Sunday, September 07, 2014

8.03: Robot of Sherwood, or He’s the Opiate of the Masses

Errol Flynn as Robin Hood

So, look, I need to get this out of the way. I am part of that crowd that hates Mark Gatiss and considers several of his contributions to NuWho to be among the show's very worst moments. I find his poorest episodes straightforwardly deserving of scorn and contempt in a way that is unique to him as a show writer.

Sandifer makes a claim in his review of this episode that it's not fair to criticize a Gatiss script for... being a Gatiss script, basically. This seems wrongheaded to me. If Gatiss is generally awful, or even if he's generally competent but his worst material is so ideologically poisonous that it taints the show, the obvious thing to do is not to hire him to write more episodes. That he's apparently a nice guy and buddies with the showrunner doesn't seem so much like a defense of keeping him around as it is mostly just some straightforward nepotism. I'd argue that the ideological underpinnings of The Idiot's Lantern, Victory of the Daleks and Night Terrors (and, accidentally, The Unquiet Dead) are so revolting on a basic level that they alone should be enough to get him voted off the island (so to speak).

I also think it's wrong to consider the reactions against him merely a function of the kind of story he's interested in doing. I saw Gatiss recently described as one of those writers whose stories are, inevitably, just cargo cult versions of Classic Who. That, as a concept, isn't something I necessarily rebel against. In the right hands, you can get a perfectly fine episode out of that (indeed, Gatiss himself has written a couple of of good episodes like Cold War and The Crimson Horror). I'm actually reasonably sympathetic to the general thrust of what Gatiss seems to be trying to do with his episodes. So, chalking up anti-Gatiss sentiment to simply not finding the kinds of stories he's trying to tell appealing seems off to me. There are specific ideological and aesthetic reasons to want him, specifically, to no longer write for Doctor Who.

All of which is to say that I actually liked Robot of Sherwood.

Was it a classic? No. But Sandifer, in his review, is exactly right that in this case everyone involved was on the same page that they were creating some fluff. And, on those terms, I actually think this time around Gatiss succeeds more than he fails.

The plot, such as it is, is fine and clearly a callback to Deep Breath from a couple of weeks ago. I'll admit, this got me a bit more interested in the season-long mystery than the previous appearances of Missy in previous episodes this season. But only a bit.

People keep saying this is the Doctor showing up in Errol Flynn's Robin Hood. Which is probably true, but I've never seen that movie so I can't speak to it. But the show certainly does an admirable and workmanlike job evoking our shared cultural memories of Robin Hood. It all felt instantly and comfortably familiar (like that classic part of the Robin Hood myth where he gets into a laser beam fight with robot knights). Tom Riley (Robin Hood) and Ben Miller (Sheriff of Nottingham) both play their parts with exactly the right amount of ham without overplaying their hands and Riley, particularly, does a nice job with the extra bits of character layering he's given throughout the episode. Everyone else in this week's guest cast plays parts that are fairly two-dimensional but they too do a good job making sure your sense of familiarity is evoked with their smaller roles.

As for the regulars, both Capaldi and Coleman are given enough to do in this episode to make it enjoyable to watch those two run through the story. Capaldi does particularly good work opposite Riley's Robin Hood. The dynamic between those two is part of the subtextual throughline that actually makes it's way into blunt text at the end of the episode: that these characters are legends and central heroes of their own stories, and so the antipathy they have for each other as each tries to usurp the other's place in what they consider their own adventure is surprisingly clever coming from Gatiss. This, of course, results in some broad comedy and a particularly goofy exchange in a dungeon scene where the Doctor's ego firmly gets the better of him and he temporarily loses command of his reason. I found that exchange fairly amusing and nice flipside of the Doctor's personality coin (or, er, something to that effect).

