The theme thus far in Doctor Who’s eighth season seems to be “deconstructing heroes,” most notably the Doctor. The Doctor’s questioning whether he’s a good man, but also the validity of his battle against evil. It’s somewhat grim stuff — until this week’s Robin Hood episode, when it turns swashbuckling and hilarious.
… A lot of the funniest bits are when they explicitly deconstruct all of the tropes of classic action-adventure (especially when they’re locked up and run through all of the usual gambits). The whole “get interrogated and turn the tables” thing, and the “pretend to be sick so the jailer will come in” thing. These are soft targets, but the episode manages to make them fresh and hilarious again — and the episode shows how they’re partly about the hero’s ego, but also how heroism is made out of wonderfully silly clichés. The clichés are what make heroism fun and also part of the mechanics of it.
This episode is explicitly using Robin Hood to comment on the Doctor and his own status as a fantasy adventure hero. And the Doctor’s notion that Robin Hood is in some ways supporting the status quo by opposing it comes from the same place as the idea that Batman creates the Joker (or that the Doctor makes the Daleks worse.)
It’s the theory that we create our own opposites, but also that we strengthen things by opposing them. And also, that heroic tales just provide an escape from reality, instead of actually making a difference in the real world. And that you can’t escape being part of the system, even if you fight against it. It’s all the stuff that people use to knock down things like Doctor Who, in fact.
This episode makes a case that the Doctor and Robin Hood are both the same — both rebels who gave up privilege to fight for the oppressed. And the Doctor’s refusal to believe in Robin Hood is sort of part of his reluctance to believe in himself these days. He’s not sure that he’s really a good guy, and that he can live up to his own billing. Clara points out that the Doctor saves people from bad things every minute of every day, and he says he’s just passing the time.
In the end, this week’s resolution to the Doctor’s angst is similar to last week’s: last week, Clara said that if the Doctor tries to be a good man, that’s what counts. This week, Robin Hood says that as long as he and the Doctor pretend to be heroes, maybe they’ll inspire others to be heroic in their names. And that plays into the idea that they’re better off being legends and stories, rather than real people, because stories can make you fly.
It’s actually a wonderfully upbeat take on heroes and legends, and you have to admire the deftness with which this episode lampoons some of the Doctor’s own tropes and foibles — like the over-reliance on the sonic screwdriver — while still reaffirming that saving people is awesome and you can make a difference.