In this second volume of collected and expanded posts from the popular blog TARDIS Eruditorum offers a critical history of the Patrick Troughton era of Doctor Who. Steadily tracking the developing story of Doctor Who from its beginning to the present day, TARDIS Eruditorum pushes beyond received fan wisdom and dogma to understand the story of Doctor Who as the story of an entire line of mystical, avant-garde, and radical culture in Great Britain: a show that is genuinely about everything that has ever happened, and everything that ever will.
This volume focuses on Doctor Who’s intersection with psychedelic Britain and with the radical leftist counterculture of the late 1960s, exploring its connections with James Bond, social realism, dropping acid, and overthrowing the government. Along, of course, with scads of monsters, the introduction of UNIT, and the Land of Fiction itself.
"Philip Sandifer does it again with an in-depth, retrospective examination of Doctor Who and the cultural context of the late 1960s in the Patrick Troughton era, reviewing past stories, some of which were once considered unimportant or too important, with a new eye as to how the story/narrative devices were actually clever or not so clever."–Reader Review
"Absolutely fascinating, and hugely persuasive. I wished I'd read this before tackling the story in Running Through Corridors!"–Rob Shearman
"He has some really serious and fascinating points to make about how television was made and viewed back in the 1960s, while all we do is bicker about the length of Barbara’s skirts."–Neil Perryman
It’s September 14, 1968. In our traditional sign of some sort of restoration of order, The Beatles are at number one with “Hey Jude.” They are unseated two weeks later by a signing to their own record label, Mary Hopkin, a British folk singer, who holds the number one slot with “Those Were the Days” for the remainder of this story. The Bee Gees, The Beach Boys, and Johnny Nash all also chart. As do Amen Corner with “High in the Sky,” a song I’ve not heard of, but that lingers around at number ten for an absolutely terrifyingly long time and so seemed worth commenting on.
In news that doesn’t sing, the Apollo missions get closer and closer to the moon with their first manned launch, Apollo 7. The merger between General Electric Company (no relation to the American company General Electric) and English Electric is the biggest merger in UK history. There’s a lovely revolution in Panama. And, most significantly, in the one major bit of 1968 catastrophe to hit the UK, rioting breaks out following a civil rights march in Derry, leading to the twenty years of tension and terrorism between the UK and Ireland known as The Troubles.
While on television we have, thankfully, the exact story we needed after the grotesque train wreck that was The Dominators. The Mind Robber is a thing of absolute beauty. If The Dominators was the complete breakdown of all heart, soul, and ethics in the series, The Mind Robber is, more even than The Power of the Daleks, a story that is about establishing Doctor Who as an unending story. It’s a story that is not just delightful to watch, but a story that watching gives one a constant, triumphant sense of right—a sense that this is how and what Doctor Who was always supposed to be.
Even the basic idea has a delightful sense of properness. The basic idea is that, following a TARDIS malfunction, the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe get caught in the Land of Fiction, a realm in which stories are real. The title, which is admittedly intensely marginal with relation to the rest, refers to the Master of the Land of Fiction, who has apparently lured the Doctor there in order to get him to run things.
Much has been made of many of the obvious aspects of this story. The intertextuality, the degree to which this represents Doctor Who acknowledging a longstanding debt to a tradition of British children’s literature, the pleasant and inventive surrealism—all of these are well-worn topics that you can see covered in almost any book on the series. Even if you go for criticism from third generation fandom—things like Running Through Corridors or About Time—most of what you get are acknowledgments of how brilliant this story is. And it is absolutely brilliant—a story with more creativity, and more of a sense of joy than anything else in the Troughton era.
But that’s all been said well enough. So let’s, as we try to do here, find some new things to say about The Mind Robber. First, I want to talk about a specific approach to Doctor Who that The Mind Robber is a particularly key moment in. Because for all the seeming radicalness of this story, it’s considerably less of a departure from past stories than one might think. The most obvious place to look towards this is its first episode—a charming piece of surrealism hastily written by script editor Derrick Sherwin to deal with the fact that The Dominators packed it in an episode early and thus that The Mind Robber needed to expand from its original four-episode conception. This was enormously fortunate for the story. The four episodes of The Mind Robber that were originally intended are delightful, but the addition of a real avant-garde piece at the head that serves as a more dramatic break from what had come before. (The story is one that benefits from a couple moments of odd luck. The sudden illness of Frazer Hines which required his being replaced by his cousin Hamish Wilson for two episodes resulted in a wonderfully disturbing sequence in which the Doctor tries to assemble Jamie’s lost face from a set of cut-outs and gets it wrong, temporarily giving Jamie a new face. There is relatively little of the Troughton era that I remember watching as a child, but that scene stuck vividly with me.)
