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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Doctor Who: The Mind Robber

Serial Title: The Mind Robber
Series: 6
Episodes: 5
Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines), Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury)

SPOILER WARNING: This serial is absolutely worth seeing unspoiled. If you have not seen it, go see it- it's on Netflix instant, for one- before reading. Seriously, you owe it to yourself to see this for yourself before you know what to expect. DO IT.

As the volcano on Dulkis errupts, the TARDIS crew are forced to use the emergency escape switch to compensate for a breakdown in the ship, something that the Doctor is loathe to do. The escape switch deposits them somewhere outside of time and space, and as the Doctor works to repair the ship, the white void beyond the doors entices Jamie and Zoe in turn, calling them out into the white void, where strange robots and a surreal altered state await them.

The Doctor barely manages to get them back inside, and tries to return the ship to space-time... but it splits apart, shattering like a pane of glass, and the travelers are left to fall through a black void, clinging to the TARDIS console...

They land separately in a strange land of tall bluffs. The Doctor is forced to complete a series of riddles, the last one of which- a just-reunited Jamie’s face being erased- he fails, resulting in a complete change of the lad’s features. Eventually, the two locate Zoe, and then meet up with Gulliver. Of Gulliver’s Travels. Who only speaks in lines from the book. They are also chased by clockwork soldiers (New Series “Girl in the Fireplace” meets Babes in Toyland). They discover that the tall and oddly shaped bluffs that dot the landscape like a forest are actually letters and words, 20 feet tall- it’s as if they’re walking the pages of a 3-dimensional book.

A unicorn attacks from nowhere, but the Doctor is able to halt its fearsome charge with a firm belief that it isn’t real- at which point, it becomes unreal, just a cardboard cutout. He also manages to fix Jamie’s face when confronted with the same puzzle a second time.

The group enters a labyrinth, and Zoe and the Doctor encounter a Minotaur which they defeat as they did the unicorn, while Jamie, pursued by the soldiers, climbs a long, blonde rope that turns out to be the hair of Rapunzel. From inside the castle, he watches a ticker-tape/teletype device spell out a battle between the Doctor and the Medusa in which he lops off her head. The encounter does occur, but the Doctor, finding a sword suddenly by his side, uses a mirror to defeat Medusa as Perseus did. The teletype machine prints out a failure message.

The Doctor and Zoe escape the labyrinth and encounter the Karkus, a comic book character from the year 2000. The Doctor cannot defeat him in the same way that he did the unicorn and minotaur, because he is unfamiliar with the character and thus doesn’t have the same bedrock certainty that the Karkus isn’t actually real (though he does accidentally dispel Karkus’ anti-molecular ray disintegrator by instinctively commenting that such technology couldn’t exist). Zoe does know the character, and defeats him with Judo, earning his loyalty. The group ascend to the castle and meet up with Jamie, but are captured by the same white robots from the void before, which lead them to the Master (no relation to the Time Lord arch-nemesis of the Doctor), who reveals this to be the Land of Fiction, where fictional characters are real. The teletype machine records his writings- if he can write the actions a person is going to take (by successfully predicting them), then they are in essence acting out his fiction, making them characters whose actions he wrote- and converting them from thinking beings into fictional characters under his control. He then writes that Jamie and Zoe become trapped inside a giant book, and his robots force them to become so trapped, rendering them fiction.

The Master explains to the Doctor that an otherwordly intelligence that cannot take form in our reality run and inhabit this land, but they need a human quality- imagination- to keep it alive. The Master was once a human author from the 20th century, abducted to serve as the hub of this fictional realm. But he is growing old, and the aliens need a replacement brain. They have chosen the Doctor.

The Doctor is hooked into the main computer, but turns the tables and the two have a duel of wits, summoning various fictional characters to do battle. The Doctor manages to use this distraction to cause Zoe and Jamie to be physically freed, in contradiction to what the Master wrote, thus freeing them mentally. They trick the white robots, who shoot up the place, destroying the machinery that runs the land. This releases the Master from the aliens' thrall (he is presumably returned to the time and place he was abducted from) and as they run through the black void that the Land of Fiction has become, the group finds themselves back on the TARDIS, in flight, as if nothing had ever happened.

