Doctor Who S8E3: Robot of Sherwood

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"I'm not a hero!" - The Doctor

[Caution: may contain spoilers]

7/10. TL;DR: The Doctor is not always right. Fortunately, this time, it wasn't catastrophic. It was kinda funny, actually. But somehow there was never any real sense of danger, making it a bit harder to care.


Sometimes, a story that occurs on the early side of a major series change (or the early side of a new series) shows hallmarks of having been written based on a bible rather than based on direct interaction with the regular staff. The prototype for this phenomenon is probably Harlan Ellison's famous original script for "The City on the Edge of Forever".

This story has something of that feeling. Mark Gatiss is trustworthy enough to turn in a decent and entertaining story, regardless, but it feels just slightly...wrong. Maybe it was just a deliberate change of tone, but it doesn't feel like it progresses naturally from the first two episodes. It feels like Moffat told his mate Gatiss, "This is what the new Doctor's like; you know what Clara's like; this is the general theme we're persuing this season (deconstructing heroes and heroism); go to town."

The good news is, when Gatiss goes to town, he has fun with it. The key premise to this story is not really about the robots or even Robin Hood; it's about the Twelfth Doctor's own preconceptions about legends, despite having been one to many people himself. Perhaps because.

It is somewhat odd that, in all his many years of travel--particularly since he reached the point where he could actually control his destination--he's never investigated legends like this before. You would think that, having immersed himself in human culture for 2000 years, curiosity would have already driven him to actually look into these things.

Even leaving that aside, however, the Doctor's insistence that Robin Hood never really existed is strident to the point of embarrassing. It's only value is to set up the the point that the Doctor doesn't really believe in himself, at least, not as a legendary figure, and his disbelief in Robin Hood is an externalization of that.

Meanwhile, the good news is that Clara continues to be a much more interesting character with a Doctor she's not comfortable with. I don't think this Doctor is wrong any more often than his predecessor, but his attitude leads Clara to actually question him more often, which in turn is leading her to taking more direct action.

I have a theory that Moffat actually has something of a crush on Clara, the character (not necessarily on the actress -- I'm not suggesting anything untoward here), and that a lot of what he's doing to make the Doctor less sympathetic has been specifically to make this change in Clara. He wants her to be a more interesting, more forward character, but the only way to do that, frankly, is to de-emphasize the Doctor himself.

This is actually the way the earliest days of the classic series worked. The Doctor was merely the catalyst for getting Ian, Barbara, and Susan into crazy situations from which they, with or despite the Doctor, had to extricate themselves, and sometimes grudgingly him. This changed when the Doctor became the much younger, much more active Patrick Troughton, and from that point until relatively recently, companions have mainly existed to hold the Doctor's test tubes, ask the right questions, and tell him how clever he is.

While I approve of making the companion less of a cypher, I'm not sure I like the fact that they're doing it at the Doctor's expense, which this story does a lot. Oh, the Doctor gets to save the day, but he's doing it almost by accident, while Clara, with less need to prove her hero the Earl of Loxley is a fake, is more actively trying to figure out what's really going on (and succeeding well).

Despite these misgivings, this story gets a slightly higher mark than its predecessors, because it's a little more coherent. Gatiss has an easier time apparently actually focusing on a single set of ideas and working them through than Moffatt does. There are holes, of course, but overall the story feels more coherent than its predecessors. And it's definitely more downright fun.

All in all, I have to say I don't think this season is getting off to the strongest start it could have. The Twelfth Doctor hasn't turned me off yet but I'm still not quite sure what's motivating him. Maybe that mystery is a good thing, but eventually we'll need to get to the bottom of it. Sooner rather than later.