A post-modern take on what Doctor Who is all about? Or simply an escapist fantasy to be enjoyed by all the family? You choose. If you prefer the first choice, then you can chuckle at how the production team used spare robots from an old fantasy science fiction series called Out Of The Unknown. Or how the time travellers keep shouting: “You’re not real! You don’t exist!” at any of the threats that come their way.
In actual fact, The Mind Robber works very well as the weird, fantasy-based fairytale. In the early part of the 2010s, Doctor Who went back to its fairytale roots, but The Mind Robber goes for this idea all guns blazing. Look a little closer though, and its really only the last four episodes that go for the fantasy fairytale concept. The first is something else altogether, and goes for psychological creepiness instead.
What had happened was that the original four-part Mind Robber was good to go, but because the previous planned six-parter had fallen short, another episode had to be grafted on to fill the gap. You can imagine Episode 1 writer Derrick Sherwin sitting at his desk with steam coming out of his ears as he set out to write a filler episode in a short amount of time. The first episode draws on the minimum of resources - the TARDIS set, a white void, no guest stars (I guess Emrys Jones’ voice was dubbed on later) and stock monsters. As even the great man himself Tom Baker has said, it’s akin to raiding the fridge and the food cupboards for the last scraps of food and creating something wonderful from next to nothing in the process.
Everything about Episode 1 works. The script is excellently written, full of claustrophobia and uncertainty, and this is only heightened by David Maloney’s fabulous direction. He really goes for fast cuts and big close ups in the frantic opening TARDIS scenes, and when Jamie and Zoe are in the Void, Maloney makes great use of odd cross-fades and panning camera shots - all topped off by that mournful Radiophonic Workshop noise in the background.
The concepts are simple - Jamie and Zoe have to avoid the lure of temptation, otherwise they walk into a trap. It’s natural that Jamie sees his beloved Scotland, although Zoe seems to relish the thought of returning to what looks like a Lego spaceman set. Naturally, they fall for the bait and very nearly become creepy, blank-faced, non-existent zombies. Even though they do escape, the danger levels sky-rocket through the roof as the TARDIS explodes, leaving Jamie and Zoe clinging on helplessly to the TARDIS console as The Doctor falls away into space in his chair.
Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury are superb in this and really convey the tension well - Troughton shows the more vulnerable side of his Doctor, as he’s forced to deal with a situation that he has no control over or knowledge of. Hines and Padbury work brilliantly as a team, with Jamie’s sunny optimism contrasting well with Zoe’s no-nonsense, bossy madam approach. The scenes when they are trapped by the Robots are sold well by both Hines and especially Padbury, who’s possibly one of the most convincing screamers in Who.
One interesting thing I’ve never noticed until now in The Mind Robber is how it pre-empts The Doctor’s final regeneration. Fans of the dreaded story arc can these days revel in all the continuity throughout the 13 stories, but back in the '60s, an arc was unheard of. Look closely at Season Six though, and the seeds are being sown for Troughton’s departure throughout.
The Earth-based UNIT action of The Invasion pre-empts Jon Pertwee’s time in Doctor Who and a shift away from the Troughton years. The Doctor is left helpless and cut off from the TARDIS in The Space Pirates. In The Mind Robber, The Doctor is forced into a situation that he can’t really deal with (just like his forced return to Gallifrey in The War Games). He temporarily loses Jamie and Zoe, who forget who they are (just like they forget all but one of their adventures). The Doctor spins away into a black void at the end of the first episode. Even Jamie loses his face in an eerie foreshadowing of the end of the Second Doctor. OK, the production team probably didn’t plan it like that, but it’s fun to speculate on the Season Arc that never was.
Once the travellers arrive in the Land Of Fiction, the claustrophobic edge of the first episode does disappear. That’s not to say that the rest of The Mind Robber is any less enjoyable. It’s just that the gears have now shifted to a fun romp which contains as many fairy tales and characters as you can shake a dog-eared storybook at. That said, fans of dramatic Doctor Who may find this story a chore, since there’s not really much in the way of edge-of-your-seat daring-do. As mentioned, all The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe have to do to escape the clutches of unicorns and Medusa is to shout out: “You’re not real! You don’t exist!” Which is something of a cop-out to be honest. In fairness, there’s no other way that they could have wrapped up the cliffhangers, but there’s no denying that it’s a pretty lame solution.
The fantasy characters and creatures pitted against the travellers vary in quality. About the best of these is Gulliver, well played by Bernard Horsfall in the first of his four Who appearances. Writer Peter Ling has done remarkably well in giving Gulliver only lines that he would say from Gulliver’s Travels, and relating them to the unfolding action.
Medusa is also very effective, and makes for quite a creepy ending to Episode 3. The stop-start animation of the snakes on her head are very well filmed. The toy soldiers are also brilliantly designed and realised. That creepy clockwork sound is a great use of sound effects to heighten the fear factor in young kids. Less effective are the Minotaur (which is basically just a shadow on the wall, apart from one fast zoom-in into a man in a bull mask), the screechy stage school kids on their day off, and the Karkus. Actually, actor Christopher Robbie isn’t too bad, but the badly choreographed fight between Zoe and The Karkus doesn’t help matters at all. On the DVD, you can almost picture Wendy Padbury cringing in her chair as she’s commentating on her 20-year-old self flinging around a man that’s practically twice her size with remarkable ease.
In charge of all these larks is, of course, The Master. No not that Master. There’s not a Tissue Compression Eliminator or a roast turkey to be had here. Instead, he turns out to be a genteel old writer (whose prime work of fiction, The Adventures Of Captain Jack Harkaway is presumably a favourite of The Face Of Boe) who’s possessed by a malevolent entity that takes the form of a giant revolving fishtank. Emrys Jones is good fun as The Master, and is also quite convincing when he’s possessed - even if he has to talk. In. Broken. Up. Gruff. Hammy. Sentences.
The Mind Robber seems to have been quite a turbulent story to make. Filmed at the end of an exhaustive production block, tempers were getting frayed. The main man Troughton is said to have got tired of the gruelling production schedule and long hours, so it’s all the more impressive that his performance never faltered once throughout his stories. The other big bugbear that the production team faced was Frazer Hines coming down with chicken pox. Good thing that he never fell ill during any of the other stories, since a bit of neat thinking meant that you could do anything in The Land Of Fiction. Hamish Wilson was drafted in as a temporary replacement after The Doctor failed to get Jamie’s face right. Wilson makes for a likeable substitute, and does the job very well for his one-and-a-bit episodes.
Sheer madness. The hazy summer of 1968 must have seemed like a blessed relief as the cast and crew took their holidays. But the end result of this last bout of madness also stands as one of the finest exports of the Troughton years. The Mind Robber is imaginative, entertaining, funny, scary (well, the first episode, anyway) and really rather brilliant.
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