“The Mind Robber” (1968)
TARDIS Team: Second Doctor, Jamie, Zoë
Adversary: The Master of the Land of Fiction
Written by Peter Ling (episode 1 by Derek Sherwin)
Directed by David Maloney
Five 20-minute episodes
First broadcast: September 14-October 12, 1968 (Season 6)
Average Rating: 6.86 million
What it’s About:
The Doctor, Jamie and Zoë find themselves in the Land of Fiction, where literary characters, legends and nursery rhymes come disturbingly to life. But if they make a wrong move, they too will become fiction.
What Makes it Great:
This is a clear example that the Doctor Who formula is flexible enough to incorporate just about anything. In moving the TARDIS out of the path of a lava flow, the Doctor activates an emergency unit which “takes the TARDIS out of the space/time dimension, out of reality!” This leads to one of the most bizarre adventures in the history of the show, and one of the most successful experiments it’s ever attempted. Plus, it’s the debut of Zoë’s sparkly cat suit, setting many hetero boys’ hearts aflutter.
Before getting into the particulars of the story, though, we have to start with the main cast. The combination of Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury is simply a magical one. The chemistry between the three of them is joyous to behold. They bring every scene alive with conviction for the material and genuine affection for each other. Frazer and Patrick had been together since almost the beginning of the Second Doctor era (Frazer joined in Patrick’s second serial, “The Highlanders”). Wendy had joined two stories prior to “Robber” in “The Wheel in Space,” the final serial of Season 5. You can see here that Wendy fell right into place with Patrick and Frazer, forming one of the classic TARDIS teams, and we’ll be seeing this team again later in the countdown.
In the first episode, the TARDIS ends up nowhere. Literally nowhere. The three main characters all see and hear different things: Jamie and Zoë see images of their homes, so they assume that that’s where the TARDIS has landed and are separately lured outside. The Doctor hears a voice, a mental projection, which he attempts to fight against. Much of the action takes place in a blank white studio, which works in close up shots, but not so well in long shots, where you can see the rounded edges of the studio floor quite clearly; which is unfortunate, as the notion of Jamie and Zoë wandering around lost in a white nothing is quite compelling. The only solid thing that the pair encounter is a group of menacing White Robots, who attempt to shepherd them away from the safety of the TARDIS. The episode ends with the rather shocking image of the TARDIS breaking apart and falling to pieces in a void. One of the most famous shots in the history of the show is of Jamie and Zoë clinging madly to a very slowly rotating console, the camera focused squarely on Wendy’s sparkly cat-suited bum.
From that point on, the team find themselves in bizarre surroundings, encounter strange characters, and have to solve peculiar riddles and pictograms. As they explore their environment more, they meet Lemuel Gulliver (who can only speak, more or less, in dialogue written for him in the novel), man-sized wind-up toy soldiers, a Unicorn, a Minotaur, Medusa and Rapunzel. The figures that pose threats, like the Unicorn, Medusa and Minotaur, can be dispelled by the time travelers knowing them to be fictional. One very clever moment comes when the Doctor and Zoë encounter the Karkus, a character from the strip comics from Zoë’s time (the even farther-flung future of the year 2000). Zoë knows the Karkus to be fictional, but the Doctor has never heard of him. The Doctor is, however, able to dispel the Karkus’ weapon, an “anti-molecular ray disintegrator.” The Doctor dismisses it immediately, not because he’s heard of it, but because it’s “Rubbish! Such a weapon is scientifically impossible!” The gun promptly disappears.
A similarly cunning scene takes place when the Doctor and Zoë encounter the Medusa, which is wonderfully animated in stop-motion (rather more successfully than the poor Skarasen). Jamie is in Rapunzel’s castle and as the action takes place in the caves, Medusa moving towards Zoë and the Doctor, trying to get them to look at her, Jamie finds a machine in the castle that prints out a narrative of the events as they happen. Jamie is able to follow along with the others’ actions, but it’s more than that: it’s the first true illustration to the audience that someone is composing the events that are taking place. But if writing that comes after an event is history, and writing that precedes is fiction, what is writing that coincides?
The team eventually meets the Master (referred to in later years as “The Master of the Land of Fiction” so as not to confuse with the Time Lord character introduced a couple seasons later) and learn that they have been lured to this realm so that the Doctor could be forced to take over the Master’s role. The central computer is somehow tied to a “Master Intelligence” that needs an inventive and creative humanoid mind to be “a powerhouse.” The Doctor refuses, and the two engage in a battle of wills with Jamie and Zoë caught in between. They summon characters like Cyrano de Bergerac, Blackbeard the Pirate, D’Artagnan, Sir Lancelot and the White Robots to do battle. The Doctor almost works himself into the narrative, which would turn him into fiction, but catches himself.
