Cooking up a story
Writers are like chefs. They have ingredients: pop culture tropes, personal influences, knowledge of their audience, big themes and little obsessions. They also have recipe rules they can choose to follow or ignore when they cook up a story. They chuck everything into a mixture, have it whiz in their brains for a bit and in the end, whatever comes out ideally tastes of the familiar, yet is new.
Part of the ingredient list for writers is cultural inheritance. A store of legends, myths, characters, themes, expectations and sayings, (like ‘once upon a time’). These change from culture to culture, but if there is such a thing as ‘the West’ or Western culture, surely it could be defined by the breadth of this cultural largesse. Part of its genius is that it incorporates aspects of many cultures (from Sumerian, Gaelic to Ancient Greek) and appropriates many stories and characters (from Cinderella – who is from China – to the miracle birth of the baby Horus).
It’s good to be reminded that just because something feels familiar, or even tired, there are reasons it’s lasted over generations.
So when someone reinterprets Robin Hood I have expectations of a place called Sherwood, of Merry Men, of Maid Marian and how they battle the Big Bad Sheriff of Nottingham because I am familiar, like many of us are, with our shared cultural heritage. This story could happen on a far-flung space station, on a tropical island, or in 1960s New York with a gang of dancing kids battling corrupt dancing judges – but we would still recognise it because of how the characters are drawn, and how the story develops. It is a part of our cultural memory.
Yet, there are also opportunities for depth. Not just to present the old in a new setting, but to explore what it means when we make legends, what it indicates about us that we tell new stories by returning to previous stories.
The Doctor and Flashheart of Sherwood
For all the Lord Flashheart fake laughter, which in itself is significant, this is what Robot of Sherwood is doing. Once more The Doctor is told how people see him. It is not as a good man, it is more than that, as Robin explains, as The Doctor is a hero of the same standing as Robin himself, and as Marian notes, a clever one at that.
This is clever of Mark Gatiss too. He uses his character – a version of Legendary Hero – to affirm the legitimacy of an entirely made up fictional character – The Doctor – as Hero. It’s the writer claiming what he is creating as myth is just as credible and valuable as any other myth.
As the viewer we assent to this because we trust Robin Hood because he is a Hero. Outside of the story, we know there are 50 years of TV episodes, novels, films, audio plays, fan fiction and criticism to back this claim up. Of course The Doctor is a mythic hero. Of course this means he shares a lot in common with Robin Hood, or any one of a number of such beings that are driven to do more and sacrifice more than most mere mortals can achieve.
Of course (again) such a TV show must make the Hero more empathetic. In many myths, Heroes don’t often have the luxury of ‘good’ that the rest of us may bask in when we rescue a possum from a car park (for a real life instance). That’s because heroes see the big picture, they’re out before the bulldozers and petitioning governments to stop trees being torn down for those very same car parks in the first place. They are too busy, in short, to sit back and ponder stuff like character development.
To put it another way, Heroes are often difficult to personalise in stories, precisely because their actions are epic, and because every day details are either absent, unflattering or insignificant – they get worn away over the millennia in the retelling, and only the significant stuff remains. This is why fairy tales and folk tales seem generic.
Even if they were once ‘real’ people, Heroes transcend history, even their own. So Robin Hood is a legend, the conflation of folk hero saviour and a bunch of historical figures whose values and deeds are reflective of the desires and needs of the times he represents. That he remains pertinent today says something about both the malleability of stories and the consistency of our requirements in Heroes.
What The Doctor has in all of this, is the benefit of epic Herculean tasks combined with the minutiae of individuality. We get to see details about The Doctor that we don’t know or have forgotten about most other Heroes. This is one benefit of writing for television, but it is also the result of how we like our stories told now and how they are preserved. This is precisely why Robin Hood often grated in this episode – because he was deliberately living like a Heroic figure – all bombast. Yet it was when he was real – when talking about Marian or demanding the truth from Clara – that he became a character we could find empathy for.
