Doctor Who (Classic): "The Mind Robber"
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Doctor Who (Classic): "The Mind Robber"

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Doctor Who (Classic)

"The Mind Robber"

Season 6, Episode 6

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Doctor Who (Classic)

"The Mind Robber"

Season 6, Episode 7

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Doctor Who (Classic)

"The Mind Robber"

Season 6, Episode 8

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Doctor Who (Classic)

"The Mind Robber"

Season 6, Episode 9

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Doctor Who (Classic)

"The Mind Robber"

Season 6, Episode 10

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"The Mind Robber" (season 6, episodes 6-10. Originally aired Sept. 14-Oct. 12, 1968)

The great thing about Doctor Who's format is its flexibility, something that the program took far more advantage of in its early days than it does now. The TARDIS can take you anywhere in time and space, which means that it's child's play to segue between a Wild West gunfight, a moonbase threatened by malevolent cyborgs, and the bloody murk of the French Revolution. In doing so, the show didn't just change settings, it changed genres, most often between straight-up science fiction adventure and historical costume drama. Especially in the William Hartnell era, Doctor Who often pushed as far as it could from the science-fiction underpinnings that made its genre-hopping possible. But "The Mind Robber" takes the show somewhere farther than it's ever gone—not just out of its physical universe, but out of its storytelling universe, and into the overarching nature of fiction itself. At the time, that didn't sit well with its viewers, many of whom were confused and irritated by what they saw as an unnecessarily silly and fantasy-laced premise. But the reputation of "The Mind Robber" has, quite deservedly, grown over time. No serial so closely embraces Doctor Who's roots as children's literature, with the possible exception of Hartnell's "The Celestial Toymaker." And yet, "The Mind Robber" is also one of the series' most genre-breaking and forward-thinking stories. If it's sometimes sloppy and doesn't make total sense, that actually has the weird effect of strengthening what's at the heart of the tale: This is a story about the Doctor in which the main threat is to the Doctor's ongoing narrative itself.

Change was in the air during Patrick Troughton's final season as the Second Doctor, in more ways than one. Viewership was down, for one thing, which meant that the creative team was ready to shake up the format a little—not hard to do, since Troughton's first two seasons had been dominated by "base under siege" stories, in which the Doctor and his companions arrive at some isolated location like a space station and help the friendly humans there defend against alien invasion. There's nothing wrong with that basic plot, but it had gone stale from overuse. Troughton himself was also preparing to leave, overworked and ready to do something else. And the series was starting to look a little shopworn compared to its rivals—The Avengers had been in color and shooting outside the studio since 1965, and in 1967 The Prisoner rewrote the rule book on what you could get away with conceptually in TV science fiction. Though the production team made a stab at modernizing Doctor Who in Season Six, it didn't really take, which led to the massive overhaul the following year starting with "Spearhead From Space."

1968 was also the height of the psychedelic era, which was working into pop culture in a big way. It had been part of Doctor Who since the beginning as well, though usually not overtly. Original script editor David Whitaker loved alchemy and repeatedly drew associations between the Doctor and the wandering trickster figure Mercury—it was no accident that the widget they need to fix in "The Daleks" is called a mercury fluid link. (See Philip Sandifer's excellent TARDIS Eruditorum blog for a longer discussion of this.) But "The Mind Robber" puts those mind-altering aspects front and center, playing around with the nature of reality in ways that it finds hard to shake off.

The main cast at this time consisted of Troughton; Frazier Hines as Jamie, a happy-go-lucky kilt-wearing Scots kid from the 1700s; and Wendy Padbury as Zoe, a perky genius from a moonbase in the distant future. (At least, 1968's distant future—the year 2000.) Like most of the stories around this time, "The Mind Robber" starts off with what now seems like startling abruptness, picking up directly after the cliffhanger that ended the previous story, "The Dominators," in which the TARDIS is in the path of an oncoming lava flow. Don't worry about that; what matters here is what they do to get away from it. The Doctor can't simply dematerialize the ship because the lava has overheated the mercury fluid links (there they are again—and surely not chosen at random by script editor Derrick Sherwin). So he activates an emergency unit that yanks them out of normal time and space. They land in a featureless white space, where Jamie and Zoe are lured outside by tantalizing visions of their homes. They're menaced by a squad of white robots, but the real threat is some kind of mysterious dream-force that's working on their minds. It overcomes them, breaking the TARDIS into pieces and catapulting them into a strange forest that's made of letters which form gigantic sentences. This, they discover, is the "Land of Fiction," literally the place where stories come from. Things get increasingly weird as they encounter mythological creatures, bizarre clockwork soldiers seemingly out of The Nutcracker, a motley crew of creepy children who pester the Doctor with sinister puzzles and psychedelic rebuses, and a strange man in a tricorner hat who turns out to be Gulliver from Gulliver's Travels, with dialogue largely drawn from Jonathan Swift's text. The greatest threat isn't bodily harm or death, but the prospect that the TARDIS crew will be turned into fictional characters themselves. (More on that little detail in a moment.)

