Doctor Who Versus Slightly Red Robin & The Robots Of Sherwood

In many ways it is difficult to not admire Communism. I don’t mean the kind of cranky, overbearing, shoe slamming Communism of the Soviet Empire, with its Gulags, state apparatus and paranoia, I mean the Communism of some of the Reformation Christian communities, such as the followers of Thomas Muntzer during the German Peasants’ Revolt of 1524-1524, the Munster Rebellion led by Anabaptists some 10 years later, the Shakers, Huttites, and similar theocratic communalist utopians, movements all mostly destroyed by both infighting and the mercenaries of Catholic and Protestant princes, the True Levellers of England in the mid 17th century, followers of Gerrard Winstanley, who attempted to reform society by creating networks of small agrarian communities on common land, and though they were not breaking any laws, were arrested and harassed by local lords and magistrates, parliament and Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. In more modern times the utopian socialist Kibbutzers of Israel, again largely undermined and co-opted by zealots and principles of financial gain, and the communalist co-operative Anarchists – the San Francisco Diggers of Haight-Ashbury in the late 1960s, who opened stores that simply gave goods away, provided free food and even medical care, and organized political happenings and guerilla theatre events (actor Peter Coyote was a founding member). More recently the libertarian socialist and social ecology philosophies of Murray Bookchin.

Communism that saw in the creation of an equality of humankind, a potential heaven on earth. After all, the principal of equality, the greatest good for the greatest many, the redistribution of wealth to advance and sustain everyone are worthy principles. While the principles and practices of Capitalism, a kind of hierarchical dog eat dog world, where the strongest and the wealthiest gain more power, more resources, more strength, more wealth, wealth which they claim quite glibly will trickle down to the less fortunate, when stated baldly by contrast sounds not so appealing. The only result of trickle down capitalism seems to be a need every few years to change one’s political trousers, unfortunately the replacement pair are only slightly different, and just as soiled, as the previous.

Unfortunately in practice the altruism and communalism of the former seems to rub the wrong way against some very basic human drives, while the greed and aggrandizement of the latter seems to satisfy them.
It’s no wonder the Doctor, who perhaps views us the way we view an endearing troupe of cute but naughty monkeys, always bickering and stealing bananas and often bruising our fingers, sometimes despairs of our more selfish behaviour.
In the BBC in the late 50s and early 60s, fear and suspicion of Communist infiltrators and sympathisers was rife. According to Lord Moran, who was Winston Churchill’s Doctor, when he expressed his belief that the BBC should remain a monopoly, Churchill exploded, ““For eleven years they kept me off the air. They prevented me from expressing views which have proved to be right. Their behavior has been tyrannical. They are honeycombed with Socialists – probably with Communists.”

The conflict between Churchill and the BBC was more of a personal one with head of the BBC, John Reith. Reith upheld BBC impartiality in the conflict between the Conservative government, of which Churchill was the Chancellor Of The Exchequer, and the Coalminers and Trade Unions during the General Strike of 1927. Reith was heavily criticized by the government for broadcasting Labour Party and trade unionist points of view, and Churchill unsuccessfully attempted to use it as an excuse to take over the BBC. Reith, something of an authoritarian leader, perhaps used his influence to keep Churchill off the air. Or perhaps he just didn’t have anything worthwhile to say until the war years.

MI5 famously vetted BBC staff throughout the Cold War period, to make sure anyone with leftist leanings did not rise to positions of power within the BBC. The BBC drama The Hour, a fictional account about the development and the scandals surrounding one of the first modern documentary style feature news programmes, had several threads that dealt with government influence, censorship, MI5 and Communist infiltrators at the BBC. It also featured several Doctor Who connections, including Oona Chapman, a strong contender as a potential Time Lady, Burn Gorman from Torchwood, and of course Peter Capaldi himself as a somewhat head of the News department. Universally acclaimed by critics, and garnering many fans, it was unfortunately dropped and left quite unfinished after two seasons because of low ratings.

