The Mind Robber, by Andrew Hickey (and Peter Ling)

Working through the Black Archive monographs on Doctor Who, I’ve now reached the seventh, on the 1968 story The Mind Robber, which features the Doctor, Zoe and Jamie transported to a Land of Fiction, and includes one episode where Fraser Hines is briefly replaced by another actor as Jamie because he had caught chickenpox. I like it. When I watched it for the first time in 2007, I wrote:

The Mind Robber features… Oh, let’s get it over with. Zoe. Nobody can keep their hands off her. Certainly not the Doctor (see right). Certainly not Jamie. And the first episode ends like this. In the fourth episode she has a catfight with a caped and masked comic book superhero and wins. No wonder today’s Guardian lists her as one of the top five companions ever! I have to say that I can’t think of a more confident and sexy performance from any of the companions in any other old Who story; Leela, I think, comes closest but that is not very close. (Of course, if we count new Who as well, nobody can hold a candle to John Barrowman.)

And the confidence on her part (and indeed that of the rest of the cast) is remarkable because in fact the story very clearly doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The Doctor and companions are trapped in the Land of Fiction by its Master (not that Master but a different cosmic villain of the same name). We have a forest made of words. We have Jamie transformed into a different actor for an episode, to cover up the fact that Frazer Hines contracted chicken pox. We have clockwork soldiers. We have Rapunzel, we have E. Nesbit’s Five Children, and best of all we have Lemuel Gulliver, played superbly by Bernard Horsfall (and more on him later [in The War Games]). We have glorious moments of Jamie and Zoe becoming fictional, becoming hostile to the Doctor, being nostalgic for their lost homelands (to which of course they will be returned by the end of the season).

But we also have Doctor Who coming close to breaking the fourth wall, not in the overt way of the First Doctor in the Daleks’ Master Plan (or the charming Morgus in The Caves of Androzani), but in terms of exploring Story and what it means to be in one. It’s fascinating and bizarre and I’ll have to re-watch it soon, along with all the DVD extras. And not just because I want to ogle Zoe again.

When I did my rewatch of the whole of Old Who in 2010, I wrote:

The Mind Robber is one of the most extraordinary Who stories ever. The first episode, bolted onto Peter Ling’s script at the last minute by Derrick Sherwin, is full of wonderful moments of inspired lunacy; the only single episode that does a better job of dimension-hopping is Part One of The Space Museum, and it of course is let down by the rest of that story. In The Mind Robber we have the paradoxical idea of fictional characters (the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe) trying to avoid becoming fictional characters (like Gulliver, Rapunzel and Cyrano de Bergerac). Jamie’s temporary change of body – made necessary by circumstances totally outside anyone’s control – adds an extra element of surrealism to the mix. My one quibble is that the ending is a bit abrupt, and we never see what happens to the Master of the Land of Fiction.

Bernard Horsfall is particularly memorable here as Gulliver, aggravating the Doctor in a world of the mind as he was to do again under David Moloney’s direction in The Deadly Assassin. And having griped about the costumes for The Dominators, those for The Mind Robber – produced by the same designer – are superb; particularly Zoe’s catsuit. The moment when she is shot from behind clinging to the console of the destroyed Tardis is a moment when Doctor Who starts to grow up. Or at least enter adolescence.

Coming back to it again – with the production subtitles on the DVD – I still really enjoyed it, for all the reasons set out above. It’s worth noting that it was the first story directed by David Moloney, who also oversaw the production of such classics as The War Games, Genesis of the Daleks, The Deadly Assassin and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Patrick Troughton is very good, using force of personality to overcome the low-budget sets. I also must try and get to High Rocks near Tunbridge Wells some time, used both here and in Castrovalva.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation is:

‘I can’t – hold on – much longer – ‘ Zoe gasped.

When I read it in 2008, I wrote:

This is much more fun. The original TV version was one of the most surreal stories ever; the novel takes some liberties with the script, but basically improves it further to make it one of the better Second Doctor novels. Even the Karkus somehow makes better sense here. One to look out for.

I endorse this assessment. One point to add is that even though Ling did not actually write the first of the five TV episodes, he gives it more page time (38 out of 144 – 26%) than any of the others in the novelisation. Completists will already have it, but if you don’t, you can get it here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Andrew Hickey’s study of the Mind Robber is:

The grafted-on opening by Sherwin means that the serial effectively has two ‘episode 1’s – the story proper does not really start until the second episode – and one could even argue that the plot doesn’t start until near the end of the story. For much of the adventure, this is a picaresque, with the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe exploring an unfamiliar landscape and the characters within it. We will look later at the similarities between the Doctor and Lemuel Gulliver, but in this story the Doctor has become part of Gulliver’s genre – he, like Gulliver, is our representative in a strange place, discovering the rules along with us, and this is enough to carry the narrative without having to have a plot per se.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of Hickey’s writing online over the years, though he has more recently shifted to podcasting and Patreon, neither of which is really my thing, so I was looking forward to this. My expectations were not completely fulfilled. I felt it leant a bit too heavily on the traditional fannish resources for Doctor Who – articles from DWM, Howe et al, Cornell et al – and not enough on other sources. In particular I missed any reference to Who’s Next, by Derrick Sherwin, the writer of the first episode of The Mind Robber and script editor for the whole; his autobiography was published in time for the 50th anniversary rush in 2013, and Hickey’s Black Archive study almost three years later. So there was a lot more telling me what I already knew than telling me new stuff.

Having said that, for those less familiar with Whovian reference books, it’s a workmanlike summary of the state of play, comprehensibly structured and decently written. The chapters cover:

  • the production of the story, and its roots in Platonic philosophy and Alice in Wonderlandthe questions of authorship and the nature of fiction;
  • a very short chapter on the story’s structure;
  • a defence of Season Six and brief bio notes on the main cast and crew;
  • a much longer survey of the characters in the Land of Fiction, especially Gulliver, the Karkus and the Master himself;
  • another very short chapter on why The Mind Robber is different to the First Doctor story The Celestial Toymakerwhat a shame it is that a subtle story full of nuance is chiefly remembered for one male gaze scene [I plead guilty];
  • why the Doctor is not from the Land of Fiction (only one reference is given for this argument);
  • other appearances of the Land of Fiction in the Whoniverse, unsurprisingly omitting The Wonderful Doctor of Oz, published five years later.

You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)

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1 Response to The Mind Robber, by Andrew Hickey (and Peter Ling)

  1. anonymous says:

    I played the Governor at school. The teacher was determined to do it as black farce. The monks, it turns out, can be very funny caterpillars.

    ‘These arms of mine shall be thy sepulchre!’ is a real tongue-twister of a line to wail.

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