But ironically, the addition of a self-consciously weird episode meant that the story got more grounded in the past of the program as well. Sherwin ended up doing an episode whose sets consisted of the TARDIS and a white void. This meant a lot of TARDIS material, and at this point in the series the TARDIS was largely David Whitaker’s baby. Which means that the David Whitaker-style conception of the TARDIS makes an unexpected appearance in a non-Whitaker story. The first episode involves mercury fluid links, sticky switches, bizarre TARDIS control mechanisms, and other classic elements of Whitaker science. We’ve talked about the nature of Whitaker’s alchemical conception of the series before, most notably in The Evil of the Daleks entry, but it’s worth reiterating the basics. The biggest one is that in alchemy, the symbol and the object are considered to be interchangeable. Furthermore, the Doctor and the TARDIS are clearly associated with mercury, one of the most powerful elemental symbols. (Alchemy as a spiritual practice paid great heed to a syncresis of Hermes and Thoth called Hermes Trismegistus.)
The reappearance of the mercury links, in other words, is not just a callback to The Wheel in Space. It’s also an invocation of a specific view of the Doctor’s identity—one in which one of the most important things to know is that symbols have real power. There’s a longstanding debate about Doctor Who as to whether it is really science fiction, or if it’s better classified as some form of fantasy. Miles and Wood go to great lengths to arbitrate this, coming up with one of the best distinctions between science fiction and fantasy I’ve ever seen. Science fiction, they argue, is about man’s relationship with his tools, whereas fantasy is about man’s relationship with symbols and language.
Whatever its scientific trappings, under this definition it’s fairly clear that Doctor Who’s sympathies lie more with fantasy, as it’s shot through with discussions of symbols. We’ll look at the earliest example later, but it extends to the present day. Steven Moffat’s first season on the show is a prime example. Look at the depiction of the Weeping Angels in The Time of Angels. The idea that “an image of an Angel is itself an Angel” makes no sense as a concept extending from any science. It’s purely an alchemical concept—the idea that symbols of the Angels are equivalent to the beings themselves. This is made clearest in one of the most overlooked, creepy lines in the entire series. “What if our thoughts could think for themselves? What if our dreams no longer needed us? When these things occur and are held to be true, the time will be upon us. The time of Angels.” In other words, the Angels arose because they were thought of. They stepped out of our dreams and into the world. They are not science, but magic through and through. They are symbols with power. In other words, they are direct evolutions of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who. (The resolution of The Big Bang takes this even further, in particular the monologue I lifted this entry title from, but that’s a topic for another book.)
This is, as is surely clear to anyone who has read this book thus far, the approach to the show that I love most. And The Mind Robber is a landmark story in this regard. For one thing, it makes it one hundred percent canonical in the world of Doctor Who that ideas are real. There is a Land of Fiction where things that were created in people’s minds have real form. That’s a big deal in and of itself. But if we look more closely at The Mind Robber, its implications for Doctor Who at large become even bigger.
Let’s go back to the Master of the Land of Fiction’s plan. He wants the Doctor to take over running the Land of Fiction, and has apparently plucked him from the universe and lured him there for the task. Why? This is actually a very good question. The incumbent Master of the Land of Fiction is a writer of a pulp schoolboy serial (and, Miles and Wood argue, a thinly veiled Charles Hamilton, though the veil here is at least thicker than the last thinly veiled thing related to Hamilton). It’s made clear that it’s his creativity and ability to write that holds the thing together. So why on Earth would the Land of Fiction want to sack its writer-Master in favor of the Doctor, a character who has never displayed any particular literary ambition, and who has thus far been coded as a scientist, not an artist?
The clue is in the second episode, in which Gulliver makes a comment that the Doctor is a traitor to the Land of Fiction. What on Earth could that possibly mean? On one level, it’s transparent. Like all of Gulliver’s lines, it’s actually from Jonathan Swift himself. But we are, I think, meant to assume that what he says is true, if oddly phrased. The obvious answer is that the Doctor is originally from the Land of Fiction. In fact, if we take Gulliver’s line at face value (and there is admittedly some reason not to, though I think the overall tone of the story suggests that Gulliver is essentially honest, even if the constraint on his dialogue makes him hard to follow at times), the Doctor must hail from the Land of Fiction. After all, you cannot be a traitor to a land you are not from.
Virtually everything in the episode seems to confirm this. For instance, Jamie stumbles upon a ticker tape that is actively creating the adventures of the Doctor and Zoe as they happen. (This leads to the one muffed moment of the story, in which the Doctor and Zoe are menaced by Medusa as Jamie reads about it on ticker tape. The cliffhanger shot is the Doctor and Zoe, when, from a modern perspective, it’s clear that the far more bizarrely chilling moment would be to cut back to Jamie and have him read out loud about their horrible fate, then cut to credits.) Or, perhaps more significantly, Jamie and Zoe are at one point made fictional, and the Doctor at one point frets that if he writes himself into the story directly he’ll become fictional.
Let’s say that again to really stress the weirdness of it. The primary threat in this story is that the characters will become fictional. This is, of course, a brilliant use of existential horror and one of the highlights of the story. But thinking about that from a remotely human perspective, it does not actually make any sense. It’s impossible to imagine how someone could ever “become fictional.” The only way in which a person can meaningfully be threatened by fictionality is if they are already a character in a story. In other words, if they are already in some sense fictional and what is going on is not “becoming fiction” but rather “losing realness.” After all, the story does establish that fictional characters cannot be destroyed, and at the end, for no explained reason, the Doctor and company survive when the Land of Fiction is destroyed. Why would this be?