The inception for this story, according to writer Peter Ling, is the conceit that writers create characters who then take on a life of their own. Where would such characters live? And what would happen if real people became fictional characters? These are interesting points, and are folded into the narrative of “The Mind Robber” in various ways. The interesting thing, of course, is that these Doctor Who characters are indeed fictional to us in our world, but they are real to themselves in their own. Fictional characters who think they’re real, afraid of being turned into fictional characters. It’s so deliciously meta. What’s particularly curious, though, is that there’s never an answer given to where exactly this Land of Fiction is. Is it an actual place? Is it a shared hallucination by the TARDIS crew?
Emrys Jones gives a much layered performance as the Master, at turns sinister towards the Doctor and his companions, then desperate and pleading towards the computer to which he is enslaved. There are moments where his performance jumps off the screen. The big drawback, and it’s the only major one in the entire story, is the bit of spittle at the corner of Jones’ mouth throughout all his scenes in episode four. I know it’s shallow of me, but it’s incredibly distracting. Doctor Who in the 60s was usually made in a rush, and there were very few opportunities for retakes, but surely someone could have found a moment to give the man a hanky. During the black and white era, the show was made one episode per week, so Jones’ scenes in episode five are thankfully spittle-free.
Actually, to be perfectly honest, there is one other big drawback. In Part Five, we learn that the Master Intelligence plans to transport all of humanity away from Earth, turn them all into fiction, leaving the Earth uninhabited for a conquest. It’s kind of a shame, that. First of all, conquest by whom? Second, and far more important, in such an inventive and ingenious story overall, a one-sentence alien conquest plot seems like a rather mundane and disappointing resolution to the whole thing. It’s almost as if Our Heroes being trapped in a Land of Fiction was too esoteric, and a more hard-and-fast sci-fi plot device had to be tacked on in order to justify it.
As if “The Mind Robber” weren’t trippy enough, fate intervened to increase the weird factor by having Frazer Hines contract chickenpox and miss a week of work. Had this happened on any other serial, it might have posed more of a problem. But here, a clever solution was found: at the beginning of episode two, Jamie gets turned into a standee with a missing face, and the Doctor has to supply Jamie’s face from a collection of puzzle pieces. The Doctor of course gets it wrong, allowing Hamish Wilson to step into the kilt for one week. Midway through episode three, the same trick is used, and the Doctor, this time with Zoë’s help, assembles the correct face, and Hines reports back to work pox-free. It’s a wonderful resolution that works a treat within the context of this story.
In the early days of Doctor Who there are many examples of the show stretching its wings, testing its boundaries, seeing what it can get away with. Things like “The Web Planet,” “The Space Museum,” “The Underwater Menace” and others show the producers of the time thinking outside the box—or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that they realized that Doctor Who wasn’t in a box. Some of these are not quite so successful, but you have to applaud the imagination and the creativity that brought them to the screen (something the Master Intelligence would appreciate). “The Mind Robber” is chief amongst these stories not only because it expands the general idea of what Doctor Who can be farther than most any other story, it does it more successfully as well.
Behind The Scenes:
- Originally, “The Mind Robber” was four episodes, and the previous serial, “The Dominators,” six episodes. However, “The Dominators” was not a strong enough story and was reduced to five. Likewise, “The Mind Robber” could not be stretched out to encompass the lost episode, so script editor Derek Sherwin was forced to write a single episode that bridged the gap between the two stories. Because there was no budget for such an episode, Sherwin had only the three principle players, the TARDIS set and an empty studio to work with. He did, however, borrow the White Robots, who were scheduled to appear in “The Mind Robber” proper.
- The lovely white Unicorn was a pony loaned from a circus, but when it was delivered, it turned out to be a brown pony. The makeup department scrambled to cover it in white makeup, but ran out; Blanco had to be borrowed from the Royal Air Force to finish the job.
You should definitely watch the making-of documentary, “The Fact of Fiction,” which interviews—along with the actors, director, writer, and script editor—Hamish Wilson, talking about his one week’s job playing Jamie. It’s an enjoyable interview. After that, “Highlander” is a lengthy interview with Frazer talking about his whole career on Doctor Who, including his involvement in “The Five Doctors” and “The Two Doctors.”
To see another example of the TARDIS existing nowhere, and an empty white studio being used, check out 1980’s extraordinary “Warrior’s Gate” (Season 18). The Doctor, Romana, K-9 and Adric are trapped in E-Space until a mysterious creature hijacks the TARDIS and brings it into a white void, a “nowhere,” that serves as a gateway between E-Space and N-Space. The creature in question, Biroc, is a Tharil, a time-sensitive race who once roamed the galaxy and controlled a vast empire centered around the Gateway. In a fascinating sequence of shifting realities, the Doctor discovers that the Tharils passed at will between the two universes and enslaved races, including humans, and used them as their servants. The humans fought back, though, creating the Gundan Robots to overpower their Tharil masters. Now, their empire in ruins, the Tharils are the ones hunted and enslaved, forced to use their time sensitivity to navigate ships through the time winds. There is a great deal of visual trickery used narratively throughout this story, making it one of the most stylish Doctor Who serials ever. It’s a fascinating adventure, with fairy tale and Alice in Wonderland elements to it. Most definitely worth a watch.