Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Mind Robber written by Peter Ling and directed by David Maloney

This story in a nutshell: Are we going to play this game? Okay…the TARDIS slips sideways in time, explodes and the Doctor and his companions waltz with literary characters and scenarios in their imaginations. Or do they…? 

Oh My Giddy Aunt: The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe. What a trio, so relentlessly entertaining the five episodes exhale like a breath of fresh spring air. They are like three hyperactive children, wrapped up in each other's company and living the thrill of their adventures together to the full. I can't think of any other regulars I would love travel with more. Troughton gives a masterclass in how to play the Doctor in The Mind Robber. Because The War Games might be a little too long for some this is the story that I would give to prospective actors (or actresses before I’m accused of being un-PC) to see the sort of legacy that they have to live up to. Or simply how well it can be done. Troughton gets to play the gamut of emotions from fear to anger to curiosity to humour before finally settling on righteous outrage and a formidable sense of justice. Maybe it is just because we can watch this story in full but you get a real chance to see how much he gave to the show. He is breathlessly active throughout, every line a comedic gem, every movement impossible to drag your eyes away from to see just what he will do next. Troughton never stops entertaining, you can see why he was so tired after each story what with his puffing and shouting and laughing and pouting. It’s a remarkably active performance. On any given day my favourite Doctors will change depending on what I am looking for…but Troughton will always rank high. My favourite moment? Well, I want to say his ‘string of sausages’ outrage because it leads to his sheer nervous wreck delight where he is tearing characters from literature to take on the Master’s but in reality it is his tussle with the Karkus that I love, so blissfully funny it has to be mentioned. He won’t state that he doesn’t exist because he has never heard of him…and in truth I think he is having just a little too much fun being tossed around like a rag doll. Note the quiet, understated edginess Troughton exudes in episode one. He knows that episode is different from any other and he’s relishing the chance to play something this radically different. 

Who’s the Yahoos: I’ve gone on record saying that, despite Troughton and Hines’ beautiful rapport, that I feel Jamie is somewhat superfluous as a character in season six. The Mind Robber is the exception to that rule. Hines, like Troughton, is really enjoying the chance to play something a little out there and gives a very measured turn as the hairy legged Highlander. You really believe Jamie is intoxicated at the thought that they might have landed in Scotland in the first episode and after all the horrors he has seen who can blame him? He’s up for the adventure though, scaling sheer mountains, flirting with literary characters (Jamie would flirt with anybody) and enjoying a very funny, conflicting chemistry with Zoe. I bet they were at it all the time. They would make a far more believable couple than Jamie and Victoria, they’re already indulging in martial bickering. Plus Frazer Hines is playing the role to excellent comedic effect; his face every time the Doctor tells him to shut up so he can discuss something brainy with Zoe is priceless. Despite Hamish Wilson's attempts (and gives a perfectly good performance but it is a very different kind of Jamie) to fill his shoes for an episode I was beaming when Frazer returned in part three. 

Brainbox: It’s nice to see Wendy Padbury enjoying some quality material because her previous forays into the part of Zoe have been The Wheel in Space and The Dominators, 11 episodes of Doctor Who so dreadful that for almost three months followers of the show must have been sinking into despair. Zoe is written extremely well here, it’s a script that points out her strengths and her weaknesses as a character. She was daft to leave the TARDIS in the void and to not realise that there was a leap to her death in the darkened house and even worse is her monumentally stupid moment where she walks through the castle detector beams but who could imagine the story without her and the Doctor and their delightful moments exploring the tunnels, leaving Jamie out or her hysterical moment where she comes to blows with the Karkus and leaves him in the dirt. Wendy Padbury is divine in this, her scream as piercing as they come and she is clearly full of enthusiasm for the story. Like Caroline John and Elisabeth Sladen, I feel Padbury is almost too good for the standard companion role and like Liz and Sarah, Zoe is often allowed to dominate events because of it.

Sparkling Dialogue: Basically every line that Troughton utters…whether its any good or not! 
‘That noise... that vibration... it's alien.’ 
‘No no no no no no! Not both together one at a time!’
‘Would you mind taking that pop gun away it does unsettle me so!?’
‘If we step outside the TARDIS we will enter a dimension of which we know nothing. We shall be at the mercy of the forces...’
‘I have yet to see a robot that can climb!’
‘But all the power had been used on the Soldiers and it was useless! Ooh you'll have to do better than that!’

The Good: I blame the sound FX. Huh? The sound FX? Aren't they great in this story? Just listen to the creaky, electronic hum the White Robots make... they might already by fairly menacing in appearance but with the addition of this spine-tingling noise they make an instant impression. And how about the Toy Soldiers? Brr... that harsh, gear grinding noise every time they get close... I watched it this morning with all the lights off and it really gave me the willies. Even more subtle sound FX, the alien hum that penetrates the TARDIS, the creaking door as Zoe peers inside, the Master Brain as it grips the Masters mind and gives him instructions... Sometimes a Doctor Who budget cannot convincingly wring all of the atmosphere out of the script and the sound FX and music have to give it a push, the sound design for this story is peerless and injects a lot of tension and fantasy into the finished production. It’s an oft-ignored strength of the show. 

