Wednesday, June 15, 2011

We're All Stories In The End (The Mind Robber)

You mean I could leave Jamie and Zoe behind and just
take you two? As I'll say in about 37 years, fantastic!
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.

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 Power of the Daleks, a story that is about establishing Doctor Who as an unending story.

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, refers to the Master of the Land of Fiction, who has apparently lured the Doctor here in order to get him to run things in the Land of Fiction.

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 (Those links are UK links. American links are available on the pretty spinny wheel on the right of the site) 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.

So let's move beyond that, as we try to do here, and try to find two new things to say about The Mind Robber. First, I want to talk about a particular approach to Doctor Who that The Mind Robber is a particularly key moment in. Let's start by looking at how this story is 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 bizarre surrealism hastily written by script editor Derrick Sherwin to deal with the fact that The Dominators packed it in an episode early.

One consequence of this is 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 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 who the Doctor is - 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.

Doctor Who may use futuristic technology as plot elements regularly, but it's clear looking at it that there are significant moments in the show where it crosses over into being about symbols. We'll look at the earliest example later, but it extends to the present day. Moffat's first season on the show is a prime example. Look at the depiction of the Weeping Angels in 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 I've got to leave myself some points for when I actually get to those episodes in the blog.)

The Mind Robber, then, is a landmark in this approach to the show. (And I should note that this approach to the show is by far the one I am most interested in) For one thing, it makes it 100% 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. Specifically the Doctor, who he has apparently plucked from the universe and lured here for the task. This is an active plan on the part of the Land of Fiction itself - that the Doctor should run it.

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?

The clue is in episode two, in which Gulliver makes a comment that the Doctor is a traitor to the Land of Fiction. What on Earth could that possibly mean? (Yes, like all of Gulliver's lines, it's actually from Swift, 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 it seems to me given the rest of the story there's more reason to), the Doctor must hail from the Land of Fiction. 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 episode, 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. 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 avoid the explosion of the Land of Fiction. 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. 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.

In other words, 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 dig 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, later in this season, this shadow theme of The Mind Robber gets done as the main plot of two episodes. Because the Land of Fiction is outside of the universe, and because the Doctor fled it 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, outside of the Land of Fiction, he is something else 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. 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, 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.

Have you seen The Mind Robber yet? It's out on DVD in both the US and UK. When you buy from those links, I become steadily less fictional. Oh, OK, I really just make a small amount of money, but that's cool too!

19 comments:

  1. And thus, in the span of a few paragraphs, Sandifer somehow, magically, impossibly, and quite probably through the use of alchemy, made The Mind Robber even more brain-exploding than it was before.

    Superb job managing to say something new about one of those stories everyone (understandably and rightly) talks to death.

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  2. I'll be interested to know what you make of the EDA, The Scarlet Empress, in relation to this theory when and if you reach it. Especially the Propp reference.

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  3. So presumably the Doctor creates the Time Lords (as they exist in the real universe) in his own image. At first they are just a dark reflection of the Doctor's own character, e.g. the Meddling Monk. But after revisiting the Land of Fiction and being reminded anew why he fled such a stultifying museum, he remakes them as far more malevolent beings. Who brilliantly go on to enslave him, having now taken on an independent existence.

    So with that in mind the Doctor's principled opposition to his own people isn't mere rebellion, but an active struggle against a race whose deeds he is in some measure responsible for. And thus his role in the Time War is remade before our eyes.

    This is a "things will never be the same again" essay on a par with the central premise of The Doctor's Wife - brilliant. I don't know if I regard it as "true", or "canon", but I don't think I'll be able to look at the show quite the same way again.

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  4. What a brilliant interpretation! This fits with some of the ideas in Lawrence Miles' Faction Paradox stuff.

    And there I was going with Steve Lyons statement in Conundrum that the Land of Fiction was created by the Gods of Ragnorak.

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  5. This is a great essay, and I hate to pick at a small aside, but...what revolution in Cuba are you referring to?

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  6. Brilliant essay. You really did manage to say something new about this story, which I agree is the high point of Pat Troughton's era.

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  7. Ah. That would be the revolution in Cuba that was actually in Panama. Whoops.

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  8. Superb work sir!