It's notable that almost nothing in "The Mind Robber" is played for camp—all this stuff is positioned as creepy and frightening, even elements that are almost inherently campy, like the toy soldiers. That could be a bit of influence from The Prisoner, but I think it's more likely that the choice to present all this surreality in a serious way is the result of embracing Doctor Who's roots as a children's adventure story, where ironic detachment just gets in the way. It's significant also that it's coming from a specifically British tradition of children's literature, which is steeped in mysticism and dreamlike imagery from Swift to Lewis Carroll and beyond—and which was heartily embraced by the 1960s psychedelic movement. (Pink Floyd's first album, for example, was called Piper At The Gates Of Dawn in reference to The Wind In The Willows.)

Soon enough the Doctor meets the nominal ruler of this world, a bearded old man called "The Master." He's not the rival Time Lord we've come to know from later eras of the show, but a children's author kidnapped years ago to serve the Land of Fiction's real ruler, a disembodied brain. But the Master's getting on in years, and reveals that all the hazards they've faced to get to him have been tests to find out whether the Doctor is a worthy successor to rule in his place. The Doctor refuses, and defeats the Master by using his own powers to turn fiction into reality, in a fight that consists of one-upping each other with new characters and plot twists to finish the story—which may be impossible, since they're characters in the story also. Zoe and Jamie save the day by overloading the master brain, after which the TARDIS crew frees the Master and they all escape back to reality.

The end. Is it, though? That's unanswerable, because one  of the most compelling parts of "The Mind Robber" is the question of whether it actually happened at all—and if so, what exactly did happen.

To start with, there's no clear indication of when the fantasy elements of the story really take hold, and where the transition to the Land of Fiction actually begins. Is it when the TARDIS breaks up at the end of the first episode? Arguably, it begins about nine minutes in, when the Doctor closes his eyes to fight the influence of the dream visions. Or maybe it was when they made the first jump into the featureless white area—a blank page, perhaps? Or maybe it was when they were breathing in all that mercury vapor, which has got to be bad for your brain. Or maybe they've always been there—after all, the Doctor already is a fictional character. Which makes you wonder if it's even possible for him to escape the traps that threaten to make him fictional. Isn't he caught already? What does it mean for a fictional character to be terrified by the idea that he'll be turned fictional?

And the ending never actually establishes that they've escaped from the Land of Fiction. You see the TARDIS reassemble, but there's no definitive "we're back in the normal universe, hooray" moment. At least not until the next serial, "The Invasion," but that's a little weird also: Although it begins moments after "The Mind Robber," the events of which they specifically mention, they're no longer accompanied by the Master, and don't seem to notice he's gone. Was he not, in the end, real? Did any of that just happen? Did they escape back into reality, or did they simply escape out of meta-fictionality back into the comfortable tropes of their own story? That's a deeply strange coda to a deeply strange story. No wonder people in 1968 had trouble getting what was going on here, and dismissed it merely as silly kid's stuff. And, y'know, on one level, it is. So it's possible to overthink this. But scriptwriter Peter Ling and Sherwin were playing some games here that stand up well next to heavyweight mind-blowers like Philip K. Dick, David Lynch, and Charlie Kaufman. And, closer to the Doctor Who world, it's definitely influential on the approach of current showrunner Steven Moffat. "Amy's Choice," to name the most obvious example, owes more than a little to "The Mind Robber."

"The Mind Robber" only gets more interesting as you look at it in a wider context. There were a slew of apparently coincidental production decisions and mistakes made while the show was being written and filmed that feed back into the whole fiction vs. reality theme. Frazier Hines got chickenpox and had to miss filming for a week, and the need to replace him temporarily with Hamish Wilson is why Jamie's face gets rearranged in the second episode. That sequence is  wonderfully creepy and odd on its own terms, but also calls attention to the fact that Jamie is only a character who might be played by any actor, much like the Doctor himself.

And there's a great blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment in that first episode when the TARDIS crew returns to the console room—and up on the TV set they use as a scanner, left there by mistake by the production team, are the words "Producer: Peter Bryant." They're watching the credits to their own show.

