Wednesday, September 16, 2015

8.3: Robot of Sherwood

--I thought you were with the circus? 
--That was a long-a time ago,  last week. Since then I have lots of jobs.
         A Night at the Opera

It’s not easy being a semi-professional geek.

If you aren’t at all careful, comic books and movies and TV shows are all reduced to "stuff for me to say smart things about on my blog." Clergymen often see the Bible as "that thing which I preach sermons from" and fan fiction writers think that stories only exist as raw material.

If the main point of Doctor Who is for me to review it, then episodes which yield up challenging exegesis are the “good” episodes and the simple episodes about which there is not very much to say are the “bad” ones.

This is why I haven't really written much about the Marvel Comics Movies. A thousand words of me saying "Wow. They really do what they set out to do" is almost as dull for me to write as it is for you to read. I did the Captain America marathon without any real plan to write about it, which was why actually writing about it turned out to be fun.

Oscar Wilde believed that criticism was the highest form of art: poems and plays were just the wood or the marble which critics carved their work from. But Oscar Wilde was a bit of a twit. 

So: Robot of Sherwood. A Doctor Who historical story re-imagined as a Hollywood swashbuckler?

It was funny; but not very funny. It was silly; too silly for Doctor Who, I think, and that’s a pretty high standard of silliness. It passed the time enjoyably. It didn’t make a great deal of sense; but it didn’t matter that it didn’t make a great deal of sense. I quite liked it. 

And that's about as much attention as this romp deserves to have paid to it.

Wonderful Clara wants to meet her hero Robin Hood. The Doctor thinks he is a fictional creation, but he turns out to be entirely real. The Robin Hood they meet isn’t the Robin Hood of medieval legend; and he certainly isn’t a dark ages outlaw. At the climax of the story, he make a big heroic entrance, jumping from the balcony with Wonderful Clara in his arms, digging his dagger into a tapestry to slow his descent. All swashbucklers do this at one time or another. Orlando Bloom does it in Pirates of the Carribean; Errol Flynn does it it in the Sea Hawk — but no-one did it before Douglas Fairbanks in the The Black Pirate (1926). This is a "real" Robin Hood who is only interesting buckling 20th century swashes. Tom Riley’s costume is one part Richard Greene and two parts Errol Flynn; but his characterization is one hundred per cent Carey Elwes playing the Man in Black in the Princess Bride. Ben Miller reciprocates by playing Christopher Guest playing Count Rugen playing the Sheriff of Nottingham, and is still a good deal less hammy than Keith Allen in the Beeb’s actual Robin Hood series.

But it's a mistake to invoke the Princess Bride quite so obviously. The Princess Bride is a cult movie because it plays so cleverly with the difference between history, real life, and story-telling. Westley, with his left-handed sword play and immunity to poison, could only exist inside a storybook; but we don’t love him any the less because he's not real.

The medieval Robin Hood ballads may possibly have had some basis in fact. But characters like Alan A'Dale and Maid Marion are purely fictional: added to the story in the 16th and 17th centuries by writers who were only interested in telling a good yarn. Friar Tuck is Robin's friend in some of the older versions, but there certainly weren't any friars in England in 1198! Doctor Who has never cared all that much about historical accuracy — it’s had cavemen who talk in posh English accents and Charles Dickens exclaiming “what the Shakespeare was that!” and Johnny Ringo dying at the OK Corral. But the Kings Demons, the Crusaders; and indeed the Time Warrior all go to some lengths to present themselves as “real life” according to the prevailing conventions of historical drama at the time they were made. Robot of Sherwood goes to some length’s not to. The whole point of it is that it looks and feels and behaves like a Robin Hood movie, or in fact, like a parody of a Robin Hood movie, with a purely fictional Robin at the center of it. And a lot of the time, that’s great fun: the archery tournament is over-done, but the Doctor and Robin’s contest of egos, repeatedly screwing up their own escape plans, is quite funny. It’s only when someone tries to tell us what it all means that things full apart.

The message of this romp is that everyone will think that Robin Hood is a legend and the real man will be forgotten -- but that's okay because stories are important. And the Doctor is also a story. But the episode is trying to have it's jelly babies and eat them. People may indeed think that Robin Hood is a legend, but according to this story, that legend is literally true in every respect, even the bits that weren't invented before 1938.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three or four better treatments of this idea. For example:

The Doctor takes Wonderful Clara back to 1198. It's all history and gore and grime and there's a realistic outlaw called Robert Hode. But as we get to know him, Robert Hode turns out to be just as heroic as the legend he was the basis for.

The Doctor takes Wonderful Clara to what is apparently 1198. It's all shiny Hollywoodized Merrie Englande, with a Robin Hood in lincoln green tights. Of course, it turns out we're in some parallel world where stories are real -- call it the Land of Fiction, maybe. Wonderful Clara is sad when she realizes it's just a story, but decides that stories are important too.

The Doctor takes Wonderful Clara back to 1198, and encounters a fairly unpleasant fellow named Robin who is obviously the basis for the Robin Hood legends. Against the Doctor's will, Wonderful Clara tries to wean him off human sacrifice persuade him to be more heroic and ends up getting crucified in his place creating the legend she came to witness.

The Doctor takes Wonderful Clara....But no. That way fan fiction lies.

The season opener had me convinced that Doctor Who was trying to re-invent itself as drama. But that was two weeks ago; plenty of time for a complete rethink. It is hard to believe that "Deep Breath" and "Robot of Sherwood" are actually part of the same series.