The simplest explanation of all of this is that, on some level, the Doctor has always been a part of the Land of Fiction—intended to be its master and controller. And that he escaped. Thematically, this makes sense. Going back to Whitaker’s conception of the TARDIS, if we look at how the ship is explained in An Unearthly Child, one of the most unusual things about it is that the Doctor explains the TARDIS via the metaphor of television. This recurs in The Time Meddler, where the Doctor describes some controls to Steven, all of which are recognizable as television controls. And in The Chase, where what kicks off the destabilization of the narrative is the threat that the Doctor might trade in the TARDIS for watching stuff on television. Indeed, the opening credits of the show are done with a technique called howlaround that is based on exploiting and manipulating the technical limits of television signals. And Miles and Wood write several times about how Troughton’s Doctor often peers out of television screens, both in the story (as when he appears on a monitor in The Wheel in Space) and outside of it, when he looks at the camera itself. And when he looks out, he appears aware of what he is looking at, a consequence of his tendency to play the character from the marginal spaces at the edges of scenes to begin with so that his power is not diminished by his lack of physical presence. The sense is that the Doctor can cross the thin membrane that separates the world behind the screen from the world in front of it.
In other words, since day one the Doctor has been a character who appears to harness the basic power of television. And he has consistently used this power in order to tell stories. He appears to be someone who can create an infinite number of stories. He has, in other words, always fulfilled the role of the Master of the Land of Fiction, except instead of writing stories by sitting on the sidelines he writes them mercurially—by throwing himself into them and creating them through his own existence in them.
Put simply, months before The War Games, The Mind Robber has quietly given us an origin story for the Doctor that is almost, but not quite, what we eventually get from the later “official” version. (After all, it is not as though no writer in the first six years had a guess on where the Doctor came from. If I could conjure up David Whitaker and ask him one question, in fact, it would be what he thought the Doctor’s origin was.) The Doctor fled from a position of responsibility, stole a spaceship (or, in this case, storytelling medium), and ran off to have adventures. Except that instead of being a Time Lord from Gallifrey, he is the designated Master of the Land of Fiction—the writer and creator of all stories. And he’s gone on the run to live the stories instead of simply writing them.
Notably, this never quite gets contradicted, even when this shadow theme of The Mind Robber gets revisited as the main plot of the final two episodes of the season. Because the Land of Fiction is outside of the universe, and because the Doctor fled into the universe, he presumably became “real” instead of just fictional. And thus he became something else that served much of the same narrative function; instead of a wanderer in the dimension of narrative, he is a wanderer in the dimension of time. The Time Lords, with their “look but don’t touch” ethos and distance from the world, are a fair enough metaphor for the Land of Fiction itself. So the fact that he is something else outside of the Land of Fiction is hardly an issue.
In fact, it’s to be expected. After all, we navigate time, internally, through memory and stories, through our minds, which are, of course, far bigger on the inside than the mere lump of grey matter they appear to be externally. What is a Lord of Time if not the master of all things that have happened, and thus of all metaphors and stories? Except, of course, the Doctor storms out, rejecting his people. Why? Because the Time Lords are far too narrow-minded. They are masters only of the stories that have happened. They cannot interfere and create new stories. And the Doctor is a Lord of all stories, whether real or imagined.
But more important than the fact that this theory can survive almost any canon challenge thrown at it is the fact that it makes sense beyond mere continuity. What defines Doctor Who is the fact that its story never has to end. That any story worth telling can be told as a Doctor Who story, and that there is no upper bound to the number of Doctor Who stories that can be told. Of course the Doctor is the destined and designated Master of the Land of Fiction. Who else possibly could be? What other person in the universe, real or imaginary, could possibly have the job of telling every story that ever was?
And that’s the genius of The Mind Robber. It comes at one of the series’ darkest moments—when its formula seems tired, its very ethics seem to be flagging, and when the entire cultural and ideological foundation for it appears to be crumbling the world over. And right in that moment, we get explicit confirmation of something that previously we had only hoped for and suspected. That Doctor Who is an idea that cannot be brought to an end. That there is always another story. Not just because of the flexibility of the premise or because the series has gone on long enough that it’s a cultural institution that is always going to be revisited as long as we have well enough recorded history to remember that it ever existed. No. Because the Doctor is every single story there ever was and ever could be, escaped out into the universe, and running loose bringing them into being.
This is, quite frankly, as powerful an idea as has ever been thought of in fiction. An idea that is far larger than fits in any one person’s imagination, even if that imagination is bigger on the inside. Something that, quite apart from anyone’s efforts to define it and create it, has taken on a life of its own. A symbol that has real power. A thought that has begun thinking for itself. A dream that no longer needs anyone but itself to dream it.
What if, in 1963, these things did occur? What if we held them to be true?
There are, after all, truths beyond mere canon.