Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Serial 45: The Mind Robber

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companion: Jamie McCrimmon, Zoe Heriot

Written by: Peter Ling
Directed by: David Maloney

Background & Significance: Patrick Troughton's final season was one giant limp to the finish line for 1960s Doctor Who. As it was originally conceived, Doctor Who was a smaller, less technically-demanding show and could thusly fit more into a weekly production schedule. Recycle your sets for a few weeks, keep the stories coming, no one would be the wiser. It's why the show was able to crank out forty episodes per year for almost six years: less location shooting, less ambition.

Fortunately, given its growing popularity, Doctor Who got more and more ambitious. There was location shooting and aliens and bigger sets and a bigger, more action-based show than the one that was originally conceived.

Needless to say, this was one of the contributing factors to the massive overhaul the show saw starting in "Spearhead From Space". The show's episode count was dropped from 40+ to 25. There was a transition to colour. And all of a sudden Doctor Who became much more producible and less demanding on its actors. Indeed, one of the reasons Patrick Troughton left the role (besides his fear of typecasting) was to take a break from the grueling pace of putting out so many frakking episodes in a year (and to his credit, he didn't take nearly as many days off as other actors did; to be fair, though, Hartnell was remarkably sick when he took the role).

"The Mind Robber" is one of those stories that suffers from this scheduling push. The production team behind Doctor Who was a revolving door around this time, There were new script editors and producers coming in and leaving more or less constantly and the upheaval the show was in led to a "let's just get these out" mentality. Despite this, though, there was the notion that the writers wouldn't sacrifice quality if they could help it, and when it became clear that the story preceding "The Mind Robber" was going to be rubbish (it's "The Dominators" if you must know) they hacked the episode count of that story from six episodes to five episodes in the hope that maybe (just maybe) they could make it a little more bearable. And in their defense, I'm fairly sure a five episode "Dominators" is slightly more bearable than a six episode one, but only fairly.

With the need to fill another episode in the order (and wanting to not get slammed like they did with "Mission to the Unknown" a few seasons back when they cut an episode out of "Planet of the Giants") it was up to script editor Derrick Sherwin to come up with an extra episode to tack onto the top of "The Mind Robber" so they would fill their seasonly quota. To compensate for the overrun, the episodes were all condensed from the usual 25 minutes to an experimental 20 minutes, so we're still getting a hundred minutes of story, only spread out over five episodes instead of the usual four (with the first being a prologue to establish the setting at hand, or at least, to weird you the fuck out for twenty minutes before they slam you with something even more mindblowing).

Written by Peter Ling and introducing the direction of the fantastic David Maloney, it makes "The Mind Robber" something remarkably special and iconic for so many different reasons.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

So it really wasn’t intentional, but talking about “The Edgeof Destruction” before this part (or even this episode) is somewhat serendipitious, because they’re essentially the same premise: The Doctor and his companions stuck in the TARDIS for an entire bottle episode while they’re driven to madness inside.

To add to the similarities, both this episode and “Edge” were written by the current script editor independent of the stories on the other side. And “Edge of Destruction” is very Whitakerian in that it’s focused on pushing the show into new and exciting directions. And that’s a hallmark of the ten stories Whitaker script edited: constantly pushing the show into new territory, with each and every of the show’s first ten stories shaping how the show would progress down the line, be it in terms of “fixed points in time”, “making the TARDIS shrink because it’s weird”, “having a historical romp”, or even “the first time the villains from a previous story return.”

Sherwin, on the other hand, is dealing with more immediate threats and a seemingly higher stakes Doctor Who. Indeed, the show is more about action at this point than it was during Whitaker’s time.

It’s exciting then, yes. But it’s also impossibly surreal. Impossibly. I know that’s what everyone always talks about in this episode, but it’s true. There’s a remarkable sinisterism about this that really sets up the danger of wherever it is we are at this point. This enemy that we’re fighting comes across as a seemingly omnipotent foe. It knocks The Doctor out of commission, rendering him prostrate in a chair and forcing him to meditate just to hold his own. Seriously, it’s taking all The Doctor’s willpower and impressive mental strength to keep this guy from messing with him, which is to say nothing of the less capable Jamie and Zoe (sorry, they just don’t have The Doctor’s mind, they have strengths in other areas). So it’s no wonder why they’re taken over.

