After a fairly lethargic second episode, Doctor Who series 8 pumps up the energy for episode three. While I still prefer last season’s demented ode to Penny Dreadfuls, “The Crimson Horror,” Mark Gatiss’ latest script similarly manages to transcend its identity as unbridled love-fest and captures the spirit of its subject, in this case the legendary Robin Hood (the title being a quintessentially Doctor Whoesque goofy sci-fi pun on his traditional title “Robin of Sherwood”). It also serves as a breath of fresh air after the first two episodes focusing (to varying degrees of success) on the Twelfth Doctor’s dark and difficult personality, this time exploring that dark and difficult personality by putting him in a story completely antithetical to those qualities. It’s a bristly and entertaining study in contrasts.
The episode centers on Clara’s childhood love of the Robin Hood legend, a nice connection to her education and career studying and teaching English. In fact, Clara in this episode exposes and embraces her inner fangirl, dressing in
cosplay medieval costume and literally squeeing with delight at the appearance of her literary hero. This unbridled joy and enthusiasm becomes her as much as her scarlet dress, and though she finds herself in all the usual peril you can sense her fun throughout.
Clara is, of course, Gatiss’ mouthpiece in this story, voicing his own love for these stories. And as with his treatments of Sherlock Holmes, Charles Dickens, classic Doctor Who monsters, and gothic horror, the love and respect are palpable. All the necessary tropes and clichés are there and in full force: The quarterstave duel on the log bridge; Aristocratic oppression of the dirty peasantry (I can’t help but think of Monty Python: “Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here”); An increasingly impossible archery contest; A final showdown in the rafters in the best style of Errol Flynn. Of course, the usual suspects accompany Mr. Hood in his Lincoln greens and implausibly sunny forest: The aptly named Merry Men (including Little John, Friar Tuck, and Will Scarlet); The slimy and self-interested Sheriff of Nottingham; Even Maid Marian puts in a final appearance. Robin himself is as flawless and rakish as you’d expect. Every scene is played to its maximum capacity for camp, to the point where I can’t even tell if the thing is ironic or not anymore. This may be, in fact, the silliest episode of the revival of Doctor Who to date (with the possible exception of “The Lodger”).
Instead of just presenting us with “Doctor Who does Robin Hood,” though, Gatiss milks the fun even further by subverting and questioning the story (and indeed the entire “Doctor Who does X” genre) the entire time. Apparently in his new incarnation, the Doctor has lost, or become skeptical of, his childlike wonder and credulity and is convinced that Robin and his crew are fabrications. “Finally, something real,” he breathes in relief when they enter a spaceship. “No more fairy-tales.” This is surely still his own self-doubt and self-loathing. It is his own status as hero, good man, and fairy-tale legend that he is questioning.
Whereas the Eleventh Doctor would have squeed alongside Clara and the Tenth Doctor would have rivaled Robin in the swashbuckling and dashing heroics, the Twelfth Doctor’s snarkily bitches and voices his skepticism at every turn. He tests the environment for clues to its fabrication, reminds the men about how they’ll probably die of the plague soon, and cringes every time the Merry Men live up to their name. He subverts and distorts the tropes, twisting them into increasingly ridiculous shapes into something new. The Doctor, we are reminded, is a hero but one of the most unconventional heroes of all. Put next to Robin’s straightforward valor and unfailing good form, we are reminded of how really scrappy and subversive the Doctor is, but not in the angsty way we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks. Just in the plain old trouble-making Doctor way. He fights the bridge duel with a spoon (even slyly giving Robin the finger according to the wonderful freeze-frame capabilities of the internet). He unashamedly and spectacularly cheats at the archery contest. He drags Robin down to his own anti-heroic level in the dungeon, which turns into an utterly pointless and glorious pissing contest between Robin and the Doctor about who can come up with the better escape plan, execute the escape plan, or even last under torture. There are shades of “The Day of the Doctor” dungeon scene with the various Doctors arguing about how to escape until Clara bursts in through what turns out to be an unlocked door. Even in his antagonism towards heroes, the Doctor is unfailingly lovable and heroic.
Though undeniably tons of fun, the episode clearly continues the trajectory of the season in exploring the Doctor’s increasing (or new-found) discomfort with heroes, or at least his own status as a hero. He is determined to prove Robin Hood’s fictionality, and strangely annoyed by Clara’s belief in his authenticity. “When did you stop believing in everything?” she asks. “When did you start believing in impossible heroes?” he replies. “Don’t you know?” she counters. Clara’s fangirl devotion to Robin Hood and the Doctor are one and the same. She loves them both. They are both fiction. They are both real. They are both heroes. Robin calls this conversation back at the end when he agrees that neither of them are real heroes, but if they inspire love and heroism in Clara (i.e. readers and viewers) then what’s the difference?
The whole thing becomes incredibly self-referential at the end, in the great Steven Moffat tradition (I’m glad that aspect of his tenure isn’t being dropped) and I’m sure making Philip Sandifer extremely happy. “I’m just as real as you are,” Robin assures the Doctor. Or, the unspoken reply goes, just as unreal. Again, what’s the difference if the result is good? As long as their stories are good and are retold, that’s all that matters. “Of course it is all happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it isn’t real?”
This is one of my shorter posts, both because I’ve had a rough week and this post is late, but also because, admittedly, the episode is a bit lightweight in the critical analysis department. It doesn’t have a lot to say, but what it has to say is one of the best things worth saying, and it’s fun to watch to boot. It looks gorgeous, celebrates Doctor Who, and the very value of storytelling itself. What more can you ask for? Besides, I have a feeling that the next episode is going to be a doozy.