“Is it so hard to credit? That a man born into wealth and privilege can find the plight of the oppressed and weak too much to bear...“
“...until one night he is moved to steal a TARDIS, to fly among the stars, fighting the good fight?”
I think it’s fair to say that Mark Gatiss’ Robots of Sherwood has received several mixed reviews. Some have praised the episode as “proper family fun and one of the most exhilaratingly enjoyable” in years, whereas others have berated it as “an oddly-pieced together episode that didn’t make much sense”. (It must be said that the quality of Series 8 reviews has been remarkably low, both in terms of analysis and charity.)
In any case it seems the point of this episode has evaded many. Of course, this was a family romp. And yes, it was rather silly. Some bits dragged and there were a few too many McGuffins present for my liking.
But it was clear right from the very beginning - from the opening BBC ident in which the voiceover bumbled over some notion of the ‘fictional’ meeting the ‘real’, to Clara’s protest at the Doctor’s refusing to take her to Sherwood, through to that final bit of dialogue with Robin - that Gatiss’ true purpose wasn’t to push the boundaries of DW mythology (as in Cold War) or to introduce us to the Doctor’s character (as in The Unquiet Dead), but to ruminate on Doctor Who as a lasting narrative. Or a fairytale, if you will.
We’ll return to this point later. Let’s briefly run through this episode’s essentials.
I think that’s significant in itself, by the way, that I can ‘briefly’ discuss this episode at all. The word being pushed around here is ‘romp’. Romp. Sounds a little rude if you ask me, but since you didn’t, yes - the episode was a big old Romp. Light and fun with tongue-in-cheek. Other than some ‘meta’ observations, there’s not a lot to cover here. I feel that this will be a trifle shorter than my previous entries. Again, that is not at all an insignificant observation. It says something about what they wanted to do here. We’re now a quarter of the way through Series 8 and next week’s episode, Listen, looks positively terrifying. DW magazine has described it as one of the scariest episodes ever made. It’s natural, then, that they would want to release a fluffy, funny entry at this point in the show’s run.
On the note of this episode being ’funny’ - look, alright, no-one can really make objective statements here. Whilst I’m convinced some are pleased to go out of their way to not find things funny, we all laugh at different things. (Case in point: some find Mrs Brown’s Boys hilarious. I know, I don’t get it either.) Richard Edwards over at SFX gave Robot of Sherwood 2 out of 5 stars, saying that little in it “raises more than a light titter”. Suffice to say, I disagree. In fact, my wife and I were watching Robot with two lovely friends over fish-and-chips. I don’t think we’re the type of 20-something's who laugh at any old thing. And yet, as my wife pointed out afterwards, this was the most we’ve laughed so far in Series 8. Peter Capaldi’s dry caledonian wit just gets me, every time. I like the absurd, but dark humour tickles me better. The irony, of course, is that all who criticise this episode's humour sound an awful lot like the Doctor here ("That's not even funny!") - which, as it happens, was and is funny.
Well, whatever, I don’t care what you think. The show was funny. Deal with it.
If you’re eager for me to just get to the point, well, there it is. The show was funny. It was a Romp. Overall, a solid ‘7’, in my opinion. (Although you'll notice scores have been conspicuously absent so far, and this is rather on purposel.) It was better than Victory of the Daleks and Night Terrors, two of Gatiss’ other episodes, though not quite as good as his first DW episode, The Unquiet Dead. Still, I enjoyed it. It was lovely to see the Doctor indulge this funny side. He was certainly more Baker than Pertwee here.
Tom Riley as Robin Hood gave a predictably loud performance, exactly what you’d expect given the context of the story and the nature of his character, although that last bit of dialogue betrayed a depth that would have been lovely to have seen throughout. Ben Miller wasn’t perfectly decent as the Sherriff of Nottingham, but the Sheriff character himself was lame and nowhere near menacing enough. Thinking about it, the bit when he stabs the peasant feels entirely superfluous now. Nothing came of it. It proves that they had to put that in entirely to prove that this man’s dangerous. But it all felt a little limp. It must be said though… how much did he look like Roger Delgado?! It was really creepy. Seriously, if they need someone to play the Master - perhaps Delgado’s Master - they know who to call.