Several phrases we heard in Robot of Sherwood would undoubtedly not have passed those 1960s censors, because there was such a fear of ideas, of ideology. Mark Gatiss’s Robin Hood certainly does not present as a dour old ideologue, his outbursts of laughter seem more like an aphasia, akin to Tourette’s Syndrome, a medieval Che Guevara with a peculiar vociferous mental tic, rather than groaning out mirthless slogans he bellowed them with the defiant laugh and the manic twinkle, “All property is theft! To Robin Hood!” He declares, intending to relieve the Doctor of his miraculous wooden box. A statement not of an outlaw, hiding in the woods and fighting for the king’s justice, noblesse oblige, and the return of his lands and noble position, as in the traditional legend, but rather, the challenge of a revolutionary. A phrase borrowed from French socialist philosopher, economic theorist and self declared anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, correspondent of Karl Marx. Deflecting Robin’s attempt in the traditional friendly duel, accompanied by some verbal sparring, the Doctor declares most emphatically, “That’s my property!” Well, technically, while he has an almost symbiotic relationship with the TARDIS that is intimate, complex and can’t be brooked, he did steal her, in some ways proving Proudhon’s thesis, but perhaps not in the manner intended. However, this Doctor is Scottish, so a somewhat more possessive relationship is perhaps understandable.

Amongst other anachronisms, Robin also tells Clara that Marion encouraged him to “Stand up and be counted,” a phrase that did not enter popular usage until the rise of a more universal democracy, and with the right to vote in the 19th century. Meanwhile the Doctor, from whom it is perfectly reasonable to expect anachronisms, declares the solid gold arrow, won as a prize in the famous archery competition, a mere bauble, and suspecting that Robin and his sketchily drawn cohorts are not authentic, that what he seeks is enlightenment. Enlightenment is not mere knowledge, but a spiritual awakening, sought by Buddhists, Cathars and other seekers. Can Capaldi’s Doctor be both more irascible, more political and more spiritual? In an encounter with the smarmy villainous Sherriff, still believing Robin Hood is artificial, created by the robot knights, he says, “He’s on of your tin headed puppets created by these brutes…to pacify the locals, to give them false hope. He’s the opiate of the masses.” Paraphrasing Karl Marx, who called religion “The opium of the people,” and called for the “The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of the people, is required for their real happiness.” The Doctor is perhaps calling for the abolition of Robin Hood, of fake heroes. However, it was Edward R Murrow, the American broadcaster who stood up against Senator Joe McCarthy’s deluded and paranoid Communist witch hunts in the US in the 50s, who is attributed with saying “TV is the opiate of the people.” What he actually said in an interview in Television magazine in 1957 was,

“It might be helpful if those who control television and radio would sit still for a bit and attempt to discover what it is they care about. If television and radio are to be used to entertain all of the people all of the time, then we have come perilously close to discovering the real opiate of the people.”

Perhaps the Doctor means to abolish television? Before we abolish television, we should also consider something else Murrow said, “The instrument can teach, it can illuminate. Yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely lights and wires in a box.”

The premise that Robin Hood was real failed to be borne out by the cliched hokum of the rest of the legend, perpetuated in this episode; that Prince John, who fed paupers, agreed to Magna Carta, established various other laws and taxes that reigned-in warring nobles, organized a systematic application of law, and set the modern west on a course toward constitutional parliamentary democracy, was a bad king, while absentee King Richard Coer De Lyon, who spoke French rather than English and preferred warfare in the name of religion, was some how a hero.
Of course this is a made up children’s story that also features amongst other fancies, knight shaped robots, lost in time, seeking The Promised Land, in a connection to this season’s ongoing mystery, not to forget our time travelling alien hero himself, so perhaps historical rigour is not absolutely necessary.

Just to clarify, am I really saying Mark Gatiss’s Doctor, quoting Marx, but defending his property, discarding gold but seeking enlightenment, seeking paradise?, desperately befuddled at being mistaken, and thus grasping insecurely at straws, and his rival Robin, quoting socialist anarchists, strutting and ho-hoing like a manic revolutionary, represents some kind of sophomoric statement about the reconciliation of Capitalism and Communism? Certainly not, that would definitely be drawing an extremely long bow. But then again, while he didn’t have his brow, this Robin Hood certainly did have Lenin’s beard.