Our 50th Blog! Woo-hoo! And I can’t think of a more deserving serial- I didn’t plan it this way, but heck, talk about a special event!!! Holy Cow! This serial is made of awesome... and made of crazy! It starts with a bang where Dominators left off, giving us the amazing TARDIS-covered-in-lava, the dangerous emergency escape unit that takes the TARDIS out of space and time, the deadly white void (Zoe and Jamie are with the Prophets!) and then... the total mindscrew ending... and that’s all just within the first episode!

Indeed the first part of this story is incredibly David Lynch-ish; surreal and almost frightening, in a way- from Zoe and Jamie suddenly appearing in pure white outfits, zoned-out looks on their faces, waving the Doctor forward with two hands while Zoe screams eerily- though the onscreen Zoe never opens her mouth (trust me, it's twice as freaky as you’re picturing) to the awesome and rare model shot of the TARDIS exterior in flight suddenly shattering into panels (this whole shot being an effects bonanza at the time), leading to the surreal sight of Zoe and Jamie clinging to the console, falling through the void, as the Doctor himself spirals along through the void, falling into mist... truly surreal, disturbing and cool at the same time, and an ambitious and perfectly-achieved set of effects... wow. (And, errr... made a little more ‘wow’ by the very... errrr... fan-service way that Zoe is draped over the console in that scene. I’ll say no more on the subject. Just... yikes!) (Note from Sarah: I think it's funny how we've probably seen tons worse than that, but for some reason it being in Doctor Who and in the 60's makes it more shocking for some reason!)

Making this even more insane is the fact that this first episode was written as filler (to replace the stricken sixth episode of The Dominators)- the awesome robots were borrowed from another TV show, the episode takes place in a void to avoid having to build new sets, etc. It was designed to be as cheap as possible... and yet was the most mind-bending, surreal, creepy, and effective of all! (Seriously, it’s on DVD- GO SEE THIS SERIAL!!! This is the biggest Troughton must-see of all!) Presumably, in the original 4-episode script, the flipping of the escape switch led directly to the TARDIS bursting apart and the Doctor appearing in the forest of words (a very cool concept with an excellent design). Like The Space Museum, the first episode does feel somewhat stand-alone and separate from the plot of the remaining episodes... but happens to be the best, moodiest, most atmospheric, creepy-cool one of the lot! Due to this ‘stretching,’ the serials were also shorter (the last part being the shortest Who episode of all time at 18 minutes!), which helped the pacing to stay sharp.

As a quick aside not particular to this episode... were the TARDIS walls so expensive that it was impossible to build a set extension? In The Wheel In Space, the chest Zoe stowed away on was in front of a brick extension of the TARDIS wall, placed just beyond where the set ended. Likewise, the walls in many locations here for the first episode (admittedly justified by the episode’s nonexistent budget) are also in front of very cheap, paltry ‘roundel’-studded backgrounds that look nothing like the TARDIS walls. Is there something preventing them from just redressing the console room or shooting at alternate angles to use the background they already had? Why repeated cheap-outs on TARDIS walls? WHY?!?!

The remainder of the episodes are surreal but not nearly so bizarre as the first, if that makes any sense- random and odd like a children’s show is, not like a surrealist film... with a few notable exceptions; especially when Jamie is shot in the forehead by a redcoat and turns instantaneously into a cardboard cutout. This leads to one of the strangest covering-for-an-actor-absences in the entire series to date (though in this case, unlike Hartnell’s usual gratuitous and obvious vacation-allowances, this was due to a case of chicken pox)- when the cardboard cutout becomes faceless, the Doctor selects the wrong face pieces, and another actor plays Jamie for an episode. It is positively surreal to see another not-Jamie, with the same costume and same voice (he does a fantastic impression of the voice and mannerisms!) wandering around as Jamie for the episode (NFS: I thought that Jamie really did a voiceover?). Like many other things in this review, words can’t accurately describe the strangeness of this event- it’s jarring and unnerving, and is both so patently absurd, and so logical within the story itself, that it both calls attention to itself AND works- which it would not have done were it not for the incredibly strong performance of Hamish Wilson as Jamie. 

