The Mind RobberBookmark and Share

Thursday, 4 September 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

I’ve always considered ‘The Mind Robber’ to be slightly overrated, but on viewing it again I realized why it is regarded as a minor classic. It is so different in tone and content that it immediately stands out from the stories around it, and achieves its surreal aims with considerable panache. Of all the Troughton stories, it is perhaps the story the survival of which intact is the most crucial, because a large part of its success lies in its highly distinctive visuals. 

Visually, ‘The Mind Robber’ is something of a tour de force, deftly overcoming budgetary limitations and making a striking impact. Episode One is the most obvious example of this, which is ironical considering that it was written at short notice with no available set. Rather than looking like an empty set, the white void instead looks eerily convincing, and this is helped by the White Robots, which are recycled from an Out of the Unknown episode and despite therefore being second hand props they look suitably creepy, an effect heightened by the weird noise that they make. In addition, the TARDIS exterior appears white whilst in the void, which is such a subtle but fundamental change to one of the series’ greatest icons that even in black and white the difference has considerable impact. The effect of the TARDIS breaking up at the end of the episode follows the same principle and even though I’ve seen the story before, I always find it disturbing. The rest of the story maintains the same high standard for the most part, with the labyrinth set and the exterior shots of the castle (fairy tale style, of course) especially noteworthy. The clockwork solders are much more sinister than the White Robots, again partly due to the noise they make, and the fact that are warped children’s toys made menacing. When Jamie climbs away from one of them in episode three, it’s single-minded marching into the wall, as its bayonet futilely scrapes the cliff face, makes it seem as implacable as any Cyberman. 

The Unicorn and the Medusa are both very well realized, the stop-motion effects used to show the movement of the snakes on the head of the latter looking on a par with many of Ray Harryhausen’s in films such as Clash of the Titans. Presenting her as an animated statue is an excellent idea, since it avoids rubber mask type make-up and instead allows the use of a static, but sinister, mask. The Minotaur is rather less convincing, but the director wisely keeps it out of shot except for a very fleeting appearance. The visuals are not perfect however; at the end of episode two, as the Unicorn runs at the TARDIS crew, it is painfully obvious that they are standing on a black set, which is shame since the white void in episode one looks so good. When Jamie climbs a “tree” in the forest of words to look at it from above, the model used is obviously a set of flattish letters on white card. In episode three, as the Master monitors the progress of the Doctor and his companions through the labyrinth, three moving lights on a small diagram of the maze plot their movements and show them advancing along a long straight tunnel from the entrance; the scene then cuts to the three of them in the labyrinth, with Zoe telling the Doctor that they have been following a pattern of left and right turns, only to then cut back to the Master and show that they have in fact only progressed further along the long straight section. Nonetheless, these are all fairly trivial criticisms. 

The plot of ‘The Mind Robber’ is, if you’ll excuse the pun, novel and highly effective. The danger of being transformed into fiction is surreal (and of course ironic, given that Doctor Who is fiction), but the horror of the fate confronting the Doctor and his companions is well conveyed. In terms of Doctor Who, the story’s closest precedent is ‘The Celestial Toymaker’, in that the Doctor and his companions are trapped in a world where nothing is as it seems and reality cannot be trusted; in that story however, the TARDIS crew managed to navigate the Toymaker’s world without falling prey to it, whereas here at various points Jamie and Zoe at least find themselves falling victim to the rules of the Land. This scenario is used to unsettling effect; on this occasion, all three of them find themselves facing a menace that cannot be fought with conventional means, and they must solve riddles and puzzles and face challenges to survive and hope to escape. Jamie’s literal loss of face is a disquieting example, as he automatically reacts to a threat that he understands (a Redcoat) by fighting, and is reduced to a cardboard cutout, which then loses its features. Due to the Doctor’s (comic) mistake in reassembling his face from the identikit provided, he ends up looking like somebody else (a bit of emergency recasting that is a stroke of genius just as much as the changeover from Hartnell to Troughton was). As the story progresses, all three of them start to learn how the Land of Fiction works and how to avoid becoming fiction themselves, but by the end of episode four even this is of no avail as Jamie and Zoe are forced into the book by the White Robots and become part of the Land. This bizarre threat looms over them right up until the end of the story, with the Doctor nearly transforming himself into fiction twice without thinking. 

On a smaller level, ‘The Mind Robber’ is full of nice thematic touches. Gulliver, only speaks in lines written for him by Jonathon Swift, as the Doctor realises in episode four; once the viewer knows this, it becomes obvious, but still works very well and the way in which writer Peter Ling manages to select appropriate quotations to suit whatever question the Doctor asks Gulliver is quite fascinating. Consequently, Gulliver speaks in a very elaborate fashion, and Bernard Horsfall delivers these lines with such aplomb that it makes for a memorable and striking performance. Zoe’s battle with the comic strip hero the Karkus is suitably over-the-top and reminiscent of the Batman TV series. I like the fact that having managed to frantically convince Zoe that Unicorn, the Minotaur and the Medusa were fictional and therefore could not harm them, the Doctor finds himself unable to do the same with regards to the Karkus, because he has never heard of him. 

The Master is also nicely handled; having been glimpsed from behind as a typical gloating megalomaniac manipulating the Doctor from behind the scenes, he is actually revealed to be a jovial old man who is as much a prisoner of the Land as the Doctor and his friends. Emrys Jones acts he part very well, effortlessly switching from his plaintive and rather sweet old man portrayal to a much harsher characterisation as the Master Brain takes control. The fact that a computer is actually behind the Land of Fiction and that we don’t learn who built it (at least until ‘Conundrum’ was published) is potentially disappointing and frustrating, but the story is so stylishly done that it manages not to matter. 

It has been reported that Troughton grew tired of the base-under-siege monster based stories of Season Five, and if so he clearly relishes getting a rather different script to play with. His performance here is full of marvellous moments, such as when he has to answer the riddles fired at him by the children in episode two, and the guilty look on his face when he is forced to admit that he was responsible for giving Jamie the wrong face. His finest moment however is when the Doctor is connected to the Master Brain and he determinedly announces, “You’ve given me equal power. It’s now a battle of wits between the two of us!” The ensuing scenes are hugely entertaining, as the Doctor and the Master summon up fictional characters including Lancelot, D’Artagnan, Cyrano de Bergerac (sic), and Blackbeard. The other regulars do well out of the script as well; Jamie rises to the challenges presented by the Land with his usual stoic determination, and takes in his stride having a change of face, climbing a “rope” only to find Rapunzel at the top, and seemingly losing the TARDIS for good. Frazer Hines is his usual reliable self, and Hamish Wilson doesn’t do too badly in his brief stint in the role. Wendy Padbury gets to prove that she can scream as well as Deborah Watling could as she clings to the TARDIS console in a silver catsuit in episode one, but during the rest of the story she continues in the resilient streak that she exhibited in ‘The Dominators’. In addition to dealing with the Karkus when the Doctor cannot, she also gets perhaps her finest hour, as she overloads the Master Brain computer and thus not only saves herself, Jamie and the Doctor, but also destroys the Land in the process. 

In summary, ‘The Mind Robber’ is a highly unusual but very effective Doctor Who story and a great example of just how flexible the series’ format can be.