This isn’t a documentary about how Nigel Farage got people to vote for UKIP.
Neither is it a step-by-step guide by Emma Watson about how you can fool people into thinking you’re a good actress.
It isn’t even a tell-all book by Tom Cruise on his Scientology beliefs.
No, it is a Doctor Who story from 1968. However, if anyone was going to remake this as a Hollywood film, then I’m sure you’d cast Tom Cruise as Jamie, Emma Watson as Zoe and… er… Nigel Farage as the Second Doctor? No, that analogy’s fallen down. Sorry.
So, yes, The Mind Robber. A slice of pure ’60s television, combining the edict of the show so well (Science Fiction and Education), that still holds up against today’s version. If you’ve read a previous article, concerning The Dominators, you’ll know that one of the episodes of that preceding story was dropped to simplify it; which meant that a new starting episode had to be written for The Mind Robber to fill the gap.
And what an episode it is.
Script Editor Derrick Sherwin crafts a sublimely surreal and utterly trippy entrance into The Land Of Fiction (where the story is set) by having the TARDIS escape the volcanic explosion of The Dominators‘ end using an emergency link which takes them outside of reality. A white void of an empty studio conveys this better than any CGI landscape could, with the stark black and white tones giving you really powerful visuals that, again, wouldn’t be enhanced by adding psychedelic colours to them.
Turn on (the fluid link), tune in (the Second Doctor does), drop out (they do, as the TARDIS explodes).
In essence, it’s a pre-amble. Nothing more than a loose dream sequence to drift you into the main story, written by Peter Ling. However, it works so perfectly, and draws you in so fantastically, that the other episodes seem slightly duller by comparison. However, that’s predominantly because the style changes. They enter the Land Of Fiction, rather than a White Void. The first episode cliffhanger, of the TARDIS blowing apart and the central console revolving in mid-air (with Zoe clinging on to it and screaming for all she’s worth), is forever going to appear in clip shows, compilations and the like. It’s become iconic. And that’s not just because Zoe’s sparkly-costumed bottom still makes hearts flutter.
So, once inside this Land Of Fiction, Peter Ling appears to spoon in enough characters, ideas and plot to furnish another whole season’s stories. The premise of a forest made of words is, in itself, explorable for an entire story. In the same way, you could write an entire story around the meeting of each of the whole host of various characters from literature that are encountered (particularly Gulliver, who is played with straight-laced and stoic perfection by Bernard Horsfall – who was to re-appear a further three times throughout Doctor Who, in some of the biggest and best remembered stories). We even get to meet literary characters from the future too, like the superhero Karkus; who gets into a fight with a suddenly Emma Peel-eseque Zoe – her hitherto dormant martial arts skills overtaking her mathematical ones in her audition for joining John Steed in The Avengers. I’m not sure a German-accented superhero, with limited fighting skills and who appears to be named after decaying flesh, is a creation that Stan Lee would invite to assemble in the other Avengers but at least he is the catalyst for showing our heroes out of the Land Of Fiction and introducing them to the Wizard pulling the strings behind the Oz-like curtain.
Before we get to that, let’s pause for a moment and touch on the TARDIS trio. Such is the strong chemistry between Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, Frazer Hines’ Jamie and Wendy Padbury’s Zoe that it’s a genuine shock of unease when – during a game where the Second Doctor has to re-assemble a jigsaw of Jamie’s face and gets it wrong – we are introduced to a different actor playing the passionate Highlander. In reality, Frazer Hines contracted chicken pox and missed some of the shoot, so Hamish Wilson – with a stronger Scots accent but less of a naturally charismatic actor – is brought in to cover Frazer as Jamie; necessitating the brief re-write with the jigsaw puzzle. To be honest, if I were Jamie, I’d have been pretty cheesed off that the Doctor couldn’t pop a few large pieces of puzzle together in the right way to create his face again.
To be even more honest, if I was Frazer Hines’ brother, Ian, I’d be even more cheesed off that I wasn’t offered the part and, instead, stomped about inside one of the looming white robots who menaced the TARDIS in the opening episode and sporadically throughout the rest.
