I have yet to see a robot that can climb.
Just when you thought you knew what was coming next on Doctor Who, the series proves it can still deliver surprises at tea time. Looking beyond the normal stable of writers—and the normal monster-and-threatened-base storyline—the producers brought in an outsider, Peter Ling, for the wholly unexpected “The Mind Robber” (Series Production Code UU), an extended rumination on the meaning of fiction and reality and the interplay between them. And, don’t worry, there are menacing robots, too. This is still late ’60s Doctor Who, after all.
The cliffhanger from the end of “The Dominators” sees the TARDIS about to be swallowed up by lava, but sadly, the fluid links simply can’t handle the load, and they begin to spew poisonous mercury vapor once more and prevent a normal departure. (Must have been an off-brand of mercury they loaded up with at the end of “The Wheel in Space.”) The only way out is by using the “emergency unit,” which the Doctor is hesitant to install, because “it moves the TARDIS out of the time-space dimension, out of reality.” Jamie forces the Doctor’s hand (literally, by smashing down on his hand and triggering the device) and off the TARDIS goes, to nowhere.
The Doctor wants nothing to do with nowhere and with nothingness, so he instructs his companions to stay in the TARDIS while he makes repairs in the Power Room. He’s positively spooked, in fact, jumping with fright when Zoe walks in during the repairs. Possibly this is due to her having changed into a sparkly jump suit, but more likely has to do with his nervousness at being outside the time-space continuum. Nothing good comes from nothingness. As he tells his pant-suited companion, “It’s only the unknown that worries me, Zoe.”
The TARDIS has been outside of time and space before, arguably in “The Edge of Destruction” and, more definitively, in “The Celestial Toymaker.” As in the latter story, there’s a force out there in the nothingness that tempts the Doctor and his companions out by manipulating the TARDIS scanner, this time showing images of their homes, Scotland (for Jamie) and the City (for Zoe). And no sooner do Zoe and Jamie succumb to the temptation than they find themselves in a Beckett play.
A big, empty BBC sound stage serves perfectly as the nothingness in which the Master (no, not that one) mesmerizes Jamie and Zoe with his White Robots. (And, yes, sadly, that’s the only name given them.) The Doctor, meanwhile, begins to fight off the Master’s telepathic assault while still inside the TARDIS. When he finally is able to break free, he ventures out to guide the lost and confused companions back, but everything has somehow turned white. Even the TARDIS.
Once they’re back on board, they attempt to dematerialize and return to reality, but instead, the TARDIS explodes, leaving Jamie and Zoe screaming and clinging to the control console as it spins through utter blackness. And that’s just the first of five episodes.
Clearly, something new—or at the very least fresh—is happening here. The disorienting effect of the color shifts, stark backgrounds, and subverted perspectives calls to mind “Planet of Giants,” with the Doctor and his companions similarly having to survive familiar situations cast in unfamiliar lights. The setting feels far more alien than an alien planet could. But where the earlier story has telephones the size of automobiles, this story turns riddles into realities and old sayings into giant letters one can climb upon and hide inside. The TARDIS crew finds itself in a World of Fiction, or, as the Doctor puts it, “This must be a world of words,” where belief determines reality.
Thus, when confronted by a unicorn, or a minotaur, the Doctor urges his companions to assert the unreality of those creatures, causing them to vanish. And upon encountering Gulliver, from Gulliver’s Travels, the Doctor finds that the Nottinghamshire wanderer can only speak the words that have been written for him, either from the novel or, more interestingly, words written by or about the Master. The Doctor begins to piece together that the characters and events in this world stem from the creative act of a particular mind.
That mind happens to be a prolific writer of children’s serials for an early twentieth century British boy’s magazine, The Ensign, who was kidnapped by the Master Brain, the real malevolent force behind this fictional world, due to his having written five thousand words a week for twenty-five years. Once the Doctor and the Master finally meet, the reason for all the trials and tests becomes clear—the Doctor is to replace the aging serial writer as the Master of the fictional world:
Doctor: What is this intelligence you serve? And why was I brought here!
Master: Well, as you see, I am no longer young; whereas you, Doctor, are ageless. You exist outside the barriers of time and space.
The Doctor refuses the invitation, both on general principles and also because the Master Brain seeks to trap every person on Earth in the World of Fiction in order to clear that planet for conquest. And here, the story begins to break down even though the concepts swirling around within it remain vibrant. The threat of the invasion of Earth falls flat as motivation, having been dropped into the story ostensibly because that’s the kind of foe the Doctor faces these days. The Doctor confronting the existential menace of a foe who wants to replace reality with fiction—that could be interesting. But if you just want to invade Earth, you should probably take a number and wait your turn. Still, it’s a small quibble, as the rest of the story remains convincing, one of the strongest not just of Troughton’s era but of the series to date.
The examination of history versus fiction makes this story stand out, tying in as it does with the show’s core conceit that the Doctor cannot (or will not) alter history, though he affects lives and events everywhere he goes. Here, he posits the key difference between history and fiction:
Doctor: Well when somebody writes about an incident after it’s happened, that is history, hmm?
Jamie: Uh, yes.
Doctor: But when the writing comes first, that’s fiction. If we’d have fallen into the Master’s trap, we would have become fiction.
