Heteronormativity of Sherwood | Doctor Who Season 8: Episode 3

Clara chillin’ in the background, where she belongs

The more you love something, the more you criticize it.

The way I understand it, this is because you have such high expectations, and you hold this thing to such high standards, that you want every little detail to be absolutely perfect.

So, understand that when I rip apart this past episode of Doctor Who—“Robot of Sherwood”—I’m doing so out of love for the series at large.

I’ve never really been a huge fan of Mark Gatiss’s writing. Then again, it’s totally unfair that he has to match up against Steven Moffat—for both Doctor Who and Sherlock. Gatiss’s episodes tend to be more cutesy than dramatic, more camp than high-quality satire. Maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed the morning I watched this episode, but “Robot of Sherwood” simply failed to click for me, and I was rolling my eyes so much that I felt dizzy by the end of the episode.

I will say, of course, that I adored the conversation at the end between the Doctor and Robin Hood about heroes and stories, though I did notice a darker twist on the two otherwise touching moments. “I’m not a hero,” says the Doctor, “I’m a high-functioning sociopath”. “Neither am I,” replies Robin Hood. “But if we both keep pretending to be… perhaps others will be heroes in our name” (emphasis mine). As inspiring as this is, the rang a bell [of St. John] when I first heard it, reminding me of Davros’s chilling words to the Tenth Doctor in “Journey’s End”: “How many have died in your name?” Inspiration is a double-edged sword—and the Doctor has demonstrated more and more that he treads right down the middle.

The other glorious, glorious line that sent me a-snarking because it was so flawless otherwise was: “History is a burden. Stories can make us fly.” Out of context, these words are in the running for the distinction of being my absolute favorite Doctor Who quote. Because history is a burden—the word has a male connotation for a reason. His-Story. The story of the dead white male. (A variation on the well-known expression, “History is told by the winners.”) But telling stories…that’s the method by which we can, as J. K. Rowling so beautifully said, “imagine better.” We can use What Happened as a lens through which to effect change. In stories, we can imagine—and re-imagine—a better world. Because—Neil Gaiman now—“things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.”

If only the episode had practiced what it preached, instead of seamlessly conforming to the age-old damsel in distress trope! Much was made of the notion that Robin Hood is a story rather than part of his-story, and yet this episode told the most classically heteronormative story of them all—it might as well have been history. If stories allow us to fly, this episode took that leap and immediately went kersplat.

How so, you ask? By way of answering, I shall direct you immediately to Anita Sarkeesian’s fabulous video series on the Damsel in Distress trope.* If you read no further in this post because you’ve been sucked into Anita’s videos, then I will have succeeded in my goal. But if you finish those and want to hear me snark a bit more, proceed to the following paragraph.

Now, to take you through my viewing of “Robot of Sherwood”:

We peek in on Clara and the Doctor deciding where to adventure to next. Clara—the woman who insisted that the only pinup on her wall when she was 15 was a picture of stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius—suggests paying a visit to ~<3*Robin Hood!*<3, barely able to contain her swooning. The Doctor, who had been channeling his inner Will Hunting, rebuffs that idea and proposes hopping over to have a drink with “the tumescent arrows of half-light,” noting that he has a “polaroid” of them lying around somewhere– in case we’d forgotten that the Twelfth Doctor is hashtag OLD.

Clara wins, because she’s naggy, and because she’s pouty and adorkable, and so the Doctor flies her (in a manner befitting someone who actually knows how to handle the TARDIS, unlike Eleven and Ten) to 1190 AD-ish England, where Robin Hood most certainly does not exist. That is, until he steps out of the shadows, winks at the camera and drawls: “you called?”

…at which point I took a bathroom break to let the toilet know what I thought about the opening of this still-young episode. I get that it’s supposed to be a take on Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but you need to build up the hilarity before diving right into the silly. And I’m not yet convinced enough by this new Doctor and the new storylines to go along with a rollicking adventure without being drawn into it first. It relied too heavily on storytelling magic that simply wasn’t there.

Anyway, before I even get a chance to look up Robin Hood’s sexy boots on Zappos, the Doctor engages in a Witty Bantering Session with “Hoodie.” This proves to be the one conversation in this episode I actually kind of liked, because it centered around wanting to punch people who laugh too much in the face. (Totally with you on that one, Doc.) But the actual topic of the conversation made me want to punch this episode in the face, because the “I’m taking your big blue box” / “No, the TARDIS is mine” discussion made it sound like they were arguing over who stole whose Lego, and set the precedent for the remainder of the episode, in which these two alpha males have continuous Macho Men contests, while Miss Damsel in Distress flounces around in her pretty, pretty princess dress and cheers, shouts, or passes out.

**deep breath**

Fortunately, the Doctor and Hottie Hood are prevented from whipping ‘em out and measuring ‘em by Clara, who emerges from the TARDIS’s dress-up room in a highly impractical outfit and a wig, the latter of which I cannot for the life of me figure out why she needs. She notices Robin Hood and collapses into a fit of ERMAGEHRD giggling. (Somehow, Amy’s fangirling over Vincent Van Gogh was a lot more palatable.) At some point after that, Alpha Males 1 and 2 have a sword-fight, but the Doctor opts to fight with a tiny spoon for some inexplicable reason, though it seems we’ve at least settled that debate.

