Friday, 3 November 2017

The Mind of Evil

Chapter The 69th, which is miraculously in colour throughout.

Lots is happening simultaneously: a) the Doctor and Jo are visiting Stangmoor Prison for a demonstration of a new - and clearly evil - convict rehabilitation device that sucks all the criminal impulses from the inmates; b) the Brig is handling security for a London-hosted world peace conference; c) Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton are managing the convoy to take a dangerous missile off for decommissioning. Finally, d) the Master is planning to use (a) to capture (c) and use it to threaten (b). He doesn't pull it off, but along the way he does manage a prison riot and makes everyone hallucinate a pink dragon. Just an average day then for the men and women of UNIT: action, adventure, mind parasites. So, why not try out for a career in the army? Talk to a recruiter today, etc. etc.

The Mind of Evil is a rare treat in that, while it may not be spectacular (unlike the same writer's script from the previous year, Inferno, it doesn't exactly set the world alight - ho ho), it is nonetheless competently put together and entertaining throughout, and crucially - for this viewer, at least - has not been watched so regularly that it's become over-familiar. It's the equivalent of, say, Baby You're a Rich Man by The Beatles. She Loves You is more popular, and Strawberry Fields Forever is more interesting, but I've heard them each a hundred times, just as I've often seen, say, The Ark in Space or Kinda. But Baby You're a Rich man, a B-side slapped on a compilation, or The Mind of Evil - six episodes of previously black and white mid-season Pertwee - still have the quality of freshness. And this is even more so for the latter now that it has colour returned to it (more on that later). Because of this, and because it's six episodes, which the kids and the Better Half usually think is too much, I saved this for myself and watched the first few episodes from the DVD on my own. But everyone else popped in and watched later sections of it here and there, the Better Half and middle child (boy of 8) particularly enjoying what they saw.

First-time round: 
I first saw this story when it came out on VHS in May of 1998. It must have been around a bank holiday (probably Whitsun) as I remember not having anything else to do that day but watch two and a half hours of black and white seventies TV with my university mate Phil, who's been mentioned a few times before on the blog, and who by this time was living down South too a few years after we'd graduated, a short time after he'd finished his PhD. Because they were cheap, I bought a big box of Boddingtons Bitter for us to consume while watching, and because of this I always associate The Mind of Evil with the distinctive yellow cans and bloated feeling. Phil, a proud Yorkshireman, must have put aside prejudice for the sake of thirst in order to drink a Lancastrian brew for a day. This instigated a few years of our meeting up regularly for alcohol-fuelled Doctor Who and film evenings whenever a new DVD came out. Happy days. Happy bleary days.

The Mind of Evil is the story that seems to create single-handedly the impression that many people held and still hold that Jon Pertwee's is the James Bond influenced era of Doctor Who. Nothing of his before or after this, despite many a stunt or vehicular chase, is particularly Bondesque. Up to now, Pertwee's era has shared more ancestry with Quatermass, which I think is in many ways the antithesis of Ian Fleming's famous creation, despite them both being products of the 1950s. But the Master here, in his cigar chomping, wire-tapping saloon-car chauffeured, high-concept international scheming, is very much the Bond villain; there's also a femme fatale, and gadgets and explosions aplenty. The Chinese characters add some international mystique, but there's not much in the way of globe-trotting to glamorous locales (the furthest they get is a hanger on a deserted airfield near Stanham). But just like a Bond film, there's a lot happening to keep the audience from stopping to think how silly it is.

The Master never likes a straightforward plan, that became very obvious early on in my random shuffling adventures when I stumbled across any Master story for the blog. Here, though, he has two relatively (at least for him) sane plots, but he's clearly decided to do both at the same time to liven things up a bit. The first plan is to hijack a missile to threaten a peace conference and thereby take over the world; the second is to use a nasty alien disguised as a machine to infiltrate a prison and then, well, take over a prison. Why does he want to take over a prison as well as the whole world? It's not clear. It may be to use the prisoners as guns for hire, which he indeed does. Though, there's got to be risks there that his workforce will scarper; the Better Half kept shouting at the screen comments along the lines of "They've escaped from prison, why are they going back in to prison?!" and she has a point. Anyway, the Master has already hired a separate band of disguised mercenaries, so he doesn't need the prisoners. Pulling on this thread only leads one to the terrible conclusion that the Master doesn't need the Keller machine alien at all. He only needs the missile to achieve his goals, and he gets that using old-fashioned bugging not parasitic mind control. He seems only to have included a monster as he knows its expected.

One would want to rewrite to make sense of things better rather than get rid of the Keller machine from the story, of course - it's a wonderful creation, and shows that clever direction can get malevolence out of even the most static prop; the throbbing radiophonia that accompanies it is magnificent too. The script risks the machine's overuse, perhaps: many cliffhangers and interim climax scenes revolve around someone collapsing as it vision-mixes in their greatest fears (including a dragon for the US ambassador - sure it might be a metaphorical symbol of his fear of communism, but it does look like he's got a morbid fear of cardboard dragons, which is odd to say the least), but they just about get away with it.