The Mind Robber deserves its ‘classic’ status for daring to be different and for creating such a memorable look, feel and story from so many jumbled ideas and characters. It’s like being thrown into a living library, face-first.
Our main ‘villain’ of the piece is called the Master. Though, unfortunately, not a suave hypnotist with a neat sideline in Tissue Compression Elimination, a penchant for wearing black and a well-trimmed goatee beard, this Master is a bit of a meek shrew of a writer who’s been the creative hub around which the Land Of Fiction revolves. His creativity running dry, he wants the Doctor to take over his position and continue the story. I rather liked the irony of him trapping Jamie and Zoe into a book, so that they became ‘characters’, which is – in reality – what they are. Very post-modern.
The look and style of The Mind Robber is something quite extraordinary in places (kudos to designer Evan Hercules, costumiers Martin Baugh and Susan Wheal, with special effects magic by Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie) but the true stand-out in the story is the direction from David Maloney. Here, he earns the first of his returning credits as a director with a real vision and a real understanding of how to make this genre interesting to look at and exciting to watch. The mark of a good returning director is to be engaged in the story they tell but not to realise it is the same man telling the tale. It’s safe to say, that if you look at the rest of his work on Doctor Who (and we’re talking notable ‘classic’ stories like The War Games, Planet Of The Daleks, Genesis Of The Daleks, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, Planet Of Evil and The Deadly Assassin), each story has a look and feel all of its own. Sometimes, directors like to have a box of tricks and a certain style that showcases who they are but, with the amount of wildly-different genre-shifting and eclectic story-telling that’s kept Doctor Who alive for more than 50 years, then you’ve got to be able to tell the tale in ways that are new and interesting visually too. I’ve no doubt, like Graeme Harper (the only returning director for the ‘classic’ series, who popped up again with the ‘new’ series), David Maloney would have sprinkled some magic on a story for David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, had he not passed away in 2006.
Looking at The Mind Robber with a view to seeing a similar story somewhere else in the ‘classic’ or ‘new’ series, it has to be said that it stands pretty much alone. You can usually find parallels in stories which have echoes of each other in themes or storylines (e.g. ‘Base Under Siege’, ‘Man Vs Monster’, ‘Mad Scientist Wants To Blow Up The World’, etc) but, although there’s a kind of foreshadowing of it in a previous season – when William Hartnell’s First Doctor meets The Celestial Toymaker – there isn’t anything as near to surreal as this right up to the present day. It is a shame that the TV show didn’t return to The Land Of Fiction with a later incarnation of the Doctor, as it’s a place worth exploring more. The licensed audio company, Big Finish, managed it with Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor accompanying the returning Jamie and Zoe… with added Cybermen. However, as yet, there’s been no Forest of Words appearing in the new series of the show on television.
That so many of Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor stories are lost in the ether, when the BBC re-used videotapes from its archives to record new programmes, makes you realise how we must be thankful that such an individual example of Doctor Who firing on all cylinders and such an example of something that seems to encapsulate ’60s telefantasy so perfectly is with us today, intact.
It’s odd to think that the writer had created Crossroads four years earlier (a British soap opera that would run until the 1980s) but, with the amount of plots and characters and contrivances and creativity it takes to keep a long-running soap opera going for that length of time, perhaps he was basing The Master on himself? All his creativity poured into keeping a fictional land living, tethered like a slave to a typewriter and having to produce endless amounts of dialogue and stories ad infinitum. Perhaps it was a televisual cry for help, a televised note from a literary hostage, asking for a Doctor to come along and set him free from the endless flow of words that he was having to write?
Or am I reading between the lines too much?
Either way, The Mind Robber deserves its ‘classic’ status for daring to be different and for creating such a memorable look, feel and story from so many jumbled ideas and characters. It’s like being thrown into a living library, face-first. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re in for a treat when you watch it. If you have seen it, give yourself a treat and watch it again.