    I have to satisfy my curiosity: is the moment you realised this reading of Doctor Who the moment you decided to write this blog, the moment you decided to get a PHD in Media Studies, or just a thing that has evolved in the process of writing this blog?

    How long have you been sitting on this idea?

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  9. Also:

    "The Pandorica! That's the just a fairy tale."
    "Aren't we all?"

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  10. Well, that is just really, really lovely, and a *brilliant* reason why the Doctor is "far more than just another Time Lord"!

    I like it a lot. A much better "origin" for the character than all that tedious, reductive rubbish about being at school with the Master, etc.

    Any chance of you being Showrunner when Mr Moffat hangs up his pen?

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  11. Your amazing insights here have inspired me to write my own alchemy-flavored post for a popular sci-fi property.

    http://chisafist.blogspot.com/2011/06/luke-skywalker-alchemist-star-wars.html

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  12. I love the first episode, but the conceit of the actual story (and the horribly grotesque art design) really throws me off. I know I am in the minority here, but it isn't a classic to me.

    I do like the essey here. I can see what you mean and had it in mind as I watched it the other night. I just can't get to the point of loving it. It's like that ugly plastic doll in Terror of the Autons ... (of which to come.)

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  13. The Doctor controls the horizontal! The Doctor controls the vertical!

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  14. I just recently re-watched "The Mind Robber" and I wanted to agree wholeheartedly that it is a markedly brilliant piece of work all the way round and that your reading of it is just as profound. This is as good an origin story for the Doctor as any we get later on, as far as I'm concerned.

    That being said, and admittedly having read a great deal of your work out of order, I am curious as to whether you're planning to reconcile this reading of the Doctor with what we later get (or were going to get anyway) from the Cartmel Masterplan, which is what I had previously taken aspects of as to form my personal conception of the Doctor's origin.

    I'd also be really interested to see you elaborate on some themes you touched on in your review of "The Time Travelers" and your earlier assertion in the piece on "The Chase" that there can be no stories set prior to "An Unearthly Child" especially in light of what you've helped bring to the table here.

    A pleasure to read as always!

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  15. Just delurking to express how much I love this essay, even in comparison with your usual high standards. Bravo, Sir!

    I've been reading people's reviews on Doctor Who for a long time, many of them genuinely thought-provoking. But truly original thoughts such as these are such a joy to read.

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  16. I've finally (I know!) gotten around to actually sitting through all of The Mind Robber in order, after having seen only parts of it in the past. I'd resisted it for years, for reasons not worth explaining here, but it turned out to be every bit as charming and enjoyable as I'd heard.

    The same is true of this post. I finally see where this idea of the Doctor has sprung from, why it's so compelling, and how vividly it serves so many stories in every era of the show. It's almost enough to shake me from my "Time Lords are just extraordinary aliens" tree. :)

    The differences between the Doctor and Dream of the Endless are, under this theory, extremely slim, of course. Dream even regenerates. And what does it actually mean for the Land of Fiction to explode?

    I doubt anyone is still reading comments on this entry. Maybe not even you. But I just wanted to add to the kudos: this is a brilliant insight.

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  17. That is far, far too much to hang on the word 'traitor'.

    The Mind Robber is certainly a good quality outing, but apart from that one word you've grabbed from another character - 'traitor' - there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the Doctor has been in the Land of Fiction before. He doesn't recognise the place. If this was his origin, he'd know where he was. He doesn't. At which point, your whole essay collapses. Sorry about that.

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  18. Just beautiful and series-defining. Well done.

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  19. I watched this again the other day. The Doctor is cagey and scared in Episode One, but surprised to find he is in a world of words; he's not especially worried that he might be executed for treason, and the Master says to the controlling 'computer' that the Doctor was the 'right choice' to take over. So I think while this doesn't quite fit with the idea of the Doctor being (consciously) the true Master of the Land of Fiction, it certainly does fit with him having some special relationship with it. The threat in Episode One perhaps comes from the unknown quantity of what happens to the TARDIS if it lands outside of the story, indeed, without an author or a plot (the answer seeming to be blankness and generic robots from another SF show - literally from Out of the Unknown). The threat in the remaining episodes perhaps is not so much that the TARDIS crew will be turned into fiction, but that their stories will end, and be closed into the book (Land) of finished stories. When that land explodes, the TARDIS closes back into its natural form, the box in which stories can be found, forever.

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