Dear Steven Moffat: Robot of Sherwood

DW ROS

Dear Steven,

You won’t believe this, but when I said last week that I hoped to see a thieving android in the following episode, I was being waggish, much like your archetypal Merry Man. As Doctor Who’s a sci-fi show that typically involves genre tropes in incongruous settings, I reached for an off the shelf conceit, a throw away Whoniverse cliché. It was the first thing that popped into my head. Little could I have known that Mark Gatiss had sat down to write an episode, a year previously, with that very joke taped to his laptop. I know he’ll say it was all in good fooling; that it was a playful romp, designed to delight younger viewers while showcasing the Doctor’s new caustic personality, but it was as though the episode’s script had been written by a robot.

This Doctor Who Episode Droid (DWED) had clearly been programmed with a library of essential elements, much like the mechanical’s database of English folklore. It knew to include historical figures, an alien plot, a spaceship in disguise, capture, rescue and a sentimental ending. Unfortunately due to an undetected malfunction, the droid’s political philosophy masterfile intruded on the inconsequential forty five minuter subroutine, the former partially overwriting the latter, and consequently there was some intrusive Marxism – all property being theft to our verdant Robin, Hood described as “the opiate of the masses”, and the Doctor’s heroic credentials cemented by his historic renouncing of wealth and privilege.

Of these, perhaps the last was the most interesting. It could be that Hood was speaking figuratively, that he only meant that the Doctor came from an advanced society and superior caste of beings, relative to many others, or the acid tongued Galifreyan’s shared rather more of his backstory with the increasingly agreeable Clara than he has with us. Was that why his hair was suddenly longer and bouffant, Steven? Had he spent many months in the TARDIS filling in his companion on his early years on the homeworld, regaling her with tales of the fam?

Look Steven, this shit was fine. There were nice jokes, good interplay between the characters and I suppose you could say, a story of sorts, even if it was, ahem, mechanically plotted, but I wondered if it was a little early in the run for such froth. What I wanted, and suppose the nation wants, if it looks into its soul and has an honest word with itself, was a tale of substance; a long and deep adventure, both perilous and serious.

What Robot of Sherwood underscored for me, apart from my belief that puns should be illegal in episodic television, was the limitations of the 45 minute format. We’ve spoken of this before, Steven – well I have, and you’ve ignored me, but it’s worth returning to because it’s become a question about the programme’s development. The long and short of it is this: either your writers have to get smarter, making these single episode stories about something, or these adventures have to get longer.

Doctor Who’s great strength is its flexibility. The show can be set anywhere at any time. But too much freedom can be the proverbial stuffed albatross around John Cleese’s neck. In normal TV series, characters are established, relative to a fixed setting or developing scenario, enabling writers to concentrate on the substance of each story, building on those established characters and their satellites as they go. But in Who, each episode is effectively a reset. The two main characters stay the same of course but their environment and everyone in it tends to change. This means that a Who writer must build a world and a fresh set of supporting characters with great economy while trying to think about how the Doctor and his companion can rub up against it and hopefully mature as a consequence.

Perhaps the best exemplar for our purposes is Star Trek: The Next Generation. Most iterations of Trek will do (bar DS9 that had a fixed setting and the scope to develop its supporting cast), but TNG best illustrates what I think is lacking in Who‘s 45 minuters. Here’s a series that has the bedrock of its characters and setting, namely the Enterprise, with the wild card of new planets, new ships and so on. But TNG’s scribes never forgot that when a new setting came into play it had to test the show’s main characters and, in order that we may invest something in the guest cast, make them central to the show’s theme and/or philosophy. So “The Defector” is about a man who believes in peace whom, it transpires, has been hoodwinked by his duplicitous government into thinking an attack is imminent, to test his loyalty to the regime. Realising he’ll never see his family and home again, and all for nought, he kills himself in a harrowing final act. It’s devastating; a story told in 45 mins that tests the Enterprise crew’s suspicion of their enemy and reminds the audience how underhanded the Romulans are. By the same token “The Ensigns of Command”, a personal odyssey for Data in which he’s forced to try and convince colonists to abandon a lifetime of wares or face death from above, is about the sanctity of human life; pragmatism over pride and sentimentality. So 45 minutes can be enough, Steven, but those episodes must leave viewers feeling they’ve shared in their heroes’ journey and met people that mattered, if only in the context of that scenario. That’s the TV people remember.

Writers on the classic series didn’t need to fret about time compression too much because they had the serial format in their pocket; a shiny talisman guiding them to the promised land (of which more later). It worked rather well for two reasons. At its best it a) allowed each story to be built around cliffhangers, ensuring momentum and b) allowed time for us to get to know and yes, care about the fresh supporting cast.

Now I’m not suggesting that each serial was successful in that regard, we both know some were padded and many of the people the Doctor and his sidekick met were thinly drawn and disposable, but if one were to think of a format that actively encouraged scribes to litter their screed with straw men and women it would be the 45 minute, self-contained episode. One has to be a masterful and economic writer indeed to create a fresh set of memorable characters and an engaging scenario and advance the main cast, all in three quarters of an hour. If we believe Mark Gatiss was indeed the humanoid behind this Robin Hood adventure, it’s clear he wasn’t the penholder the Doctor ordered.

This, surely, is why a meaty Doctor Who might be comprised of feature length adventures, six double episodes perhaps? You may balk at the idea, indeed you may have been told by the money men at the BBC that it is verboten, as the foreign markets (America) prefer stand alone “hours”. But Doctor Who’s unique format lends itself to a different approach. It’s that or you and your writers must get interested in the world and think about what you’d like to say about it in 45 minute chunks. The alternative is throwaway jaunts like Robot of Sherwood; fun while they last but empty, much like a night on the town with John Barrowman.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: The Mechanicals were heading for Missy’s promised land before the Doctor killed them. Mind you, this is consistent with previous episodes because if Missy is a time traveller she’d know that by setting them on said course they’d end up dead at the Doctor’s hands. But what was her pitch to them? Has she created the preconditions for all the 12th Doctor’s adventures? And why go to so much trouble, why not just find him and atomise him from behind? What’s going on?

P.P.S: If the Doctor thought Robin Hood was fictional, how would he know when and where to find him? It was rather better than a lucky guess; he managed to pinpoint his location to within ten feet and find him in his pomp.

P.P.P.S: I’m surprised you let the “desiccated man-crone” line though. I’m pretty sure this episode was shot late in the schedule and brought forward but after all that audience managing business in Deep Breath. Too soon?

P.P.P.P.S: I know you’ll say you’ve tried to beat the single episode bug in the past by telling multi-part stories out of sequence (The Impossible Astronaut Season) and everyone complained, but the problem there wasn’t your ambition or indeed, your many splintered concept, it was lack of unfolding drama – the absence of a substantial narrative. We love ideas, we like time travel head fucks, but we need to be engaged week on week too.

The Adventures of Clara and her Geriatric Pal:

Doctor Who: The Youthful Years

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

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Published in: on September 6, 2014 at 20:00  Leave a Comment  
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