Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Lose



STORY 045 : THE MIND ROBBER

Isn't that a beautiful sight? I think it's the most beautiful sight in the history of Doctor Who. It comes at the end of Episode One of The Mind Robber, which I believe is one of the most inventive and surreal episodes in the entire history of Doctor Who (classic and NuWho), certainly the most surreal out of the five-part story. The story itself is quite clever, inventive, and unique of the entire run of the show, and The Mind Robber is if nothing else, the most surreal Doctor Who stories to come down the pipe in a long time.  I think I'm being too subtle: The Mind Robber may be the weirdest Doctor Who story ever, and certainly Episode One is the single most bizarre episode the series has ever had.   In short, The Mind Robber is just flat-out weird, but it's in its inventiveness, particularly in how it managed to incorporate production problems, that oddly lift The Mind Robber to being one of the trippiest stories in the Who canon.

Having barely escaped Dulkis, the Doctor (Patrick Troughton), and his Companions Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) are taken out of reality itself.  They are being menaced by some unknown force that tempts them outside into nothingness.  Episode One culminates into the unthinkable: the TARDIS is destroyed, and the passengers scattered: the Doctor whisked away while a horrified Jamie and Zoe hold on to dear life to the TARDIS console.


After that, the group is separated.  The world they are in is a bizarre world, one filled with wordplay and puns.  A stranger comes across the Doctor, speaking curious phrases.  A group of children then harass the Doctor, at one point asking him what can one make out of a sword.  The Doctor figures,"S-W-O-R-D, you can make WORDS", and the children instantly cheer and out comes a dictionary.

However, not all is going so well.  As part of this mysterious world, Jamie's face has been altered to be a puzzle.  The Doctor attempts to put it together but gets it wrong, coming up with a new Jamie (Hamish Wilson).  The Doctor and Jamie II continue searching for Zoe, who had fallen after entering a castle.  To get her out, the Doctor and Jamie are presented a riddle of sorts.  They come up to the same door Zoe had walked across, but find that it's painted.

A puzzled Jamie asks how this is possible.  "When is a door not a door?" he says.  The Doctor quickly figures...a door is not a door when it's a-jar, and instantly we see Zoe is trapped within a jar, but is equally confused to find Jamie II rather than her Jamie.  This world, they discover, is one where words are literally all around them: they are trapped within a forest of proverbs (a literal Book of Proverbs, so to speak).

Eventually, the Doctor, Zoe, and Jamies II and I (the Doctor getting another crack at putting him together and getting it right) find that this world with characters like Gulliver (Bernard Horsfall), Rapunzel (Christine Pirie) and toy soldiers is ruled over by The Master of The Land of Fiction (Emrys Jones).  He is a writer from Earth who was spirited away to this world, where he has continued to create.  However, he won't last forever, and believes the Doctor will make a perfect replacement.  The Doctor refuses, and Jamie and Zoe binds them in a book...literally.

Using his wits, some characters of his own, including one from Zoe's youth, the comic strip character the Karkus (Christopher Robbie), the Doctor is able to overwhelm the computer, free the writer, and we end The Mind Robber with the TARDIS restored but unsure of whether everyone would be.

As I rewatched The Mind Robber, I was continuously amazed at not just how well the story holds up or even at how clever and creative it was (although I was by all that).  What really impressed me was that The Mind Robber's production crew managed to incorporate every difficulty they faced and seamless place it in the story.

Gratuitous Shot...


The first problem The Mind Robber faced was the addition of a fifth episode.  The previous story was intended to have six episodes, but it was becoming so muddled and boring that a whole episode was cut.  That left a gap that had to be filled in.  Derrick Sherwin, the script editor, was basically forced to put an episode together at the last minute, but given the overall weird nature of The Mind Robber, the viewer never notices that Episode One was never part of the overall serial.

The inclusion of a fifth episode also forced the production crew to keep things as low-cost as possible.  Again, The Mind Robber accomplishes great work: the bizarre goings-on, coupled with great acting by the three principals (and great screaming from Padbury) heightens the weirdness and surrealism of Episode One.  The culmination of that episode is seeing the TARDIS broken up and the crew holding on for dear life, and everything building up to this shocking cliffhanger (one of the best in Who's history) flows brilliantly from what came before.

