On ‘The Mind Robber’. A regurgitation of something originally buried in the middle of an old post.
1. The Review
Just one of the best things ever, this story is a gloriously trippy metafictional journey into Doctor Who‘s own status as a text.
‘Robber’ picks up the Troughton era handbook for writers, stamps on it, scrawls insulting and anarchistic slogans upon its pages, rips it up and sets fire to the pieces. There is no isolated base, no croaky computer, no catalgue of disposable characters who are laser-beamed to death, no unstable authority figure, no creeping infiltration, no standard fight sequence for Jamie, no scene where someone goes into a bonkers tirade and storms out of a control centre… instead we have a deeply trippy ride through sheer weirdness; a totally unpredictable variation of content, style and pace from episode to episode; an intelligently created elllision of symbolism and literalism; a classic surreal quest narrative drawing on Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland yet beholden to neither.
The Doctor and his friends leave their universe and enter a non-spatial, non-temporal buffer zone… and this buffer zone is a world of fiction. An empty nothingness until imagination works upon it, it soon fills with robots and unicorns and princesses and forests of words.
They’ve landed in a metaphysical space instead of a physical one, and the threats they encounter are metaphysical too – they run the risk of being translated into other identities, of losing their faces, of being turned into bit players in other people’s stories, of being made into fiction themselves (which, as this story constantly reminds us by constantly saying the opposite, they already are).
They are stalked by the ultimate variety of faceless, functional, baddie goons: toy soldiers. As if to swipe at the mechanical nature of so much scriptwriting, these goons have got dirty great wind-up keys sticking out of their backs. In this story, the ultimate threat is to become the functional plaything of the desperate hack writer. The soldiers not only hunt our heroes, they also represent what our heroes are threatened with (both literally and figuratively): being clockwork cyphers who just ‘go’ when the lazy writer winds them up and sets them off.
And this is the central threat, even of the somewhat contrived Earth-invasion plot that surfaces towards the end. Mankind would become fiction. Ironically enough, via the creative imagination, we’d all be stripped of our free will. We’d be crushed inside the pages of a book by a domineering Master Brain that controls even the writer with a stentorian bark that is channelled through his own mouth. That’s what it would be like to be a character in someone else’s book, or a fact pushed around by someone else’s editor, or a mortal pushed around by a god (which is exactly what a writer looks like from the point-of-view of a character).
This is Doctor Who investigating its own nature as part imagineering stream-of-consciousness fantasy, part lumbering and mechanical genre hack-work. This is Doctor Who investigating its own origins in myth and legend, in children’s fiction and historical romance, in satire and allegory. The Doctor wanders around in a pseudo-Narnia. The Doctor solves the kinds of puzzles to be found in kid’s annuals. The Doctor becomes Perseus. The Doctor co-writes a face-off between a succession of heroes and villains who are part historical reality and part fictional confabulation (Blackbeard, Cyrano, etc). And the Doctor meets Gulliver.
It cannot be an accident that Gulliver is one of the Doctor’s own antecedents in fiction: a restless traveller who finds himself banked on foreign shores where he encounters strange people and uncanny creatures representing human foibles and political follies. Swift’s story is often mistaken for pure escapism for kids, but is packed with the bitterest and darkest satirical comments on human politics and behaviour… very much like Doctor Who, though ironically enough not for most of the Troughton era up until this point.
Perhaps, above all, the thing to admire most about ‘Robber’ is that it triumphantly makes the best of its behind-the-scenes problems. An extra episode needed at the last minute? Just get Derrick to write a new Episode 1 featuring only the regular cast! Result? One of the most unusual and sinister openings of the show’s history. Frazer’s got the lurgy? No trouble, just write a temporary change of actor into the script! Result? One of the most amusing, memorable and strangely unsettling events ever depicted by the series.
Now that, we must surely all agree, is the sheerest of sheer class.
2. The Attempt at Marxist Analysis
It occurs to me that ‘The Mind Robber’ can also be read as being about aliention and reification in the Marxist senses of those words.
The Master of the Land of Fiction is clearly offering the Doctor a job when he asks him to take his place. He even refers to it as a “responsible position”. He (the Master) is clearly the servant or employee of the Master Brain. He was also a paid employee of Ensign magazine, churning out thousands and thousands of words for them to print and sell. In other words, he was (and still is) a worker. He toiled to produce a product, was paid a wage and (presumably) watched as others pocketed the profits. Whatever the Master Brain (and the power it represents) gets out of running the Land of Fiction, the Master clearly doesn’t see any of the coin.
You can argue about whether writing stories constitutes “socially necessary labour” (I’d say that it does, personally… human culture is in many ways based on stories and it’s pretty clear that we need them in order to be fully human… they’re part of what the young Marx called our “species-being”… which is something that the Land of Fiction implies by its very existence) but clearly the Master spends much more time than he really needs to churning out all those words. His labour creates a surplus which is pocketed by the publishers… or a profit of some kind that is taken by the Master Brain.
Moreover, the necessities of the market demanded that he write a certain type of story, commercial adventure stories which may not really express his full creativity. (Certainly, the story as a whole strongly hints at a feeling that trite adventures involving handy swords and with-one-bound-he-was-free endings are highly unsatisfactory. It hints at this in an ironic and self-aware way, as it must.) Similarly, in the Land, the Master tries to construct a story about the Doctor and his friends that pleases the power he serves… a story that the Doctor resists being a part of, partly by rejecting handy swords.
On Earth, his stories would have risen up to confront him as a vast block of printed type, as piles of magazines, as things outside of himself or his control… that’s what happens when workers make things under capitalism. They are not expressions of his creativity exercised for its own sake; they are not the produce of an unexploited person and a free producer… unless the person happens to be lucky enough to be a financially independent artist or something like that. Similarly, the work he does in the Land is not an expression of his unalienated self-expression. He works for the Master Brain and works to produce the effects it desires. (You could almost see the Master Brain as a personification – thus a reification, in the Marxist sense – of the market itself, which is so often treated or spoken of as a kind of infallible god which should be allowed to rule society for our own good.)
In short, the Master fits (broadly) the Marxist picture of the worker who is alienated from his species-being and from the products of his labour.
He is clearly a slave to the Master Brain. As such, he’s really as menaced by the Land of Fiction as the Doctor. He is confronted by products of human intellectual labour in the form of books, characters from books, characters from folklore (the telling and retelling of legends is a human production as much as anything else), wind-up soldiers, etc. In the Land, words (themselves human productions) confront humans as things outside of human control, as trees and forests. Books – commodities produced by labour – attack and threaten to swallow you. If that isn’t a way of depicting alienation, of humans estranged and menaced by the products of their own labour, then I don’t know what is.
Capitalism materialises the labour of humans into commodities with use-values and exchange values (i.e. books and magazines), thus reifying human labour time. The Land of Fiction takes it further, continuing the process of reification until the characters (themselves commodities and products of labour) are fully materialised, to the point where they walk about and speak for themselves. Again, alienation is depicted when the product of human labour materialised in the form of the Karkus attacks the Doctor and Zoe.
Alienation appears in another way when Zoe and Jamie are “turned into fiction” and appear before the Doctor as blank, empty cyphers who get stuck in the grooves of their dialogue. They’ve been alienated from their human nature by being made into a commodity (fiction being a commodity, remember). They start behaving like stuck records, like people on an assembly line suffering from line hypnosis.
All this might seem like a helluva stretch… but you have to bear in mind that all the books alluded to, all the legends invoked, all the proverbs cited, all the characters who appear in the story… they’re all products of human labour of one form or another.