What’s more scary than that, even, is the notion that The TARDIS is completely at this fellow’s mercy and this struggle completely destroys the TARDIS in the final seconds of this episode.

But it’s true. The scanner projections of the Scottish Highlands and Zoe’s home city are the first hints that there’s something nefarious just outside of the TARDIS doors, and I love that Jamie and Zoe are tempted enough by their home that they take the first opportunity to get back there. This force is digging right into Jamie and Zoe’s psyche, figuring out their weakness in this moment (specifically: the one thing The Doctor could never give them), and exploiting it to its fullest. Do Jamie and Zoe want to get home that bad? Probably not, but a little psychic push in the right direction, and it’s enough to cause Zoe to go completely rogue, open the TARDIS doors, and sprint out into the unknown.

This unknown, too, is scary because it’s completely unseen for the entire episode. We get hints of it, we get winks, but all that we know that is comfortable is turned against us, and it’s terrifying to see the scanner show Zoe her home city, lure her outside, and then innocently wink off before anyone else can see.

Hints, as any horror fan will know, are much more scary than actually seeing the thing that’s causing it. It’s way more terrifying to see freaky Jamie and Zoe dressed all in white and beckoning them to come forward than to see some dude in a cloak and a cape (or anything else for that matter). Zoe’s smile alone is skin-crawlingly terrifying and merely the appearance of them births notions of them being conscripted into being the king and queen of this white nightmarescape (and it’s not helped along by the blood-curdling scream Zoe unleashes as she sees what could very well be their future). Are they being abducted and inserted into wherever it is they are? They have robots encroaching on them and suddenly the robots are guards The Doctor must coax them away from once they do don the white outfits (which they do off screen), lest they be swallowed forever.

Honestly, it’s a great episode for both Hines and Padbury as they’re the ones who carry the majority of the episode and watching them get lost demonstrates just how good the two of them are together.

It’s an episode about minimalism. There’s no one but the main cast (and a disembodied voice) running around the TARDIS and an empty white set. There’s robots for threat, but they stand around and look imposing. Honestly, it’s a hell of an episode based on the premise of The TARDIS fleeing outside the bounds of reality and the dangers of being here. Clearly, we have somewhere to go now we’re here, but “here” is a dangerous place as is, and we’re just at the gates. Hell, the gates are so dangerous The TARDIS can’t even breach them, exploding into pieces as The Doctor careens off into one direction, sitting prostrate in a chair (and seemingly unconscious) while Jamie and Zoe cling to the console for dear life.

As a cliffhanger, it’s mindblowing and the perfect capper to a tremendous opening episode.

Part 2:

Episode one is defined by its intangibility. There’s next to nothing to hold onto as it moves abstractly from one issue to another.  So with episode two we were offered something more tangible and understandable, but that doesn’t make it any easier to comprehend.

What I love about this is the way Peter Ling incorporates the ideas of this locale (which I’ll refrain from spoiling until the story reveals that information). Ideas are introduced slowly and bizarrely. Jamie’s turned into a cardboard cutout and his face changes because The Doctor chooses (entirely on accident) a different face for him. Zoe is trapped in a word puzzle (and one I quite like because it is quite clever). The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe come across toy soldiers and the unicorn Jamie had in his dream at the end of the previous episode. And there are children playing silly, classic word games with The Doctor and pinching him when he asks them to.

It’s a fantastic episode and one largely carried by Patrick Troughton as he spends the episode traipsing about in what turns out to be a Forest of Words, lost in the narrative of what’s going on as he searches for his endangered companions.

