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Robot of Sherwood



Robot of Sherwood

Posted by Scott Matthewman on .
This is a post about the Doctor Who episode Robot of Sherwood, and will contain spoilers.

1. Riding through the glen

Whether or not a single person called Robin Hood ever existed in 1190 AD(ish), our current interpetation of the myth is one that has been shaped and reshaped in the telling ever since. That’s part of the point Mark Gatiss’s script makes, of course – first in oral tales, more recently in film and television. The concept of Robin being Robert, Earl of Locksley originally dates from at least the sixteenth century, but our modern interpretation relies heavily on Sir Walter Scott’s interpretation in 1819’s Ivanhoe.

I have to admit being a sucker for Richard Carpenter’s dramatisation for ITV in the 1980s. If it’s still on sale as you read this, I recommend the latest issue of SFX magazine, which has a retrospective on this memorable version, including pointing out that its addition of a Saracen veteran of the Crusades to Robin’s men is an enhancement to the legend that would infuse Prince of Thieves and the BBC’s own recent adaptation (which, despite being introduced to much derision, holds up a damn sight better than you’d think).

Incidentally, the images of Robin Hood that are shown from the ship’s data banks – thanks to rights issues as much as good taste, mercifully devoid of Russell Crowe – include an early BBC TV adaptation with one Patrick Troughton as the Hooded Man.

So if, as mentioned in Deep Breath, the Doctor’s face do come from somewhere, does this mean his second incarnation was made to look like an actor’s interpretation of a character which it would take another ten(ish) incarnations to meet in person?

2. Carry On, Don’t Lose Your Head

It’s rare after the start of a new series for an episode of Doctor Who to make the news. This week’s did after it was decided to edit the broadcast version to remove references to beheading, following the murders of journalists in the Middle East and in the UK.

The edit comes in the climactic swordfight between Robin and the Sheriff, during which the latter is revealed to be an android after Robin slices his head off. In the broadcast edit, the sequence where the Sheriff loses his head, picks it up and reattaches it is missing, as is the dialogue that explains his state as a man rebuilt when the ‘skyship’ fell on him.

But there is another, earlier scene which for me is more troublesome than a cartoonish behading of someone who is clearly not human. It’s the following exchange as Robin and the Doctor are bickering in the cell:1

ROBIN: You heard him - execute the old fool!

THE DOCTOR: No, hang on, execute him!

ROBIN: I do not fear death, execute away!

THE DOCTOR: Yeah, execute him! I want to see if his head keeps laughing when you chop it off.

ROBIN: Robin Hood always laughs in the face of death!

THE DOCTOR: Rolling round the floor laughing - I'd pay good money to see that! Guard!

(My emphasis added.) It may be just me, but I find the idea of the Doctor jesting about beheading far more worrying than a robot losing their head. And yet one scene made it past compliance, and one didn’t. I suppose it comes down to what may be deemed imitable behaviour. One thing’s for sure, though – the cell scene could have been re-edited with far less impact on the overall plot.

3. A true warrior knows where his spoon is

The Doctor’s opening battle, armed with just a spoon, is the sort of gloriously silly nonsense that Doctor Who does so well (and the Doctor’s flourish as he dons his glove is my favourite ought-to-be-a-GIF ever). But it also shows Robin that it’s completely possible to defeat an opponent when he has a sword and you haven’t – his climactic swordfight above the vat of gold sees him use exactly the same moves against the Sheriff.

So while Robin starts out as a caricature of the myth, by the end of the episode the Doctor’s actions have helped him become the true hero. In an episode where it’s easy to see the Doctor as being sidelined within the story, that’s worth noting.

Speaking of which…

4. The companion inversion

With the new Doctor’s seriousness turning into childish petulance this week, it seems that Clara is becoming the dominant partner of the Doctor/companion relationship. With the title character becoming the comic relief, it is Clara who spots all the flaws in his and Robin’s plans. And it is not only the Sheriff, but the audience, who spots that this week she is the brains of the outfit.

Such an interpretation of the relationship between the Doctor and his companion wouldn’t be welcome every week. But this is a series that thrives on being different every episode, and so a week where the Doctor plays second fiddle isn’t too bad. Besides, it points to a far healthier relationship with his companion than we’ve seen of late. The Twelfth/Clara relationship feels more like one of equal respect, mixed with a healthy dose of refusal to take any nonsense. If anything, it feels like an echo of the Tenth/Donna relationship, one of my favourites of the revived series.

Although we all know how that ended…

5. Always with the sonic screwdriver

Clara’s admonition of the Doctor intending to use the sonic as part of his plan is funny because it’s so often true. It’s something I mentioned in last season’s Ten Things About… Cold War:

If your question begins, “How does the Doctor…?” and the answer is, “with the sonic screwdriver”, then you have to damn well make sure that the question isn’t crucial to the resolution of the plot.

As soon as the writers have started making fun of a trope, it’s a sign that it’s been overused. Just as in Day of the Doctor Steven Moffat made a joke about the amount of kissing the Doctor gets up to in the War Doctor’s future, which led to a new Doctor who seems to be far less interested in flirting as his immediate predecessors.