Once we get into Peter Ling's story proper, it becomes a witty satire of the difficulties of continuously writing stories and commentary on how literary creations, once off the page, do literally take on a life of their own.  As I stated earlier, The Mind Robber has a great deal of wit with the use of puns and fictional characters and continuous bits of wit and whimsy (such as having a forest made out of letters). 

However, Ling has to be given enormous credit in how he is able to tie in all the unexplained weirdness into a logical story.  Almost every part of The Mind Robber works and makes sense, even when it might not have.

One of the best things to help The Mind Robber is when Frazer Hines was suddenly taken with chickenpox and forced to withdraw for a week.  How could one explain Jamie's disappearance from an episode when it had been written months earlier to include him?  Characters disappearing from Doctor Who was nothing new (whenever one of the cast was scheduled to take a holiday they had simply been written out of that particular episode) but in this case, Jamie HAD to be involved. 

Ling and director David Maloney (who was making his Who directing debut but would go on to helm other stories, among them some that are considered the best of the series) came up with another great idea.  Since this mysterious universe was one of puzzles and puns, why not have Jamie disintegrate and the Doctor forced to put him together again?  This concept not only blended in brilliantly but allowed for a quick recasting of Jamie without interrupting the flow.

Hamish Wilson obviously did not look or sound like Frazer Hines, but the story works so well, and Wilson is so good, that we soon forget that while we're not watching the traditional Jamie we are watching THE Jamie.  In fact, when Hines returns in Episode Three, it did make me sad to see Jamie II go.  I wonder what would have happened if Wilson had been allowed to stay on, not permanently in the role of Jamie, but at least for one or two more episodes.  No disrespect to Hines, but Wilson did a marvelous job filling in, and it seems almost a shame to see him go. 

It is understandable that Hines would return as soon as he was well, but Wilson was brilliant in his one episode to where we were not bothered or even took great notice that the regular Jamie wasn't there.  As far as the viewer was concerned, given the bizarre nature of The Mind Robber, for all intents and purposes Jamie was very much with us. 

Troughton and Padbury are equally in fine form, the Doctor mixing his trademark humor with moments of calm and fear.  As far as Padbury, her Zoe is bright but now we are allowed moments where she is genuinely frightened, and also she does have one of the best screams of a Who Girl, especially in this scene...

It's Iconic...


Jones' performance of The Master (not to be confused with the Time Lord known as The Master...he comes much later) was in turn comic and menacing, but appropriately so.  We saw that he wasn't evil, but as much trapped in the machine as its owner. 

Side note: has anyone else gotten the sense that The Mind Robber had elements which would later appear in The Matrix (the idea of a giant machine controlling people's minds for domination)?  Just a thought. 

The special effects don't look dated and are actually still a bit frightening, in particular when Medusa comes to life in Episode Three.  Her snakes and her coming towards Zoe and the Doctor is still remarkably effective and beautifully shot, as are the scenes in Episode One when we see all the weird happenings to Zoe and Jamie.

One might have noticed I wrote that almost every part of The Mind Robber works, but some things, if one thinks about them logically, don't make sense.  For example, how could this Master of the Land possibly know about a cartoon strip written long after his time (unless the computer controlling him fed him information from all time)?  Also, the actual source of the writer's control was very vague and its idea of using the writer and the Doctor's mind to conquer Earth seemed almost to be put there to give a touch of science-fiction to a story that didn't need it.  The Computer seems almost shoehorned in to give a reason for the mayhem.

Now, while I found the Karkus a bit exaggerated (with the inexplicable German accent not helping matters), I never felt the story dragged and didn't notice that the episodes were growing shorter (Episode Five clocks in at 18 minutes, the shortest in Doctor Who's history...would that Closing Time have been as short or shorter, but I digress).  The overall story flows so well that I never noticed issues of length, and the cliffhanger into the next story similarly flows so well that it does want us to know what happens next.

Padbury has expressed discontent over the fight sequence between her and the Karkus, and while it's not the best fight scene I've seen it hardly is as bad as Padbury believes.

