Doctor Who: The Mind Robber Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 2 release of The Mind Robber, a surreal Doctor Who serial from 1968 starring Patrick Troughton. The DVD is up to the usual standards and this time includes an appearance from Basil Brush!

There are only six Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serials existing complete in the BBC’s archives, and two of those (The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Seeds of Death) have already been released on DVD. Of the remainder, The Dominators and The Krotons are pretty small beer. The War Games, for all its importance to the show, is a ten-parter which will need a two-disc release and judging by the quality of the BBC’s previous video release a good deal of restoration as well. So for this year’s Troughton it’s no surprise that The Mind Robber has been selected.

Doctor Who as originally conceived went either up or down the timeline, into the future or the past. But every so often it went “sideways”. The earlier Hartnell-era story The Celestial Toymaker was one, and it does resemble the present story in quite a few ways. We begin with the cliffhanger from the previous serial, The Dominators, where the TARDIS is threatened with being engulfed by lava. The Doctor is forced to use the TARDIS Emergency Unit, which takes them out of normal space and time and into the Land of Fiction, inhabited by characters from literature past and present and presided over by a sinister Master (Emrys Jones)…

The second story of Season Six (the final Troughton season), The Mind Robber had a troubled genesis. It was originally intended as a six-parter, but that was too long for the material, and Peter Ling (better known as the co-creator of Crossroads) delivered a four-part serial. Meanwhile, script editor Derrick Sherwin rewrote the preceding story, The Dominators, from six episodes to five, resulting in the writers taking their names off it. This left one spare episode, which Sherwin wrote himself. This became Episode 1 of The Mind Robber and is the only episode in the series’ history without an on-screen writing credit. As there was no extra budget for this episode, it only featured the three regulars, the TARDIS set, a white cyclorama, and some robots that had been previously used on an Out of the Unknown episode. This caused some protest from Troughton, who objected to the increased pressure of the three regulars having to carry an entire episode. (This resulted in some shortening of the episodes: the first two are under twenty-two minutes, the last three under 20. Episode 5, at exactly 18 minutes, is the shortest Doctor Who episode of them all.) And if that wasn’t enough, Frazer Hines succumbed to chicken pox, which resulted in swift rewrites so that Jamie’s face changed for a couple of episodes, into Hamish Wilson’s. (And his accent became noticeably more Glaswegian, but we won’t go into that.)

The Mind Robber is one of the most surreal Doctor Who stories, which sticks in the memory, and repays rewatching, despite not working very well in many conventional ways. You can see how Peter Ling’s idea wouldn’t stretch beyond four short episodes (in total running time, this five-parter equals one normal-length four-parter). The characters from fiction, most notably a Gulliver (Bernard Horsfall) who speaks mostly lines from Jonathan Swift’s book, tend to appear and interact with the Doctor and his companions then go their way again. There are threats from the robots, some clockwork soldiers and the Medusa, but it’s quite soon that the Doctor is face to face with the Master (not to be confused with his Time Lord adversary from the 70s onwards). The end is very sudden, and not all that satisfactory. On the other hand there is the quality of imagination on display and some wit (Rapunzel, on being asked if her hair can be used to climb down from her castle: “Why not, everyone else does”) and it’s fast moving. The three regulars are on fine form, and Zoe’s sparkly catsuit imprinted itself on a generation of young male minds. But it’s certainly very enjoyable – maybe not the most essential Troughton, but as so few survive complete we should be glad that this one does.

As ever with 60s Who, the original videotapes (which had progressed to 625-line monochrome by this time) were wiped long ago, and the serial survives as 16mm film recordings. The fifth episode exists as a 35mm transmission print. The picture quality is very good, though there are occasional limitations due to the source material: some “noise” around sharp edges and a net-curtain effect (especially noticeable over the Episode 1 caption). There is also some grain, especially in darker-lit scenes. However, it’s certainly an advance on the VHS copy that I’d previously seen this story on. Ins ome ways it’s perhaps too good, in that you can see the edges of the cyclorama that makes up the white void. The aspect ratio is the correct 4:3. Anyone wanting further details on the restoration is, as ever, referred here.

There are no problems with the soundtrack, which is a professional job of work from the BBC technicians. Dialogue and sound effects are well balanced. There is no specially-composed incidental music: half of the stories in Series Six have none, presumably due to budgetary constraints.

There are subtitles for the feature and extras, plus the ever-useful information subtitles, this time provided by Martin Wiggins. Due to the shorter episode lengths, there are fewer chapter stops this time, four per episode. The DVD is encoded for Regions 2 and 4. Incidentally, The Mind Robber itself carries a U certificate; the extras up the overall rating to PG.

The main extra is an audio commentary, this time involving Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, David Maloney and Hamish Wilson. The last-named turns up around the same time as he does on screen, and continues after he departs the serial. But mostly it’s the other three’s show and there’s a genuine rapport between them and some interesting anecdotes come out of it.

“The Fact of Fiction: The Making of The Mind Robber” (34:58) is an efficient run-through, with the interviewees being shot against an appropriate white background. Derrick Sherwin begins with how he and future script editor Terrance Dicks knew Peter Ling from Crossroads, often spending train journeys to Birmingham together. Given that Ling spent most of his career in soaps (Compact as well as Crossroads), it’s a pity that he didn’t do more work in SF/fantasy, based on his work here. There was talk of him doing another Doctor Who, but it never happened. The interviewees are most of those still alive, with Bernard Horsfall being the principal exception: as well as the commentary participants they include Ling, Christopher Robbie (who plays The Karkus) and designer Evan Hercules. The only real drawback is that much of this inevitably duplicates material already in the commentary and the information subtitles. Peter Ling is hardly a regular on the Who convention circuit, so it’s nice to see his input here.

“Highlander – The Jamie McCrimmon story” (22:30) interviews Frazer Hines in his home. He talks through how he was cast – he learned partway through his first serial, The Highlanders, that he was to continue as a regular. We learn a lot about his rapport with Patrick Troughton and later companions Deborah Watling and Wendy Padbury, plus his returns in the role in The Five Doctors and The Two Doctors. It’s a pleasant, if maybe rather bland watch: most Who fans won’t learn much new here.

Back in the 1970s, BBC1 pretty much owned Saturday night, frequently gaining eight-digit viewer figures which TV companies would kill for nowadays. Much of the time, Doctor Who was scheduled in between The Basil Brush Show and The Generation Game. So those kind folks at the Restoration Team bring you…Basil Brush. This sketch (10:27) actually dates from 1975, when Pyramids of Mars was the current Who serial, but it’s included on this DVD as the sketch features a Second Doctor adversary, namely a Yeti in genuine costume. I loved this show at the time, so it’s good to see that it’s still amusing thirty years later…and there’s some innuendo that flew over my head at the age of eleven. Boom boom!

The extras are completed by the usual self-navigating stills gallery (6:53). To play the Easter egg, click left from “Episode Selection” on the main menu. You’ll find 2:06 of BBC2 continuity announcements from a 1992 repeat showing of The Mind Robber. And just for once, The Fugitive or The Virginian is not on the other side…

The Mind Robber is not a typical Doctor Who story, made even more singular by being one of the few Troughtons to survive in its entirety. It shows the series at its most fantastical and surreal, and that will be recommendation enough for most fans.


Updated: Mar 16, 2005

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