TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – “Sir, I protest, I am not a Merry Man!”: Robot of Sherwood and narrative spaces

When things have gotten a bit political and complicated on here, you know what one must do?

Go and rave about series 8. Again. Be warned, it is not the first time, and it won’t be the last.

But not about the big, huge, dark setpieces. Not that I don’t have material on those, but let’s do something a little simpler and happier. “Robot of Sherwood”, here I come.

As far as reception goes, it’s an episode that firmly stands in the middle. Certainly, it’s nowhere near as despised as “Fear Her” (which is still good, and I will fight you) – but it generally draws the usual criticisms associated with Mark Gatiss’ scripts: an efficient, but ultimately pretty bland and forgettable piece. I don’t think that’s entirely fair: at the very least, it’s a lot more interesting than “Time Heist” – and, being a series 8 episode, it does possess a satisfying degree of thematic depth to it. And really, if you want to see that depth, it’s best to look at one of the most common criticisms of that story – that it’s way too similar to the Eleventh Doctor’s era in terms of style and tone. It’s a wonky criticism, really: first, well, the historical romp is not really an Eleventh Doctor thing. The closest thing I can think of is “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, which is less historical and more “let’s be random and add Nefertiti and a big game hunter to the mix” – otherwise, you get “Vincent and the Doctor”, which is ah, such a romp, depression and mental illness, woo-hoo! or “Victory of the Daleks”, which has no idea of why it actually is an historical episode – but mostly just pastiches that don’t so much try to actually be set in an epoch, and more to capture its essence, as distillated through decades or centuries of fiction and pop culture. The “Crimson Horror”, “Cold War” approach, if you want. Really, there’s something to be said about the Eleventh Doctor era being the time where Who turns, even more than usual, into a frantic, over-excited genre-hopping chameleon: from direct pseudo-literary adaptation with “A Christmas Carol”, to the “blockbuster-of-the-week” format of series 7, to the very meta reflection series 6 has on action versus ideology in the media (the Doctor “gets too big”, falls into the trap of hubris, precisely because the stories expand and become more action-driven). Maybe it’s a sort of logical consequence when the show gets at the apex of its international hype (for now)? Anyway, it’s very different from what Russell T. Davies did – which was more to integrate random fragments of pop culture in his scripts, in a sort of weird tongue-in-cheek kaleidoscopic approach, sometimes to very confusing effects; and it’s very different from what the Capaldi era does, with its much more self-centered preoccupations. The Capaldi era is a very introspective time – it had to be, if only to address the issues that arose in the last part of Smith’s tenure. If Smith’s tenure was about what Who could be, Capaldi’s is about what Who is. A search for the deep nature of the show, for what it means to be the Doctor.

Hence the tension at the heart of “Robot of Sherwood”. It’s, in a way, a much more straightforward historical than most of the Smith era stuff, be it only because it commits to telling the expected beats of the story: a maiden to save, a first (amiable) duel, an archery contest, an heroic escape, a villainous, lecherous sheriff, a second (not so amiable) duel, and of course, a climax where someone has to shoot at something. And, at the same time, the history it depicts doesn’t actually exist. It plays the “History vs. Stories”, card, basically – and pretty, well, too: it’s a mostly tight, focused script, which is not necessarily what you would expect from the ever-so-inconsistent Mark Gatiss. There’s a narrative power to that principle of using the tested historical formula to talk about a fictional character – and it’s interesting to see how the story is shaped by it. What “Robot of Sherwood” does very well, really, is to create a fictional space where this tension can exist and thrive, a space that fits naturally into the larger frame of the series.

