Delightfully surreal. Delightfully cool.
That pretty well summarises this classic "oddball story". Long before the bizarre tales of the McCoy era that were officially given this term by fandomn, we have "The Mind Robber". A tale that was years ahead of its time. Of course, it's still not the first true oddball story - that award goes to "Celestial Toymaker" but it's another fine example of just how great the series can be when the writers are allowed to just let their imaginations totally run wild.
Atmosphere and imagery have a huge role to play in this story. And most of the tone here is creepy. Really creepy, actually. Possibly some of the most chilling moments the show has ever produced. And a lot of it is done very subtly which is what makes it even more unsettling. Nice little touches like the Master of the Land of Fiction chuckling evilly after the Doctor tosses the book into the wishing well. Every time I watch that, even though I know it's coming, it still gives me the slightest of shivers. And that's a testament to how well-crafted some of those sequences are.
The overall "flow" of the story is another great strongpoint. Aside from the first episode (which I will gripe about at some later juncture), the way the plot unfolds is masterfully executed. Intrigue and suspense are distributed in perfect measures. Along with neat liberal doses of comedy to offset things wonderfully. The fictional characters weave in and out of the tale at all the right moments. Sometimes helping the plot out, sometimes just adding atmosphere. It's all done so stylishly that you can't help but become completely engrossed with what your seeing.
Even the leads seem to notice that they've got a very special story on their hands and are putting a lot more into it than normal. And "normal" with the Doctor/Jamie/Zoe team is already superb. But here, they shine all the more brightly. Of particular noteworthiness is Troughton, himself. I love the way he's made the Doctor genuinely fearful throughout the tale. The moment he finds himself forced to activate the special device in the console, we see him become genuinely skittish. He's a well-travelled man but, for once, he's going somewhere he's never been before at all and has no clue what it will be like. And he doesn't like that. The way he jumps moments later when Zoe goes to see him in the engine room is a clear indicator of this. This sentiment continues throughout his journeys in the Land of Fiction. Only as he fully understands what this dimension is about and what the plans of the Master-Brain are, does he revert to his traditional hero status and take proper arms against his enemy. And it was a gorgeous touch for Troughton to put into his performance that gave the story that much more of an edge to it.
Now then, let's tackle my one little "beef" with the story. If memory serves, The Mind Robber wasn't originally meant to be a five-parter and that first episode was added on almost superfluously. It's not quite a total piece of annoying padding. There is, again, a sufficient dose of atmosphere and creepiness. And it almost manages to sustain the episode. But not quite. I get just a little bit tired of Jamie and Zoe seeing illusions of home over and over again in order to fill in those few extra minutes. I recall on my first viewing actually being a bit less receptive of the whole thing because we had to wait a whole episode before getting into the real meat of the story. And if it wasn't for a few minor plot points that are made in episode one, you can almost start watching the story from episode two onwards. And, in my book, this problem is a big enough "taint" on the story to stop it from receiving the status of "classic" that so many of you bestow upon it. It's still an amazing story, but the blatant padding of the extra episode does work a little too much to its detriment.
But, aside from that one problem, we really have a magnificient story. Like a lot of other great Who stories - it is loaded with moments in it that remain forever etched in one's memory. The children gathering around the Doctor to taunt him with riddles, Jamie's fights with the red coat, the first time we meet the Master of the Land of Fiction and, of course, the climactic battle toward the end with the Doctor and the Master using various fictional characters as pawns in a duel. And these are just a few of the stronger examples of such moments. The story is loaded with these kinds of sequences. Making the whole adventure truly fantastic and incredibly creative.
And, just to really make the story great, all of Gulliver's dialogue is taken right from the novel. It's like the writers didn't think they could just impress us with their imagination, they had to show they were willing to actually do some real research too. How's that for "icing on the cake"?!
Every season of Doctor Who has a class act in it, one that shines above the rest despite how good the rest are. Troughton Who is a little more fortunate than the rest, in his last season he was graced with three absolute belters, The Invasion, The War Games and this (and people say it was his weakest year! Hah!) and it pains me to tell you that The Mind Robber just edges those two out for the top spot (by the merest smidgeon).