Aside from this, a brief and cute encounter with Rapunzel, and locating the control room, Jamie doesn’t have much to do in this story. Likewise, Zoe has little to do- save for a random inexplicable freakout that causes the guards to be alerted... and a surprising and rare hand-to-hand fight! This woman is shown to be quite capable of defending herself (far more than the Doctor!) using judo flips and the like- quite a departure from the female companion norm. She also dons a glittering silver catsuit that is at first laugh-out-loud hilarious, and then, clinging onto that console... well... errr... better. (NFS: Better? How do you mean that?) Still, brief moments aside, she and Jamie have most of their action in the first episode, being compelled to run out into the void (and generating one very amusing moment where Zoe breaks Jamie out of his Scottland-trance with a good old-fashioned slap to the face) and then being controlled into eerie siren-figures there. They spend the majority of the story’s remainder just following the Doctor meekly around- save for a nice comedic moment when Zoe deduces that the Doctor’s ignorance is responsible for Jamie’s altered face- which is fine; this is a puzzle and battle-of-wits story; those are always best when the Doctor is the focus. As the preceding paragraph indicates, both characters have plenty of great gags and individual moments, but not a real character focus or arc; that’s the Doctor’s province in this one, and it works well- filtering the audience through his reality, in which even his companions might not be real. It individualizes the experience by placing it through his eyes, and making those our eyes as well- the only way to really experience such a trippy and reality-questioning episode... personally.

This story is full of brilliant concepts, too- chief of which, the concept that if actions can be written from you, and you act in that way, you become fiction, because you are performing the actions of a fictional scenario. Thus, if the writer can predict your actions, he can take control of you. It reminds me of a conceptual cousin to the speak-before-you, speak-in-sync-with-you, speak-in-your-place creature from the New Who episode 'Midnight.'  

This story also incorporates a comic book character- a nice touch, not ignoring that aspect of fiction- and makes him from a comic strip in the future (which is also great- fiction from all of human history shouldn't be limited to solely what we know today). It’s a brilliant little idea, and a great gag, as the Doctor- able to dispel various threats from Medusa to a unicorn to a minotaur by simply being convicted that they aren’t real- flees in terror from a superhero comic he’s never read... because he isn’t familiar with the work, he DOESN’T know that it’s not real, at least not more than conceptually, and thus can’t thwart it! A similarly great moment at first seems to confuse 'statements aloud' with 'belief'- stopping the charging unicorn in its tracks by having Jamie and Zoe shout out loud that it wasn’t real... but then revealing that it was the Doctor’s belief in the creature's unreality that did it, and Jamie and Zoe’s frantic panic was beginning to give him doubts- so he had them shout their (not truly believed) disbelief in order to re-enforce his own skepticism. Brilliant AND hilarious!

Likewise, the Doctor and the Master’s duel of fictional characters was hilariously childish and brilliant at the same time- the same kind of game of imagination and one-upmanship that you can observe in the imaginary play of children everywhere. And come on... didn’t the Lancelot trump card make you want to cheer?

The story itself is not much to speak of- like its conceptual cousin, The Celestial Toymaker, it’s a ‘get to the end of the maze’ tale, more of a showcase for various encounters than a plot line- but it works well, and is entertaining. The ending is a bit abrupt, and the “button pushing/shoot the console” seems like an anticlimactic and overly simplistic solution to such a surreal and complex scenario... but the bookending and surreal run-through-a-black-void followed by the TARDIS flying back together again seems somehow an appropriate ending... with added coolness points for the next episode, Episode 1 of 'The Invasion,' being a lost episode rendered in 2D animation by the BBC, meaning we get the scene repeat in Disney-style animation. Way cool.

As far as the non-regulars for this serial... Gulliver was a fun cypher; mysterious at first, and then an impressive (for work on the part of the writers) and fun character that only speaks in lines from his book. (Has anyone ever fact-checked to ensure that all of these lines were truly taken from the text of Gulliver’s Travels?) Regardless, it’s a neat gag that works well, and his inability to see the robots, casually giving away the TARDIS crew’s positions in his ignorance, is chilling and spooky.

Rapunzel is a hoot, so passively accepting of her hair being used as a ladder, so used to it, that she doesn’t mind or care- always searching with doe-eyed innocence and hopefulness for a prince, and offering strangers the use of her hair. She’s a lot of fun to watch. Karkus, the Superhero, is an odd duck, looking more like a masked Luchador than anything- whether that’s supposed to be a costume, or a low-budget attempt to portray a man built like the Incredible Hulk, I can’t say- but though he’s a gag character, and a bit of a dues-ex-machina, he’s done as a tongue-in-cheek character, so he works. The Doctor gets another great gag or two in the battle with him- failing miserably in a Judo throw (clearly not yet a master of Venusian karate- perhaps the Time Lords gave him that skill to help him fend for himself during his Earth Exile later on?) and accidentally eliminating his weapon from existence simply by pointing out that the sci-fi gadget doesn’t make any scientific sense- unintentional weaponized skepticism, and an ironic commentary on Who’s typically ‘way out there’ science.

