The Mind Robber

Posted in Episode by - October 18, 2016
The Mind Robber

Aired 14 September – 12 October 1968

Following on directly from ‘The Dominators,’ the Doctor forces an emergency departure from the rising lava on Dulkis, taking the TARDIS out of space and time and materializing in what initially seems to be a white void. Yet as Jamie hears bagpipes and finds himself in his homeland and Zoe sees images of her home City on the TARDIS scanner, they soon find that the supposed reality of their situation is much stranger than they could ever imagine.

The strongest aspect of Doctor Who is its incredible flexibility, able to shift genres and formats effortlessly, and ‘The Mind Robber’ certainly takes advantage of that premise as it offers a trip further into the absurd realm of childish imagination than any episode before and arguably since. As the story veered out of the universe of Doctor Who and into the universe of fiction in general, the public response was initially quite lukewarm, but its willingness to shatter storytelling conventions and its forward-thinking nature has rightfully earned it a much more flattering reputation as time has passed.

As the threat shifts from white robots to a mysterious force that breaks the TARDIS apart and invades their minds, the Doctor and his companions soon find themselves in a forest made of alphabet letters, the Land of Fiction from whence stories come. Even as events become stranger and stranger as the TARDIS team encounters mythological creatures, children posing puzzles, clockwork soldiers, and even Gulliver, the greatest threat of all comes from the prospect of the crew being turned into fiction themselves. The sort of dreamlike imagery on display is a staple of British children’s literature, and it certainly does seem as though the programme is trying to connect with its audience in a familiar and yet completely different manner, playing everything completely seriously no matter how silly the fiction on display is.

Soon enough, the Doctor and his friends come upon the Master, a children’s author trapped in the Land of Fiction and serving a disembodied brain. The aging Master has set forth a series of challenges for the Doctor to make sure he will make an appropriate replacement, but the Doctor, of course, refuses to go along with the plan, getting into a battle that consists of each making new characters and plot twists to one-up the other. Yet even as Zoe and Jamie overload the brain to free the Master and escape back to reality, one of the greatest lasting strengths of ‘The Mind Robber’ is the ambiguity about whether the entire serial actually happens and, if it does, whether or not the TARDIS actually escapes the fictional realm. It comes back together, but there is no celebratory scene of relief to confirm their return. There’s a metafictional element coursing throughout the story, and it’s easy to see why fans of the time may not have been so enamoured with the overall result initially.

Wonderfully, there are several mistakes and coincidences that feed into the intrinsic of fiction versus reality in this story. Perhaps most tellingly and absurdly, the TARDIS scanner actually shows the credits of Doctor Who itself, Producer Peter Bryant being showcased. Likewise, Frazer Hines contracting chicken pox and having to sit out a portion of filming leads to a comically unnerving scene where Jamie’s face gets rearranged into that of actor Hamish Wilson, again proving that these characters are truly only fictional characters. The strong implication that the Doctor is actually from the Land of Fiction himself is quite fitting, and the inclusion of Gulliver- himself a traveler who is terribly unreliable as a narrator in his own novel- is a superb comparison for the Doctor. Looking at the story several decades on, there are also several assuredly coincidental details regarding the Second Doctor’s regeneration sequence, the Time Lord Master, and even a character with a name suspiciously similar to one Captain Jack Harkness that put this story in an entirely new light as well.

It’s easy to see why ‘The Mind Robber’ has had such an enduring presence and why the Land of Fiction has been revisited multiple times in different media. Rarely does Doctor Who venture into such fantastic realms, but the seriousness in which everything is played no matter how bizarre lends credence to a tale that challenges the very existence of reality itself while offering incredible insight into both its lead and guest characters.

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