Yes, it’s going to be one of those days.
With the recent introduction of the Master, season eight of Doctor Who gathers quite a bit of momentum, as amply illustrated in Don Houghton’s rather frenetic “The Mind of Evil” (Story Production Code FFF). As with Houghton’s last story, “Inferno,” this six episode story splits its action into several disparate threads that all, somehow, tie together in the end, rather hastily in this case. Only another bravura performance from Roger Delgado as the Master, not to mention several classic bits of gurning and general overacting by Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor, keeps this overstuffed tale on its rails.
The Doctor visits Stangmoor Prison to witness the Keller Machine, a breakthrough in penological science, in action. This device removes the evil thought processes of convicted criminals, rendering them infantile but incapable of harmful behavior. To the discomfort of no one but the Doctor, these thoughts are somehow stored inside the machine itself.
Meanwhile, UNIT has been tasked with securing the World Peace Conference in London, where the Chinese delegation has been complaining of strange break-ins in their quarters. And, just because UNIT doesn’t have enough to do, the task force also must transport Thunderbolt 2, an outlawed nuclear-powered missile, tipped with a nerve gas warhead, to a dock for dumping at sea. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart thinks so little of this last assignment that he delegates Captain Yates to lay on a small motorcycle escort for the deadly weapon, because that never fails.
By the end of the first episode, it’s clear that all three situations will come together somehow, but just how remains tantalizingly out of reach. The typical single-minded scientist who will brook no impediment to his plans, as seen in Houghton’s “Inferno” and in Malcolm Hulke’s “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” seems to be the villain du jour, but in this case, our suspect, Professor Kettering, just up and dies, drowning in a dry room, victim to the Keller Machine’s ability to manifest its prey’s deepest fears in order to kill. But then we learn that while the Keller Machine is a danger, it’s not the villain per se. That honor belongs to…the telephone repairman?
For the second story in a row, the Master disguises himself as a telephone repairman, in this case to bug the phones in UNIT HQ. The Master thus learns of the route being taken by the lightly guarded missile convoy and makes plans to capture it. And where does he get the needed muscle to overpower the UNIT lads? From Stangmoor Prison, which he enters undisguised. For he is known there as Emil Keller, the Swiss penologist who devised the Keller Machine and supervised its installation.
Significantly, this plan has been a very long con, predating the events of “Terror of the Autons,” with the suggestion that Keller set up the process first in Switzerland and then oversaw its deployment in Stangmoor Prison. Over one hundred condemned criminals have been “processed” by the Keller Machine, which, as it turns out, just contains an alien mental parasite that feeds on negative emotional impulses. The Master brought it to Earth, presumably prior to having his own TARDIS sabotaged by the Doctor in the last story. Many months, if not years, seem to have passed for this plan to come to near-fruition. Not difficult for someone with a time machine, of course, but still, the the Master apparently has multiple plans for conquering and/or destroying Earth in play at any given time, unless he just happens to carry alien mental parasites with him on the off-chance they might come in handy.
To add to the convoluted nature of the Master’s “plan,” he seeks control of the Thunderbolt 2 in order to launch it at the World Peace Conference in London, thus triggering a world war. How precisely a British missile launched from British soil at a British city would cause the Chinese and Americans to go to war remains, perhaps blissfully, unexplained. And just in case that doesn’t work, the Master has also hypnotized a member of the Chinese delegation, Captain Ghin-Lee, to sow chaos at the conference. She even seems to turn into a dragon at one point, while trying to kill the American delegate, a mass illusion caused by her linkage to the Keller Machine via a small device of the Master’s.
A far simpler plot could have dropped the World Peace Conference entirely; its presence in the story adds about an episode’s worth of content, and the viewer is left uncertain about how it will play into events for quite some time. These scenes do serve to break up the rather repetitive scenes of the Doctor and Jo variously being captured and locked up in the prison after the Master helps the inmates riot and commandeer the prison not once but twice. And they are worth keeping if only for the interaction between the Doctor and the Chinese delegate, with the Doctor demonstrating his knowledge of Hokkien, a Chinese dialect, as well as his claim that he was given permission to use Mao’s personal name, Zedong, by the chairman himself. He even speaks a bit of Cantonese to Ghin-Lee after she is freed from the Master’s control (and then never seen again).
