Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Mind Robber

Chapter The Eighth, which has smoke... and foam.

A malevolent computer, which is wired into the brain of a Boys' Own writer from the 1920s, kidnaps the Doctor to take the writer's place in generating a dreamscape populated by fictional characters. This will be the realm to which the whole human race is transported, so the computer - the Master Brain - can have the unoccupied Earth for something. It's not clear exactly what. Probably it just want to invest in the housing market in a big way, unfortunately meaning the property stands empty despite a huge demand from displaced persons elsewhere. Obviously this could never happen in real life... (huge glowing 'SATIRE' banner here for anyone who doesn't live or work in London).

We watched the DVD as a family, the episodes split over the Saturday and Sunday of a wet weekend.  I have the true Statto anorak mind of a particular kind of Doctor Who fan; so, the decision I made last time to start with one story from each Doctor released all sorts of endorphins. Immediately, though, the middle child, who's most into old Who at the moment, decided he wanted to watch another one of "the first Doctor's".  Well, the best laid plans of mice and men involve me wrestling a DVD off a 5-year old boy and insisting we watch a Matt Smith, shouting "won't someone think of my nerdy sense of order". But in the end, I didn't have to, as he'd remembered wrong. The one he wanted "where the TARDIS explodes" turned out to be The Mind Robber. So, we're still in business: eight randomly chosen stories, and no repetition of a Doctor - and no crying offspring - as yet.

First-time round:
This was one of that glut of monochrome stories I've previously referred to that were released at the start of the 1990s on VHS. I remember buying it soon after it was out, after spotting it in the upstairs racks of WHSmith, Worthing. What surprises me - and the same is true of The Aztecs - was how well I remembered knowing these stories even in those early days. As exciting as it no doubt was to put the tape into the slot and see them for the first time, they weren't brand new plots I'd only just encountered. The reason for this was the Target novelisations, which more and more during the mid to late 1980s were for Hartnell or Troughton stories, as they'd run out of all the others. I collected all the Doctor Who books I could get my hands on too, of course, and read them over and over.

Mind Robber also had an advantage in that it had a number of great production anecdotes,which meant it was featured a lot in Doctor Who Magazine, where I'd have gleaned a lot of information too. In those days, I didn't think of them as spoilers, and I don't remember any disappointment when finally I saw the story play out.


Within a few moments of the start of episode 1, we get smoke and foam - two of the mainstays of the latter Troughton period (see Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts' "Beneath the Masque of The Mask of Mandragora" extra on the Masque of Mandragora DVD for proof). Then, despite his reportedly being exhausted and disillusioned by now, we get another common feature of this era: a toweringly good performance from The Trout. When he says "We're nowhere, it's as simple as that" it is mesmerising. They pulled the shot out and used it in the montage of clips that loops round on the DVD menu, and my little ones wanted to watch it over and again, imitating the Doctor's delivery of the line. This is praise indeed.

Later on there's another mainstay of this period, when Frazer Hines tries to talk his way into a long-haired blonde's bedroom, though this time it's part of the on-screen action (in the Rapunzel sequence).

There's a lot of really good stuff in The Mind Robber that came about just because of production problems; it backs up what Robert Frost maintained in his famous quote about free verse being like playing tennis without a net: sometimes restrictions help to up one's game. Obviously, there's the whole of the first episode, which was scratch written by the script editor Derrick Sherwin. The previous story had had to be shortened, leaving a one episode hole to be filled on a budget of two shillings. It is therefore kept to the main regulars, the standing sets, stock robot costumes and a couple of caption slides. And it's brilliant: its emptiness making it unsettling and eerie.

Jamie suddenly losing his face, and then being played by a different actor, is similarly scary (and all just due to a bout of chicken pox). Smaller things too. In this period, very often the money didn't stretch to any music, so Radiophonic maestro Brian Hodgson had to make his contribution act as both special sound and incidental soundtrack. This results in some very memorable noises, including a personal favourite: the creaking of the toy soldiers walking along - instantly evocative.

