On 'The Mind Robber'. A regurgitation of something originally buried in the middle of an old post.
1. The Review
Just one of the best things ever, this story is a gloriously trippy metafictional journey into Doctor Who's own status as a text.
'Robber' picks up the Troughton era handbook for writers, stamps on it,
scrawls insulting and anarchistic slogans upon its pages, rips it up and
sets fire to the pieces. There is no isolated base, no croaky computer,
no catalgue of disposable characters who are laser-beamed to death, no
unstable authority figure, no creeping infiltration, no standard fight
sequence for Jamie, no scene where someone goes into a bonkers tirade
and storms out of a control centre... instead we have a deeply trippy
ride through sheer weirdness; a totally unpredictable variation of
content, style and pace from episode to episode; an intelligently
created elllision of symbolism and literalism; a classic surreal quest
narrative drawing on Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland yet beholden to neither.
The Doctor and his friends leave their universe and enter a non-spatial,
non-temporal buffer zone... and this buffer zone is a world of fiction.
An empty nothingness until imagination works upon it, it soon fills
with robots and unicorns and princesses and forests of words.
They've landed in a metaphysical space instead of a physical one, and
the threats they encounter are metaphysical too - they run the risk of
being translated into other identities, of losing their faces, of being
turned into bit players in other people's stories, of being made into
fiction themselves (which, as this story constantly reminds us by
constantly saying the opposite, they already are).
They are stalked by the ultimate variety of faceless, functional, baddie
goons: toy soldiers. As if to swipe at the mechanical nature of so much
scriptwriting, these goons have got dirty great wind-up keys sticking
out of their backs. In this story, the ultimate threat is to become the
functional plaything of the desperate hack writer. The soldiers not only
hunt our heroes, they also represent what our heroes are threatened
with (both literally and figuratively): being clockwork cyphers who just
'go' when the lazy writer winds them up and sets them off.
And this is the central threat, even of the somewhat contrived
Earth-invasion plot that surfaces towards the end. Mankind would become
fiction. Ironically enough, via the creative imagination, we'd all be
stripped of our free will. We'd be crushed inside the pages of a book by
a domineering Master Brain that controls even the writer with a
stentorian bark that is channelled through his own mouth. That's what it
would be like to be a character in someone else's book, or a fact
pushed around by someone else's editor, or a mortal pushed around by a
god (which is exactly what a writer looks like from the point-of-view of
This is Doctor Who investigating its own nature as part
imagineering stream-of-consciousness fantasy, part lumbering and
mechanical genre hack-work. This is Doctor Who investigating its
own origins in myth and legend, in children's fiction and historical
romance, in satire and allegory. The Doctor wanders around in a
pseudo-Narnia. The Doctor solves the kinds of puzzles to be found in
kid's annuals. The Doctor becomes Perseus. The Doctor co-writes a
face-off between a succession of heroes and villains who are part
historical reality and part fictional confabulation (Blackbeard, Cyrano,
etc). And the Doctor meets Gulliver.
It cannot be an accident that Gulliver is one of the Doctor's own
antecedents in fiction: a restless traveller who finds himself banked on
foreign shores where he encounters strange people and uncanny creatures
representing human foibles and political follies. Swift's story is
often mistaken for pure escapism for kids, but is packed with the
bitterest and darkest satirical comments on human politics and
behaviour... very much like Doctor Who, though ironically enough not for most of the Troughton era up until this point.
Perhaps, above all, the thing to admire most about 'Robber' is that it
triumphantly makes the best of its behind-the-scenes problems. An extra
episode needed at the last minute? Just get Derrick to write a new
Episode 1 featuring only the regular cast! Result? One of the most
unusual and sinister openings of the show's history. Frazer's got the
lurgy? No trouble, just write a temporary change of actor into the
script! Result? One of the most amusing, memorable and strangely
unsettling events ever depicted by the series.
Now that, we must surely all agree, is the sheerest of sheer class.