Even better the story seems to have been supplied with a bigger budget than usual because although the story demands a lot from the production team they manage to magic up a startling number of convincing sets, costumes and genuinely impressive FX. How can anybody forget the TARDIS snapping open in space? Or the console flying through the vortex with Jamie and Zoe clinging to edge? The sets too are extraordinarily detailed; I adore the maze set with all the flickering candles and cobwebs but they also manage to pull off an exterior fairy-tale castle with terrific scope. And all the literary characters look authentic, the BBC always excel at costume drama and creating the likes of Gulliver, Sir Lancelot, Blackbeard is a piece of cake. It seems a shame to have to applaud the show for getting the aesthetics right but the sad truth of the matter is that because of limited resources, time and money that wasn’t always the case. And season six was a point in the show where the money had definitely started to run out and so get it looking this good is something of a minor triumph. 

Or maybe it's just the way director David Maloney puts it all together, his polished direction is the icing on the cake. An A-list Doctor Who director (Genesis, Talons) with the likes of Camfield, Harper and Martinus, he refuses to let the story sink into whimsy and continually gives it a delicious edge, despite the absurdities the story throws at us we are convinced there is real danger. There are too many scenes to list that make me glow, the sheer pressure that builds inside the TARDIS before we finally see it blow, the piercing shot of Medusa in the mirror, Jamie scaling the walls of the castle, the almost gleeful sparkle in the White Robots' eyes as they destroy everything in the final episode... it is a visual treat, never failing to satisfy. The Minotaur scene is outstandingly directed, in the hands of a less talented man this could have been farcical but with only the briefest of glimpse at the costume (because it's the ONE costume that is really rubbish), scary roars and close ups of the Doctor and Zoe backed into a corner filled with skulls as a shadow grows over them...instead of being a joke it is supremely dramatic.

It would be a little unfair to Peter Ling to suggest that the hastily written first episode is the best of the bunch because his four episodes in the world of fiction are full of magic and surprises. But that initial episode is an experimental joy to be sure, one of the most atmospheric openings to a Doctor Who ever (and given episode one of any story is pretty atmospheric) and a tense exercise in working with very little. It's the old Who adage (that I’ve just made up); the imagination soars because the budget lacks. The imagery conjured up is some of the scariest in the show's history (Jamie and Zoe zombified and treated with positive/negative effects, the TARDIS swamped by molten lava, the ship exploding...) and easily the most surreal. But all the clever stuff starts in episode two and the writing is clearly the work of an extremely imaginative mind. Tricks such as the face-changing game to escape the horror of Frazer Hines going ill. The forest of words constructing sayings. Zoe trapped in jam jar! The picture writing. The unicorn... and that's just in one episode. Things get more and more insane as we meet all number of characters from fiction (my favourites being Medusa and her hissing stop animation snakes and Horsfall’s delightful Gulliver) and lots of lovely narrative tricks (‘It doesn't exist!’, ‘When it’s ajar!’). The story refuses to compromise its fantasy nature, climaxing in a classic era moment when the Doctor and the Master conjure up all manner of fiction characters to fight each other and rescue/kill Jamie and Zoe. It is one of the most unpredictable stories I have watched, once you accept that ANYTHING can happen you just sit back and let it wash over you. Maybe that is why some butt heads with it – I can imagine the portion of the audience that enjoy logic and order would have a meltdown watching this.

The Shallow Bit: Frazer Hines looking practically edible in his tight black top in episode one. Doctor Who rarely gets me feeling unmentionable, but this is one of those occasions.

Result: Every season of Doctor Who has a class act in it, one that shines above the rest despite how good the rest are. Troughton Who is a little more fortunate than the rest, in his last season he was graced with three absolute belters (but you can determine what they are) and depending on what day of the week it is depends on which I would inch just a little higher than the others. The only convincing argument I ever remember hearing that pans The Mind Robber was from somebody who truly despised the fantasy genre. Fair enough, but on any conceivable level (writing, direction, performances) this is brilliantly done. A constantly surprising, adapting, giving story that manages to thrill, scare and amuse in equal measure. Stylishly directed too, with David Maloney shooting the story in unusual ways to highlight its surreal nature. My favourite experience of The Mind Robber was with a non-Who fan friend of mine who I showed the first episode to when he asked to see an example of a black and white story. We went out and he was desperate to get back and watch the rest. Usually he laughs his head off at classic Who (sometimes with good reason – he did ask to watch Paradise Towers) but he enjoyed this immensely, and I was able to see it through new eyes. Those of you who write off this story and only praise the first episode, shame on you. If Doctor Who’s greatest weapon is imagination then this is one of the finest examples of how far that can stretch…along with the shows format: 10/10


Issa Kelly said...

Will you be doing City of Death anytime soon?

Ethan said...

I just knew you would give this a 10/10. A real classic and one of my favorite OldWho Stories.

Unknown said...

Terrific stuff and really made the most of limited resources..

I do think the "it doesn't exist" solution was a touch over-used, but otherwise this is first class in constantly surprising the audience. It does amuse me when fans try to link the 'villain' to the actual Master we all know and love (to hate).

Paul said...

Makes me want to go and watch it for the first time in too long.

David Pirtle said...

This is a surreal classic, definitely in my top ten stories of all time.

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Anonymous said...

Watching them all in order. Amazing. Agree with everything above, great review. My own shallow bit is Zoe's tushy on the Tardis console...
Emrys Jones deserves an honourable mention. I was hooked, not really seen it or paid proper attention to it for years, even when repeated, so this was a real treat as an adult to properly get it. Troughton would ave been 100 this year, what an actor, love episode 5.