The Mind Robber

Written by:
Peter Ling/Derrick Sherwin
Directed by: David Maloney
Starring: Patrick Troughton
Year: 1968
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

The Mind Robber was a story that I actually detested on first viewing. Well, maybe detest is too strong a word - but certainly I was embarrassed to be watching a programme that contained some of the most cringing scenes in Who's history. And I'm thinking largely "Karkus" here. Seen a few more times and you can see that alongside the occasional silliness is more moments of pure genius than in possibly any other Who story, ever. So how does it all stand up together? And is the quality consistent across all five (very short) episodes? Let's see…

My initial embarrassment occurred right from the start, with an episode that is undeniably padded, looks like it's shot in the old Blue Peter studios, and is uncertainly acted. Obviously this last complaint discludes The Mighty Trout, who commands throughout (and asked for this to be his last story at the time). Yet Frazer, much as I love him, appeared to be increasingly bored during his final season, and is a little wooden and uninspiring here. At the opposite end of the scale is Wendy Padbury, who easily slots into my Top Three Who Totty list, but is stagy on several occasions. Bless her, she was new to the game. However, such concerns are probably missing the point. This is - and probably was, more so at the time - one of the most eerie Doctor Who episodes ever made.

Things don't start off promisingly, with the Tardis overheating from an external force, coupled with the rather pathetic photo wall. That Dominators dress that Wendy is wearing isn't very flattering either, and, while a magnificent, magnificent actor, it's perhaps fair to say TMT is going a little by the numbers. It's just as well that TMT's formula acting is ten times better than anyone's else's trying hard, while it's amusing to see Jamie trying to come up with a polite way of telling Zoe she looks like a slag. Despite assertions that Zoe degenerated into a screamer, the illogical Land of Fiction was the only place where she screamed. And it's a very famous blooper, but this is the first time I've ever noticed the end credits titles on the Tardis scanner screen when the Doctor pushes Jamie and Zoe back in.

While this one is all about atmosphere (and the scary minimal theme and black and white are superb) it's fair to say that this one is a filler episode there to establish the situation and then tread water until the cliffhanger. Most readers will know that the additional episode was added to the original story at the scripting stage by the script editor. With such a curious remit, Sherwin does wonders. Anyway, from about eight minutes in the episode, while it can't go beyond the confines of the initial set-up, it does develop a sinister atmosphere. This is clearly far from the symbolic rape by Oak and Quill in Fury from the Deep, or the fleshless creature breathing on the bed in The Faceless Ones. It's scary Who, but scary Who for the kiddie brigade. Despite the huge shortcomings of the episode, and more than a whiff of Emperor's New Clothes, this is still classic television, and classic Who. It's essentially 22 minutes of nothing happening, but the Tardis exploding, the Doctor revolving and a cracking shot of Zoe's outstanding arse make this a fire-star episode in anyone's book.
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The reprise, and sniping fans may note that not only does the console wobble as it spins round, but also that Zoe knocks one of the panels. Pah! Anyway, this is one of the rare instances where Jamie actually draws his knife, though doesn't actually get to use it. Is this the most child-orientated (not childish, note) story of the Troughton era? Zoe ends up in a glass jar, queueing a feeble "ajar" door-related riddle. She's rescued by the Doctor and Hamish Wilson, replacing a chickenpox-blighted Fraser Hines. It's an unusual move because, while a clever get-out, Wilson doesn't really sound anything like him, so the illusion is only upheld by the most willing to believe. The Doctor even refers to his companions as "a boy and a girl" to increase the sense of kindergarten pleasing.

The episode as a whole is generally excellent. The clockwork soldiers are - largely due to the incidental sound effect of them walking - quite chilling, while having Gulliver only being able to speak words he said in Jonathan Swift's novel is a mark of absolute genius. So is the idea behind the forest of words, though when we see the aerial view of them it's astonishingly poorly realised. And the Doctor having to patronise and be emasculated by small children is quite painful to watch. This is Doctor Who as pure schoolboy quiz show, complete with pictorial games and puzzles. Does the Doctor really need so long to work out "Jamie is safe and well"? The surrealism is nice, but this is now a little twee. I would say that it was probably quite charming to audiences 35 years ago, but then the appreciation index stank.