It is an acknowledged classic, you see it turning up in top ten polls all the time and I have yet to see anybody have the audacity to pan it (now there’s an invitation if I ever I heard one…). Following on from the awkward and dreadfully slow The Dominators just what is it about this story that tickles everybody’s toes…
Personally I blame the sound FX. Huh? The sound FX! Aren’t they fab in this story? Just listen to the creaky, electronic hum the White Robots make…they might already by fairly menacing in appearance but with this nerve tickling noise tacked on they make an instant impression. And how about those Toy Soldiers? Brr…that harsh, gear grinding noise every time they get close…I watched it this morning with all the lights off and was scared witless. Even more subtle sound FX, the alien hum that penetrates the TARDIS, the creaking door as Zoe peers inside, the Master Brain as it grips the Masters mind and gives him instructions…some times a Doctor Who budget cannot convincingly wring all of the atmosphere out of the script and the sound FX and music have to give it a push, the sound design for this story is nothing short of amazing and injects a lot of tension and fantasy into the finished production.
Even better the story seems to have been supplied with a limitless budget because although the story demands a lot from the production team they manage to magic up a startling number of convincing sets, costumes and genuinely impressive FX. How can anybody forget the TARDIS snapping open in space? Or the console flying through the vortex with Jaime and Zoe clinging to edge? The sets too are extraordinarily detailed; I adore the maze set with all the flickering candles and cobwebs but they also manage to pull off an exterior fairytale castle with terrific scope. And all the fairytale characters look authentic, the BBC always excel at costume drama and creating the likes of Gulliver, Sir Lancelot, Blackbeard is a piece of cake.
Or maybe is just the way director David Maloney puts it all together, his polished direction is the icing on the cake as far as I’m concerned. An A-list director with the likes of Camfield, Harper and Maritinus, he refuses to let the story sink into whimsy and continually gives it a delicious edge, despite the absurdities the story throws at us we are convinced there is real danger. There are too many scenes to list that make me glow with affection, the aforementioned TARDIS explosion, the shot of Medusa in the mirror, Jaime scaling the walls of the castle, the close up on the White Robots eyes as they destroy everything in the final episode…it is a visual treat, never failing to satisfy. And may I just mention that regularly mocked Mintoaur scene is outstandingly directed, in the hands of a less talented man this could have been farcical but with only the briefest of glimpse at the costume (because it’s the ONE costume that is rubbish), scary growls and close ups of the Doctor and Zoe backed into a corner filled with skulls as a shadow grows over them…it is supremely dramatic in the strangest of ways.
It would be a little unfair to Peter Ling to suggest that the hastily written first episode is the best of the bunch because his four episodes in the world of fiction are full of magic and spellbinding action. But that initial episode is a joy to be sure, one of the most atmospheric openers ever (and given episode one of any story is pretty wonderful) and a tense exercise in working with very little. It’s the old Who adage, the imagination soars because the budget lacks, the imagery conjured up is some of the scariest in the shows history (Jaime and Zoe zombified and treated with positive/negative effects, the TARDIS swamped by molten lava, the ship exploding…) and easily the most surreal.
But all the clever starts in episode two and the writing is clearly the work of an extremely imaginative mind. Tricks such as the face changing game to escape the horror of Frazer Hines going ill. The forest they are hiding in constructed off words which form sayings. Zoe trapped in jam jar! The picture writing. The unicorn…and that’s just in one episode! Things get more and more insane as we meet all number of characters from fiction (Medusa coming alive is a supremely scary moment), lots of lovely tricks crop up (“It doesn’t exist!”) and the story refuses to compromise its fantasy nature, climaxing in a classic era moment when the Doctor and the Master conjour up all manner of fiction characters to fight each other and rescue/kill Jaime and Zoe. It is one of the least predictable stories I have watched, once you accept that ANYTHING can happen you just sit back and let it wash over you.