Finally, a little issue I had with The Master is that the habit of his voice shifting from pleasant to harsh is far too reminiscent of The Abominable Snowmen: how Padmasambhava (the disguise for the Great Intelligence) similarly shifted from kindly to evil at the turn of a dime.  I doubt it was intentional, but it is similar.

Minus those little bits,  The Mind Robber is one of the wittiest Doctor Who stories, one that delved into the surreal possibilities of a show that was not bound to a particular time or place (or even reality itself).  It was a great experiment that succeeded, but which alas they rarely if ever went back to.  The series post-Mind Robber has pretty much stayed in science-fiction with occasional jabs at historic or history-based stories.  I don't think it has gone and dealt with the fantasy elements the show lends itself too.  All more the pity, as even now the possibilities that The Mind Robber explored and accomplished are not being explored.  Still, fortunately for us The Mind Robber still exists in its entirety, so some great things did survive.       

This would be the perfect time and place to mark the best end to a Doctor Who review...



10/10

Next Story: The Invasion

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Real Man on the Moon

1930-2012
In Day of the Moon Part 2 (Day of the Moon), the defeat of the Silence was greatly due to the world's attention being focused on the lunar landing.  Today at Gallifrey Exile, we pay tribute to the first man to ever walk on the Moon: Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong can truly be called a hero because he did not seek fame or fortune, and even when it came to him, he kept true to himself.  It is highly unlikely that Armstrong would ever have agreed to appear in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (unlike his more bon vivant Apollo 11 companion Buzz Aldrin) where the latter legitimized the bizarre plot of the film. 

Instead, Armstrong kept to himself, rarely granting interviews and continuing to work and live away from the spotlight.  He managed a remarkable feat, and I don't mean being the first human to ever walk on the Moon.  Armstrong remained famous throughout his entire life, but never yielded to fame.  He kept his privacy.  He never felt the need to share his views on the world or things outside of it.

The curious thing is that Americans universally respected his right to stay in the shadows.  If the moon landing had happened today, one would imagine the constant barrage of the paparazzi would be around him.  His every move would be chronicled: what he ate, what he wore, what he thought, whom he slept with.

Today, people both important and not willingly present themselves for the world to 'marvel' at (although I hold people merely laugh at them).  Ryan Lochte won gold and silver medals in London, and now has got it into his water-soaked head that he can be an actor and fashion designer.  I imagine he will force his attention on the world for some time, even though the world (and in particular the United States) really doesn't care about Mr. Lochte.  We don't even need to go over the sad story of both the Kardashian/Jenner clan and those who are 'fans' of vapid people who have done nothing to earn their notoriety save for allowing cameras to capture every moment (public and private) for others to see.

All those who have received fame for vulgarity and foolish behavior provide a clean porn for the rest of us: they get their jollies from seeing people humiliate themselves for our entertainment.

That was not the case with Neil Armstrong.  He kept his clothes on, and kept to himself.  Once he finished his job, he went home.  He was no Charles Foster Kane, reclusively hiding in his own Xanadu.  Armstrong just had a proper perspective on life: there is more to life than making history.  We should take this as Armstrong's final example: once we have accomplished a great thing, be it winning a gold medal or the lottery or discovering a new cure, one should say, 'Thank you for your kind words and applause, but I've got a life outside the spotlight and I'm going back to it.'

Of course, he accomplished a great thing for himself and for his country, but Armstrong always kept his dignity, and Americans responded by according him all due respect while moving on with the country's business.  Both the nation and the man were content to be consigned to history books.

Doctor Who is about a man who travels through time and space.  Neil Armstrong is a man who has travelled through space, who walked on the moon, and who, once returned to Earth, kept himself there both physically and mentally.  Now, Neil Armstrong is free to touch the stars once more.

Respectfully dimming the Eye of Harmony to a true icon: Neil Armstrong.   