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After a brief interlude in which we see (shocker!) a young woman captured by an as-yet nameless lord, the scene cuts back to Sherwood Forest, where Robin Hood is introducing Clara and the Doctor to his Irritatingly Merry Men. Later, Clara looks into Robin’s suspiciously mirthful eyes and asks, “Why are you so sad?” because apparently telling people when they’re sad is her super power (see: “Day of the Doctor” transcript, CTRL + F “eyes”). Oh, and, Gatiss totally borrowed the “happy equals sad” theme from the Moff. Anyway, turns out Robin’s pining over a girl. Ho hum. Clara then moves on to having a forcefully profound conversation with the Doctor as well, in which he asks her when she started believing in impossible heroes and she replies, “Don’t you know?” Clearly, the audience is meant to intuit that Clara began believing in impossible heroes when the Doctor came along—and on a personal note, I actually feel the same way. But back to to the forest. Instead of answering, the Doctor takes an enormous bite out of a juicy apple.

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The religious symbolism in this episode was turned up to eleven, what with the robots shooting people with crucifix-shaped lasers, the dungeon window shaped like a cross, and the Doctor pegging Robin Hood as “the opiate of the masses,” a blatant reference to the Marxist notion of religion as “the opiate of the masses.”  Considering this, the apple could be a reference to Adam and Eve—not necessarily to any specific aspect of the tale (temptation, knowledge—though the Doctor does mention that he’s looking for “enlightenment” later on), but to the story in general. It is, after all the very first story, and—well, we know what the theme of this episode is all about.

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We next find our heroes gathered to participate in a town contest, organized by the Evil Sheriff, to determine who is the best archer in the land. The Reward: a Golden Plot Device.

It’s too bad Katniss and Merida weren’t available to kick some white male ass in the archery department but, you know, history. Though I will admit, the endless splitting of arrows was a solid effort at absurdist humor, and I just wish it had spiraled into a discussion about infinity instead of an Explosions!!1! party. And maybe I would have been a tad bit happier if Clara had gotten to actually use her “seven-year taekwondo skills” instead of ludicrously fumbling with a huge pole.

Things start to get even sillier, with the Prince of Thieves and the Last of the Time Lords whining at each other in the dungeon, while Clara tells everyone to Shut Up about four-thousand times, and eventually ends up dining with the sheriff, because she’s pretty. Good thing she put on a dress! Otherwise the whole thing would be really ridiculous. Ahem.

The scenes involving Clara and the sheriff epitomize what bothered me about this episode and what bothers me about Clara in general: She’s too much of a cardboard cutout of outdated female characters. She’s not unique. She’s not compelling. She merely exhibited the classic traits of a feisty yet ultimately useless damsel in distress. And, of course, the scenes end off with the Big Threat of a forced marriage. How trite and gendered. Ugh. Which also leads me to Marian, who spends the entire episode being captured, being a slave, being freed, or being reunited with Robin. Give the gals some plots of their own, eh? And god forbid they should ever interact! The last episode, “Into the Dalek,” featured some of the strongest female character developments to date. “Robot in Sherwood” took a nosedive in the other direction. “Into the Dalek” inverted traditional gender roles, while “Robot in Sherwood” torpedoed all that progress and took us right back to Square One.

I didn’t think it could get much worse, but it did, as the Doctor finally confronts the Evil Sheriff, who pompously admits to co-opting “the mechanicals” as a means of asserting his power blah blah and taking over the world blah blah blah. Words are exchanged, the Doctor eschews Witty Bantering and Robin Hood’s impossible jawline, and Hoodie grabs the conveniently placed Damsel in Distress and jumps out of the conveniently blown apart hole in the wall into the conveniently placed moat. We see him get out of the water and lift up an inexplicably unconscious Clara, who wakes up after the commercial break in the Sherwood Forest, making googly-eyes at Hottie Hood, at which point I punched a twenty-fifth hole in the suddenly repaired glass ceiling.

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BUT WAIT! There’s more. The Doctor is captured and brought to the dungeons yet again, where he meets Marian, and the two plot a revolt, which involves using shiny plates as reflectors to direct the robots’ laser beams back at them, because apparently the Doctor has been playing too much Zelda in his spare time. Next stop: Hyrule?

The plan works! “You’ve saved us all, clever one!” Marian gushes. “Thank you!” Whereupon she kisses him on the cheek and flounces off into the background, where she belongs.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is again Bantering Wittily with the sheriff, but thankfully, before the Doctor can chew his own ear off, a wild Robin Hood appears, with a Damsel (Clara) in tow! He whips out his (ahem) knife and uses it to slide down a conveniently placed tapestry (don’t try this at home, kids, because I’m pretty sure it’s physically impossible), with his Damsel clinging to his back like a pet monkey. Whereupon Robin Hood and the sheriff begin an elaborately staged swordfight, which was done so much better the first time around, if you ask me.

After Robin shoves the Evil Sheriff into a bubbling tub of gold, everyone gathers a safe distance from the castle to witness the launch of the spaceship, which, the Doctor explains, will explode and destroy everything because it doesn’t contain enough gold. Hold up, worrywarts– Who’s got the Golden Plot Device? That little bauble should be enough to propel the zillion-ton spaceship into orbit! But who will shoot the arrow? Robin Hood’s arm is injured, the Doctor cheated earlier and isn’t really good at archery at all, and Clara’s a woman! What to do? Robin pulls out the old Teamwork card, and, together, the three musketeers fire the arrow miles into the sky right at the perfect spot and oh my god I can’t anymore with this episode.

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Oods and Ends

  • References to the overarching Big Bad of Missy and the Garden continued for the third straight episode, with the destination of the robots’ ship being “The Promised Land.” Anyone doubting that that’s where the ship actually did end up after being blown to pieces?
  • Another reference = the apple eaten by the Doctor, alluding to the Garden of Eden.
  • The Doctor calls Robin Hood a “pudding-headed primitive.” He used the phrase “pudding head” quite a few times before to refer to us puny humans. I’m pretty certain that the Twelfth Doctor likes food more than people. That’s fair. I do too.

*These Feminist Frequency videos are, unfortunately, currently very topical, considering all of the nastiness that’s been going on in the gaming world.

Until next week, Whovians!

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