I expected little more than fun and fluff from this story, but actually it delivered fun, fluff and quite a bit of substance to boot. In particular, it continued to develop the questions of heroism and what constitutes a hero from the first two episodes very nicely. I especially liked the dialogue about it at the end between Robin Hood and the Doctor, with its comments on the value of stories and myths over 'real' history. Dialogue like that can look hackneyed if you scrutinise it too closely, but in the context of a family TV story, watched by millions from their sofas, I think it is fantastic, and absolutely classic Doctor Who. I also like the meta way it articulated what Doctor Who as a programme can do which real history cannot. As Robin Hood says, "History is a burden. Stories can make us fly."
This is an interesting topic to come up just now, too, when we have a new Doctor who is far more rationalistic than his recent predecessors. Twelve insists from the start not only that Robin Hood and his Merry Men don't exist, but that they can't exist - i.e. that the world just isn't like that, with old-fashioned heroes prancing around in the woods. I can't see Eleven striking that same kind of stance - indeed, I don't think this would ever have worked as an Eleven story at all. For Twelve, though, it fits very nicely into his personal story arc, which is strongly centred around questions of what heroes are, and discovering where (if anywhere) he fits into the paradigm. What he learns is an extension of the previous week's lesson that the important thing is to try to be a good man. This time, Robin Hood more or less states outright that he too is faking much of his own heroic façade - "Ha-ha!" - but that it doesn't matter whether he himself feels like a hero, or even whether the people of later ages believe that he was real or not. What matter is that they believe in the paradigm, and benefit from that belief.
This is great, but it also leave me with a slight niggling sense of dissatisfaction, because a naive belief in heroes can be dangerous as well as inspirational. A long time ago, Doctor Who tackled the question of mythologised heroism in The Myth Makers. There, the conclusion was very much that the Greek heroes as we know them from myth were not real, but that a very different historical reality had instead been embroidered and exaggerated beyond recognition by later story-telling. Here, we are asked to believe that the larger-than-life Robin Hood we know from stories essentially was real, albeit engaged in a little self-mythologisation of his own. I can see why Mark Gatiss took that line in the context of the story he was trying to tell, and indeed that the Doctor's hyper-rationalistic stance at the opening of the story can have its problems too. There is actually one point inside the space-ship command centre where the Doctor is about to let the robots kill Robin Hood because he doesn't believe that he is real, and it is only Clara, more ready to afford the benefit of the doubt, who protests against this. But a little critical thinking is no bad thing either, and I don't want either Doctor Who as a programme or this Doctor to cast it entirely aside in favour of a belief in myths and archetypes.
Maybe I'm over-reading what was basically just a meta-fictional romp through story-land, though. I certainly enjoyed all the in-story nods and winks to popular tellings of the Robin Hood story, like Robin actually being the Earl of Locksley, and Clara directly calling him 'Prince of Thieves'. The pseudo-medievalism was also acknowledged in the music, especially during the riot in the dungeon, where it sometimes flirted quite distinctly with the Game of Thrones theme tune only to skitter away again just short of any potential copyright-infringement. Ben Miller as the Sheriff of Nottingham was the absolute perfect villain, too, while every line of dialogue between both the Doctor and Robin and the Doctor and the Sheriff positively crackled.
Meanwhile, both Clara and the Doctor get some further nice character moments. Clara continues to have not just personality, but punch - taking control in the cell to such an extent that the guard identifies her as the 'ring-leader', manipulating the Sheriff into telling her what he is up to via flattery and a little clever guesswork, etc. I wish she'd been like this all along, but better late than never, eh? The Doctor as a character I've already talked about quite a bit above with reference to his struggles with the issue of heroism, but I should add that I very much like the way he is panning out. Three episodes in, I feel I've got enough of a handle on him to be sure of that, and what I'm seeing is a gruff and businesslike, but not mean or unhappy man, who has been around the block a bit but still has it in him to be surprised and affected by what he experiences. That works nicely for me as a new take on the Doctor, and Capaldi is certainly playing it very effectively. I was particularly struck by two 'face moments' from him in this story - one when the-girl-who-turns-out-to-be-Marian kissed him on the cheek in the dungeon, which really affected him for a moment or two, and another when the robots' space-ship exploded, and he was clearly sorry to see that happen, even though everyone around him was cheering. Both of those moments reminded me quite strongly of Jon Pertwee, and they certainly give the character a feeling of authenticity and an accessibility (in spite of his obvious alienness) which helps us as the audience to feel properly invested in him.
Finally, obviously this week's nod to the season's Big Plot Arc is the fact the programmed destination for the robots' space-ship is the Promised Land. Unlike the previous episode, where we saw Gretchen Alison Carlisle wake up to tea with Missy, but the Doctor knew nothing about it, the real step forward in plot terms this week is that the Doctor himself is now aware of a pattern, and will thus be looking out for further pieces in the puzzle. Should we make anything much of the fact that these robots, just like the half-face android man, were stuck in Earth's past with a damaged ship? How did both ships end up like that, and how many more are there? Also, water, which was a theme I picked up on in the first episode of this season, was quite prominent again, with both the Doctor and Clara taking a dunk during the course of the story. I could very easily be over-reading that one, as water simply is quite a common element anyway. It's almost like going on about how thematically-important oxygen and breathing are this season. But the Clara-in-the-moat scene in particular did seem both quite gratuitous and quite dramatically-staged, so I will be keeping my eye out for more watery business as the season develops. Starting this evening with Listen!
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