The whole thing is being monitored on screens very much like those in The Krotons (how odd that wherever they went in time and space during season six, the Tardis crew always seemed to come across décor that looked like 1968/69) and concludes with a painted horse and a stuck-on horn.
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A very middling middle episode this, as what would normally be leading up to the climax (or would take the function of an episode two if you regard the first episode as an add-on) still has two episodes to run. Hamish Wilson's iffy overracting gets to change back to Fraser's ever-so-slightly bored Jamie here. And how does he know that his old face is an improvement? He never saw the new one. Though it's good to see Jamie working out how to disable the Soldiers, a rare note of intelligence from the guy. Jamie gets all the best scenes in this instalment, actually, including an incongruous location shoot. Meanwhile, Zoe and the Doctor walk around the same set multiple times pretending they're going deeper into a maze. (Strange, I never realised this before. Maybe I was suitably engrossed not to be so cynical). In the main the episode has no ambition above the child crowd, though Zoe's query about how she and the Doctor could be in a place for fictional characters is an amusing moment of post-modernism, something surprisingly uncommon in Troughton stories. The cliffhanger is not only identical in principle to the last one, but also quite feeble. Well, all apart from those snakes on Medusa's head, obviously. They look truly frightening and I for one was fearful for the actresses' safety, carrying around a helmet full of deadly vipers like that…
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"We all fellow his um… his adventures in the strip section of the hourly telepress." So says Wendy, fluffing her line after indulging in one of the most painfully embarrassing scenes in Who's history. While a teleporting superhero (complete with mystic "flash") is keyed in to the logic of the story, it's one of those things that are so stupid you just wish it had never happened in Doctor Who. Like a tree with a moving "arm" or Ace saying "Booooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooom!" it's just one of those improbable, inscrutable occurrences in Who that takes you out of the series and into looking at your own feet in embarrassment. Did Brian Blessed really appear in Who? Did the Doctor really fight giant slugs? Yes, I'm afraid it's all true, and so it is that Zoe spends 50 seconds (it seems much longer!) rolling around with Christopher Robbie in a plastic set in some of the most painfully inept judo sequences ever shot on film. It's awful, absolutely awful. Not only does it make Troughton's Doctor look an idiot, but it also wastes the virtue of seeing Zoe's buttocks all taut in a sequinned catsuit. That should be a classic scene, hear me? Classic! Instead, it's excruciating to see and corrodes the credibility of the entire story.

Overlooking the Rentaghost-style daftness of the fake nose on Cyrano in episode five, four is by far the silliest part of The Mind Robber. "When somebody writes about an event after it's happened, that's history, hmmm?" So says TMT as if he's Billy explaining the plot to Susan. I suspect that Peter Ling thought the series was for children and wrote accordingly. And isn't it weird hearing all the talk of "The Master"? Jamie's very tactile with Zoe here - do you think they shag between stories? Oh, I'm sorry for the sexism, but isn't Zoe lovely? A perky little brainbox with pinched nostrils, she truly is lovely! I'd marry 'er, you know.

Emrys Jones is just as camp and hammy as he was in State of Decay, and seems to have a bit of bread in the corner of his mouth. Interestingly, he describes the Doctor as "infinite" as he lives outside the boundaries of time and space, which is an interesting diversion from the later "12 regenerations" schtick.
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All of The Mind Robber is notoriously short, the last three episodes particularly so. Episodes three and four struggle around 19˝ minutes, including titles. And so it is that the climatic episode lasts for just eighteen minutes. Eighteen! In reality, of course, this makes it the length of a four-part story, but they were struggling to fill the season, so five it is. (How ironic that Who was being forced to overstretch itself - at the end of its life it was being forced to cram into fourteen episodes). And so it is that we're left with what feels like a fairly rushed ending, propelling itself towards a convenient wrap-up.

The Doctor's escape to a turret is actually made quite unnerving by it being so obviously fake. It gives it an air of Caligari, which works wonders. The reality, of course, was probably that it was just cheap. "Another two seconds and I should've turned myself into fiction" says the Doctor, which is astoundingly witty by the writer, even if Rapunzel is wooden and Gulliver has long outlived his usefulness. The reappearance of such characters is less thrilling, more a reminder that Peter Ling was probably running out of ideas. Having said that, the realisation of the children laughing at the Doctor is, however stagily played, quite macabre. Reminded me of a Man With The White Suit/Dead of Night hybrid. And TMT manages to make "sausages!" a catchphrase in the same way that Pertwee made "Shoes!" one in Spearhead from Space. It's a talent to make a single word a catchphrase, and a commendable one. And only the most despicable would get a smile from Jamie saying "Push, Zoe! Push harder!"

The scenes where extras fight as historical figures to classical music is another of the embarrassing scenes in this one and is absolutely appalling. Still, it's nice to see Jon Pertwee getting an early acting gig on the show as Cyrano de Bergerac. Accidental spitting fans may like to check out 13'43 minutes in, where Jones's "destructor beam" gets a special phlegm-flavoured twist. And I'm not saying the "press lots of buttons" resolution is lazy, but even Jon Pertwee rang in to say it was a contrived ending.
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An overwhelmingly witty and imaginative take on the series, this is a story that is so innovative that I want to love it to pieces. Sadly, however, I can only really quite like it, as its pandering for the lowest common denominator, misfiring scenes and slightly disinterested performances work against what The Mind Robber is trying to achieve. It's one of TMT's dozen greatest stories and has much to recommend it - though it also has much to criticise. In the end it comes over as an above-average story that is a bit too silly and childish to really be a serious "classic". Though I'll still buy it when it comes out on DVD...
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