That same scene is also a a great piece for Coleman, and Clara is now quickly becoming one of my favorite NuWho companions. While Robin Hood and the Doctor are verbally sparring as a consequence of colliding into each other's legends, Clara is using the skills we've seen her draw on in the last two episodes to try to move the to so-called heroes to action and, absent that, figure out how to save herself. She quickly moves on to beautifully playing the Sheriff and generally being excellent with any character she interacts with throughout the episode. Her centrality to resolving the episode's conflict has a very Davison vibe to it, where the Doctor is largely relegated to the edges as others come in to do the actual resolving of the plot, Not a dynamic I'd like every episode (case in point: the Davison era), but this mode of operation for the Doctor has a reasonable history in the show and seeing it every once in a while is no crime.

Clara also properly frames the driving point of the story. One of the classic dynamics of Doctor Who is that the show "invades" another story and part of the pleasure of that dynamic is seeing how the Doctor and companions take to playing in someone elses world. Here, the Doctor invades the story of another legend who is firmly the equal of himself. The result is a story and world that just as much pushes back against the presence of the Doctor and tries to keep itself in the driver's seat. Clara realizes this all comes down to the nature of heroism and legend. Considering that she views both of these characters as heroes, she is able to properly frame these issues to both men so they can come to terms, at least a bit, with themselves and accept each other's place.

As I said, at the end, that current that had been running as subtext throughout the episode emerges in the text of the final conversation between Robin Hood and the Doctor. In a bluntly metatextual moment, both characters discuss each other and themselves in the context of them as characters and legends. A sharp ending that helps retroactively raise the stakes a bit on the whole episode.

Politically, there isn't too much to be too offended by. The general conceit of simply valorizing the history of Britain is probably off-putting to some, but I found it difficult to get offended. Both Robin Hood and the Doctor get to talk a little Marx, but given Gatiss' past sentiments it's difficult to read that as anything other then him thinking it would be a bit clever. The story of the privileged person who goes rogue and takes up the cause of the poor and marginalized is, of course, part of the entire narrative of the show. It's also problematic, but it would also be unfair to particularly blame Gatiss or this episode for that since this story merely made explicit one of the basic premises this show operates under.

More annoying is that Gatiss still seems firmly disinterested in writing female characters who aren't the companion. Sandifer mentions the Bechdel Test, and Gatiss' dismal scores when the test is applied to his scripts. He could have easily beefed up the part of Marian in this episode and given her a bit more to do (and, hell, she could have even had a conversation with Clara) but it doesn't seem like Gatiss can be bothered with such things. So fuck him for that.

This episode was fine and enjoyable for what it does. I hope Gatiss never writes for Doctor Who ever again.

Obligatory Bullet Points:

-I thought the sword/spoon fight was funny. Showcased just how much of a fuck the Doctor did not give about the situation at hand.

-My partner-in-crime James thinks the Doctor wasn't written in character this episode, citing particularly the dungeon scene as the Doctor being written a lot dumber than usual. Maybe. Again, I attribute that primarily to his buttons being pushed just the right way by the mere existence of Robin Hood that his ego goes haywire. On most of the other stuff, I think it's tough to say if the scripts are truly writing Capaldi in character or not since we've only one other non-regeneration story to compare to.

-It's been mentioned by probably every other blogger out there, but that Troughton cameo was pure joy.

-A couple pieces of this story don't make a lot of sense. Some of it, like why an arrow made of gold is being given away, isn't really a problem because who cares. The biggest one is structural to the episode: for most of the episode, the story works on the audience assumption that this isn't real (siding with the Doctor) and makes scenes like the archery contest suitable goofy and implausible to heighten that suspicion. When it's revealed that Robin Hood et al. are, in fact, real (the show siding with Clara) it retroactively contextualizes the main conflict between the Doctor and Robin Hood but at the same time diminishes the mechanics of how a lot of the rest of the episode was portrayed (as, well, fake-y). Going one time through the episode, this isn't really a problem. But I'll be curious how the episode feels on repeat viewings.

-Wow, that trailer for next week. Tasty.

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