This is the first in (hopefully) a series of posts in which I review classic Doctor Who stories, because that sort of thing's my bag, baby. These will have no semblance of chronological order whatsoever, since so much has yet to be released on DVD, I don't currently have a VCR hooked up anywhere in the house, and if I subject myself to that many William Hartnell stories right out of the starting gate, I'll never want to continue (sorry, Bill). And so, The Mind Robber.
TARDIS Crew: Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines, but also Hamish Wilson!), Zoe Heriot (the adorable Wendy Padbury)
The Plot: The TARDIS is right in the path of an oncoming volcanic lava flow and yet again isn't working properly, making a hasty escape impossible. As a last resort, the Doctor transports the TARDIS to a white, formless void outside of time, space, and reality itself. Jamie and Zoe are lured out into the void, since companions never stay put when their told, and the Doctor must follow them out into the expanse, which develops into a surreal landscape where the forests form giant words, fictional characters are real, bizarre puzzles impede your progress, and the rule of the Master (not that one) is enforced by giant toy soldiers and White Robots. The Land of Fiction's Master lures people there in the hopes of finding a mind capable of replacing his own so that his work may continue long after he's gone, and he thinks the Doctor might finally be the person he's been seeking.
The Thoughts: The low, low budgets for classic Who, as my wife is so fond of pointing out, tend to make everything look pretty cheap, and that's especially true for this story. And for once, that's actually a strength. The Land of Fiction is a place where stories come to life, and from the look of things, mostly the sort of stories that would appeal to children - adventure stories, fairy tales, Greek mythology, comic strips, etc. (it's geared this way because Doctor Who is, of course, a family program, but still) - so the obvious matte paintings, backdrops, and flimsy sets that give the land the look of a matinee children's theatre performance (or a low-budget TV show) make sense within the confines of the story. So if Troughton has to steady the wobbly letter-tree while Hines climbs it, or if the muscle suit of Germanic super-hero The Karkus is hilariously unconvincing, for once you don't have to write it off as "well, that's just part of the charm of the show, isn't it?"
That's not to say they didn't spend what money they had wisely, though. The Master's lair, for being a generic computer consoled control room, is at least as good as any of the TARDIS sets of the era. And the tin soldiers and White Robots patrolling the grounds look convincingly like giant toys, and are all the more menacing from it. The sound of their clanking footsteps, which can be heard from quite a ways off, inspires a little bit of genuine dread in what is otherwise a pretty goofy story.
Okay, probably a very goofy story. Instead of Daleks or Cybermen or Zygons or whatever, our heroes are instead faced with the likes of Lemuel Gulliver, a pack of riddle-spouting Victorian children, creatures of myth, and the afore-mentioned ridiculous German super-hero. British soldiers wander about with guns capable of turning people into faceless cardboard cut-outs. And Rapunzel doesn't mind people using her hair to climb up or down whatever obstacle needs traversing, but she does wish they wouldn't tug so hard. So yeah, not your typical Who serial, even considering at this point we're only a few years removed from the obviously-people-in-bad-insect-suits Zarbi.
But the cast is clearly having fun, with Patrick Troughton especially getting to shine. If William
Hartnell was the grandfather, Troughton was the uncle that children love best, the one who knows all the good songs, games, and stories. He riddles with the children, he frets and fusses over his companions (as well as laugh at them when the situation gets too ridiculous not to), and he meets the Master's challenges with his patented mix of panic and righteous indignation. In short, this whole story is Troughton 101: Intro to Second Doctor Studies. I might like Tomb of the Cybermen better as a story, but of the existing Troughton material I've seen, I think this is his best performance in the role. His reactions to reconstructing faceless cardboard Jamie's face incorrectly (leading to an entire episode of Jamie being played by Hamish Wilson instead of Frazer Hines) and being later called on the mistake by Zoe are priceless.
Overall: Admittedly, there aren't a lot of complete Troughton stories out there for you to see, sadly, but I'm very happy that this is one of the ones that survived, as it is somehow both atypical of the series and an effective encapsulation of this era of the show thanks to the performances of the leads. Check your brain at the door and enjoy.
A final word about Wendy Padbury: Sigh... Wendy Padbury was so cute, wasn't she? A lot of the, um, let's say affection I have for bookish girls is due to seeing Wendy's portrayal of Zoe on PBS Doctor Who reruns as a kid, since she basically invented "future librarian chic."
They managed to saddle her with some terrible costumes, though, all in the name of being "futuristic." The bubble wrap & tights she wore in her brief appearance in The Five Doctors is probably the worst of all, but some of what she wore during her time as a series regular wasn't much better.
But that being said, you'll get no complaints on the sparkly catsuit out of me.