Indeed, while Roger Delgado makes the most of his ample screen time to push the story inexorably (and inexplicably) forward, Jon Pertwee practically revels in the scenes where the Doctor’s rich back story comes to the fore. These asides, like his experience with the Chinese (from “Marco Polo,” perhaps, as well as the off-screen encounter with Mao), his time in the Tower of London with Sir Walter Raleigh, and the repeated references to his two hearts, Venusian karate, and regenerative comas, add little to the plot but much to the characterization. Though still a string of essentially one-off stories, the linkages between stories and to stories that have not been told grows ever stronger during Pertwee’s tenure. As a result, the Third Doctor feels far more realized as a character than under Hartnell or Troughton, and Pertwee embraces the inconsequential yet significant details.
As has become common with the Master’s plans, he doesn’t always think everything through. His obsession with destroying Earth matches the Doctor’s obsession with saving it, clouding his judgement quite frequently. In this case, the Master cannot control the parasite inside the Keller Machine after it has absorbed so much evil. It attempts to kill him by manifesting his deepest fear. And that fear just so happens to be the Doctor.
The Doctor, by contrast, fears fire most of all, in particular the fire of a world being destroyed. It’s tempting to suggest that Houghton is calling back, again, to “Inferno,” but the fire effects are overlaid with ghostly images of Ice Warriors, Cybermen, and Daleks, with a modulated Dalek voice chanting, “Exterminate! Annihilate! Destroy!” Hints, perhaps, of more off-screen adventures, and an effective means of keeping the current “big three” villains in the eye of the viewers despite their continued absence from the screen.
By threatening the life of Jo Grant, the Master convinces the Doctor to help him trap the parasite. Oddly enough, the two work quite well together, but the snare doesn’t hold for long. When it snaps, the Doctor can only contain the parasite by keeping it in the presence of its most recent victim, Barnham, a man turned innocent and childlike by the parasite’s draining powers. For some reason, the utter lack of evil in Barnham inhibits the parasite’s ability to affect others. The Doctor and Jo use Barnham to carry the parasite to the hangar where the Master has set up the purloined missile. Once there, the plan is to have the parasite disable the Master while the Doctor reconnects the remote detonation circuit in the missile. The Doctor aims to have the Brigadier explode the missile remotely in order to destroy the parasite—and the Master.
Yes, the Doctor’s plan involves killing the Master, a rather signal change in the Doctor’s ethical conduct to date, unless one assumes that the Doctor considers the Master, like the Daleks and other “monsters” on the show, to be beyond redemption and a threat for as long as he lives. In the event, Barnham cannot bear to see the Master left to die and negates the power of the parasite, giving the Master a chance to escape—by driving over and killing Barnham. To add insult, the Master reclaims his TARDIS control circuit, stolen by the Doctor last story and used as bait here, giving him the ability to travel through time and space once more.
Jo and the Doctor both feel terribly for Barnham’s death, an innocent put into harm’s way for, arguably, a greater good. So even as the Doctor seems to have crossed a line with the attempted assassination of the Master, he suffers for having used an innocent in the attempt. Jarringly, the story ends on a jocular note, with the Doctor and the Brigadier bantering about their being stuck on Earth together, tempering the moral uncertainty of the Doctor’s actions in a way that doesn’t give the moment enough power. A wasted opportunity to deepen the moral character of the Third Doctor, but given the overall violent tenor of this story, perhaps one that needed to be elided.
Jo Grant grows somewhat as a character in this story. The Doctor remarks that her essentially innocent and good nature makes her an unappetizing target for the alien parasite, but she nevertheless ends a prison riot single-handedly and even shoots a rioting prisoner. She displays a guileless cunning throughout, and her combat training with UNIT obviously stuck. Katy Manning does wind up captured and used as a hostage for much of the story, but at least she imbues Jo with a fighting spirit.
In the end, the Master heads off on his merry way after threatening to kill the Doctor and destroy the planet once and for all in a menacing phone call. He has yet to break his duck, though luckily for him, he’ll have three more chances before the end of this season alone. Let’s just hope he doesn’t try the old “telephone repairman” trick again.
(Previous Story: Terror of the Autons)
(Next Story: The Claws of Axos)
Post 58 of the Doctor Who Project