other articles. But if you are going to do that you must have some kind of internal logic to it all, whether that logic is scientifically nonsensical or not. So if you have shown the viewers that the gold has to be melted down and formed into circuit boards then an arrow stuck into the hull of the ship is not going to convince them that it is capable of achieving the same thing. Unless Mark Gatiss thinks that he can fill up his car by throwing a thimbleful of petrol at the windscreen (don’t do this).
The reason this kind of thing is happening here is that the farcical comedy is being given priority, and that’s ok as long as you don’t take things too far and abandon what Doctor Who is all about in the process. You thought the Doctor doesn’t carry a gun? Well he does now. If the sonic screwdriver can simply be used to blow something up, with the press of a button, then he might as well be going around with a grenade to throw at the target, when he gets in a strop about the arrow-splitting competition. Not a major deal, but it all adds up to a season in which the Doctor is coming across as slightly wrong.
So we are three episodes in and so far we have had three mediocre-ish reasonably enjoyable episodes. This is nothing unusual really at the start of a new Doctor’s tenure, with the series going (a) broad or (b) predictable while the new actor establishes his take on the role. The point is to shift the focus onto the Doctor and see how this particular version deals with things, and hopefully reassure the audience that it is the same man but interesting and compelling in different ways. That’s great if we like what we are seeing with the new Doctor, but when the first three episodes take him on a character arc that starts with bully and ends with idiot, then we’re on viewer-alienating ground. This episode behaves as if Capaldi is long-established and Coleman is new, by locking the Doctor up to bicker while Clara goes off and actually has the adventure. For the first time in a very long time, the debut of a new Doctor is going wrong. It will get back on track eventually and will do so magnificently as Doctor Who always does, but watching Doctor Who flounder at the time without that foreknowledge was a frustrating experience. RP
The view from across the pond:
Science Fiction can be mixed with other genres, often to great effect. As we’ve already discussed, horror and science fiction is often quite good. (John Carpenter’s The Thing is a prime example. See here or here for more.) It can also be mixed with comedy to great effect. John Carpenter also gave us the gem Darkstar but Back to the Future and even Guardians of the Galaxy have done exceptional jobs successfully merging the two genres.
On television Red Dwarf has been a longstanding classic and we’ve recently seen Seth McFarlane’s The Orville doing a great job exploring the universe of comedy. And Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency has been outrageous in its humor and science fiction. Mark Gatiss is no stranger to comedy; just look at his “Web of Caves” Doctor Who parody to perfectly illustrate that point. So there’s also a good chance he knows other comedic greats, like The Tick!
The Tick: “We must choose battle cries! You know, the cries we emit just before leaping into battle?”
Arthur: “You mean like: ‘not in the face, not in the face!’”
The Tick: “hmm… lacks force, chum. No more like… like… SPOON!”
And so the Doctor defeats Robin Hood in a duel using a spoon in Mark Gatiss’ Robot of Sherwood! And as silly as it is, somehow it’s tremendously appropriate for a man who never wants to fight. He doesn’t need a weapon but gets by with the least aggressive utensil he can: a spoon. That said, Alan Rickman, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, threatens to maim someone with a spoon. “Why a spoon, cousin?” “Because it’s dull you twit, it’ll hurt more!” Somewhere in here is a metaphor about the Doctor’s morality. He’s presumably the pacifist who doesn’t carry a weapon… or a madman who carries a dull weapon to cause more pain. If we go by Clara, we’re really not sure but at least he tries… (don’t get me started again).
However, if we take it that this is the character we’ve known for so long, it’s clearly the former. Thus, we can watch the episode the way it’s meant to be watched: a lighthearted comedy. In that way, it works very well. With a bit of fan service, we are reminded about Miniscopes from Jon Pertwee’s Carnival of Monsters, hear about amusement parks in the future (probably a reference to Journey into Terror, although when the first Doctor left, he had no idea that was where he was!), and get a glimpse of Robin Hood as played by Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. Fun stuff. But the joy of this episode is not in the story, which is pretty light. Nor is it in seeing Primeval’s Ben Miller play the Sherriff of Nottingham, even though he does it with such delightful villainy. It’s down to the very thing the Doctor claims to be against: banter! It’s marvelous. The fantastic scene between the Doctor and Robin make this episode do something it should not be able to: it makes us happy and laugh despite feeling like absolute fluff. The scene at the archery tournament is marvelous as well and the bantering with the Merry Men is hilarious. Regardless of it being a fluff-episode, it’s extraordinarily enjoyable.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t need them to be serious all the time! We don’t need ultra-powerful menaces threatening reality every week. Sometimes it’s ok to have a light story with a fairly insignificant problem. And Clara gets a bit of redemption but I’d say we have Mark Gatiss to thank for that. Gatiss understands that the Doctor is a hero and right from the start of the episode, Clara reminds the Doctor of that. Gone are her doubts about him being a good man under Gatiss’ writing.
D: “When did you start believing in impossible heroes?”
C: “Don’t you know?”
That is a refreshing change since the season started!
At this point in the series, I’d argue that Gatiss seems to understand people better than his peer, Steven Moffat. His story may have lacked the punch of some of Moffat’s early work, but it does have a lot of “fun” and charm woven throughout the story. And, importantly, it makes a good point about heroes that Moffat should probably be reminded of: whether or not we actually are heroes, we are still able to inspire others to be heroes in our names! ML
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