When an actor was ill, what could be done?
In this fantasy world, let’s have some fun!
Losing our Jamie would be such a waste,
So we’ll sort it all out by changing his face!
I need to start this by admitting that I am a huge fan of the Troughton era. It is by far my favourite era of Doctor Who, so I might be a bit biased and more forgiving of the shortcomings of this kind of story than the average viewer. I can’t really stand to pick apart things like failed effects shots, although by and large there are very few of those anyway, especially considering what was being attempted here. I am still astonished by the stop-motion animation, something that most people would probably consider is confined to big-budget film and television, but here it was, being done brilliantly in-house (yes, they didn’t even need to hire in an outside company to achieve it). But just to get the shortcomings of the visuals out of the way I would suggest tracking down a VHS copy and watching the first episode that way if you want your white void to really be a white void. The DVD was a crushing disappointment! Why oh why couldn’t the Restoration Team have done a less precise job on that?
So, this is Peter Ling’s vision of Doctor Who, and it clearly differs from the house style that had developed by now. And yes, as free as Doctor Who is to do anything and go anywhere, there was a formula to most stories and this breaks it as thoroughly as it breaks the TARDIS. There is a paper-thin distinction between fantasy and sci-fi (most sci-fi is fantasy with added spoonfuls of technobabble) but this definitely has a fantasy “flavour” if there is such a thing. If the script cupboard had not been so bare this season The Mind Robber probably wouldn’t have been made at all and, like The War Games later in the series, out of hardship comes great inventiveness. The best episode of the story by a mile was born of the greatest problem the story had to face – an extra episode tacked on when it became clear that The Dominators couldn’t fill six weeks. So we have the first episode with only the regulars, the TARDIS set, a white void and some recycled robot costumes. Doctor Who is often at its best when events spiral out of the Doctor’s control, and here he is helpless against an all-powerful enemy. It is a simple idea, but it results in an incredibly creepy and atmospheric episode, finishing on one of the greatest cliffhangers in the history of the show, if not the very greatest. Imagine how that must have felt to viewers watching at the time!
The other big difficulty was the loss of Frazer Hines to illness, dealt with very inventively with the face puzzle. Hamish Wilson (no, not Frazer’s cousin as we all thought during the 80s and 90s!) does a great job, but it does all feel a little bit wrong, and it is a relief when Jamie is restored to normal. As brilliant as this improvisation was, it is still something that would have been crossed out of the script had it not been necessary, as it adds to the surprisingly padded nature of these five very short episodes.
The Mind Robber is not quite completely unprecedented, because The Celestial Toymaker is similarly ground-breaking and bizarre. What gives The Mind Robber the edge is that the Doctor and his companions do not know the rules of the game that they are playing.
I have to admit I am not keen on the final episode, with all that tedious fighting between fictional characters, most of whom are probably rarely read by children nowadays. Another story set in the Land of Fiction would be great, with the use of some more recent fictional characters, although I would imagine that would throw up some near-insurmountable licencing issues. This story is at its best when the Doctor and the viewers have no idea what is going on, and all that to-ing and fro-ing with Gulliver and the magnificently scary clockwork robots is simply sublime. RP
The view from across the pond:
Season 6 of the original run of Doctor Who opened up with an episode of absolute tedium. But the next story would more than make up for any mistakes the opener had.
The Mind Robber is wonderful. This is one of those moments that brilliantly exemplify my belief in Doctor Who as a show. It can do anything, go anywhere and it can experiment in ways other shows cannot. It starts with a volcano erupting and risking burying the TARDIS, so the Doctor activates something that takes them out of normal space/time. This concept is crazy as that’s effectively the function the TARDIS serves anyway, but it gives us a chance to enter the White Void.
Once in this strange place, the story really takes off. The void, like the wonderful first Doctor story, The Edge of Destruction, gives us a tense, eerie atmosphere where the main cast (Troughton, Hines and Padbury) really shine. The void is terrifying. There’s the sense that it would be easy to get lost after taking just a couple steps. It’s being trapped in the middle of the ocean; no direction is safe. As the episode progresses, the Doctor appears to be immobilized and the TARDIS explodes leaving the Doctor floating through space in a chair and Zoe and Jamie find themselves clinging desperately to the TARDIS console as it drifts into the mist.
Once we find ourselves in The Land of Fiction, there’s just too many notable things to praise to list them all. But why not… I’ll try…
A forest made of letters
Gulliver (of Gulliver’s Travels)
A face puzzle for Jamie (to make him “un-Jamie”)
A cartoon character, the Karkus, that Zoe gets to fight (and what a fight)!
Children posing riddles.
Wind up soldiers
Jamie and Zoe trapped in a storybook
And an unseen enemy watching them all
Losing Frazer for part of the story due to illness was unfortunate, but his replacement does a reasonable job. Although it’s better when he is back! Zoe, played by the lovely Wendy Padbury, is great, but I’ve always been partial to Zoe and Jamie. They were a great duo for traveling with the Doctor. And boy can Wendy scream. During the scene when the TARDIS console is floating through space, she lets out a blood curdling scream! It’s quite startling!
This is the Land of Fiction… literally (pun intended) anything can happen! One of the most original things is that the crew starts to understand how the Land works and begin to create parts of the story themselves. For instance, Zoe writes: “Suddenly the Doctor found a sword at his feet….” and a sword appears. In 53 years, Doctor Who has never been more unique or more creative. It’s a weird story but it keeps the viewer watching, often at the edge of the seat.
Kudos go to writers and production team for creating such an amazing piece of television history. Kudos to the cast for making it work.
….when suddenly, Mike was summoned back to work, and his review ended… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Invasion