6. Hand in glove

Oh look, I knew if I waited long enough someone would GIF up that hand movement that Capaldi makes as he dons his glove. But wait – is he really finishing off with his middle finger raised?

Doctor Who - Robot of Sherwood - glove GIF

Image sourced via Google Images and the Verity Podcast

7. Self-healing wood

Something that’s easy to miss on the first time of watching – especially if, like me, you were watching over a broadband connection which causes the screen to pixellate occasionally – is the TARDIS repairing itself as the Doctor pulls Robin’s arrow out. I don’t believe we’ve ever seen this ability of the ship before, although with everything that’s been flung at it in the past (including other arrows, such as at the end of The Shakespeare Code) the hull would be in rather a sorry state if it couldn’t repair itself.

8. Women 2, Bechdel 0

Any story set in the Middle Ages about an outlaw and his Merry Men fighting against the ruling elite is going to struggle to include women as principal characters. Here, unusually for modern Doctor Who, we have only two named women in the cast2, and one of those is Clara – and nor do either of the women even meet each other.

This means that episode has no real way of even beginning to pass the Bechdel Test. While the test itself – to pass, a story must have (i) at least two named female characters, who (ii) talk to each other (iii) about something besides a man – isn’t the best way of judging whether that story is, or is not, sexist, it does provide a baseline upon which one can start to make better judgements.

The best source for looking at the whole of Doctor Who’s run, from An Unearthly Child onwards, is Simon Fernandes’ blog:

The Bechdel Test is of course a very blunt tool, prone to misdirection and lacking in nuance. So let’s get the big question out of the way early – yes, in Bechdel terms, Steven Moffat’s era is more sexist than Russell T Davies’, just as Rebecca Moore’s original study suggested. Of Moffat’s 39 stories as showrunner, 38.4% of them fail the Test; Russell, with 47 stories overall, fails only 23.4% of the time.

But as I’ve pointed out time and again in the Notes for each story, gender balance is more nuanced than that; and the Test’s results can be seriously skewed by less conventional styles of storytelling…

So, when you’ve got a named female character popping up for several episodes before we learn her name (eg Madame Kovarian), she can’t be counted until she’s named. And halfway through her second season, we discover that Amy has been replaced by a Ganger. Does she then need to be discounted as a named female character for the episodes prior to this, or do we need to count the previous Ganger duplicates as separate characters (I did)?

Fernandes’ breakdowns on by producer make for fascinating reading. For example, Both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have a higher ratio of female-to-male characters than any other producer/showrunner in the series’ history. But for the greatest proportion of stories which meet the Bechdel test, you have to go back to the series’ first “showrunner” – and still the only female to have held such a position3 – Verity Lambert.

9. I shoot an arrow in the air…

On to the absolute least most believable element of an episode which, admittedly, is not afraid to play fast and loose with logic (stare closely and the only way it could have more holes would be if it were subtitled Robin Hood: Men in Fishnets).

While Robin’s precision with bow and arrow is not in question, can we really believe that an arrow made of gold – a material far heavier than the wooden arrows with which Robin is so accustomed – can hit just the right spot on a spaceship that’s shown to be some distance away? Or that the Doctor’s assertion that there “wasn’t enough gold” could be fixed by the one piece of gold that the Sheriff – who had been hoarding the metal for just this purpose – has freely given away? Let alone that the reason stated for melting down the gold was to fix the engine circuitry, so the concept of needing “a bit more gold” shouldn’t really apply.

10. A man of myth

In the publicity scrum that accompanied Doctor Who’s relaunch in 2005, a number of BBC people – executive producers Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner, and the Head of Drama Jane Tranter – explicitly compared the Doctor’s place in British mythology with Robin Hood. Both Llike the Doctor, Robin’s story has changed with successive retellings. There may be no Gallifrey, no dual hearts, no Time War, in the man of Sherwood’s tale but the nature of who Robin Hood was, or may have been, has been written and rewritten so many times over the centuries that it was what remains the same – his heroism, his fight for the oppressed – that defines him.

And so it is with the Doctor. We may only have had five decades with the character as opposed to approaching a millennium with Robin’s, but such is the fast-moving nature of television science fiction, the need to reinvent the role as new actors don the mantle, that the character has been reshaped, redefined, new backstory added, over and over again.

And while the comparison was laid on with a trowel, it is true that the Doctor is the impossible hero that Clara, and we, can believe in.

But it does occur to me that this is the third episode in a row which seeks to define the Doctor. “Who is he in this regeneration?” asked Deep Breath. “Is he a good man?” asked Into the Dalek. And now, we reaffirm that he is a hero for the ages.

While we have been looking at “Missy” and the “promised land” as the arc for this season, is it just possible that the real thematic link is a little closer to the Doctor’s hearts?

  1. As opposed to bickering at the river. Or in the Merry Men’s camp. Or at the archery contest. Or… they did do a lot of bickering, didn’t they?

  2. Although of course Marian isn’t named until the very end.

  3. As Fernandes states in his blog post, he generally equates Davies and Moffats’ “showrunner” executive producer title to the combined roles of producer and script editor in the series’ 1963-1989 run.


Scott Matthewman

A lifelong Doctor Who fan, now a part-time theatre and TV critic