Thursday, 10 September 2009

The Mind of Evil

Previous viewings - none

For some reason, this is a story I expected to like. I've heard it described as a throwback to Season 7, but with the Master. If you're going to watch a Pertwee story, that's a damn good combination. Then there's the return of black and white, always good for adding atmosphere, a pseudo-political plot with no monsters, and the return of Don Houghton as writer, so I'm expecting a fairly mature story of the sort I'm now used to in this era. Excited enough?

It’s justified, but only to an extent. I’m relieved to see the pitfalls Houghton fell into when writing Inferno are avoided this time, namely the tedious repetition and padding. However, I’m not convinced the plot was sufficiently thought through.

Following Terror of the Autons, the Master is trapped on Earth because the Doctor has the dematerialization circuit from his TARDIS. The Master’s scheme this time doesn’t involve helping the latest invading army of monsters, rather he has concocted a scheme himself, aiming to fire a missile at a World Peace Conference, using prisoners from Stangmoor Prison to hijack the missile from UNIT. This is all fine and dandy, but it’s not six episodes worth of story.

Whether because Houghton wants to provide a context to the various elements of the plot, or because he liked the idea of seemingly unrelated storylines coming together at the conclusion, a lot of screentime is devoted to the Conference early in the story, with UNIT providing security giving our characters reason to be there. Also, the Master, under the name of Professor Keller, has invented the Keller Machine, a device used on criminals to cure them of violent impulses, which piques the Doctor’s curiosity, which explains his presence at Stangmoor at the start of the story. Although enjoyable, for the sake of plot it’s a pity they are included because we can’t just visit these places, things have to happen there that contribute to the plot, and for the most part they’re superfluous. They only don’t feel like it at the time because I expect them to be explained. It might be silly of me to expect the Master to concoct a scheme that makes sense, but this comes across to me as an attempt by the writer to make a shorter story longer.

Putting plot logic aside, this story is far from a failure. It doesn’t quite feel like Season 7 – swapping Liz for Jo makes all the difference, though Jo’s ditziness is very toned down from Terror of the Autons. At Stangmoor Prison, Professor Kettering demonstrates the use of the Keller Machine, until it goes wrong. I was quite annoyed with the Doctor in this scene – making rather loud snide comments to Jo seemed quite Troughton-esque, and I’m not sure Pertwee carried it off without seeming rude. I think of him as one of the most serious Doctors, who very rarely jokes around. I didn’t comment on it much but he was the same in the previous story – he comes off as quite angry and rather bitter. Strange to think that losing Liz seems to have annoyed him more than his actual exile (although he is friendlier to Jo here than before).

Trouble is brewing, however. Two deaths occur – a guy is mauled when alone, and a man drowns without water, both drawing on their greatest fear. Even though it’s obvious what caused them, it follows the typical ‘setup’ formula common to first episodes, ending with a good cliffhanger of the Doctor almost becoming a third victim by imagining himself in the exploding planet in Inferno. At this point, it can go either way, but it’s a decent episode.

From there, however, the World Peace Conference plot is introduced, and the Doctor is called away, leaving the Keller machine investigation in the (in?)capable hands of Jo. Unbeknown to UNIT, a member of the Chinese delegation, Chin Li, is being controlled by the Master, and she is used to kill the Chinese delegate, stirring up trouble between the Chinese and the Americans, before going missing. What I like about this subplot – aside from being quite novel for Doctor Who (although common in spy stories) – is that it reinforces the believability of UNIT as a real organization. For once, their interests and the Doctor’s are separate, and it takes a lot to pique the Doctor’s interest, as he’s become used to concerning himself only with extra-terrestrial events. Plus for some reason it’s weird to see the Master interfering with ordinary Earth politics.

Unfortunately, as I said before, it’s a lot of time devoted to something that, although interesting, doesn’t matter. The Master wants to stir up relations between American and Chinese delegates to set the scene for the firing of the missile, but it just feels weird to seemingly completely abandon a subplot that’s been the main focus of two episodes only to justify it by implying its importance at the conclusion. Out of the two main settings – this and the prison – this is the more interesting and this is where the bulk of the story should have been set.

With the Master’s hypnosis of Chin Li discovered, she becomes co-operative, so the Doctor returns to Stangmoor while UNIT transports a missile to be destroyed. Jo and scientist Dr Summers (the ever-reliable Michael Sheard) have been besieged by rioting prisoners led by Mailer, who has been working with the Master thinking him merely as a shady inventor and businessman who he can manipulate. Here, the story hits a snag – the Doctor is stuck in a cell with Jo for most of the rest of the story, and seemingly every cliffhanger involves the Keller Machine almost killing the Doctor until he’s rescued at the last possible second. It’s quite an action-lite tale, with the two main setpieces being the theft of the missile and the conclusion, and neither is very exciting. Part of me suspects that the reason this story is one of the least discussed of the Pertwee era is that most people’s lasting memory of the story is the Doctor and Jo being stuck in that cell for what seems like an eternity.

Captain Yates gives chase after the UNIT taskforce is attacked by the prisoners and the missile taken. He is then captured himself and questioned by the Master. UNIT retake the prison and the Brig marches off with a taskforce to take on the Master, but the Doctor offers the Master a chance to reclaim his missing circuit in exchange for not firing the missile, although the Brigadier doesn’t like the idea, encouraging the Doctor to come up with an alternative: using the Keller machine as a weapon against the Master. The conclusion, like many of the era, contains plenty of running around and shooting, but isn’t particularly memorable. I did like the last scene of the Master phoning the Doctor to gloat about having a fully functional TARDIS though, and the Doctor bemoaning his continued exile.

By the end, I’m not sure what The Mind of Evil is supposed to be about. It’s place in the ‘Master arc’ is to allow the Master to turn the tables on the Doctor after being tricked in the previous story, and give the pair another chance to spar, but there isn’t much of that. The Keller Machine is invented by the Master as a tool for killing people – what happened to the Tissue Compression Eliminator? It’s very lucky too that the Doctor finds a way to use it against the Master.

What I look out for in Jon Pertwee’s performance at this stage is the ever-developing chemistry between Pertwee and Katy Manning. They’ve already come a long way since Terror of the Autons, and it helps that the Doctor seems to have forgiven her for not being as qualified as Liz, however that could be because Jo’s part in this story was written for Liz – as much as I love Jo, leaving her to handle the Keller investigation herself was hard to swallow, and her managing it well was even more so. I’m also really liking Sergeant Benton, who had a bigger part in this story than usual, his own subplot actually, with him messing up by losing Chin Li then trying to redeem himself. He was clearly having a great time being in charge of the prison, too.

All of this aside, it’s too flawed a story for me to score highly. I think there was a worthy Doctor Who to get out of the idea of the Keller machine, and of the Master trying to pit countries against each other, but putting them in the same story has done them both harm.

Horror quotient – The Keller machine cliffhanger is overused, but is never scary anyway. Nope, no killer dolls or man-eating chairs here.
Comedy quotient – The Doctor and the Brigadier are making for quite the unintentional comedy double-act. I’m still waiting for the Brig to lose it and punch the Doctor though.
Drama quotient – Drama depends on a plot flowing well, which this doesn’t. It starts off well, but the disappointment takes over by about Episode 4.

An entertaining story but one that could have been better with more action and less plodding around.


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