In Memoriam

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Bit Quarky For Our Tastes


STORY 044: THE DOMINATORS

One must never, ever, try to write a Doctor Who story with merchandising in mind.  The sad saga of the Cybermen comes to mind.  Now, the Cybermen on their own work quite well, but almost always whenever their 'pets'/marketing prop the Cybermats pop up, in particular in such stories as Revenge of the Cybermen or Closing Time, it looks cheap and idiotic (and in the case of the latter, having the story partially take place in a toy shop makes it all the more obscene).  The Dominators, likewise, faces similar issues.  On greater inspection, The Dominators has some potential good ideas behind it.  If only it weren't for those damn Quarks...

The Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his Companions Jamie (Frazer Hines) and straight from the previous story The Wheel in Space, Zoe Hariot (Wendy Padbury), arrive on the planet Dulkis.  This world, the Doctor insists, will make for a nice holiday.  It's a peaceful planet where war has been outlawed and all their weapons are in a museum on an island.  The island they've landed on was the location of a nuclear test, and students are taken there every year as a warning against the evils of war. 

Of course, this being Doctor Who (pre-River Song) Dulkis obviously is not a the planet the Doctor cracks it up to be.  There is a great mystery involving the island: as the site of the nuclear test it should be highly radioactive, but when the TARDIS crew, the annual scientific Dulcian crew and renegade Dulcians arrive, they are astounded to find there is none.  What could be the cause of radioactivity suddenly disappearing?

The answer is pretty obvious: they are the titled Dominators, Conquerors of Ten Galaxies, who now have their eyes set on Dulkis, or rather, this island.  The radioactivity and thin crust of the island is perfect for their nefarious scheme.  First, we've got to get through a great deal of plot exposition.

First, we learn that the Dulcians are now complete pacifists and would not take arms or fight under any circumstances.  Second, they have great pride in their lack of curiosity.  Only the Director's son Cully (Arthur Cox) shows any curiosity or imagination.  In fact, it was his scheme to ferry people for secret expeditions to the island that brought about the discovery of the Dominators and their robots, the Quarks.  Third, being pacifists the Dulcian leadership simply does not know how to handle the growing crisis (which they've spent at least three out of the five episodes refusing to even consider possible because they haven't seen the Dominators or Quarks).  Fourth, we know that the Dominators are the ones taking the radioactivity as part of a refueling to help their fleet conquer yet another galaxy.

While they think of using the Dulcians as slave labor, they find that they are remarkably passive and weak, so they decide to destroy their world.  With Jamie and Cully leading attacks on the Quarks, the Doctor finds a way to neutralize them and save Dulkis.  Unfortunately, his method involves creating volcanic eruptions, and the TARDIS and its crew are right down the lava's route...

As I stated, The Dominators has some good ideas kicking around it, primarily the conflict that should occur when a pacifist society comes upon an aggressive force.  In Episode Three the Director of Emergencies, Tensa (Brian Cant) makes a good point: there are three choices the Dulcians can take.  THey can fight, they can submit, or they can flee.  IF this concept had been explored, The Dominators might have been saved. 

The story by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln (under the pseudonym of Norman Ashby) could have been taken in the direction of what happens in and to a society that is so passive that it no longer can fight; the pseudonym was adopted after script editor Derrick Sherwin and producer Peter Bryant made one too many changes to The Dominators for Haisman and Lincoln's liking.  We can't judge how good or bad their original concept for The Dominators was.  We can only judge what we have, and as such we have some really bad results of too many people interfering.    

However, this idea of the pacifists taking a stand is something we've seen before.  Curiously, this was explored in of all places Skaro, the world of the Daleks.  Like the Dulcians, the Thals were a remarkably peaceful people, but in The Daleks, at least by the end they actually found that their pacifism was in itself the main weapon against them and that they had to fight if they wished to survive.  The Dulcians, on the other hand, were so pathetic both in their response to the crisis and in their inability to think of a way out that one almost thinks the Dominators would be doing them a favor.  The Dulcians in short don't seem to mind that they are either the Dominators' prisoners or slaves.  They really don't have any real reactions to it.

It might be because they have learned to accept facts as the truth (the Dominators are taking over, it's a fact, it must be the truth) but since they have no imagination about the worlds outside their own or for their own survival one wonders why anyone (audience included) should care that they have been overtaken?

As a side note, while the Dulcians were being used to move rocks around, I kept wondering why they didn't simply chuck those rocks at the inept Quarks and run away?  It's not like the Quarks were in any position to run after them, and those rocks could have simply knocked them out.  Silly Dulcians...

