February 5th, 2012
Sometimes the best creative work comes from having to work within restrictions imposed from outside. The Mind Robber is a perfect example of this. The story before, The Dominators, was originally meant to be a six-parter, but had to be cut down to five (thankfully, as it’s the most awful mess imaginable from every possible standpoint).
So OK, you’ve got to do an extra episode for the next story. Luckily, the next story is set in an alternate dimension, so you can do an episode about getting into that dimension. Stretch out the cliffhangers a bit and suddenly your four-part story becomes a five-parter.
But you’ve got no budget for costumes, or sets, or extra speaking parts for this first episode, because you used all the budget for six episodes on The Dominators. Fine. Borrow two robot costumes from an old Out Of The Unknown episode, and the first episode is set in a mysterious void that happens to look exactly like a plain white room with no distinguishing features whatsoever.
The juvenile lead goes down with chickenpox? OK. Have him lose his face, and the Doctor has to put it back together, and he does it wrong. Recast for a couple of episodes and keep going.
When The Mind Robber was made, TV was still from a primarily theatrical tradition, and the show had to go on. Problems which would cause cancellations of the entire series these days (or which could be ignored because of the much lazier schedules used by modern productions) just had to be worked round. It was only a few years since the only TV was live. Doctor Who’s first producer, Verity Lambert, had, remember, made her name by managing to keep a live drama going even though the lead actor died half-way through. A spot of chicken-pox was nothing in comparison.
What is astounding is how well the result holds up, even to modern eyes. A lot of this is because this is the first story directed by David Maloney, one of three candidates for best director the show ever had (the other two being Douglas Camfield and Graeme Harper). But it’s also down to the story. I have a friend with a seven-year-old daughter, and the daughter adores The Mind Robber – it’s her single favourite Doctor Who story. And for good reason.
We talk a lot on Mindless Ones about metafiction, and this is the single most metafictional Doctor Who story ever. It’s no coincidence that in League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969 it’s Pat Troughton’s Doctor who gets a cameo, and the Karkus, the in-story fictional superhero seen in The Mind Robber also appears.
Because this is a story in which the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe (who, incidentally, is by far the best companion ever in the TV series, being one of the few to actually be the Doctor’s intellectual equal and to regularly be treated as such in the stories – ignore all that nonsense about Russel Davies being the first writer to have a companion who isn’t just a screamer) get trapped in the Land Of Fiction, a world in which distinctions between the real and the imaginary have no meaning.
Here, things stop existing if you know they’re fictional, but fictions can hurt you if you don’t know for sure they’re not real (so Zoe can defeat the Batman parody The Karkus because she’s read his comic-strip adventures, but the Doctor can’t because he hasn’t. See? Reading comics could one day save your life).
The landscape is literally made of words (sorry…) and populated by characters from fiction, either thinly-veiled (the children who appear are from E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children but never named as such for copyright reasons) or public domain (Lemuel Gulliver, who starts out only being able to speak lines from Gulliver’s Travels but gains more agency as the story progresses).
And in control of this landscape is The Master (of the Land Of Fiction), one of several dry runs over the next year or two for the more famous character of a similar name. This one has the appearance right – black gloves, pointy black beard – but is not so evil, being instead a writer of pulp fiction who has been transported to this other dimension to give it life.
This Master is, roughly, meant to be Frank Richards, the writer of the Greyfriars stories among many others (and the principal subject of Orwell’s great essay Boys’ Weeklies), but is a much less impressive figure – whereas Richards published around 75,000,000 words of fiction in his lifetime, The Master wrote a piffling half a million. (For comparison, I published a quarter of a million words, give or take, in 2011).
But all this, of course, is pointing the way to the pop-Platonism that runs as an undercurrent through much of Doctor Who, and which we’ll be dealing with more and more as this series progresses. The Karkus exists to the extent that someone believes in him, and only exists in this reality at all because Zoe has read his adventures. These are, in a very real sense (sorry), the Platonic Forms of the characters – this is an adventure in Platonia.
One can easily draw a line here between this story and the Doctor’s statement decades later that all stories are true (from which we get Teatime Brutality’s wonderful graphic on ‘canon’ above, taken from this post, which should be the last word on any discussion of the subject), but the idea is not quite yet fully formed, because there’s a crucial difference between our heroes and the fictional characters.
We notice this when the Doctor copes, perfectly unfazed, with Jamie’s new appearance – Jamie’s still Jamie, even if he looks like Hamish Wilson rather than Frazer Hines for a little while. But when Jamie and Zoe are made into fictional characters, he’s horrified. Because fictional characters have no agency. They’re the work of an author, and have no free will themselves. They’re controlled entirely by someone else. And this is, of course, the ultimate horror in Doctor Who – the loss of individuality, of agency, and its replacement with control by others.
Later Doctor Who stories, especially those by Paul Magrs, will have a more nuanced view of this. Because of course Doctor Who itself has no single author – and is, indeed, not a single story. I’m constructing one narrative of Doctor Who by my choice of which stories to pay attention to, and every viewer will do something different. And the character of the Doctor lives in those very different narratives, and to the extent one accepts this Platonic worldview at all (I don’t, but my favoured interpretation of the series does) has rather more agency than those characters who have a ‘canon’, an accepted set of stories that do and do not count. Gulliver can only speak in lines from Gulliver’s Travels until the Doctor gives him a little more freedom, but the Doctor can do and say what he likes.
Which is just as it should be.