Gatiss mostly does that through the tone of the episode – it’s a bit silly, obviously, but its silliness feels earned: pure ridiculousness, bad (or “low”) camp, is what happens when the context of the episode doesn’t justify well enough the proceedings. “Voyage of the Damned” is a prime example of the things not to do: the camp elements, whether you like them or not, feel fundamentally at odds with what is, at its core, a very dark narrative, and create a huge sense of tonal whiplash. Here, you get the feeling that the laws of narrative coherency that usually rule over Who (and let’s be fair here, those laws are already much looser in Who than in most shows) are turned down a bit, leaving room for something broader. What’s good about the script, though, is that this general tone is not just a stunt, it’s not just the writer declaring that well, it’s the part in the series where we need to have a romp, let me do it I guess – it’s motivated. Of course, some parts of the fandom consider the very idea of a romp, motivated or not, to be sacrilegious as far as the ethos of Who is concerned, but eh, we’re between nice clever people, so let’s not give them any attention. This sense of motivation is essentially metafictional – in a very series 8 way, really: it’s a piece about Robin Hood as a fictional character, and the things he can tell us about heroism. There’s not much to be said there, in all honesty: the episode is very clear about what it aims to do in terms of parallels, and executes them cleanly – the theme of the Doctor being similar to Robin Hood is set up in the first scene, reminded in the first encounter with the Merry Men, they’re placed in parallel positions throughout the story (prisoners, contestants in the archery duel), and it comes back in the last scene. The dialog there is really quite lovely, by the way – easily one of Gatiss’ absolute best scenes:

DOCTOR: I’m still having a little trouble believing yours, I’m afraid.

ROBIN: Is it so hard to credit? That a man born into wealth and privilege should find the plight of the oppressed and weak too much to bear… until one night, he is moved to steal a TARDIS? Fly among the stars, fighting the good fight?

DOCTOR: I’m not a hero.

ROBIN: Well, neither am I. But if we both keep pretending to be (ah ah), perhaps others will be heroes in our name. Perhaps we will both be stories. And may those stories never end.

What makes that scene so good is that it marks the point where the narrative exits the fantasy space of Nottingham Forest, and goes back into the real world – with the two men exchanging direct commentaries on the story they just experienced. Robin literally goes out of character, and points to one of the building blocks of his persona, his laugh, as a deliberate and artificial construct. Thing is, it could be cheap. Meta is not a magical button that automatically makes everything better: “Time Heist” a couple of episodes later, attempts it by making the Doctor occupy two positions within the same narrative, as the hero and the antagonist (The Architect), but it doesn’t add anything special to the story, only creating a bit of an over-plotted narrative. But it’s not – it’s set up all throughout the story. Not just because there’s a wonderful little Easter egg with Patrick Troughton popping up among the faces of other fictional Robin Hood (the best kind of Easter eggs, really: they’re subtle and they propel the plot forwards!).  It’s that the story is calibrated so that it’s just a tiny bit more ridiculous than your usual Who narrative. It’s not so broad as too dismiss it entirely as just a pantomime, but it’s broad enough that you do give credence to the Doctor’s pretty lame theories about Robin being a robot or an alien or whatever the hell – it sort of sets up the exact same principle that would be used later that year, in one of Steven Moffat’s absolute masterpieces, “Last Christmas”: the very over-the-top nature of the show, playing fast and loose as far as the duty of providing explanations and narrative consistency is concerned, allows to create a doubt in the viewer, blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Of course “Last Christmas” weaponized that ambiguity – “Robot …”, which is not as smart a script, just mostly questions it. Still, it’s an interesting narrative move: one that is called out in the text of the episode itself, too: the Doctor doesn’t stop pointing out how unreal the space in which he stands is, from his dialog about the forest being too iconic in its bright sunniness, to his suggestion that they might be trapped inside a miniscope.

There are some problems, though, in making Robin Hood this pure construct, this metatextual hero. The parallels between him and the Doctor, hammered home in the text quoted above, are a little too neat: for instance, did you notice what Robin Hood never does in that story? Stealing to the rich to give to the poor. Which is kind of, you know, his job description. That’s a very Gatiss thing to do, really: the man, despite his (real, and not to be overlooked) qualities as a scriptwriter, has an almost pathological fear of making any ideological point – when you go as far as placing the figure of Margaret Thatcher at the center of one of your scripts and don’t make any sort of political statement about that, there’s really something of a pattern. Shame, because there could be some interesting stuff there: I’m not necessarily asking for an anticapitalistic piece (although, I wouldn’t be complaining), but there could be some nice tension to draw from the Doctor and Robin’s different approaches to their heroism (be it only the fact that while both are declassed noblemen, the Doctor still very much enjoys the privileges of his rank, while Robin has adopted a simple life surrounded by a carnavalesque gathering of common men). Instead, the one who steals from people is the Sheriff (played by a Ben Miller who, furthering the whole meta angle, acts like Anthony Ainley’s evil, younger twin) – there’s a sort of de-complexification of the narrative at play here, with really nice heroes and very evil villains: the Sheriff does murder a man in cold blood in the first scene where he appears, in a moment of violence actually pretty graphic for an episode like this one; and there’s of course the fact he, in the original script, wasn’t even human, but instead a cyborg enhanced with the technology of the robots (the dueling scene was supposed to contain him being decapitated and then re-attaching his head, but those bits were excised from the episode after the execution of a BBC journalist by a terrorist group in the days before the airing of the episode, and were never reintegrated into the episode itself, not even on the DVD). Which is rather interesting – series 8 is, generally speaking, a very morally grey string of episodes, so why does this story stand out?

