Doctor Who continues to gain creative momentum with this classic five-part adventure from Peter Ling. As I understand it, Ling knew nothing about science fiction when writing this so it's perhaps not so surprising that his take on the show is not what we're used to. Under his pen, Who dips into the realm of the surreal - and quite literally, too, as the TARDISeers discover the Land of Fiction. This gives it something of a unique flavour among all the Doctor Who TV stories; there is nothing even remotely like it.
I'll say it now: when I first saw The Mind Robber I was blown away. If anything, the Troughton era has been a disappointment in the marathon so far because nothing has been written with the imagination or fun element of this story, and as such it's remained my favourite Troughton story since then. So here's why I like it!
Episode 1, hastily written by Derrick Sherwin after The Dominators had an episode cancelled at short notice. No guest cast or new sets, and there's not enough time to rewrite the rest of the episodes much to accommodate this extra one, so the story isn't going to start properly until Episode 2. Imagine how the production team and actors took that news! When you finish the story you hardly remember the first episode because it barely contributes to the plot, and I think I'm one of the few here who thinks that the rest of the story is far better, by virtue of the fact that however good Episode 1 is it doesn't manage to disguise the fact that it's not needed.
Following the volcanic eruption on Dulkis, the Doctor takes the TARDIS out of time and space and into the void - nothing. The Doctor isn't prepared to face the risk of stepping into dimensions unknown so insists everybody stay in the TARDIS. Zoe changes her outfit, Jamie takes a nap and the Doctor works alone to repair the ship. It doesn't last long but I savour this rare glimpse of life in the TARDIS in the Troughton era. Suddenly Jamie and Zoe see images of their homes on the scanner which trick them into leaving the TARDIS - silly beggars - and they find themselves in a white void. As a consequence of the circumstances of the writing of this episode, the rest of the story follows on from it but does not resolve it, hence the things that happen aren't necessarily explained. For the remainder of the episode we're subjected to a series of bizarre events, including Jamie and Zoe lost in nothingness, the TARDIS turning white, the Doctor fighting a mental attack, the TARDIS breaking apart, the Doctor floating around, and Zoe's bum. For the purposes of the plot's internal logic, I have to assume they're already in the Land of Fiction, even though the white void looks nothing like the rest of the place. Whatever it is, it's so bonkers and brilliant that I have to love it - easily the trippiest episode in the whole series.
The other four episodes are slightly shorter than usual. As a result, the whole story seems to whizz by in a flash, which I didn't like actually, because I wanted more of it! The TARDISeers are separated in a strange dimension, and for once we have absolutely no idea what to expect from this place. Jamie is turned into cardboard, except for his facial features, which the Doctor must reconstruct from multiple choices, only he gets it wrong so when returned to normal Jamie looks different, now played by Hamish Wilson. A good way to replace Frazer Hines but serving only to remind viewers just how good Frazer is - Hamish isn't a bad actor but never convinces me he's Jamie, his performance is too different. It was worth it though for the Doctor and Zoe's reactions, especially Zoe when she realises the Doctor is to blame.
As the travellers investigate their surroundings, they meet explorer Lemuel Gulliver. He's the first of several fictional characters we meet in the Land of Fiction but only Bernard Horsfall (who plays Gulliver) makes his character seem like fiction within fiction, something that sounds very hard to do! I've not read Gulliver's Travels but I enjoyed his character.
With Jamie returned to normal, the TARDISeers traverse deeper into the realm, encountering more fictional creations along the way, including a unicorn, Medusa, and the Karkus, placed in their path by an unseen menace watching them on TV. As they discover, any dangers can be got rid of simply by announcing their fictional nature. It works the first time, but in a place that offers limitless potential for cliffhangers, it's a shame to see the same device used again and again, especially as the characters seem to think they're doomed each time! Zoe especially is irritating - for one of the few times in the series - when she can't resist looking at Medusa, forcing the Doctor to allow her to do so using a mirror. Jamie meanwhile has found a castle and climbs up Rapunzel's hair, and inside the castle he finds a tape machine which is writing the events the Doctor is caught up in ahead of time, thwarted by the Doctor's refusal to follow the story plans set out for him. Since the TARDISeers are the only "real" things in the Land of Fiction, their nemesis is trying to turn them into Fiction, which will happen if they become part of his story. It's the kind of Doctor Who tale that's never going to hold up to scrutiny, but at least here you're never sure what to measure it up against. Do the laws of physics even apply? Who knows. Yet this notion that they'll become fiction stands out for not making sense anyway - I'm not sure what that even means! The fictional characters only ever existed in stories, the TARDISeers are real people with minds. However this is a minor issue.
The Doctor and Zoe catch up with Jamie and find the Master of this strange land, who the Doctor quickly works out is being used by a computer for his creativity, and his goal is to force the Doctor to take his place. Nice! Unfortunately a threat to the Earth is tacked on, and one that doesn't quite make sense, but not enough to matter. The Master is a good villain, seeming genuinely intelligent and if it wasn't for the plan to take over Earth, not actually villainous.
Episode 5 is my favourite of the story. Jamie and Zoe have been turned into fiction by being enveloped by a giant book (huh?), as the Doctor discovers when he thinks he's escaped, only for the fictional characters to turn on him. The Doctor decides the only way to defeat the Master is to out-story him, with both wired into the mainframe and creating fictional characters to do their bidding as the Doctor tries to free his friends. It's a hilarious sequence with both conjuring up bigger and better foes which do battle. Unfortunately with that over, it's not clear how the story is resolved because as Jamie and Zoe destroy the technology in the main room, with the white robots programmed to destroy everything, the reality seems to fade out of existence, along with the episode! Mere moments after the TARDISeers have reunited, we see the TARDIS return to normal and that's it, the episode's over. Waaaay too fast a conclusion!
The Mind Robber isn't perfect. I feel Peter Ling didn't get the characters completely right, Zoe especially - although she is still pretty new I suppose. It's the only story Zoe doesn't seem intelligent in, in fact she seems quite stupid - I mentioned the incident with Medusa, but tripping the alarm she's just been told about was disappointingly idiotic and not something I would expect from Zoe. And I wasn't even keen on the silver catsuit! Give me Zoe in her outfits for The Krotons or The Space Pirates anyday. As I watch, I'm wondering if perhaps Ling was aiming more for a child audience than most Who writers do - there's a lot more silliness and goofing around than usual.
However it's one of those stories that is so awesome that any flaws just don't matter. I could watch The Mind Robber again and again and it would never get boring.
Horror quotient - Hard to say. There's certainly lots that could scare kids - two whole sets of alien robots, a creepy place, Zoe has plenty to scream about and the TARDIS breaks up.
Comedy quotient - Much to laugh about too. A nice all-rounder of a story.
Drama quotient - Perhaps there isn't that much drama, because the line between reality and fantasy is blurred.
A real gem. One or two niggles aside, The Mind Robber easily takes its place among the top Doctor Who stories of all time.