Season 6 – Story 45
“I think we may be in a place where nothing is impossible” – the Doctor
An emergency departure from volcanic lava on Dulkis takes the Tardis out of time and space and into a land inhabited only by fictional figures including Gulliver, D’Artagnan and Rapunzel. The characters’ movements are governed by a writer plucked from 1926 England known only as the Master, who is himself controlled by a computer or Master Brain. With Jamie and Zoe in danger of becoming permanent additions to the mythical world, the Master plans to trade places with the Doctor, thus enabling him to escape and the Brain to take over the Earth…
Episode 1 – Saturday 14 September 1968
Episode 2 – Saturday 21 September 1968
Episode 3 – Saturday 28 September 1968
Episode 4 – Saturday 5 October 1968
Episode 5 – Saturday 12 October 1968
Location filming: June 1968 at Harrison’s Rocks, Sussex; Kenley Aerodrome, Croydon
Filming: June 1968 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: June 1968 in TC3 (eps 1 & 2), July 1968 in Lime Grove D (eps 3 & 4) and TC3 (ep 5)
Doctor Who – Patrick Troughton
Jamie McCrimmon – Frazer Hines, Hamish Wilson
Zoe Heriot – Wendy Padbury
The Master – Emrys Jones
Gulliver – Bernard Horsfall
The Karkus – Christopher Robbie
Princess Rapunzel – Christine Pirie
Cyrano – David Cannon
D’Artagnan and Sir Lancelot – John Greenwood
Blackbeard – Gerry Wain
The Medusa – Sue Pulford
Children – Barbara Loft, Sylvestra Le Tozel, Timothy Horton, Christopher Reynolds, David Reynolds, Martin Langley
Redcoat – Philip Ryan
White robots – John Atterbury, Ralph Carrigan, Bill Wiesener, Terry Wright
Clockwork soldiers – Paul Alexander, Ian Hines, Richard Ireson
Writers – Derrick Sherwin (1, uncredited on screen), Peter Ling (2-5)
Incidental music – various library tracks
Designer – Evan Hercules
Script editor – Derrick Sherwin
Producer – Peter Bryant
Director – David Maloney
RT Review by Mark Braxton
A well-established drama series can afford to have a little fun and throw out the rulebook from time to time. And that’s especially true of Doctor Who, about which the show’s first producer Verity Lambert said, “You could do almost anything you wanted.” It’s this very flexibility of format that gives flight to The Mind Robber when it could have sunk like a brick, and makes it one of the great stories.
In an interview for Radio Times, even Wendy Padbury told me, “That particular story was my favourite. It was very different from any other. It was so innovative and I just loved that. It was also quite scary, with toy soldiers, a forest of letters and the puzzles… it was a very interesting idea.”
Crossroads co-creator Peter Ling, who was subcontracted to write the story, suggested the move was something of a gamble by the Doctor Who script department. Perhaps it was, but sometimes a gamble results in the jackpot. What Ling brought to the adventure was an assertion that many fans of soap operas such as Crossroads are unable to separate character from actor – fiction from fact, in other words. It’s a wonderfully empowering premise.
But if the genesis was unusual, the evolution was traumatic. It was a six-part commission, slashed to a four-parter, before a rejigging of the preceding story, The Dominators, freed up an extra episode to be filled. Which is why script editor Derrick Sherwin ended up writing the opening episode of The Mind Robber (no writer was credited on screen for the only time in the programme’s history).
With the budget spent, however, all that remained were a few old props and the cunning of the writer. And despite its brevity, the opener is teasingly odd and unsettling, with its featureless landscape, a spooky pair of doppelganger companions, a genuinely anxious Doctor (“No, Jamie, no!”) and a Tardis disintegrating in the void.
While the remaining episodes are more fanciful and less sinister, the premise that literally anything can happen makes for an artfully unpredictable enterprise, from the pleasing symbolism of a sword turning into a dictionary and the change in Jamie’s facial features (necessitated by Frazer Hines’s chicken pox) to a rare stop-motion outing for the show (the Medusa’s serpentine hair).
[Hamish Wilson briefly taking over the role of Jamie, alongside Patrick Troughton. Photographed by Don Smith, 28 June 1968 at BBC TV Centre, TC3. Copyright Radio Times Archive]
The motley inhabitants of the Land of Fiction are well cast. Emrys Jones makes a suitably potty Master, more than two years before Roger Delgado would be allowed that very title as the Doctor’s fellow Time Lord; Bernard Horsfall, despite a variable accent, cuts a noble Lemuel Gulliver; and fans of 70s children’s serials will recognise a young Sylvestra Le Tozel, who played Helen in the inexplicably terrifying The Boy from Space.
The short, sharp episodes work like a charm, full of variety and Brian Hodgson’s striking sound design (the synthesised crackle and echoing creaks lend delicious foreboding to the White Robots and the toy soldiers respectively).
The humour is delightful, without whacking viewers over the head with it (a curse that made the show excruciating on other occasions). Examples here include Jamie’s exchange with a crestfallen Rapunzel, who tells him, “It’s a pity you’re not a prince: you’d have made rather a good one,” and Patrick Troughton’s magnificent “Sausages!” when telling the Master what his scheme will turn mankind into.
Then there’s Zoe’s tussle with the Karkus, who resembles a onetime opponent of Mick McManus. I keep expecting Kent Walton to introduce their bout with the words “Greetings, grapple fans”. I especially like the bit where Zoe kicks him up the arse. Their fight is such an astonishing event that Troughton looks absolutely dumbfounded, while Wendy Padbury is so out of breath she fluffs her next line.
Perhaps the Doctor isn’t at his brilliant best. Forgetting what Jamie looks like makes the Doctor appear uncharacteristically stupid, as does his volte-face regarding their whereabouts – after telling Jamie and Zoe the emergency unit will take the Tardis out of the space/time dimension, he later says, “Where in time and space am I?” But his climactic duel of wits with the Master – a kind of Neverending Story with freedom as the prize – more than makes up for this.
Probably the worst that can be said of The Mind Robber is that it’s a bit middle-class. In fact, I’m surprised piano lessons and a gymkhana weren’t woven into the plot. After all, not every member of the audience would have identified with such bookish pursuits. I know plenty of people who as children were happier tearing about in the fresh air and getting their knees grazed than pushing their noses into Gulliver’s Travels or the Greek myths.
Nevertheless, The Mind Robber is brave, pioneering, mad television, and all the more praiseworthy for wading through the treacle of adversity to reach the screen.
Radio Times archive material
[Available on BBC DVD]