Of course this review has been stalling this moment, the secret weapon behind The Mind Robber and why it is so damn watchable (and why it could never be repeated again despite many ‘oddball’ attempts)….the Doctor, Jaime and Zoe. What a trio, so relentlessly entertaining the five episodes are like a breath of fresh air. They are like three hyperactive children, wrapped up in each other’s company and living the thrill of their adventures together to the full. I can’t think of any other regulars I would love travel with more.
Whereas The Enemy of the World contained Troughton’s best and most versatile performance, The Mind Robber is his best ‘Doctor’ performance by a million miles. Maybe it is just because we can watch this story in full but you get a real chance to see how much he gave to the show. He is breathlessly active throughout, every line a comedic gem, every movement impossible to drag your eyes away from to see just what he will do next. Troughton never stops entertaining, you can see why he was so tired after each story what with his puffing and shouting and laughing and pouting.
“That noise…that vibration…it’s alien…”
“No no no no no no! Not both together one at a time!”
“Would you mind taking that pop gun away it does unsettle me so!?”
“If we step outside the TARDIS we will enter a dimension of which we know nothing. We shall be at the mercy of the forces…”
“I have yet to see a robot that can climb!”
(and most brilliant of all…)
“But all the power had been used on the Soldiers and it was useless! Ooh you’ll have to do better than that!”
Jaime and Zoe are such fun and work just as well apart as they do together. This the first real classic Zoe gets and it exploits all of her strengths and failings. She was daft to leave the TARDIS in the void and to leap to her death in the darkened house (and even worse is her monumentally stupid moment where she walks through the castle detector beams) but who could imagine the story without her and the Doctor being all brainy in the tunnels and leaving Jaime out or her hysterical tussle with the Karkus…Wendy Padbury is divine in this, her scream as shrill as they come and she is clearly full of enthusiasm for the story. What a cutie.
Talking of cuties…Jaime! Now I promised myself I would never, ever use this word but somehow it seems embarrassingly apt…phwoar! How gorgeous does he look in that black top? Plus Frazer Hines is playing the role to excellent comedic effect; his face every time the Doctor tells him to shut up so he can discuss something brainy with Zoe is priceless. Despite Hamish Wilson’s fabulous attempts to fill his shoes for an episode I was beaming when Frazer returned in part three. His delivery of some of the lines is priceless (“Whose the yahoos!”).
Their chemistry is delightful; the fun they are sharing beams from the screen and envelopes the audience. Simon is not very fond of black and white Who but was captured halfway through episode one and watched the whole thing with me declaring his love for Jaime, his affection for the Doctor and clasping his ears every time Zoe let out another ear piercer.
Maybe the story is bit anti-climatic (pressing a few buttons is hardly a spectacular dénouement) but it is the journey that matters and the truth of the matter is that The Mind Robber entertains for five dazzling episodes, it makes you laugh (“For heavens sake don’t do anything rash!”), it clutches your imagination (“You did this before! That’s how Jaime’s face got changed you got it all wrong!”) and frightens you too (the book closing on Jaime and Zoe is the most terrifying things I have ever seen, it still chills me to this day!).
And as an example of what Troughton is capable of, the story is worthy of an Oscar.
I’ve always considered ‘The Mind Robber’ to be slightly overrated, but on viewing it again I realized why it is regarded as a minor classic. It is so different in tone and content that it immediately stands out from the stories around it, and achieves its surreal aims with considerable panache. Of all the Troughton stories, it is perhaps the story the survival of which intact is the most crucial, because a large part of its success lies in its highly distinctive visuals.
Visually, ‘The Mind Robber’ is something of a tour de force, deftly overcoming budgetary limitations and making a striking impact. Episode One is the most obvious example of this, which is ironical considering that it was written at short notice with no available set. Rather than looking like an empty set, the white void instead looks eerily convincing, and this is helped by the White Robots, which are recycled from an Out of the Unknown episode and despite therefore being second hand props they look suitably creepy, an effect heightened by the weird noise that they make. In addition, the TARDIS exterior appears white whilst in the void, which is such a subtle but fundamental change to one of the series’ greatest icons that even in black and white the difference has considerable impact. The effect of the TARDIS breaking up at the end of the episode follows the same principle and even though I’ve seen the story before, I always find it disturbing. The rest of the story maintains the same high standard for the most part, with the labyrinth set and the exterior shots of the castle (fairy tale style, of course) especially noteworthy. The clockwork solders are much more sinister than the White Robots, again partly due to the noise they make, and the fact that are warped children’s toys made menacing. When Jamie climbs away from one of them in episode three, it’s single-minded marching into the wall, as its bayonet futilely scrapes the cliff face, makes it seem as implacable as any Cyberman.