What I love about it most, perhaps (and I shoulda mentioned it in the last episode, but I’ll mention it here because it’s worth mentioning) is the direction of David Maloney. Maloney has a wonderful eye for blocking, space, and composition and everything about this story is remarkably visual and stunning as it goes along. I love the way he shoots Bernard Horsefalls’ character (the mysterious soul known only as “A Traveler”) so he seems dangerous and an ally at the same time. So too do I love the way he keeps the camera moving and kinetic so nothing about this constantly changing world ever feels static.

There’s other things too (and yes, this is a gush fest, deal with it). The fact that Frazer Hines got chicken pox before the filming of this episode makes for a wonderful twist when he’s replaced by Hamish Wilson. Mad props to Derrick Sherwin for coming up with that solution because it’s both perverse and absurd to see someone who isn’t Jamie running around being Jamie. Clearly it’s not him, nor does the production team pretend he is. And they easily could’ve kept Jamie sidelined for another episode while his chicken pox ran its course. But it’s stronger for it and Jamie becomes a constant reminder that this place is bending the rules of reality and not a safe place. Hell, we don’t even know if we’ll get old Jamie back. All we know is this guy is around and he claims to be Jamie—nay, he IS Jamie. Only with a different face. Honestly, it’s brilliant and an incredible way to write out an actor for a week, one of the best ways I’ve ever seen, especially because it fits into the oeuvre and aesthetic of the story.

We’re also given a traditional control room with a bad guy who’s watching monitors and trying to get The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe under his control. Normally, I don’t think I’d mention this, but Maloney really shoots the hell out of him, all low angles and vertical space.

It just feels mythic, which is EXACTLY what this story calls for. The production design is exactly what it needs to be and I love that when they’re walking through the Word Forest you can tell that they’re letters if you know that they are. The door that Zoe walks through feels like a fairy tale. The Doctor dealing with the word puzzles (Jamie is safe and sound) is a puzzle in the vein of The Riddler (as are the children with their own riddles). And of course there’s a unicorn at the end and it’s charging our heroes.

It’s just… it’s beautiful in everything it’s attempting to accomplish and it does so with a healthy dose of surrealism and intrigue that’ll keep you coming back for more.

Part 3:

So we’re in The Land of Fiction.

What I love about this revelation is that it comes exactly halfway through the story (halfway through the middle episode. It’s perfectly timed and we learn it exactly when we need to learn it AND it’s right at the moment that Ling needs to make a transition into something new so he can play with new aspects of his concept. Yes, The Doctor and Zoe wandering through the labyrinth and confronting the Minotaur is padding (it’s no different than the Unicorn gag in the last episode and is solved exactly the same way), but at the same time it’s more visually interesting and clever than the Unicorn bit was, mostly because Maloney comes up with interesting ways to shoot the scene. We only really only ever see a shadow of the Minotaur (which is good because it’s a rubbish mask in the first place) and the labyrinth is mysterious and Gothic what with its candles and spider webs.

But once The Doctor meets Gulliver again (for the Traveller is in fact Gulliver from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) he discovers that he’s trapped in a world in which characters from stories and legends are real.

And of course, the clincher is the bit where Zoe asks “but Doctor, then what are we doing here?”

It’s a double whammy of a realization. Traveling to a land where fiction becomes reality is exactly the sort of story that lends itself perfectly to Doctor Who when its scope is taking full advantage of its premise. The TARDIS can and will go anywhere and everywhere, so why not a world where fiction becomes reality? And that’s something. Hell, it’s exactly what I love about Doctor Who. I love that the TARDIS can do that and anytime I see the show inserting itself into something that’s fantastical (and I mean more fantastical than, say, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”) the hairs on the back of my neck stand up because it’s so… exciting. Based purely on this premise, this story becomes an instant favorite of mine.

