Escaping lava, as you do, the TARDIS arrives in the Land of Fiction. Oh, and then it blows up. The TARDIS that is. All in all, not a good start.
First of all, let me warn you, despite being called The Mind Robber, no minds are robbed. Unless the title refers to the fact that fictional characters have been robbed from literature but then surely that would make this story The Book Robber instead? In all probability though, it is most likely a reference to being enslaved by the Land of Fiction in order to create new fiction.
The Mind Robber has one of the best opening episodes of Classic Who. The irony being that this opener was never meant to be. The irony thickens because episode one is better than the planned other episodes. Which isn’t to say that the rest are in any way terrible but good as episode one they ain’t.
The production team ran into a problem due to conflicts on the story before this (The Dominators, a story where alien mods start getting boisterous), so they took one episode off that serial and plonked it onto this one. So far, so good? Nuh-uh. Because the budget for The Mind Robber was already set in stone, they had no money for the extra episode. So the script editor, Derrick Sherwin, had to try to stick an unbudgeted episode onto the budgeted Peter Ling episodes.
With the modern series, we have a five minute teaser before the title sequence crashes in and we all start singing “diddly-dum diddly-dum”. With The Mind Robber, the entire first episode is a teaser for the main event. We lost an episode of The Dominators but we gained an episode of The Mind Robber. It is a win-win situation.
So what is episode one? Firstly, they couldn’t spend money on a new set. They used the existing the TARDIS set (which was permanent in any case) and then whipped out a white cyclorama and…what? You don’t know what a cyclorama is? I don’t blame you. Even my spellchecker doesn’t know. It insists on saying ‘cycloidal’ instead.
According to Wikipedia:
A cyclorama is a panoramic painting on the inside of a cylindrical platform, designed to provide a viewer standing in the middle of the cylinder with a 360° view of the painting. The intended effect is to make a viewer, surrounded by the panoramic image, feel as if they were standing in the midst of an historic event or famous place.
Got it? Right. With the white cyclorama and the TARDIS set, they half-inched some old robot costumes from a BBC sci-fi anthology. Interestingly, the robots kinda look like Cybermen as designed by 1950s American B-Movie writers.These things may seem a little ad hoc but all together they add up one surreal and weird opening episode. Episode one feels like nothing we have ever seen on the show. It is more similar to those offbeat French art-house movies of the early twentieth century.
Both Jamie and Zoe (the companions) see visions of their homes which tempts them to leave the safety of the TARDIS and venture into the Nothingness. This leads to two of the best bits in 1960s Doctor Who: Jamie and Zoe in white. His kilt and jumper now as white as the cyclorama, and her catsuit equally as pale. The second best bit? The TARDIS joins in the act and is white all over. I cannot stress how sexy and fantastic it looks. Jamie and Zoe in white: very cool. TARDIS in white: hubba hubba!
In a way, it is sad that the rest of the adventure isn’t more like episode one but I guess that is just my personal taste.
But what of the other episodes? Imagine fan fiction as written by literary nerds and, yeah, that is more or less what you get here. All of our favourite and copyright-free characters are here. Lemuel Gulliver (who can only speak the words his writer wrote), D’Artagnan, Cyrano de Bergerac and more. With dreamlike events and illogical logical puzzles, this story also has a certain Lewis Carroll feel to it.
Of course, this being a Doctor Who story, there must be a Big Bad for the Doctor to beat. In this case, there are two. The Master (no, not that one!) of the Land of Fiction and the real villain of the piece, his computer. The Master of the Land of Fiction was originally a writer of penny dreadfuls about a character called Captain Jack Harkaway (who is a real-life fictional character in the magazine, Boys of England, a genuine Victorian publication). Somehow this writer was kidnapped by the computer as a source of ideas. The Master, being sick and tired of being used, wants the Doctor to replace him but the computer has other plans.
The computer’s plans? You won’t believe this but apparently the computer wants to turn all the inhabitants of Earth into fictional characters. Yes, quite.
At least the Master’s plans are fairly reasonable. He is trapped and wants to be free. The only way of doing this is for him to be replaced. The computer’s plans are just pointless and stupid. What does a computer want with an empty planet? Or does it just want billions of people to play with? The computer wants to rob minds to make everyone fictional? If so, then why isn’t the computer’s plan more or a threat rather than something incidental to the plot? In any case, this computer is cuckoo for Coco Pops.
I hate to say it but it feels like Peter Ling tacked on the computer’s plot onto the story simply because he felt that a Doctor Who story must have a crazy computer with delusions of grandeur. But if you are going to criticise a Doctor Who story because the villain’s dastardly plan is pointless and needlessly byzantine, you might as well give up and join the Star Trek fandom. Shame on you!
Besides the white robots, there are also clockwork robots that look like Victorian toy soldiers. Now these guys look good, better that the white robots at any rate. They have a stilted toylike walk and in their hats (which my mind insists are called ‘shakos’) there are massive cameras which broadcast what the robots are seeing back to Fiction HQ.
In episode two, the TARDIS crew find themselves in a forest made up of letters. This is very imaginative but the execution of this conceit doesn’t quite work onscreen.You are meant to be able to read what the forest says when you look at it from above.
One of the best moments is also, like the inclusion of episode one, unplanned. The loss of Jamie’s face. In real life (remember that?), Frazer Hines caught chicken pox and had to spend a week in quarantine. The production team hit on the idea of having Jamie turned into a cardboard cutout and then having his face turned into a puzzle. Failing to get it right, the Doctor is shocked to see his Jamie with the face of Hamish Wilson. When the quarantine was over, they simply repeated the process and with the help of Zoe, Jamie is restored. Huzzah!
One scene with a stop-motion Medusa is a bit below par and sub-Harryhausen. Yes, it has a similar-yet-slight Weeping Angels look to it but it looks like something Ray (or is it Roy?) Harryhausen might have knocked up after an afternoon of getting nicely sloshed in the Californian sun. However, this Roy (or maybe Randy) Harryhausenesque scene doesn’t outstay its welcome though.
Following an altercation with a peevishly annoyed unicorn, our heroes find themselves in underground tunnels pursued by a minotaur. Watching them is the Master with a map that doesn’t tally with their actual route through the maze.
Afterwards, with Doctor Who not being Doctor Who without at least one scene set in a quarry, Jamie finds himself in a … quarry! Surprised? Pursued by a clunky giant toy soldier, his only escape is up a steep cliff face and then up a plaited length of hair belonging to Princess Rapunzel. Given what Jamie does in this scene, it is faintly ironic that my spellchecker suggests that Rapunzel should be spelt ‘rappel’.
Before I go on further, I feel the need to say that the Rapunzel actress, Christine Pirie, is one of the all-time beautiful actresses in the original run of Doctor Who. In case you want to know, this my personal top three.
1) Joy Harrison, Death to the Daleks
2) Katharine Schlesinger, Ghost Light
3) Christine Pirie, The Mind Robber
Suitably bored? Good.
The Mind Robber is not about an evil computer or an enslaved old man, it is about dreams and fiction and simply existing without meaning. The Mind Robber is one of the best Patrick Troughton stories. Yes, Frazer Hines is absent but Hamish Wilson makes a good job of being Jamie (Best. Male. Companion. Ever). And Zoe with her fierce intelligence and capacity to fit into a jar is always a treat to watch.
This is Doctor Who at its most strange and beguiling. It is bloody brilliant. I could go on about this adventure but the proof is in the pudding. Watch it for yourselves.
When you have finished, maybe pick up a book to read, hey?