By this reading, anything the Doctor already knows about, anything that has already happened in or before his personal timeline (“history”) cannot be altered. Unicorns lack historical truth, so they don’t exist, even if they’re about to run him over. Anything he’s previously unaware of, seemingly, can be altered; the unknown that he fears so much exists in a malleable flux between history and fiction, with his intervention deciding which it becomes. When confronted by “The Karkus,” a cartoon superhero figure from Zoe’s era that the Doctor knows nothing of, he’s unable to proclaim that it doesn’t exist because he doesn’t definitively know it to be a fictional character, leaving Zoe to knock it out using judo skills she picked up somewhere along the way.
So, when the Doctor arrives in a place he knows little to nothing about, he’s not altering “history” when he overthrows the secret government led by crab aliens or stops a computer from taking over the world. Those events haven’t simply haven’t happened yet; he’s turning them into history by acting upon them.
There’s also something of a knowing scene where, after the Doctor declares them to be trapped in the World of Fiction, Zoe asks, “Then what are we doing here?” The story doesn’t really traffic deeply in metaphysical concepts and the scene is played straight, but it’s odd (and interesting) to see characters we, as viewers of a television show, know to be fictional ask what they’re doing in a fictional world.
The Master tries to trick the Doctor into “writing” himself into the World of Fiction by trapping him in a device that translates his thoughts into (fictional) reality. If he references himself in any command given, he will fall for that trap and become fictional himself, which is to say non-historical and non-real based on the rules of this world. However, the Doctor realizes that he now has the same control over the world as the Master, so he and the Master engage in a “write-off,” with the safety of Jamie and Zoe at stake. The Master brings out Cyrano de Bergerac, whom the Doctor parries with D’Artagnan; out comes Blackbeard with a more sensible cutlass, but the Doctor invokes Lancelot in a full suit of armor, allowing the companions to escape.
Frustrated, the Master orders the White Robots to destroy the Doctor, who is unable to stop them from attacking without a self-reference. But then Jamie and Zoe bang on the computer controls and overload the Master Brain, destroying the World of Fiction and freeing the Doctor, the serial writer, and themselves from its clutches. As conclusions go, rather lackluster stuff, with no time spent trying to decipher just what happened—very much a Second Doctor hallmark—and leading directly into a cliffhanger ending, with the TARDIS spinning out of control. To be continued, as it were.
But even if the story has some spotty bits, with a wonky ending and a half-baked villain at the heart of events, it remains refreshing to see that the series still has some verve and potential. Why, they even regenerated a companion!
Frazer Hines took ill, preventing him from appearing in the second episode, so a quickly written scene sees the Doctor having to piece together Jamie’s face in a puzzle. He gets it wrong, and Jamie appears with a new face (and a new actor, Hamish Wilson) until Hines recovers and the Doctor gets another chance to put the puzzle together in the third episode. The segment plays off of the Doctor’s own regeneration scene, with Jamie feeling his face but oddly being at peace with the transition, because he knows who he is, even if he doesn’t look the part. Wilson plays Jamie almost as a pastiche of the character, insisting, “What’s the good of thinking? What we want’s a battering ram!” Shades, indeed, of the Hartnell-to-Troughton transition, where the basic concept remains the same even though the character develops new attributes.
The presence of a new writer shows in the characterization of Zoe. She’s less the analytical, mathematical genius of “The Wheel in Space” than an overly curious, highly scream-y, irrational child. Ling, or perhaps the script and story editors in a re-write, do provide some scenes where she pauses, thinks, and analyzes, but whenever someone needs to open a forbidden door, panic in the face of danger, or stare right at the Medusa, it’s Zoe. While Wendy Padbury does her best with the role—and seems to genuinely enjoy throwing The Karkus around—it’s a reversion to that type we know too well, the screaming female companion.
The term of art “companion” makes a stunning return in this story, being used quite frequently after failing to appear in many outings. The Doctor himself uses the term, asking Gulliver, “I’ve lost my companions too, two of them, a boy and a girl. Jamie and Zoe. You haven’t seen them by any chance?” And the word even makes an appearance on screen, via a ticker-tape machine that is predicting the actions the Doctor and Zoe will take.
The TARDIS also makes a strong reappearance in “The Mind Robber,” with an extended look at the Control Room and a visit to the new Power Room in this story. The walls, sadly, have obviously painted roundels on the walls rather than molded circular forms, and no seams quite match up, perhaps a nod to the interdimensionality of the TARDIS but more likely a concession to budgets and time pressures. The ship’s mercury fluid links deserve a thorough check-up, and the magic chest full of clothing has added sparkly women’s clothing and a natty turtleneck for Jamie.
Patrick Troughton turns in a typically fine performance, imbuing the Doctor with genuine nervous energy. He’s more anxious around a group of ragamuffin nineteenth century children than around the White Robots or a snarling Minotaur, bringing about the interesting observation that for a show nominally aimed at children, Doctor Who has featured very few of them on screen thus far. He rejects using a sword to kill the Medusa, but less from pacifism than from a remembrance of how Perseus used a mirror to look at her, allowing him to convince Zoe that the Medusa was just a statue after all.
“The Mind Robber” doesn’t come close to answering all the questions it poses about the nature of nothingness and the reality of fiction (and vice versa), but it’s enough that the questions were asked. Though perhaps damning with faint praise, it’s hard to imagine this story in the same series as, let alone the same year as, “The Fury from the Deep.” And, just in case you were worried, the Cybermen are soon to return and sweep all philosophical questions under the rug once more. Because if you want a proper invasion of Earth, you might as well turn to them.
(Previous Story: The Dominators)
(Next Story: The Invasion)
Post 46 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project