Wow, just finished watching my second purchase from the Doctor Who Necromnicomcon, the legendarily weird-arse Patrick Troughton gem The Mind Robber. Like, well, a LOT of Doctor Who stories I've only seen it once before, but immediately ranked it as one of my favourites after seeing it. A similar thing happened after I saw the mighty Warrior's Gate, except that time I said "Oookay, that one there's the greatest ever," a viewpoint I stick to like convicts to their claims of A.N Smith's baby paternity. Yes, I like my Who really, really weird. But a lot of people don't, so MR and WG tend to overlooked quite a bit by fandom, with generally me being the one bloke raving about them.
Anyway, Mind Robber. Did it live up to my expectations on a repeat viewing? Hell yeah!
At first I was mostly distracted by the unspeakably dodgy sets (those that Colin's era sets need to check these 80% cardboard monstrosities out!) and stagey feel. Maybe our TV set's bad picture quality covered-up these eccentricities, or it looked more authentic pre-vidfire, or I'd just been acclimitized by watching dozens of Hartnell's in prior weeks and not having seen any of Christopher bloody Eccleston. At any rate, I hadn't noticed that the story was well and truly shoestring material when I'd first seen it.
But, really, I couldn't dislike this story. It has a great lead-in, with Derrick Sherwin desperately penning the first episode to fill an embarassing gap in the schedule. The result is a lot better than that eight episode gap he had to fill afterwards. Wonderfully claustrophobic, enigmatic, and mysterious. It's clearly some sort of guideline book the script-editors had for "When to fill a gap" because exactly the same thing happened in The Edge of Destruction* , some five years earlier. This story has the massive advantage of four episodes coming straight afterwards to clear up the oddities, whereas The Edge had to rely on Hartnell unconvincingly explaining away various murder attempts with a "Oh, we're heading towards the Big Bang. Queer stuff happens. Work it out, Chatterbean!" One of the best cliffhangers ever, with the TARDIS tearing itself apart and the console flying out through empty space... slightly spoilt by Wendy Padbury being forced to scream unconvincingly at the sight of the Doctor HAVING HIS EYES CLOSED. Ah, well, it's still bloody eery.
Of course, the TARDIS can't be destroyed, so it's metaphorical. So metaphorical, in fact, some people have claimed that none of the events chronicled in the story actually occured and it was all a dream the Doctor has. The most convincing arguments for this being that the Doctor is in the same position at the start The Invasion as he is in the end of MR part 1 (which isn't true) and a continuity error involving Zoe not recognising candles in The Space Pirates (which is crap anyway) But WHY would you want to write out the events of this story? It's wonderful. The TARDIS crew get lost in a forest of words, they run away from Toy Soldiers, they meet Gulliver, the Minotaur, Cyrano d'Bergerac and Rapunzel, plus Jamie gets shot by a unknown redcoat and turns into another actor for an episode! It really doesn't get battier than this.
Watching it again, I wondered if Ling in fact had some sort of message he was trying to get across, about the importance of children understanding the difference between fact and ficiton or something similar, given the amount of yelling Trouters goes about the importance of real life and resisting fiction. Or a grudge against pulp fiction, given the villain (of sorts) is a bloke who wrote over a half-a-million words of Torchwood. Then again Ling could have just been revelling in the wonderful irony of Zoe and the Doctor's fear of becoming fictional characters. Whatever the reason, I'm glad this wasn't one of the dozens of rejected scripts for this troubled season. (As opposed to, say, the proposed story set in a world ruled by women where Jamie went undercover in drag and broke Zoe's sexist conditioning by slapping her on the arse)
Anyway, a coherent structure is out of the question, so lets talk about random things of greatness. Gulliver. How much of a fanboy must Ling have been to compose a character's entire dialogue from lines taken from a novel? It must have been truly incredible devotion, and as a plot device it works brilliantly to add to the mystery of the character when we meet him. Not to mention some very odd dialogue. "Don't you know a way out of here?" "I reflected upon the question that had been posed to me..." "Yes?" "And for some time I considered all the possibilities that were apparent..." "And?" "And I concluded that was altogether impossible."