Then Ling goes further, almost instantly. Suddenly the story goes meta and starts blowing out the premise and milking it for all it’s worth. Jamie climbs Rapunzel’s hair and Rapunzel appears for what amounts to little more than a glorified cameo (but don’t worry, she’ll be back). And Rapunzel is just the tip of this iceberg, because now Ling is limited only by fiction itself, and fiction (as we’ll see) is only REALLY limited by one’s imagination. I mean, it’s slightly less broad than that, arguably for now it’s every book, poem, show, movie, or play that’s ever existed. But it’s fun to see these cameos from legends and stories and really, what more is there to do with Rapunzel at this moment in time? It’s really cool to see her for a minute. And then the novelty wears off and Peter Ling gets the FUCK out of there, which is the best. He knows when a concept is exhausted and leaves us both satisfied and wanting more.

But what about that thing Zoe said? About what the hell she, The Doctor, and Jamie are all doing there?

Honestly, that’s the thing that’s amazing. We know that The Doctor and his companions are fiction. We’re watching them on TV, so they are clearly OF the Land of Fiction, but they don’t know that. And yet, they can’t help but get sucked into the narrative of what’s happening. It’s legitimately terrifying to see Jamie start to read the ticker tape and see what The Doctor and Zoe are doing and read it out. Of course he has no idea what’s going on, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re watching this happen. And yes, it’s a much more terrifying cliffhanger if we just have Jamie start to read what happens to them and don’t get the look at Medusa, but hey, nothing’s perfect.

Seriously, though, when you’re quibbling over the effectiveness of a cliffhanger because of a slight oversight, you’re in a really, really good place.

There’s nothing I don’t love about this. There’s not. I love that Rapunzel leads Jamie to a 1960s control room, which is where he finds the ticker tape, and that’s the thing that runs this place. It’s so pulpy and wonderful and we’re just getting started in terms of adding The Doctor to this powder keg of a scenario. And I love that this ending with Medusa involves Medusa reaching out and touching Zoe, letting her know that it’s real. And really, will that work anymore? Because Medusa is REAL in this world. This is the world in which Fiction becomes reality and reality is defined by fiction. I suppose The Doctor, then, COULD define the world by saying something is fiction (because it is reality) but I’m not sure if that always works, or will continue to work.

I say we see how they get out of it.

Part 4:

Enter The Master. No, not that one.

With this episode we meet The Master of The Land of Fiction, and I think it’s worth it to mention right off the bat that Emrys Jones does an excellent job of balancing the kindly old man with the sociopathic maniac. His cordiality is charming and exactly what you’d expect given how he looks. And then you realize that he’s got this giant cord sticking out of his head and he’s plugged into the heart of the Land of Fiction and is at their mercy. Suddenly this kind character is scheming and devious as he’s forced to churn out words upon words, day-in, day-out. I mean, honestly I think the math is a little off. Five thousand words a day for forty years is closer to six and a half million words, not the stated half a million. Again, though, that’s a good problem to have in the grand scheme of things.

I also love the notion that The Doctor is this ageless guy who’s more than capable of taking over The Land of Fiction from this poor writer who will soon (or someday) die.

It turns the Land of Fiction into this evil, corrupted place that The Doctor must cleanse. Sure, it sees him as the person to make it better, but The Doctor will have a better solution (or will he?) because that’s what he does. And it really turns into something that reminds me of just about every other Doctor Who story ever. How many times has The Doctor come to a place to fix a problem in a crumbling society? And that’s what it is here. Honestly, it reminds me of “The Web Planet” which we’re talking about in a few weeks. The central controller thing here reminds me greatly of The Centre, both in design and content.

He’s clearly a foe we need to worry about, especially because he’s attempting to turn The Doctor into fiction so he can control him.

The other thing I really love about this episode is the appearance of The Karkus, mostly because it allows Ling license to expand the Land of Fiction beyond anything that you would normally think of. Medusa and Gulliver and Rapunzel? Sure, why not. But what about the stories of the Whoniverse? Suddenly, this story is limited only by the imagination of whatever writer is currently filling the story with “stuff”. And yeah, it was probably something made up because they couldn’t get royalties to Superman or whatever. But that doesn’t change the fact that it opens up a world of possibilities for this story and every story involving The Land of Fiction moving forward.

Also, it’s fun to watch Zoe flip a guy over and over again. I don’t care if it’s poorly choreographed. It’s delightful.

