Reviewing Doctor Who Episodes Without Having Watched Them: ‘Robots of Sherwood’

I saw ‘Deep Breath’ and ‘Into the Dalek’.  Then I stopped watching Series 8.  Welcome to the first in a new series of posts in which I will be revewing the rest of Series 8 without having watched it.

Mark Gatiss, that arch-trickster of modern Doctor Who, has done it again.  In ‘Robots of Sherwood’ he has managed to dupe everyone into thinking he is doing nothing more than simply paying homage to the classic series, while actually flying something far more profound under the fan radar.  Yes, he has armies of robotic Merry Men stalking around Sherwood Forest, their eyes glowing red, holding out their hands and saying “Kill the humans” in calm voices, but that’s where the similarities to ‘Robots of Death’ end.  For a start, these robotic outlaws are the good guys, cleansing the greenwood of the forces of law and order.

The triumvirate of villains in this episode – the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Guy de Gisbourne and King John – represent the power of the Norman state, and Robin Hood is a symbol of Saxon resistance.  It’s fitting that they should use a CGI Patrick Troughton to play Robin, since the Second Doctor was always the most anarchic and rebellious, and there’s always been something of Robin in the character of the Doctor.  The CGI is a bit wobbly here and there, but generally it more than adequately captures the nuances of Troughton’s acting style.

The extended use of quotations from Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov, Labriola, Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek, Victor Serge, Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lukacs, Herbert Marcuse, Christopher Caudwell, Bakunin, Proudhon, Kropotkin, Maxim Gorky, Adorno, Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin and Brecht liven up the episode no end.  It’s quite remarkable that the BBC should choose to devote such a long stretch of an episode of their flagship family entertainment show to a scene in which various characters learnedly debate revolutionary theory.  But the brave decision pays dividends.  I particularly enjoyed Jenna Coleman’s readings from Minima Moralia.

Jenna is the star of the show here, especially in the scene where she verbally disembowls the Sheriff when he quotes from various sociobiologists, most notably E. O. Wilson.

However, at the end of the day, Gatiss is playing yet another trick on us – albeit a fascinating one – when he launches his extended mediatations on the hermeneutics of revolutionary theory and the radical Enlightenment.  What he’s really up to is a critique of the whole concept of metafiction.  By having his characters display a lumpenly obvious and clunky self-awareness of their own historico-mythic quasi-fictionality, he tackles head on the banality of the pop-postmodern obsession with texts which are reflexively self-referential.  (There’s also, I believe, an encoded critique of Steven Moffat here… I know he and Gatiss don’t get on.)  This ties in with the way in which the functional adequacy of the CGI Troughton implicitly lays bare the limitations of the original actor.

Gatiss’ ultimate project for Doctor Who becomes clear in the powerful mix that he creates for ‘Robots of Sherwood’: a subversive political radicalism joined to a total rejection of the strategy of the self-involved and the self-referential. …

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