I knew I would love the latest Doctor Who episode, “The Robots of Sherwood.” I’ve been curious about it since the first set photo of Clara in a Medieval dress was released, and giddy with anticipation when the title let me know it had something to do with Robin Hood. I can’t remember not being fascinated by Robin Hood. The first time I met him was in the animated Disney film, which my Mom says we brought home from the library so often that the librarians teased her, “Aren’t you ever going to buy that movie?” I vaguely recall finding a copy of Howard Pyle’s “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood” in a little back corner of the library, then buying my own copy and wearing it out (quite literally — the cover fell off).
“The Robots of Sherwood” begins with Clara making a request I can easily identify with: take me to meet Robin Hood. The Doctor obliges by setting course for 1190-ish, though he maintains that Robin Hood is merely a legend even after the TARDIS is shot by the famous bowman. The episode progresses in a lighthearted story that covers classic elements of both Doctor Who and Robbin Hood, and culminates with a conversation between the Doctor and Robin about how history lost sight of Robin the man and turned him into stories, much like the stories Clara tells Robin about the Doctor.
Doctor: “I’m not a hero.”
Robin: “Neither am I. But if we both keep pretending to be, perhaps others will be heroes in our name. Perhaps, we will both be stories.”
Are They Heroes?
As a child-fan of Robin Hood, I saw him as an heroic figure — the good in a good-verses-evil conflict. But even the versions of the legends specifically written for children have a complicated definition of morality. Robin Hood steals and kills people (typically in defending himself or others) to fight against a government which commits worse crimes. But does he really have the right to take justice into his own hands when his country’s law dictates that justice belongs to appointed authority figures and his God says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay”? (Robin is presented as Catholic in most legends.) I want to root for him and justify his every action, but I can’t always do that.
It’s much the same with the Doctor. He flies around the universe saving people, but there’s often a lot of things that go wrong. As a show, Doctor Who has a surprisingly high casualty rate. In the tenth episode of “new-Who,” the 9th Doctor joyfully shouts, “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once — everybody lives!” And as far as I can remember, it really was “just this once” that everyone makes it to the end credits alive. And the Doctor has a thoroughly dark side which complicates defining him as a hero (if you need convincing, here’s an article discussing the Doctor’s 13 Darkest Moments).
So, are they heroes? Depends on your definition.
A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. — Joseph Campbell
A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. — Christopher Reeve
A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
These sound like rather good descriptions of the Doctor and Robin Hood. I couldn’t find the quote (even with Google’s help!), but I read once that heroes are simply people who’ve been observed doing what good men do as a matter of course. There’s some question of whether or not the Doctor qualifies as a “good man,” but he has been seen doing good and heroic things. As for Robin, all but the earliest legends present him as someone who does more good than harm. Even if they’re not “heroes,” they want to be.
The “Real” Robin Hood
Speaking of the earliest legends, I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about my one peeve with how this episode portrays Robin Hood. I’ve done no little research into the history of the Robin Hood legends, and know that the earliest tales set him during the reign of Edward III (1327-1377), not during the time of King Richard and Prince John. The earliest version of his character that we can track down presents him as a “famous cutthroat” and “forest outlaw” who was both intriguingly mysterious and alarmingly unknowable (Stephen Knight; Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography).
Now, for Doctor Who’s version we could say that the Robin legends took on a sinister aspect in the 100-some years following Clara and the Doctor’s meeting with the “real” Robin, before shifting back to something closer to “reality” in the 1590s, when stories of Robin Hood as a displaced earl begin showing up. But it would have been much more in keeping with the records we have of Robin Hood legends, to present Robin Hood in Doctor Who as a clever, outlawed yeoman. Someone could have at least done enough research to know that the legend of Robin Hood splitting his opponent’s arrows at an archery tournament didn’t show up at all until the 1820 publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (though it did make for a humorous scene with the Doctor).
Perhaps Mark Gatiss, who wrote this episode, agrees with his version of Robin Hood that, “History is a burden; stories can make us fly.” And I’m inclined to cut him some slack, in terms of how “authentic” Robin Hood has to be for Doctor Who. Most viewers just want to see the typical aspects of Robin Hood — the fight on a bridge between Robin Hood and a stranger, the archery competition for a golden arrow, the battle between Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham — with the familiar Earl of Locksley back-story. At this point, trying to bring Robin back to something the Doctor and Clara might actually have discovered in history would have been more confusing than anything else. Gatiss made up for ignoring the oldest Robin Hood source material by including references to multiple version of Robin Hood in film, an almost-quote from Shakespeare, and several nods to both classic and new-Who. All-in-all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, though fairly typical, episode of Doctor Who.