And that’s the thing about this: no matter how much this story is digging into its ideas it never stops having fun with its concept. Every time Gulliver shows up it’s fantastic and Bernard Horsefall is wonderfully charismatic and delightful. Yes, Zoe shouldn’t have walked through that archway, but it’s okay because it got us to an interesting place. The Doctor has the most ridiculous fun with the gatekeeper when he prepares to be The Karkus by saying who he is and what story he’s from. And then it ends with Jamie and Zoe being squished into the pages of a book. As cliffhangers go, it’s an excellent one and this story is still not disappointing and there’s a whole climactic episode to go.

Part 5:

“But surely it could just as well send us into oblivion.”
“You mean we could vanish forever?”
“Well we shall soon know. Hang on! Here it comes.”

With those words “The Mind Robber” comes to a close as The TARDIS reassembles itself and I honest to god can’t think of a better ending to this story. It feels perfect in the way only a good ending could feel. It’s the way that you get to the ending of a Quentin Tarantino movie (Inglourious Basterds comes to mind) and that last line and that last shot (while impossibly self-indulgent and meta-textual) feels completely like the right beat to end that movie on. It’s a provocative moment and the sorta thing that makes you think back on everything that you just saw and reconsider everything in retrospect. If the ending is pitch-perfect catharsis, indeed "the only way it could have ended", it means the writer completely stuck a landing and has complete mastery over the story they're telling.

Sorry, I mean it also features the TARDIS reforming.

Between the dialogue exchange and the final image of The TARDIS reforming, we’re left on the notion of what it means to leave the Land of Fiction, or what it is The Land of Fiction even is. Because we know that The Doctor and his companions ARE of The Land of Fiction even if they’re not aware of it (or if The Doctor is aware and yet denies it) we know that they can’t really escape it. So where do they go? They don’t blink out of existence and vanish from forever, they go back into their own story vehicle: The TARDIS, for they don’t need it when they’re outside the realm of their own reality (“The Whoniverse”, for lack of better term).

Honestly, it’s rather beautiful, because the last few moments end on something contemplative. It’s just The Doctor, Jamie, Zoe, and The Master standing on a black backdrop amidst mist as The Land of Fiction collapses in on itself…

That’s not to say there’s not a climactic showdown. Watching The Doctor square off against The Master and pulling out bigger and better fictional characters is impossibly thrilling as The Doctor takes up the mantle of The Master of The Land of Fiction without even wanting to. And why wouldn’t he? Isn’t The Doctor The Master of Fiction anyways? He usurps every narrative he’s in and just about every single story imaginable can be a Doctor Who story. And my god. That’s just why this is amazing. He conjures, he sends forth, he is a general. And he does it all without inserting himself into the narrative. It’s positively 7th Doctor almost twenty years before the 7th Doctor even starts doing that.

And yeah, I’m easy. I love seeing Cyrano de Bergerac clashing steel with D’Artagnan or Sir Lancelot getting the drop on a nefarious Blackbeard. It’s just what I want.

Structurally, too, it’s magnificent. I love that The Doctor manages to escape the Toy Soldiers and hangs on the roof with Rapunzel and The Karkus because he doesn’t know what else to do now he’s lost his companions. I don’t quite buy that he’d believe them because he saw them trapped in a book, but I love that he starts to fight back, that he sits at a typewriter and thinks his way out of a problem. God. It’s what I love about Doctor Who. I love seeing The Doctor spar and match wits with a nefarious foe and Emrys Jones is a fantastic opponent for him to square off against. Jones perfectly captures the voice of his character as The Author as well as the voice of The Master Brain.

I have to ask, though, what is The Master Brain? Does The Land of Fiction need a brain to run it? Or is it an infection The Doctor needs to solve? It’s not quite explained, but it’s easy enough to destroy. I can’t imagine The Toy Soldiers or the White Robots being a benevolent force for protecting The Land of Fiction. I mean, is it? But it’s interesting to see what a grasp The Master Brain has over it, especially because I can’t imagine a place like The Land of Fiction needing a master to run it. Sure, it would probably be under threat by external forces (and will be again in other ancillary stories) but does this community really need an organizer and a leader? I imagine The Land of Fiction being something of an autonomous commune outside the bounds of reality and guided by its own internal logic and story rails in the way stories generally are.