Medusa’s stop-motion effects are cool, if primitive- the budget of the show makes me wonder if this is stock footage from another show, or original footage. Regardless, Medusa is as tense, creepy, and effective a threat as any (unlike the minotaur, who falls flat, and the Unicorn, who is freaky, and works well as an adrenaline charge, but doesn’t have much innate menace)- truly feeling like a first-generation Weeping Angel... perhaps a ret-con to establish the Weeping Angels as breakouts from the realm of fiction would help to explain their almost-magical powers?

On a number of miscellaneous notes:
-Was that the Kaiju Barugon as the Minotaur?
-The Medusa scene with the eyes closed and a stony hand reaching out really felt like a prefiguring of New Who’s Blink. I dig the parallel.
-The slow reveal of the windup soldiers- boxed marching feet, strange lit hat- made them seem really cool- until you saw the whole thing. One of Fraiser Hines (Jamie)’s cousins was a mechanical soldier.
-The Doctor Who wiki points out that Blackbeard and Cyrano- and, in the Doctor Who universe, Medusa- were real people; perhaps they were converted into their fictional counterparts just the way that Zoe and Jamie were?
-The use of cardboard cutouts was interesting and unusual here. I feel like it didn’t QUITE work, and felt a little cheap; but it also sort of felt like it fit, too. (NFS: So in other words, your emotional side liked it but your intellectual side thought it was weird.)
-The bookcases in the final chapter, within the Master’s realm, are apparently quite obvious flat images. I am embarrassed to say I missed this, but my wife didn’t. (NFS: She's a smart cookie)
-An obvious solution that the Doctor missed as he was tied into the central brain with the robots advancing on him- “And then the Master triumphed!” It doesn’t touch on him, and leaves the Master with two choices- stop his Robots, or succeed- at the cost of rendering himself fiction and under the Doctor’s control anyway. Yes, a clever wordsmith could render an addendum to the triumph under which he could achieve his current goals and still not be considered a ‘triumph’- adding on a “ taking over the universe” clause which would be proved false immediately despite capturing the Doctor, invalidating the initial ‘Master triumphed’ clause... but, to quote the glaringly obvious loophole left to bring back Ming the Merciless at the end of the final Flash Gordon serial (Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe) should they ever make another one (which they didn’t)- “There’s only one way out, and he’ll be too panicked to think of it!”- followed by a large boom.  (And yes, that was an entirely gratuitous and pointless aside thrown in on the very weak justification of it being black and white fiction in a similar vein to Karkus’ presumed space-adventurer-superhero status.)

Great moments:
The whole show is one big great moment- from the awesome lava burial to the freaky white-void sequence (and its frightening Stepford Jamie and Zoe) to the shocking TARDIS breakup and fall through the void to exciting menaces from the Medusa and Horse to the surrealist Jamie cardboard cutouts and replacement scenes to the hilarious Rupunzel and Karkus bits... The ending with the professor- when the mystery was no longer present and weird things weren’t happening as much- was about the only part of the serial that DOESN’T qualify as a great moment. Seriously, this one was jam backed from top to bottom with awesome. Artistic, exciting, funny, surreal, creepy, brilliant, imaginative... just plain incredible.

Well, like the Dominators, there’ll be no reconstruction rating on this one, as it was all video. In fact, it’s the first we watched on official DVD- via Netflix- and though the quality wasn’t as high as we’d hoped (we were clearly spoiled by Tomb of the Cybermen’s crystal clarity), it was decent for all but the blown-out final episode, and a very refreshing change.

The stellar Mind Robber gets an unquestionable 5 out of 5 Bickering Dominators, and a place on my list of personal favorites alongside Keys of Marinus, Aztecs, Faceless Ones, Enemy of the World, Dalek Master Plan, Myth Makers, Celestial Toymaker, Time Meddler, and a number of others- a sterling Troughton work, full of spooky imagery, intriguing concepts, and very funny gags. (Note from Future Andrew: The first one I bought, and 18 seasons in, still my very favorite!) I can only hope the rest of the season continues on this well (though fan reputation says it doesn’t.) Only one way to find out...

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