Friday, November 30, 2012

Random Who Report: The Mind Robber (1968)

Doctor Who often straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy; current showrunner Steven Moffatt enjoys invoking a fairy tale feeling, and it's a tradition that goes all the way back to the show's misty black-and-white beginnings. "The Mind Robber" is an especially bold step outside the show's traditional trappings of alien monsters and invasions from space, a piece of metafiction taking us into the land of make-believe as if the show didn't exist there already. The fourth-wall breakage may be in the tradition of Sixties surrealism, but it manages to do this without actually shattering our suspension of disbelief. In the end it does some amazing stuff.

The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie (Fraser Hines), and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) are forced to leave their last port-of-call in a hurry when a volcano erupts. The Doctor overtaxes the TARDIS' machinery trying to leave, and it ends up drifting outside space and time. Jamie and Zoe are lured outside of the TARDIS by images on the scanner, into an absolute white void. The TARDIS cracks up, and all three time travellers end up in a misty forest realm. After encountering Lemuel Gulliver (Bernard Horsfall) and a few mythical beasts, the Doctor works out that they have in fact arrived in a Land of Fiction, watched over by a mysterious master.

It's something of a staple of science fiction series for characters to enter an environment where the laws of their universe don't apply. The Land of Fiction is an especially tricky place, where the denizens have power because people believe in them, and the only way the Doctor and his friends can protect themselves is to recognize that they don't really exist, which is easier said than done when you're looking right at them. This does lead to one of the show's delightful scenes, when Zoe meets The Karkus (Christopher Robbie), a hulking superhero from a comic strip of the year 2000, and is able to toss him around without breaking a sweat. Another great surreal vignette was cooked up to disguise Hines' absence due to illness- Jamie's face is literally shot right off by a redcoat, and the Doctor is led by a floating rebus to a board where he can reassemble his face, but he gets it wrong, and so for the rest of that episode Jamie is played by Hamish Wilson.

As with all mysterious nether realms, the Land of Fiction has a sinister purpose, but that doesn't prevent its inhabitants from taking on a certain charm. Gulliver, who talks almost entirely in passages from his titular Travels (I think the writer may cheat here and there but it's a clever conceit) is a helpful ally, as is the lovely Rapunzel (Christine Pirie), who over the years has decided to take an endearingly casual approach to strangers climbing on her hair. Of course there are also giant clockwork soldiers who are pure menace, but for the most part it's a break from the monster formula the show was known for in Troughton's time.

The show doesn't shy away from the strange implications of fictional characters entering a world of fiction. The major threat the Doctor and his companions encounter, after all the brushes with death from medusae and unicorns (which are apparently more hostile than we have been led to believe), is that of becoming characters in the Land's story. There's a nice chilling scene where the Doctor seems to have been reunited with Jamie and Zoe, but quickly recognizes that they're merely constructs parroting a few stock phrases. (Of course that may be a riff on how companions were frequently reduced to saying variations on "What's that, Doctor?") Our knowledge that they are in fact fictional doesn't prevent their struggle from resonating.

At its best Doctor Who often feels like a surrealist dream, and that's why "The Mind Robber" is such a legendary installment. On relatively threadbare resources (the entire first episode was whipped up to fill space when "The Dominators" proved too thin for its initial order), it creates an intensely imagined environment and manages a level of brain-twisting that was probably quite surprising for viewers of a late Sixties kids' sci-fi show. It stands up as one of the classics of Patrick Troughton's run, and an iconic installment of the series as a whole, demonstrating just how far its concept can stretch.

Written by Peter Ling
Produced by Peter Bryant
Directed by David Maloney

Grade: A

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