I’ve written a few of these posts lately, which have mostly come about because of spending money I received, originally for my 50th birthday, and more recently for Christmas. I am enjoying rewatching these stories lately, especially sharing them with my nerdier daughters and seeing the stories through their eyes.
(Daily Doctor Who # 60)
The Mind Robber
Starring Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor.
Companions: Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon and Wendy Padbury as Zoe Herriot
Written by Peter Ling. Directed by David Maloney.
Format: 5 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: September – October 1968. (Episodes 6-10 of Season 6)
The Mind Robber is one Doctor Who‘s odder animals–the four part story was repurposed as a five part story when an extra slot needed filling. This was done by cobbling together a new episode one (with no writer credited!) featuring no sets aside from the TARDIS and a white void, and nearly no actors aside from the regulars. And then it goes into Episode Two, and arguably gets even stranger.
The Mind Robber introduces one of the quirkiest ideas that early Doctor Who had to offer, the Land of Fiction. The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are drawn into this odd world, which is made up forests of words and includes one fictional setting mashed up with another. This allows for all sorts of quirky set pieces and puzzles for the Doctor and his friends to cope with–a gingerbread house, a labyrinth from ancient mythology, a princess’ castle and more–and it’s in this that we fine most of the fun of the story. The unusual visuals of things like Zoe trapped in a jar, Jamie climbing up Rapunzel’s hair, or the Doctor’s actions being printed out on ticker tape make the story loads of fun to watch.
Best of all is the bit where Jamie is turned into a cardboard cutout and the Doctor must re-create his face. Like the extra episode at the start, it is a plot point born out of necessity, when Frazer Hines was sick for the week and there had to be a way for someone else to take over the role. But just like the extra episode, it’s an invention that works very well.
Hamish Wilson is obviously not “as good” as Frazer Hines in the role, but he is a solid fill-in man, and Troughton and Padbury’s reactions to the situation are priceless (especially the when they work to put Jamie’s face back together properly). The whole idea is just so funny that it is a joy to watch.
Another of the story’s clever ideas is the presence of Lemuel Gulliver from Gulliver’s Travels. He is there, obviously, to help explain the concept of the Land of Fiction, but he ends up being one of the story’s highlights thanks to the very cool conceit of his dialogue all coming from Jonathan Swift’s novel. It’s interesting to have an ally of the Doctor who neither attains self-awareness nor falls into the familiar pattern of being a victim. Bernard Horsfall plays the character with respect and dignity in the first of four appearances that the actor has on the series (he shows up later in the season in The War Games). It’s a good performance that also gives Patrick Troughton a lot to react to, which is fun to see.
Emrys Jones as the Master of the Land of Fiction is also quite good. He’s really playing two characters–the extension of the Master Brain that rules the Land of Fiction, and the unnamed and slightly doddering science fiction writer who was kidnapped to fulfill that role–and he does a good job with both. Again, like Gulliver, the Master of the Land gives the Doctor a strong screen presence to play off of, which in turn highlights just how good Patrick Troughton is in the part.
The Mind Robber has some weaknesses which are native to the series of the day–mostly to do with the overall quality of some of the effects and set design, and the awkwardness of the fight scene between Zoe and the Karkus (I don’t know if Zoe ever demonstrated those martial arts abilities before or since), but overall it’s a highly inventive story with a lot going for it. The Land of Fiction is a great concept, with its latent threat of stealing away people’s self-determination and freewill. I wouldn’t minded seeing this developed further, but sadly it never appeared again in the television series (although when we were seeing previews for The Girl Who Waited years ago, I wondered if that was where they were taking us). Aside from that, I have very few complaints about the story itself.