The Unicorn and the Medusa are both very well realized, the stop-motion effects used to show the movement of the snakes on the head of the latter looking on a par with many of Ray Harryhausen’s in films such as Clash of the Titans. Presenting her as an animated statue is an excellent idea, since it avoids rubber mask type make-up and instead allows the use of a static, but sinister, mask. The Minotaur is rather less convincing, but the director wisely keeps it out of shot except for a very fleeting appearance. The visuals are not perfect however; at the end of episode two, as the Unicorn runs at the TARDIS crew, it is painfully obvious that they are standing on a black set, which is shame since the white void in episode one looks so good. When Jamie climbs a “tree” in the forest of words to look at it from above, the model used is obviously a set of flattish letters on white card. In episode three, as the Master monitors the progress of the Doctor and his companions through the labyrinth, three moving lights on a small diagram of the maze plot their movements and show them advancing along a long straight tunnel from the entrance; the scene then cuts to the three of them in the labyrinth, with Zoe telling the Doctor that they have been following a pattern of left and right turns, only to then cut back to the Master and show that they have in fact only progressed further along the long straight section. Nonetheless, these are all fairly trivial criticisms.
The plot of ‘The Mind Robber’ is, if you’ll excuse the pun, novel and highly effective. The danger of being transformed into fiction is surreal (and of course ironic, given that Doctor Who is fiction), but the horror of the fate confronting the Doctor and his companions is well conveyed. In terms of Doctor Who, the story’s closest precedent is ‘The Celestial Toymaker’, in that the Doctor and his companions are trapped in a world where nothing is as it seems and reality cannot be trusted; in that story however, the TARDIS crew managed to navigate the Toymaker’s world without falling prey to it, whereas here at various points Jamie and Zoe at least find themselves falling victim to the rules of the Land. This scenario is used to unsettling effect; on this occasion, all three of them find themselves facing a menace that cannot be fought with conventional means, and they must solve riddles and puzzles and face challenges to survive and hope to escape. Jamie’s literal loss of face is a disquieting example, as he automatically reacts to a threat that he understands (a Redcoat) by fighting, and is reduced to a cardboard cutout, which then loses its features. Due to the Doctor’s (comic) mistake in reassembling his face from the identikit provided, he ends up looking like somebody else (a bit of emergency recasting that is a stroke of genius just as much as the changeover from Hartnell to Troughton was). As the story progresses, all three of them start to learn how the Land of Fiction works and how to avoid becoming fiction themselves, but by the end of episode four even this is of no avail as Jamie and Zoe are forced into the book by the White Robots and become part of the Land. This bizarre threat looms over them right up until the end of the story, with the Doctor nearly transforming himself into fiction twice without thinking.
On a smaller level, ‘The Mind Robber’ is full of nice thematic touches. Gulliver, only speaks in lines written for him by Jonathon Swift, as the Doctor realises in episode four; once the viewer knows this, it becomes obvious, but still works very well and the way in which writer Peter Ling manages to select appropriate quotations to suit whatever question the Doctor asks Gulliver is quite fascinating. Consequently, Gulliver speaks in a very elaborate fashion, and Bernard Horsfall delivers these lines with such aplomb that it makes for a memorable and striking performance. Zoe’s battle with the comic strip hero the Karkus is suitably over-the-top and reminiscent of the Batman TV series. I like the fact that having managed to frantically convince Zoe that Unicorn, the Minotaur and the Medusa were fictional and therefore could not harm them, the Doctor finds himself unable to do the same with regards to the Karkus, because he has never heard of him.
