Continuing our recap of Doctor Who series 8 and our run up to the new series, we pick up where we left off last week with the first episode written by Mark Gatiss.
Robot of Sherwood
This was a much more light-hearted and visibly brighter episode than the past few. Indeed, Doctor Who has tended towards the darker colours in the last few series, so when a story like this comes along it does stand out. From Clara’s bright red dress, to the lush green surroundings, this episode shone like a beacon in many ways.
I remember being a little unimpressed upon my first viewing of this episode, but it has grown on me since. Doctor Who has two approaches to historical figures. To say ‘yes, the legends were true! They really were like that!’ or to say ‘not everything they tell you is true, maybe they weren’t the perfect picture you were led to believe!’ Usually, I prefer the latter. But here we get a myth-confirmation story and it wasn’t too bad if you ask me.
The story revolves around the Doctor taking Clara to see one of her childhood heroes – Robin Hood. The Doctor doesn’t believe he is real and so is surprised to be confronted with the man face to face. After a quick sword-on-spoon fight, we are introduced to a Sherwood Forest under the rule of a black-hearted Sheriff who has all the pantomime villainy you’d expect. The Doctor, still convinced this is all fakery, soon discovers robots are knocking about, trying to fix up a crashed spaceship (ring any bells from Deep Breath?). The Doctor and Robin bicker, Clara meddles and manipulates, and all hell breaks loose.
So far so standard, a little romp of an episode after all that seriousness. But there is more to this episode than meets the eye.
Clara takes charge and takes the initiative and we get a lot more build up of her as a character. We see her manipulative and sneaky side, we see her slightly geeky side, too. Indeed, I felt that Clara was much more of a real person this time around than she has been for a long while and that was because we got to see her doing things and acting in ways that showed her character.
The arguments and bickering between Robin and the Doctor were delightful and I really felt they were
tapping into Capaldi’s talent for sounding annoyed and yet whitty. There are also some quite nice moments towards the end of the episode where Robin and the Doctor share their thoughts on heroes and stories. There are nice parallels between the two, which is quite nice to think about. Robin Hood isn’t about the swashbuckling and living-in-the-woods as it is about fighting oppressive powers, tearing down authorities and seeking out justice. The same can be said of Doctor Who, that it is about putting things right and helping people more than it is about time travel and monsters.
There were a couple of sticking points, however. Marian didn’t get nearly enough screen time and the fact that we didn’t know who she was until the end felt a little cheap to me. The Sheriff was also quite wooden and uninteresting as a villain. But that was sort of the point, perhaps; a pantomime villain for a pantomime hero. Also, the spoon-on-sword fight would have been a lot funnier if the Doctor hadn’t meant to pull out the spoon. For example;
“I am the Doctor, and this is my sonic…. oh… Spoon.”
Just my thought.
This episode really rubbed me the wrong way when I first watched it. But, again, watching again I’ve warmed to it in some ways and I think I appreciate some of what was intended in it. I think what initially put me off was that it felt as if there were a lot of the same old tricks and ideas that Moffat has used and recycled over the years. Unseen or unseeable monsters, ‘the corner of your eye’, time-travel problems and so on. If I knew nothing of Moffat’s history, this story probably wouldn’t have felt so much like re-treading familiar ground and I wouldn’t have felt like it was all things we’ve seen a dozen time before.
That being said, it does work a lot better this time around than it has done for a while. The episode circles around an idea – what if evolution produced a creature that was the ultimate hider? What if there was a creature whose ability to go undetected was so advanced, you’d never know it existed? The Doctor is wondering out loud to himself and decides he wants to find out, so, with Clara’s help, they race across time and space, looking for some indication that it may have existed.
This interferes with Clara’s normal life, where she is happily trying to date Danny Pink (first seen in Into the Dalek). Her attempts at keeping these two lives separate are pushed to their limits somewhat and she struggles to make both of them work.
The Doctor is spiralling out of control and his obsession is putting everyone in danger, and this, I think, is the most interesting part of the episode. The ‘monster’ is never confirmed nor denied to be real. The Doctor could be imagining it. He could be losing his mind. He could be wrong. He doesn’t know and, importantly, neither does the audience.
In a way it’s the logical extreme of a lot of Moffat’s monsters. Statues that move when you’re not looking. Shadows that eat you. Creatures you forget as soon as you turn away. These things pray on very basic fears, natural impulses and instincts. So this monster is essentially fear itself. The monster under the bed, the thing in the corner of your eye.
Here, given the fact that we are never given a concrete answer, gives the episode its power. I seriously hope that Moffat is not planning to answer it as that might ruin it. Many watched this expecting a repeat of the Silence from series 6, so it was with a sigh of relief that we discovered that this was not where it was going.
We also revisit a favourite trick; that of visiting a person at multiple points along their timeline, not in chronological order. This is something Moffat has played with an awful lot, to the point where I’ve been tired of it for a while (especially when it has revolved around the Doctor visiting a girl as a child, only to make her fall in love with him when she grows up). This time we get to see Rupert / Danny Pink as a young boy and we see once again Clara’s caring and child-friendly side. This is more of the Clara we saw in series 7, the Clara who gave up her time to help the young.
What’s more, we get a glimpse of a much friendlier Doctor, too! For a brief moment, he reassures the young Rupert when the ‘monster’ is in the room with them.
“Let me tell you about scared. Your heart isbeating so hard, I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain, it’s like rocket fuel. Right now, you could run faster and you could fight harder, you could jump higher than ever in your life. And you are so alert, it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower. It’s your superpower. There is danger in this room and guess what? It’s you.”
This is the character I think I desperately wanted the Twelfth Doctor to be – one who could be a reassuring grandfather figure to the young and defenseless, and the oncoming Malcolm Tucker to the powerful and monstrous. Unfortunately this moment is a little short lived as the Doctor is a bit rude later on, but not in a completely nasty way. Instead, there’s a sort of respect and morality to his attitude.
People don’t need to be lied to.
I can respect that, but it’s not a line the Doctor sticks to with any consistency. He lies to Clara an awful lot, and he lies to anyone he needs to. Most of all, perhaps, he lies to himself.
The biggest take away from this episode, I think, was Clara’s influence on the Doctor. After a brief adventure with Danny Pink’s great grandchild in the far flung future, we are hurled back in time and see the Doctor as a child. Clara inadvertently becomes the creature under the bed in the Doctor’s life and then she calms him down, giving him the same speech about fear being a superpower.
It’s a display of Clara’s character as a carer, one who cares for others in a very genuine way. While she can be manipulative and devious, she does have a very big heart and can put others before herself.
One criticism that’s been levelled against this plot twist is that Moffat is, once again, setting up his creation to be the most important part of the mythology. Perhaps as some sort of ego trip. While this did irk me somewhat at the time, I am not too angry about it now. I think that the Doctor’s early life is often best left to the imagination, so I’m always wary of writers delving into it in any detail. However, it was a touching scene and one that emphasised something about Clara’s character, and whatever may be said about Moffat’s ego won’t take that away.
Next week we will look at Time Heist and The Caretaker…