The plot was standard Doctor Who. Classic, even. The notion of an alien adventure in a historical time period felt very Doctors #1-3 but has been seen throughout the show’s history. I’m reminded of The Time Meddler, in which medieval England is the scene for an interstellar drama, starring William Hartnell. Also, Pertwee adventure The Time Warrior, which featured the first appearance of the Sontarans. Doctor Who has also done myths and legends before. From Odysseus in The Myth Makers to the explanation of the Mary Celeste’s disappearance in The Daleks’ Master Plan (pro hint: the Daleks did it). Then you’ve got The Mind Robber, which is all about the Doctor encountering famous fictions.
Oh, and, the Series 8 light plot arc is beginning to emerge. All roads lead to the ‘promised land’. I haven’t really covered ‘Missy’ yet as I don’t really want to indulge wild and crazy speculation. (But for the craic, here are my top 3 theories:  she’s the Doctor;  she’s the Master;  she’s the gatekeeper of the Matrix.) I’m especially interested to see how Moffat covers these explicitly Abrahamic themes. I’m of the opinion that Doctor Who is a largely mixed bag when it comes to issues of religion and theology, but arguing that it’s all a liberal secular enterprise is patent nonsense. There are multiple points of sympathy and resonance with the Christian tradition in particular, but these are voices among many. You have the 9th Doctor berating Dickens for championing Victorian empiricism, the 10th hinting that that there was something more to the Gospel stories, the 11th rather patronisingly affirm the value of religious stories, and then, more recently, you have the 12th dismiss the promised land as a vestige of human superstition. The show really does run the gamut when it comes to theology, so I’m interested to see where we go with this. In the meantime, I’ll just have to keep reminding myself that this is something I really must write about sometime…
Still, there was that awesome bit when the Doctor pulled the arrow out of the TARDIS, and the ‘wound’ healed up immediately. So cool.
All this is a very deliberately controlled trickle. In a very roundabout sort of way, the very title of this episode betrays it, too. Notice that it’s not Robots of Sherwood, plural, but Robot - singular. But wait, aren’t there multiple robots here? Huge, knighted, steely robots who fly spaceships. Why the singular? Well, obviously it refers to Robin - or at least, the Doctor’s suspicion that Robin is a robot. It’s finally revealed that this is untrue, but there it is. The very title tells us about Gatiss’ focus - this is about the Doctor, a legendary hero, struggling with the presence of another. This is about Doctor Who meeting Robin Hood - the congress of two characters as well as two legends. The Time Lord of Gallifrey, and the Earl of Locksley. This all culminates in that final scene between these two men.
Rather, this is about Doctor Who as Fairytale. There’s something rather profound here. We might say that Gatiss is giving a voice to the ‘Whovian’ fanbase. I.e. this is a celebration of the 51-year-old epic that has entertained so many. Of course, to non-DW fans, the show is just plain silly. Corny acting, bad sets, dubious plots, etc. But for the rest of us, the show is far greater than the sum of its parts. It can be anything and everything, anywhere and everywhere. As an intellectual property, it is literally bigger on the inside. It can do anything. We’re given glimpses of beauty yet unseen, aliens yet unknown and worlds yet unchartered. As for the show itself, it obviously deals with the elusiveness of ’time’, a concept so profound and transcendent that it affords the show’s central conceit a somewhat ‘divine’ quality. Certainly, Time Lord technology feels Godlike, and much of the show’s history has played with the Doctor’s pseudo-divinity. A Messiah figure from ‘up there’; humanity’s protector and many-times-saviour.
In the words of Jonathan Morris,
“Without exception, Doctor Who has always been the most imaginative, the most extraordinary show on television. It might not have been the most prestigious, the most expensive, the most well-made, well-written or well-acted show on television but it has always been the most remarkable”.
It could maybe be said that Gatiss is indulging a cheeky little post-script, following the show’s 50th celebrations. Here’s his ode to the franchise he so clearly loves. The Doctor might not exist in real history, but then, who cares? “History is a burden. Stories make us fly”. It feels like Gatiss is channeling C.S. Lewis here, and his notion of ‘True Myth’ in particular - that a story, though bereft of an actual historical anchor, can tell us something more real than a clinical retelling of events ever could. To say to one’s lover, “Your eyes are like starlight”, is more real, more beautiful, more true, even though, as a literal and scientific description, it’s utter nonsense.
Doctor Who as True Myth. Yes, I rather like that. Let’s run with that.
“Perhaps we shall both be stories. And may those stories never end.”