The Master is also nicely handled; having been glimpsed from behind as a typical gloating megalomaniac manipulating the Doctor from behind the scenes, he is actually revealed to be a jovial old man who is as much a prisoner of the Land as the Doctor and his friends. Emrys Jones acts he part very well, effortlessly switching from his plaintive and rather sweet old man portrayal to a much harsher characterisation as the Master Brain takes control. The fact that a computer is actually behind the Land of Fiction and that we don’t learn who built it (at least until ‘Conundrum’ was published) is potentially disappointing and frustrating, but the story is so stylishly done that it manages not to matter.
It has been reported that Troughton grew tired of the base-under-siege monster based stories of Season Five, and if so he clearly relishes getting a rather different script to play with. His performance here is full of marvellous moments, such as when he has to answer the riddles fired at him by the children in episode two, and the guilty look on his face when he is forced to admit that he was responsible for giving Jamie the wrong face. His finest moment however is when the Doctor is connected to the Master Brain and he determinedly announces, “You’ve given me equal power. It’s now a battle of wits between the two of us!” The ensuing scenes are hugely entertaining, as the Doctor and the Master summon up fictional characters including Lancelot, D’Artagnan, Cyrano de Bergerac (sic), and Blackbeard. The other regulars do well out of the script as well; Jamie rises to the challenges presented by the Land with his usual stoic determination, and takes in his stride having a change of face, climbing a “rope” only to find Rapunzel at the top, and seemingly losing the TARDIS for good. Frazer Hines is his usual reliable self, and Hamish Wilson doesn’t do too badly in his brief stint in the role. Wendy Padbury gets to prove that she can scream as well as Deborah Watling could as she clings to the TARDIS console in a silver catsuit in episode one, but during the rest of the story she continues in the resilient streak that she exhibited in ‘The Dominators’. In addition to dealing with the Karkus when the Doctor cannot, she also gets perhaps her finest hour, as she overloads the Master Brain computer and thus not only saves herself, Jamie and the Doctor, but also destroys the Land in the process.
In summary, ‘The Mind Robber’ is a highly unusual but very effective Doctor Who story and a great example of just how flexible the series’ format can be.
The Mind Robber is one of the most unique serials in the history of Doctor Who. It’s a strange mix of 60’s psychedelia, fairy tales, pop culture, and literature. The story is the square peg of season six. Season six is mostly composed of standard science fiction fare such as The Krotons, The Invasion, and The Seeds of Doom. The Mind Robber is a nice alternative to the alien invasion story.
One of the most beloved aspects of this story is the wide array of characters that the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe encounter. Giant toy soldiers and Medusa, the gorgon, menace the TARDIS crew. The Doctor and co. also meet the famed traveler Gulliver, the futuristic superhero Karkus, and the great romantic Cyranno de Bergerac. This story features one of the show’s most interesting concepts. Writer Peter Ling created a world of pure concept where the Doctor’s will and cunning are put to the ultimate test.
Patrick Troughton is of course amazing as the Doctor. Frazier Hines and Wendy Padbury are entertaining as always. Emrys Jones plays the controller of the fantasy world, bringing to life one of Doctor Who’s most unusual villains. Doctor Who guest star extraordinaire Bernard Horsfall is delightful as Gulliver. Horsfall would also guest star in the epic The War Games and the landmark serial The Deadly Assassin.
While the cast and script of The Mind Robber are both excellent, I do have two small reservations about the story. I felt that the story was a little too slow moving towards the beginning. The white void of episode 1 was an interesting visual concept, but not for long. The story is also “padded,” a familiar affliction of Doctor Who which affects many classic stories, i.e. Genesis of the Daleks and the previously mentioned The War Games. There are too many scenes of the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe wandering around the dark, drab set. Those problems are small and do not diminish The Mind Robber’s status as one of Doctor Who’s most creative stories.
After viewing our favorite Time Lord vanquishing alien after alien and robot after robot, it is nice to find him meeting Rapunzel and Cyranno De Bergerac. The story also has a very trippy late 60’s vibe which I found very enjoyable. All in all, The Mind Robber is required viewing for those Doctor Who fans that wish to see something different.