2. The Attempt at Marxist Analysis
It occurs to me that 'The Mind Robber' can also be read as being about
aliention and reification in the Marxist senses of those words.
The Master of the Land of Fiction is clearly offering the Doctor a job
when he asks him to take his place. He even refers to it as a
"responsible position". He (the Master) is clearly the servant or
employee of the Master Brain. He was also a paid employee of Ensign
magazine, churning out thousands and thousands of words for them to
print and sell. In other words, he was (and still is) a worker. He
toiled to produce a product, was paid a wage and (presumably) watched as
others pocketed the profits. Whatever the Master Brain (and the power
it represents) gets out of running the Land of Fiction, the Master
clearly doesn't see any of the coin.
You can argue about whether writing stories constitutes "socially
necessary labour" (I'd say that it does, personally... human culture is
in many ways based on stories and it's pretty clear that we need them in
order to be fully human... they're part of what the young Marx called
our "species-being"... which is something that the Land of Fiction
implies by its very existence) but clearly the Master spends much more
time than he really needs to churning out all those words. His labour
creates a surplus which is pocketed by the publishers... or a profit of
some kind that is taken by the Master Brain.
Moreover, the necessities of the market demanded that he write a certain
type of story, commercial adventure stories which may not really
express his full creativity. (Certainly, the story as a whole strongly
hints at a feeling that trite adventures involving handy swords and
with-one-bound-he-was-free endings are highly unsatisfactory. It hints
at this in an ironic and self-aware way, as it must.) Similarly, in the
Land, the Master tries to construct a story about the Doctor and his
friends that pleases the power he serves... a story that the Doctor
resists being a part of, partly by rejecting handy swords.
On Earth, his stories would have risen up to confront him as a vast
block of printed type, as piles of magazines, as things outside of
himself or his control... that's what happens when workers make things
under capitalism. They are not expressions of his creativity exercised
for its own sake; they are not the produce of an unexploited person and a
free producer... unless the person happens to be lucky enough to be a
financially independent artist or something like that. Similarly, the
work he does in the Land is not an expression of his unalienated
self-expression. He works for the Master Brain and works to produce the
effects it desires. (You could almost see the Master Brain as a
personification - thus a reification, in the Marxist sense - of the
market itself, which is so often treated or spoken of as a kind of
infallible god which should be allowed to rule society for our own
In short, the Master fits (broadly) the Marxist picture of the worker
who is alienated from his species-being and from the products of his
He is clearly a slave to the Master Brain. As such, he's really as
menaced by the Land of Fiction as the Doctor. He is confronted by
products of human intellectual labour in the form of books, characters
from books, characters from folklore (the telling and retelling of
legends is a human production as much as anything else), wind-up
soldiers, etc. In the Land, words (themselves human productions)
confront humans as things outside of human control, as trees and
forests. Books - commodities produced by labour - attack and threaten to
swallow you. If that isn't a way of depicting alienation, of humans
estranged and menaced by the products of their own labour, then I don't
know what is.
Capitalism materialises the labour of humans into commodities with
use-values and exchange values (i.e. books and magazines), thus reifying
human labour time. The Land of Fiction takes it further, continuing the
process of reification until the characters (themselves commodities and
products of labour) are fully materialised, to the point where they
walk about and speak for themselves. Again, alienation is depicted when
the product of human labour materialised in the form of the Karkus
attacks the Doctor and Zoe.
Alienation appears in another way when Zoe and Jamie are "turned into
fiction" and appear before the Doctor as blank, empty cyphers who get
stuck in the grooves of their dialogue. They've been alienated from
their human nature by being made into a commodity (fiction being a
commodity, remember). They start behaving like stuck records, like
people on an assembly line suffering from line hypnosis.
All this might seem like a helluva stretch... but you have to bear in
mind that all the books alluded to, all the legends invoked, all the
proverbs cited, all the characters who appear in the story... they're
all products of human labour of one form or another.