Regardless, The Master Brain still is a force The Doctor needs to defeat at this point. And so he does. And so we are again in traditional Doctor Who territory: The Doctor tears down a beacon of injustice and opression, freeing the indigenous people.

And by defeating this tyranny and disruption into the narrative, he is once again allowed entrance back into his own to his next grand adventure. The poetry is… beautiful.

Final Thoughts?: I love this story. Love it.

"The Mind Robber" is one of those stories that is quintessential Doctor Who and I'm surprised it's never up higher on the rankings than it ends up being. That's not to say I think it's the best Troughton story ever, but it's in the top three Troughton stories as far as I'm concerned, and in my top ten of Doctor Who for all time. And how could it not be? I've said it before and I'll say it again: this story is immaculate. As a concept, it is ludicrously fantastic. As an execution it's hard to imagine anything much better  (and what's not perfect are small quibbles). As Doctor Who, it's everything I could ever want from a Doctor Who story and it's a reminder as to why I like the Troughton era way more than I should. If all of the Troughton era were this experimental and fun, this would be the best era of all time, and it shows. Troughton is alive here like he isn't in other stories, and knowing that he's always at the very least "quite good" in less-than-good stories it's telling just how much he excels here.

That's to say nothing of the crazy ass shit this story plays with. It's one thing to do something that's meta about Doctor Who. It's something else entirely to get meta and never once be caught navel-gazing. Ling (and Sherwin, for that matter) barely allude to the notion that The Doctor IS a part of this narrative and a part of the fictional world in which he plays a part. Most of the climax of the story is about The Doctor working remarkably hard to keep from inserting himself into the narrative of the story, lest he join the ranks of the Land of Fiction and become fictional (like Jamie and Zoe do). And yet he IS fictional. We're WATCHING him be fictional. Hell, he could pull future versions of himself out of the ether to fight The Master or what have you. And yet he doesn't because he needs to be separated from it and manages to get out of being fictional by pretending he isn't.

I don't know if that makes sense.

But it is. The Master tape writes The Doctor's name down and Jamie reads off that tape. Doesn't the very act of that create an alternate, fictional version of The Doctor? And yet he manages to hoodwink The Land of Fiction into believing that he isn't of there when he clearly, metatextually is. Only The Doctor could do that and only The Doctor could fight and beat The Master (isn't that the way it always is?) and then escape from The Land of Fiction as if nothing is going on. He knows damn well that he is of there but he doesn't belong there, so he escaped. Like Gallifrey before/after it, he escaped. He's the Cosmic Hobo, a traveler, a wanderer, a vagabond, a trickster, a fool. He lives in The Land of Fiction, but he can comment on it and get out of it and take over without ever getting involved.

I can't think of a story I love more. It's a story about stories and what it means to be in one. Hell, even the structure is unintentional but masterful. It's about stories and the first episode (which kinda doesn't take place in The Land of Fiction) takes place in the TARDIS: The Birthplace of all The Doctor's stories and adventures. I can think of stories I love as much, but this is absolutely a top ten story and absolutely worthy of any praise that's ever laid on top of it. It's one of the gems of the Troughton era, and while there's many, many gems in the era, it says everything that this is one of the best of the best. It's incredible, it's fun, it's thought-provoking, and my god, what isn't good about it?

Next Time!: The 7th Doctor! Vampires! Gods! World War II! Nazis! Ace in lipstick! There's only seven more, so we're doing a Victory Lap! One last story for each Doctor! And we're kicking off with our last 7th Doctor story! "The Curse of Fenric!" Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. We've had our disagreements on classic stories, you and I... but I think in this one, we are in complete accord. My personal favorite classic serial, period- and this is an excellent review of it.

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