Ah, and The Karkus. Probably one of the nadirs of the story, really, as Ling apparently wanted to take the piss out of comic book characters without actually knowing anything about them. I mean, superheroes that appear from nowhere in a Batman-style sound FX bubble, use anti-matter pistols to blast away people they don't like, can be beaten up by young girls and talk in grunting monosyllabic sentences aren't exactly common, are they? Plus, he's played by Christopher Robbie. His infamous performance as Cyberleader 1159 or "Muhammud Imhard Bruce Lee" as he doubtless referred to himself in Revenge of the Cybermen is, rightfully, the stuff of legend, but his acting is so camp here it nearly puts it into perspective. Still, the Karkus really gets bugger all screen time (even if he nearly chokes to death on the scenery when he is on) so he gets a few laughs without really being to the story's detriment.
Rapunzel? Ah, she's gorgeous, and her 2-dimensional style and matter-of-fact delivery really cracks me up. "Sorry, may I borrow your hair?" "Why not? Everyone else does!" Plus those weird and mischeivous children, who manage to be strangely menacing. "WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF A SWORD?!"
The story really shifts into gear in Episode 4, though, when the truth of it all is revealed... sort of. MR is a bit infamous for it's sketchy exposition. What the hell is the Master Brain? Who is invading Earth? Why is the Doctor needed? How did the Land of Fiction form in the first place? All good questions, and the answers can only really be made from general inferences. Really, I think this should be overlooked now, as MR has far less plot holes and sketchily explained aspects than your average Eccleston episode. The point is that we meet the MASTER... no, not the The Master, but an abducted Torchwood script writer who is forced to do the Master Brain's bidding. Leading to another mind-expanding cliffhanger where Zoe and Jamie are crushed inbetween the pages of a giant book and become fictional characters under his control.
The final episode is the shortest episode of DW ever made - it adds up to just under 20 minutes, but it has lots of weird and wild action in it, and I think the timing is probably down to David Maloney's fine grasp of action and slick editing. Even though it's all metaphorical concepts the drama feels very, real - a lot of it's down to Troughton giving yet another masterful performance. See how heartbroken he looks when he sees the drone-versions of Jamie and Zoe, see his desperation to save the day with that master tape, and his glee at engaging The Master in his battle of wits! The entire finale is gripping, with the Doctor being tricked by the evil Jamie and Zoe into entering the fake TARDIS which, in a moment that reminded me of The Prestige** falls away to reveal the Doctor encased in a boxful of circuitry.
Now he's part of the system he can release Jamie and Zoe - but this only makes them vulnerable for The Master to destroy! The rising drama is wonderful as Jamie and Zoe try to get away, and the Doctor and The Master do battle with fictitious characters. Maybe silly, definitely wacky, but oh so much fun! D'Bergerac versus d'Artagnian! Blackbeard the Pirate! LANCELOT IN FULL ARMOUR! Ling probably had too much fun with this scene...
But wait, it's not over yet... oh, wait. Yes it is. The end comes quick to the final episode, with Jamie and Zoe overloading the Master Brain in a way they doubtless learnt from using elevators, and the White Robots begin blasting each other away. Next thing we know, the TARDIS is flying back into one piece and it's "NEXT WEEK - The Invasion"
Doctor Who has been a very inventive show over the years (and, admittedly, also a derivative show in possibly equal measures) but I think in sheer terms of nuttiness, even in the infamous Season 17, it never reached the heights of Peter Ling's monumentous effort ever again. And, given the reaction this story got from some people, I'm not sure if too many people like me would like it to again. Because, no matter how much they profess to love the idea of an old bloke taking his magic box anywhere and anytime, a lot of fans really only want to see the Doctor somewhere in their comfort zone.
Not me, though. This slab of fruitcake gets 10/10. Still.
*Or "Inside the Spaceship" if you're a pedantic tit who hates the idea of stories having half-decent titles
**Bloody good film