Conversely, the Dominators themselves (of which we see only two) act as if they managed to conquer ten galaxies merely by stomping about and boring their subjects into submission.  Navigator Rago (Ronald Allen) and Probationer Toba (Kenneth Ives) spend all five episodes fighting with each other (Toba always destroying things, Rago telling him he's stupid for doing such things and going on about the importance of drilling) that one wonders exactly why the Dominators would send these two morons to lead the conquest of Dulkis.

Going on this topic, one wonders just how stupid the Dominators are.  Apparently, their intense study of the planet only focused on that one island on Dulkis.  Apparently, they were unaware that there was a whole other part full of people that were so docile they were useless as slaves.  One would have thought it might have been a good idea to conquer the capital and, once whatever opposition was suppressed, move on to take the radioactivity.  That, however, was not the Dominator way.  The Dominator way was to basically ignore the fact that beyond the island was an entire civilization that might, in theory, cause them problems. 

These Dominators really are incredibly stupid.

Not as stupid as the Quarks.  If the Dulcians are the pale versions of the Thals, the Quarks are the low-rent version of the Daleks.   Everything about them is stupid: their voices (supplied by Sheila Grant) make them curiously both sometimes unintelligible and sound like someone is forcing a little girl to speak into a voice modulator.  Their method of recharging is apparently is to give themselves hugs.  Whenever their arms go out to destroy something, you think how odd that one arm is higher than the other.  You also wonder how they manage to keep their balance.

You can't make a menace out of something cuddly, and the Quarks are if nothing else almost cute.  The fact that The Dominators tries so hard to make them dangerous makes them even more endearing.  Thoroughly useless and stupid as monsters, but endearing nonetheless.   

The Dominators is almost doomed from the beginning because Episode One gives so much exposionary dialogue delivered in an unrealistic manner that one never focuses on the story it's trying to tell.  Instead, we're crammed with so much backstory by the characters telling each other things they should already know (but which is being told for our benefit) that it all rings false.  After that, one is waiting to see which of the three groups (the Dominators, the Dulcians, or the Quarks) will be the most inept. 


If all that weren't enough to doom The Dominators, Martin Baugh's costumes brought the whole project down into being a sheer disaster.  The costumes for the Dulcians looked like something Benny Hill would have rejected as too silly.  Especially awful was Cully's outfit, which looked like a little girl's poor attempt at taking her mother's curtains and making a dress out of it.  Poor Cully was running around in a curtain, trying to defeat these cuddly creatures.

As if to show the Dominators themselves to be the mirror opposites of the Dulcians, they stomp about with these ENORMOUS shoulder pads that would have made Joan Crawford jealous, and these trousers that seemed to be made out of paper-mache.  The whole thing was embarrassing and only leads to unintentional laughter. 

One thing that The Dominators touches on is that the Dulcians have "great brains and two hearts".  Granted, the idea that The Doctor and the Time Lords also have two hearts wasn't established when The Dominators was released, but given that the binary coronary system is now established canon, it leaves us with an intriguing question...

Are the Dulcians distant relations to the Time Lords?  Both are suppose to be great brains, and both have two hearts.  Is it mere coincidence that both civilizations eventually became atrophied?   This is something that might be explored in fan-fiction, but it is a curious thing, no?

Morris Barry did one of the worst directing jobs on Doctor Who, with the Dominators being one-note and the Dulcians likewise showing no evolution or interest.  Everyone looked like they were bored with The Dominators, not believing a moment of it. 

The Dominators have villains that weren't interesting, monsters that were more laughable than menacing,  beings who proved hopelessly inept at any action pro or con, and at five episodes it was about two too long.  The original idea was to make this another six episode story, but fortunately there was a snap decision to cut it down by one.  Even with the oddly-numbered amount of episodes The Dominators is too long and if not one of the worst Second Doctor stories, perhaps one of the worst Doctor Who stories, period. 

In short, the only thing The Dominators will ever dominate is the Worst-Of Doctor Who Lists.

Damn Stupid Things...


2/10

Next Story: The Mind Robber