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.…