Dover Castle is a good location for the prison exteriors, and the interior sets are good too; it gets noisy when all the inmates shout as they're affected by the machine, but it's very real. The cast is populated with believable characters played by believable character actors: Michael Sheard, Neil McCarthy and William Marlowe are all excellent doing their audition pieces for coming back in bigger roles in the Tom Baker era. The material's taken seriously, individual deaths are given weight, and the verisimilitude of details like the reading of rights to the inmate condemned to the machine treatment works to give it heft and import. The regulars all shine with lots of stuff to do, and there's only the smallest bits of smug Pertwee behaviour here and there. Jo is great, one story in: compassionate, solid and competent, and not doing idiot moves just to serve the plot. Like many a companion, she was only as good as whoever was writing for her that week.

Both The Mind of Evil and Robot are crash-bang-wallop UNIT extravaganzas; both feature as antagonists a group of people with a mechanical device that nonetheless has a mind of its own, who - though they have an ostensibly noble purpose - want to use it to hold the world to ransom. Plus, in both stories, one of the UNIT team does some intelligence work, but gets knocked out.

Deeper Thoughts:
I'm fairly sure that's Chroma. Yes, watching The Mind of Evil could be a prompt for an in-depth treatise on crime and punishment, and musings on whether justice can ever be obtained in a world of conflict. But I'm instead going to muse about Doctor Who on VHS and DVD. Again. The story's script anyway uses those lofty themes only as window dressing, it's not deep; that it, and all the Jon Pertwee stories, are available to view in colour is much more interesting. When I first became a Doctor Who obsessive and was reading Doctor Who Magazine in the early 1980s, it coincided with the news stories about the final lost Pertwee episodes turning up. Unlike his two predecessors, who still had dozens of episodes left to find at that point, and have only slightly less missing now, Pertwee was complete. Sort of. Though his era was represented with moving image from beginning to end, a lot of those images were still missing one key ingredient: colour. The majority of the Doctor Who episodes that have ever been recovered exist because copies were sold abroad, and black-and-white film was a much more portable and compatible medium to the foreign TV stations in the early 1970s, when those sales were made, than was either colour VT or colour film.

There were as such several greyscale gaps in the Third Doctor's spectrum, and that's how it stayed for a decade. These were, in transmission order, as follows: all of Doctor Who and the Silurians, most of The Ambassadors of Death, all of The Mind of Evil, most of The Daemons, and one episode each of Planet of the Daleks and Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Now, even back then there were artificial colourisation techniques that vandals inflicted on old Hollywood movies never intended to be seen in colour. These were expensive processes, though, and out of the budget of BBC Video. But, a lot of people working at the BBC or in video technology are clever nerds who like Doctor Who, so it wasn't so long before new technology and techniques were being developed. The first breakthrough occurred with The Daemons. It involved taking an inferior colour video recording and merging it with the black-and white film, to produce a broadcast standard version. This was then subsequently applied successfully to Doctor and The Silurians, and bits of The Ambassadors of Death. The colour recording of the latter story didn't cover everything, so when it was released on VHS in 2002 (late on in the range's life, as the team working on restoring on the releases were probably holding out to see if they could somehow improve things), the picture went in and out of colour like The Wizard of Oz or my consciousness after too many cans of Boddingtons.

There wasn't any significant amount of recorded colour material from the missing bits of any of the other three stories, so the process could not be applied to them. Mind of Evil, as we have seen, was released on VHS in black and white, and the other two stories as a mixture. This was also the case for Planet of the Daleks when it was repeated on BBC1 in 1993 as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations: episode 3 was broadcast in black-and-white with a brief explanation beforehand, which seems amazing now. In time for its DVD release, though, another technological marvel had come about, indistinguishable (at least to me) from magic: they could pull the colour information out of the black and white film. Shazam!

It turns out, when the original monochrome film recordings were made, if the technician didn't do it quite properly, some slight interference was introduced, and burnt into the film forever. These are 'chroma dots'. And using some serious computer data crunching, and lots of remedial picture work afterwards, the clever nerds could derive and re-add the correct colour from these patterns. Isn't that cool? Planet of the Daleks was already planned for release with an artificially colourised part 3 (the technology had got cheaper by then, but it was still only possible due to the dollar exchange rate being favourable enough at the time to employ a US firm). In the end, the results of the chroma dot process were merged with the colourised version, and the result is near indistinguishable from the real thing. Invasion of the Dinosaurs episode 1 just had the chroma dot process applied and was less successful, but perfectly watchable. And Ambassadors of Death finally had its gaps filled in with the magic crayons of applied maths.

That left The Mind of Evil, which many had assumed would never ever get a colour release. With six whole episodes, it was a mammoth undertaking. Additionally, the first episode had no chroma dots - the technician had for once done his job properly. But colourisation was by then possible for an individual with the right kit and some more clever techniques (in this case, it was the supremely talented Stuart Humphryes - check out his youtube channel, he posts as Babelcolour). This meant that colour could be added to episode 1, while the chroma dot method was used to complete the remaining episodes. The DVD finally came out in June of 2013, Doctor Who's anniversary year. I love that it exists as a celebration of the cleverness and hard work of the artists and technicians that worked on it, and the sheer dumb prosaic happenstance of a no-doubt overworked guy in the 1960s not flipping the right switch on his console when making some recordings of that kid's science fiction programme. It seems like a perfect metaphor for all the ingredients, good and not so good, that make Doctor Who special.

In Summary:
Baby, You're a Rich Man with occasional slightly bloated feeling.

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