And this is where the structural qualities of the episode really shine – when you put it into the context of the series at large. First important point: series 8 is, more than any other one, a transitory series. There were shifts of ethos from series to series before, of course, but generally, those were processed in a single episode: think “The Christmas Invasion”, or the perfect example that is “The Eleventh Hour” – but that series takes its time to carry itself, and us along the way, from the feel, tone and themes of the Smith era to those of the Capaldi one. The transition is only really completed with “The Caretaker”, a forty-five minutes episode that nevertheless is split into very distinct parts: a first one that clearly bears the mark of Gareth Roberts, and carries the brand of fish-out-of-the-water comedy that defined his two iconic Smith/Corden scripts; and a second one that subverts the comical elements to actually delve deep into a very complex, very raw character drama. You’ll notice that said point of transition hits right in the middle, in the sixth episode out of twelve – and the three following stories, which really are kind of a loose three-parter, “Kill the Moon”, “Mummy on the Orient-Express”, and “Flatline”, are first and foremost concerned with stating once and for all the themes tied most deeply with old Twelvie. So, that leaves us with the first five episodes of the series, well, carrying the Smith era into its grave, so to speak: “Deep Breath” is based on the explicit contrast between the two incarnations, as perceived by a confused Clara; “Into the Dalek” reads more as a straightforward statement of purpose for Twelve but nevertheless is crammed with massive amounts of continuity used to fuel the Doctor’s identity crisis, a crisis that exists as a direct response to Smith’s portrayal; “Listen” is a subversion and parody of the typical Moffat script; and “Time Heist” is based on the exact same “blockbuster-of-the-week” format that fueled Smith” last series. And “Robot of Sherwood”, of course.

As said before, there are not that many direct connections between that episode and the adventures of Eleven – but while the episode does not directly search to ape storytelling patterns from that era, it still captures, in a way, its feel. The sort of mad, consequence-free fun that defined something like “The Crimson Horror”, or “Vampires of Venice” – except it effectively kills that kind of story, too: as said before, the episode basically ends by acknowledging that all we have seen is just fiction. It’s a discrete, but very clear invitation to let go of that kind of storytelling, and an initiation to the Capaldi era new rules. And indeed, stories similar to that one are nowhere to be found in the rest of series 8 and 9: “The Girl who Died” could come close, if it did not turn, in a brilliant storytelling move, in a subversion of the very concept of “Doctor Who romp”; and even the deeply silly Christmas Specials that bridged series 9 and 10 are defined above all by a discrete sense of melancholy and unavoidable endings to come, from the final scene at Darillium to the Nardole monologue that closes “Return of Doctor Mysterio”. All of this is still true in series 10, so far at least –  “Thin Ice” is deeply politically motivated in a way that just doesn’t feel at home with the Smith era. Speaking of endings, take a look at that very first scene in the TARDIS. Notice something? It’s the very last time you see the story being prompted by Clara asking the Doctor to go somewhere in particular; the blackmail scene that follows “Dark Water’s” opening titles being of course something else entirely. That’s probably the last time where their relationship can be typified as a classic Doctor/companion one – except maybe “Time Heist”, which still has the Doctor being the antagonist and Clara refusing to accompany him for date-related reasons: anyway, the cracks in that formula are already in full display here, with Clara being mistaken (although, let’s be honest, is it really a mistake …?) for the leader of the ragtag bunch of misfits and re-using the counter-interrogation techniques she had learnt in “Deep Breath” with frightening efficiency. Her scene with the sheriff is really interesting from that perspective: we do really see an increase, so to speak, in Clara’s power within the narrative; we get the feeling that she is a much more efficient, potentially more dangerous character than two episodes before. It’s not exactly unheard of in the revival, of course – I talked about Rose’s progression in series 2 in not-so-dissimilar terms –, but the speed of it is impressive; all the more if you compare this episode to “Flatline”, the episode where Clara pretty much officially catches up with the Doctor.

