Psychedelia, stimuli and The Mind Robber (1968)

mindrob

So here’s the thing: it’s not called The Land of Fiction. Or even The Fact of Fiction. It’s called The Mind Robber. And I suppose that could be an attempt to disguise the nature of the fantasy world that our friends the Trought, the Fraze and Padders find themselves in during this surreal adventure. Not trying to give away the game too soon.

But I think it’s more than simple misdirection. This story is ostensibly about a land of fiction, but is more concerned with attacks on the mind. Perceptions are altered. Characters from fantasy are brought to life. Our heroes experience nightmare situations from twisted memories of childhood. It’s not just a trip into a land of story books; it’s simply a trip. It’s a mind altering experience. It’s Doctor Who‘s only real brush with psychedelia.

The show may have still been seen by many in 1968 as a children’s programme, but the makers of Doctor Who were clearly considering how drug taking was leading to new physical and mental experiences. The show’s first change of Doctor was described in terms of the effects of the ‘LSD drug’. Now two years later, we have a five week break from ordinary Doctor Who, which starts with being taken out of reality, and ends so abruptly that the whole thing might have been a dream. If our TARDIS team had started this adventure by all taking little white pills, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

It doesn’t start like that, of course. It starts with an episode of filler, required when the production team decided they couldn’t face a sixth episode of The Dominators. This opener, written by script editor Derrick Sherwin, although he wasn’t proud enough of it to take a credit, is an unusual the-dog-ate-my-homework sort of effort. With the scantest of resources available to him – the TARDIS set, a blank white studio and an empty black soundstage – Sherwin fills the episode with time-killing incident, none of which he feels obliged to explain. What is the ‘nowhere’ in which the TARDIS lands? How does it relate to the Land of Fiction? Why does the TARDIS disintegrate? Why does an unseen force want to lure our friends outside? And what exactly happens when the console spins away through space, Jamie and Zoe hanging on for dear life, arses in the air, leaving the Doctor rotating on the spot?

There are no answers. Sherwin seems to take his cue from the rest of the story, which being set in a fantasy land, gives him carte blanche to do what he likes and keep the explanations few. It’s a kind of narrative free pass – do whatever you like! It’s The Mind Robber, the normal rules don’t apply. It’s the same approach which allows Sherwin and fellow writer Peter Ling to change Jamie’s face when Hines contracts the chicken pox. Both are story saving expediencies born of this story’s dabbling with surrealism.

So in lieu of narrative logic, the writers give us arresting imagery. Don’t worry about what makes sense, worry about what looks cool. The TARDIS exploding and the console spinning through space are two memorable examples, but there’s also Jamie’s rejigged face (Hamish Wilson), Zoe stuck in a glass jar, a forest of letters, a charging unicorn (on another empty black set), the stop motion animation of Medusa’s snaky head, our friends being crushed in a giant book and so on.

This story serves up a continuous stream of surreal images. There’s even a word puzzle in the middle of it, which requires superimposed letters onscreen to make it clear what’s going on. It’s telling that this story has never been released on audio; it’s a story which demands to be seen. Lord knows what we’d have made of it if it hadn’t survived the junkings.

This smorgasbord of surreal imagery helps add to the trippy feel of the thing. It’s not so hard to imagine having a hallucinogenic experience akin to The Mind Robber, where crazy, random images picked out of memories of childhood stories parade past you. But that’s the style of the story, not the story itself. Within the narrative, none of our heroes ever question the reality of what’s going on around them. No one ever asks, “are we dreaming?” None of them question the reality of this world any more than they questioned whether Dulkis or the Space Wheel were real.

So while everything around them suggests this is a bizarre fantasy, the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe never treat this as anything other than a standard Doctor Who story. They cling to their real existence… Which itself is confusing because they are also fictional. When the Doctor starts drawing a line between himself, Jamie and Zoe as being real and Gulliver, Medusa et al as being fictional… Well, it’s so meta it makes my head spin. The Mind Robber? More like The Mind F*cker.

In the end, the thing which has actually stolen a mind is another computer with ideas above its station (see also The Keys of Marinus and The War Machines). It has enslaved a writer from Earth in the 1920s, who has filled this world with copyright-free fictional characters. Why the computer wants to create such a world remains unexplained but don’t worry, it looks cool, right?

As we race to the story’s end, we learn that the computer has plans to invade the Earth, and one of the Troughton era’s familiar themes reasserts itself: the importance of self and of retaining identity. When he hears the full plan, the Doctor’s appalled that humanity will become just like a string of featureless sausages, all the same. And in encouraging Jamie and Zoe to resist the mind control they’ve submitted to, he urges them to “think for yourselves!”.

This then, is the threat of opening your mind up to perception enhancing experiences, as The Mind Robber sees it – that you lower your own mental defences and sinister controlling influences might sneak in. It’s not quite a repudiation of psychedelia, because this story is not quite dealing with it in the first place. But it’s comforting that while Doctor Who flirts with psychedelia, it’s also sending a message to the kids; this might look like fun, but no good is going to come of it, right?

It ends in classic style, with Jamie and Zoe ‘overloading’ the computer by pressing all the buttons all at once (that’s usually how it’s done) and the Doctor rescuing the enslaved writer. They all run onto yet another empty black set and wait for the story to end, as if they’re waiting for a bus to arrive. Somehow it all gets magically put to right. They’re transported back to reality. The TARDIS reassembles. How? Who knows. But it looks cool, right?

LINK TO: Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Well, maybe I’ve been taking the mind altering drugs, but is it too trippy to suggest that the Land of Fiction might be the kids’ lit section of the Library?

NEXT TIME: Dad Shock. We get a lot of it around our place. It’s time to meet The Doctor’s Daughter.

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