The final four episodes, the story proper, is a brave attempt to do something different. It is a bit repetitive in places - you just have to yell that something doesn't exist and it's no longer a threat; that trick is pulled at least three times. And the set-up steers it dangerously close to "it was all a dream" territory without completely running aground. But the final battle, mind against mind, storyteller against storyteller, is a fine idea, realised well.

Does it hang together in some semblance of sense,at least on its own terms? More or less, but there are some inconsistencies. Is the Big Bad a computer or an intelligence (it's referred to as both)? If it is a computer, who built it, and its guardian robots? Or are the robots just fictional characters too (from an old episode of TV anthology Out of the Unknown, maybe)? Is the Land of Fiction a tangible place that the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe have been transported to, or just a dreamscape to which their minds are linked? Every character and story seems consistent as coming from the imagination of someone from 1926, until the Karkus comes along and spoils that idea  It suggests that Zoe's mental powers can influence the 'reality' but elsewhere someone has to actually be physically connected to do that.

On balance, though, it was a crowd pleaser. The children all 'got' the concept and went quiet at the right moments (particularly when Jamie and Zoe turn against the Doctor). Their Dad loved the references to the TARDIS's fluid links and (with apologies to the Better Half) Zoe's catsuit.

Both this story and Flatline are high-concept twists on stock Earth invasion stories which cleverly use other media as part of that concept (children's stories in one, graffiti art in the other). Both stories were also influenced - for the better - by significant production challenges.
Deeper Thoughts:
Confused? You won't be, after this week's episode of... Soap. Online moaners since 2005 have oft complained that the focus on human interactions and emotions in new Doctor Who make it too much like a soap opera. This always reminds me of a Doctor Who Magazine interview with Peter Ling, writer of The Mind Robber, and the only Doctor Who writer before 2005 to have been a soap creator (Compact, Crossroads). The interview was around the time of the aforementioned novelisation of this story, and Ling was asked whether Doctor Who by that time, the mid-1980s, constituted a soap. He said that only when people aboard the TARDIS started getting married and having babies would that be true. It amuses me that all these years later, for better or worse, that's been achieved.

So, is Doctor Who a soap? No, the most cursory examination will show little similarities to Eastenders or Coronation Street. Is it a sci-fi / fantasy / soap hybrid? No. This has been done; Twin Peaks and Jupiter Moon spring to mind, and they don't have much in common with Who either. What Doctor Who has, and has always had, is a grounding in real life as a counterpoint to its flights of fancy. This is why it starts with two secondary school teachers, or a London shop girl, before expanding our minds with time and space.  It's odd then that a story by a writer of Ling's experience is one where reality is not referenced at all, and the whole thing is a pure fantasy. Or is it?

At first glance, The Mind Robber does look like the least grounded story ever, and in a very Sixties fashion: the use of childhood images and stories, including the toy soldiers - which from the production photographs we know are brightly coloured - makes this seem like a belated trip to a psychedelic Pepperland, being broadcast a year after the Summer of Love; but, the chilly, threatening use of these images is more in line with the immediately contemporary White Album, which was released a few weeks after the broadcast of the final episode. Clearly there was something in the air in 1968 about loss of innocence. Because, just like John Lennon's song Revolution from that album, The Mind Robber is a wake up call.

For all its trappings, this story is anti-fantasy. It's a piece that casts a unicorn as a threatening, destructive force, and posits that being trapped in a land of stories would enslave humanity. I'm not sure I agree with the thesis, and it's very odd coming from the imaginative powerhouse that is Doctor Who but it's clear that it is intentional (rumour has it that Ling wrote the piece after being dumbfounded that viewers of soaps could not tell that the characters therein were not real).

In Summary:
With a sort of dreamy logic, this is a full-on escapist fantasy warning of the dangers of escapism.

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