You want some extra thematic foreshadowing? Let’s have that. With some soy sauce. There’s stuff that announces the finale in there: you get to see a cyborg in a central role (well, you would have if that scene hadn’t been cut …) – which was also something “Deep Breath” did (going as far as having its cyborg impaled on a London landmark, while Cybermen are being created in another landmark, not so far) and you get to see a place of historical significance (a castle here, a cathedral there), being corrupted by alien technology, and turned into a place of strange, devious science. This time, it’s all about gold, and not about eternal life – but in both cases, you’ll note that there’s a strong alchemical subtext. And of course, you get that line:

ROBIN: History is a burden. Stories can make us fly.

First thing first, it’s a great line. But, most interestingly, it introduces a key tension within the Capaldi era’s narrative. Stories versus history. Or at the very least, stories versus something. The Smith era was, above all things, a joyful, incredibly optimistic celebration of the power of storytelling, at the core of episodes like “A Christmas Carol”, “The Angels Take Manhattan” or “The Rings of Akhaten”, to only quote the most blatant: stories that can kill or heal, encompass an entire life in all its beauty, and topple lying gods. The Capaldi era is much more concerned by what it is to be done with this stories: the problems they can carry with them, but above all, how you seize them and make them do your bidding. Amy’s quest was to take control of the intradiegetic narrative of her life, to set things right and take her own decisions; Clara’s quest is to take control of the extradiegetic narrative of the show. A quest like this necessarily faces the threat of History, as a straightforward progression: Clara’s own mortality is an issue, of course, but there’s also the complex question of what can and cannot be changed, which drives a great many of the narrative arcs of her tenure – from the Volcano scene in “Dark Water”, to the fate of Ashildr in “The Girl who Died”, not to mention the way the concept is introduced in the first four episodes of series 9, with Davros and the Fisher King both being tied to this sense of a narrative that can or cannot be changed – see that line from “Before the Flood”.

DOCTOR: Here, now … This is where your story ends.

But back to another of series 8 structural tricks – it’s absolutely fantastic in the way it juggles screentime between the Doctor and Clara. It’s, when you get down to it, an extraordinarily rigorous process, arranged like clockwork: they get one episode of development each, followed by one or more episodes that focus equally on the both of them, and on the way their relationship is evolving, and then that same pattern repeats. I could explain for a bit longer, but, an image being worth a thousand words:schéma(Amusing random remark: the three episodes that take place almost entierly in London are the first, the sixth, and the twelfth – nice bit of narrative symmetry here)

And I do think “Robot of Sherwood” does some very interesting stuff with its role as a moment of relative tranquility in the arc progression: it’s not just an occasion for Capaldi and Coleman to exchange some screentime outside of the big thematic movements of the series. It’s certainly not “Listen”, a perfect, 50/50 split that tackles both character’s psychology and inner demons, but it’s very compelling nonetheless. Let’s play another round of “notice anything strange with this episode?” Clue: it has to do with the guest cast. The answer is: there’s no Danny. And that’s interesting, because Danny (who is an absolutely fantastic character, by the way – there will be time to dwell on him in another article, but I remain quite fascinated by the way he stand as perhaps the only character in all of DW history who is allowed to be both a good guy and someone who rejects at a deep, fundamental level the Doctor’s values) is a key feature of series 8: he’s in every episode, bar “Deep Breath” (for obvious reasons) and that one. Question, then: why is that so? Well, we’ve already established that the episode is, when you get down to it, a fantasy – and you can go as far as saying that it’s a fantasy conjured up and created by the main characters: it’s Clara’s belief in “impossible heroes”, and her wish to see Robin, that set up the plot. Really, you can imagine the whole episode as something that just popped up out of the protagonists’ head – and it’s a concept the Capaldi era played with quite a bit, introducing the TARDIS telepathic interface (used in both “Listen” and “Dark Water”), that allows a person’s emotions and thoughts to transcend the ordinary laws of time travel (breaking the time-lock around Gallifrey in the first story, allowing them to reach “hell” in the second one), and, of course, the (genius) idea of the Metaphysical Engine that Patrick Ness developed in the second-to-last episode of Class. So, if we accept this idea, that “Robot of Sherwood” is a fantasy-fulfilling microcosm subordinated to the concerns of series 8 at large and of its characters … Well, it makes sense for that space to reflect, in its own, slightly goofy way, the tensions and conflicts carried this series carries and these characters experience.

