Writer: Peter Link
Director: David Maloney
Producer: Peter Bryant
Story Number: 45
Number of Episodes: 5 (20 minutes each)
Since I first began this Doctor Who marathon mission of mine oh so many months ago, I’ve come to realize something maddening about story titles. Some of the most intriguing ones wind up being absolute rubbish (I’m looking at you Dominators). And that’s why I was cautiously optimistic when I found out the next installment was called “The Mind Robber.” Now doesn’t that sound damn cool? Well, I’m delighted to report that this one lived up to its namesake expectations—exceeded them actually. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say this is one of my favorite classic Who episodes to date.
The Plot: In order to escape a Dulcian volcano of doom (please get off that damn planet A-SAP!), The Doctor has to revert to rather unconventional measures and remove the TARDIS from “normal” time and space. He doesn’t want to do this because, you know, “normal” time and space is where everyone is most cozy. But he has no choice. If he doesn’t, he and his companions will wind up as little more than mummified remains in an intergalactic Pompeii exhibit of the future (or is it the past?).
The plan works. Kind of. The good news is that it gets them off Dulkis. The bad news is that The Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie suddenly find themselves floating in a frighteningly empty void that explodes the TARDIS into a dozen pieces and leaves them clinging to the control console, terrified and completely alone. Oh yeah, it’s pretty cool.
The next few minutes unfold with dream-like perplexity as Jamie and Zoe suddenly find themselves surrounded by an unending white expanse where they are each beckoned by illusory temptations from their respective time periods. Then some intimidating white robots show up and escort our heroes into, well, we don’t know where.
Meanwhile The Doctor awakens in a surreal forest of some kind, which he eventually comes to realize is a land of fiction inhabited by creepy wind-up soldiers, Gulliver (ya know, the one who had all the travels), Rapunzel, a smattering of mythological baddies, and a hoard of irritating school boys and girls who speak only in riddles (Are you my mummy?).
To make a long (and fascinating) story short, it turns out that this obtuse universe is presided over by a man known as the Master (no, not that Master…sadly). He’s an English writer from 1926 who is being controlled by something called the Master Brain. Anxious to free himself from the clutches of the Brain, the English writer has devised a cunning plot: Make The Doctor take over his compositional duties so he can get the hell home. Oh yeah, and the Master Brain wants to take over the Earth…but more on that later.
That’s about as far as I’ll go in explaining the plot, because half the fun of this episode is winding through the surreal mystery along with out heroes (and there is a lot of surreal mystery to be had here).
The Pros: Doctor Who is often at its best when the story puts its main characters in terrifying situations that bend everyday perceptions of time and space, especially when those situations are being controlled by an unseen and unknown, outside force. Sadly, I’ve come to realize there is a real dearth of this in the show’s first few seasons (with the exception of gems like The Edge of Destruction, The Time Meddler, and The Invasion). “The Mind Robber”, however, goes further in this regard than any episode I’ve seen thus far, and fans of the show’s modern-day manifestation will not be disappointed, as the story is an undeniable harbinger for contemporary classics like Amy’s Choice, The Girl Who Waited, and Midnight. The direction is fluid and surreal while the story itself (for the most part) employs some truly novel conceits that are at once suspenseful and thought provoking. One can even go so far as to ruminate on some potentially meta-fictive themes going on here. Consider: If The Doctor suddenly finds himself in a world of fiction, does that mean he too is a work of fiction? Because, well, he is…at least to us…I mean, in this world…but he doesn’t know it…I mean, in his world…oh you get the point. It’s a genuinely clever and entertaining story from start to (almost) finish.
The Cons: Well, I probably could have done without Karkus, a fictional (to us) cartoon character from the year 2000 (woah, future!). He’s an unnecessary bit of childish camp thrown into an otherwise taught, mature story.
But even more frustrating than Karkus is the way the story ends. After everything we’ve been through we find out that the Master Brain is interested in luring everyone on Earth into this fictitious world, rendering them helpless and leaving the planet free for the taking. Ugh…really? It’s a disappointing and far-too-literal conclusion to a story that was, up to that point, thick, heady, and abstract in all the right ways. It kind of feels like Peter Link got to the last episode and was like, “Hm. I’ve painted myself into a pretty tight fucking corner here, haven’t I? Bullocks. Well, um, yeah. Takeover the Earth. That’s it!” In the hands of someone like Steven Moffat the conclusion would have been far richer and probably involved some kid of plot to make sure literary characters never died, even at the expense of the humans that created them. Or something. But the story’s lackluster denouement is certainly not enough to throw the baby out with the bathwater. All told, “The Mind Robber” is one for the ages, and it’s one of the reasons a chap like myself marches on through such a daunting marathon.
Final Rating: 8/10 (points lost for Karkus and the conclusion)