This is also true of The Doctor, we feel for him as events unfold, and cheer him on too. This is why the companion is important. Since he is Hero and we are not, we need someone more like us to be a lens through which we can understand and question him. In this way, if The Doctor is a hero to Clara, then he is Hero to us and a more accessible and enticing one than many other Heroes.
Damselling and Courtly Love
If Greek Heroes followed the Homeric Warrior Code, followed even now by many of our pop culture Heroes (just think Batman or even Superman), it is also true the nature of the Heroic has been influenced by other ideals. The notion of the quest has been influenced by the chivalric code, and ideals about knighthood embedded additional features, such as the notion of Courtly Love.
Robin Hood is an interesting example. He is a nobleman, (like all good knights), but is an outlaw. Whether he is actually part of the chivalric period matters less than how he clearly demonstrates the Hero’s Quest is no bar to love, and can even inspire great deeds, as Courtly Love requires, even or especially if, the beloved is separated from the Hero – as with Robin and Marian.
Writers like Gatiss know all of this, which is why Clara is no Damsel in Distress. Her manipulation of the Sheriff is inspired, and her frustration with The Doctor and Robin Hood compelling. I do wish Marian had more to do, but at least she recognised a hero when she saw one.
It was also why this episode offers an updated Heroic Code, which highlights intellect, technology and cunning over Homeric or even Knightly Warrior values – again made clear in Into the Dalek. Doctor Who’s message is that anyone can be Heroic without weapons and without a Damsel; however, with his reason, grumpiness, and anger this Doctor is reminded there are other motivations in life, like love, even amid the life of quests he chose for himself.
Robin demonstrates The Doctor can be brilliant and also wrong. It happens a bit, where the plot is upended and goes in a direction you don’t suspect because The Doctor jumps to conclusions or posits a hypothesis that is demonstrated to be incorrect.
In Robot of Sherwood, sometimes legends prove to be real, although they may be tilting at robotic alien windmills. Yet, for all his outer confidence, conviction, power and knowledge The Doctor is wrong about Robin, but as Clara notes, also blind to how he is perceived.
All this wrongness is just the overt stuff, and hides how The Doctor every so often subverts his unconscious desires. In the episode The Doctor’s Daughter, we have the Tardis physically taking him somewhere where he can make someone like himself. This happens and he is angry because Jenny is both like him and not like him enough. In the end The Doctor thinks he’s lost her, because he falsely believes he was too early or too late.
No. He was on time, he just didn’t wait. In this instance, he forgets the Tardis is a part of himself and so, he is where he needs to be at exactly the right time. In this way, The Doctor’s flaw, like so many Heroes, is hubris: excessive pride or a kind of blindness to thinking beyond his own. He questioned the Tardis’ timing and therefore he misses out. In Ancient Greek myth hubris is always punished by Nemesis – in this case ‘losing’ Jenny. But in general The Doctor’s BIG nemesis, or opposite or mirror are the Daleks.
Of course, The Doctor is generally a little more aware than the average Hero – mainly due to the presence of his companions. He even realises how his hubris and defiance lead to the creation of the Daleks as his nemesis. His real punishment, then, is his self-imposed/sometimes not-self imposed exile and loss of home. He is a Hero because he realises he isn’t, punishes himself for failing when he tries and fails and is at his most Heroic when he forgets all of it.
Thus, we can see your most up to the minute writers constantly messing about with some of the most ancient theories – the building blocks even – of Western story telling regarding the formation of character and how heroes are defined.
Pompeii vs Sherwood
What some viewers expected was something about how The Doctor’s intervention creates the event, which therefore creates the legend of Robin Hood, as in Fires of Pompeii, where The Doctor and Donna are forced into a situation where they explode the volcano. This is either unintended irony or entirely deliberate given how Peter Capaldi plays the opposite of what he was with Caecilius. This link to Pompeii is further signalled by the alien beings building all too familiar circuits when and where they shouldn’t be.
However, Robot of Sherwood is opposite to this kind of story logic. In this episode all the myth making has been done and we and The Doctor learn Robin Hood the myth is a creation of himself. Furthermore, The Doctor learns is that he is not alone in striving to be better than he may be in reality and that even if he doesn’t think he is good, he is someone’s Hero.