Even weirder is the resonance—again, probably totally coincidental—that "The Mind Robber" gets when you see it knowing what happens in future Doctor Who stories. For one thing, the Master claims to be the author of a series of adventure stories about a character named Captain Jack Harkaway—a name that's oddly similar to the guy who runs Torchwood, Captain Jack Harkness. That could be a purposeful reference, for all I know—Moffat invented Harkness, and it's the sort of thing he might do.

But "The Mind Robber" also casts doubt on whether the Doctor is actually a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, a detail the series made canonical only later that season in "The War Games." Most obviously, it's strongly implied here that the Doctor is actually from the Land of Fiction. Sandifer points out that the Doctor is charged specifically with treason, and you can't be a traitor to a country you aren't from. Maybe that kind of textual analysis doesn't even matter, because there's a self-evident reason why Doctor Who isn't shelved in the documentary section. But there's also a couple of odd connections between "Mind Robber" and the series' first two major appearances by the Time Lords that bring up the possibility that they're somehow not exactly real either. In "The War Games," they put the Doctor on trial and sentence him to regeneration and exile by casting him helplessly into a spinning black void—exactly what happens in the first episode of "Robber." In "The Deadly Assassin," the Doctor faces a villain named The Master who plans to trap the Doctor in a realm where he controls the nature of reality. And all three stories share another connection—Bernard Horsfall, who plays Gulliver here and a Time Lord in the next two. In the words of another time traveler: Whoa.

Lemuel Gulliver, by the way, is a particularly perfect character to drop into this story. As a wanderer who habitually went off to the far corners of the world and encountered strange alien beings, he's very much like the hero of Doctor Who, which the Doctor points out himself when he tells Zoe and Jamie that "he's a traveler like ourselves." The only reason Gulliver's Travels isn't science fiction is because they hadn't invented the term yet in 1726. Gulliver's function in "The Mind Robber" is little more than window dressing, in strict terms of the plot—nothing he does really requires this particular character rather than, say, Huckleberry Finn or some other out-of-copyright figure from kid's literature. But he fits the theme of the blurred line between reality and fiction to a T. Gulliver is a classic unreliable narrator, and Swift fills the book full of lies, half-truths, and rationalizations about Gulliver's motivations and the truth about what he's actually seen. It seems significant that the Doctor not only knows who Gulliver the character is, but can quote the book word-for-word. In a story where you can't be sure what's really happened and whether the Doctor is aware of his own fictionality, just how much does he mean it when he says he's like Gulliver?

Stray observations

• After playing Zoe, Wendy Padbury found a second career as a theatrical agent, in the course of which she discovered a young then-unknown actor named Matt Smith.

• You'd hardly know it from seeing the character on screen, but the Karkus—the Teutonic superhero Zoe's a fan of—was meant to be a parody of the Adam West version of Batman, which was huge at the time. Zoe's fight scene with him is a much more obvious (and satisfying) homage to The Avengers.

• Scriptwriter Peter Ling based The Master on a real author, Frank Richards (pen name of Charles Hamilton), who would have been well-known to a British audience in 1968 for creating the Greyfriars School stories featuring Billy Bunter. That's what Wikipedia tells me, anyway; I'd never heard of him before, and I doubt many modern-day Americans have either—he seems a little too British to translate well across the pond. But he was insanely prolific, writing more than 100 million words under various pen names, making him the Takashi Miike of innocuous tales about scruffy English schoolboys. So if you need to kidnap someone to keep the Land of Fiction well-stocked with material, he'd be the right guy. However, the Jack Harkaway stories that the Master takes credit for were actually written by a different author, Bracebridge Hemyng—I suspect the discrepancy is because Hamilton's heirs had already vetoed a mention of Billy Bunter in "The Celestial Toymaker," so a different character was used in this script.

• We see Jamie and Zoe's visions of their homelands, but not the Doctor's—which would have been especially interesting considering that no details about his homeworld or its people were set in stone until "The War Games," Troughton's last story.

• Next week: The Third Doctor meets Sarah Jane Smith and the Sontarans for the first time in "The Time Warrior."
• Aug. 21: "The Brain of Morbius"
• Aug. 28: "Earthshock"
• Sept. 4: "The Aztecs"
• Sept. 11: TBA Patrick Troughton episode—probably "The Invasion" or "The Seeds of Death"
• Sept. 18: "Terror of the Autons"
• Sept. 25: "The Talons of Weng-Chiang"
• Oct. 2: TBA Peter Davison episode—probably "Kinda"

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