Consider: this episode is basically all about the way the dynamic duo that is Twelve/Clara reacts to the arrival of a male figure that positions himself as a rival to the Doctor. Oh, of course, it’s not a perfect analogy, and indeed it showcases the qualities of Danny very well: he’s a very sensitive, quiet person, far from the stereotypical, brash masculinity embodied by Robin (up to his name – Pink); and he does not compete to steal the Doctor’s narrative spot, so to speak, instead offering an alternative path to the one proposed by the Time Lord. But still, there’s stuff there. It’s not difficult to see in Twelve’s dismissive attitude towards Robin a shade of jealousy, as if he was going to “steal” his companion (that slightly possessive, if always loving, attitude towards Clara is really a constant feature of Twelve’s character: it’s perfectly possible to see his repeated “duty of care” line as an expression of that kind of sentiment, “Hell Bent” then becoming a feminist rejection of the most paternalistic traits of the Doctor) – with maybe a tiny twinge of self-loathing thrown in there, considering the broad mannerism of Robin can echo those of Eleven, that personality he has so thoroughly rejected by “Deep Breath”, “I am not your boyfriend” and all that. Certainly, Twelve seems pretty accepting of Clara dating an Eleven-like character in “The Caretaker”, two episodes later – but maybe only because the Gatiss script has allowed him to process his angst regarding that. Really, what he gets with Robin is a sized down version of his relationship with Danny: dislike, begrudging cooperation, and then mutual respect – both those arcs even end in the same way, with the Doctor allowing Robin/Danny to reconnect with a love interest they had been separated from; of course, in Danny’s case, it’s played for drama, and he never takes that opportunity, sacrifying himself and staying in the Nethersphere.

From Clara’s perspective, this is also a pretty interesting episode: much like in her real life, outside of the fantasy narrative provided by the episode, her attention is split between two men that don’t seem to get along so well, and she is trying to make it all work out. Of course, as said before, Robin is hardly a straight analogue to Danny – he is, on the other hand, a decent analogue to Eleven, in all his over-the-tops mannerisms. Really, the story reads like a sort of weird twist on a multi-Doctors romp, with two characters occupying the same narrative function and competing for it. You can very much read the story as a last hurrah for Eleven’s era – the story where Clara sort of makes her peace with the fact that he is gone, and leaves Robin and all his whimsy behind. But the scenes she shares with the Sheriff are also of note: in his creepy, clearly sexually-coded attitude, there almost seems to be something of an engrained fear of an overbearing, patriarchal figure. The Sheriff can be seen as a dark, corrupt version of Capaldi’s Doctor – who, let’s not forget, was previously playing a similarly-coded character on The Musketeers: and Clara has every reason, so far, to harbor a little, cautious twinge of fear as far as the fierce, possibly dangerous Twelve is concerned – she’s right, too, as “Kill the Moon” will prove. Really, the fact that Ben Miller is clearly trying to aim for Master-like in his acting is a tell-tale sign: of course a character that’s similar to the Master will be, logically, positioned as an antithesis and perversion of the Doctor. It’s also a great way to do some indirect foreshadowing, contrasting what is a pretty classical vision of the Master with the reinvention, or rather, the trans-figuration (I am stealing Philip Purser-Hallard’s phrasing from Black Archive #4 here) of that same character that will take place in the series finale. Of course, one could make the observation that Clara, in that story, and maybe in series 8 in general, seems to be defined a lot through her relationship to male characters: I am not sure I entirely subscribe to that critical line, but there’s definitely an element of truth to it, be it only because of the form of queer erasure her relationship with Danny entails. What makes her character so compelling, though, is that, at the end of the day, Clara’s choice is never between two men – but between two ideological visions of the world, two life paths, that happen to be represented by men in the narrative. It’s especially true in the Doctor’s case: as Moffat pointed out many times, the Doctor is, above all else, an ideal, something you aspire to be. Not really a man, or a Time Lord. And in the weird, convoluted narrative spaces of series 8, where reality and fiction become intertwined in a complex, but always fun abstraction – well, that’s when the ascension towards Doctorhood can truly commence: through stories, to eternity.

And just for fun …

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