Monday, January 10, 2011

A Story Is a Dangerous Thing (Review of Doctor Who: The Mind Robber)

Let's not encounter fiction casually. A good story can be a matter of life and death.

This is the lesson we learn from the Doctor Who serial "The Mind Robber," in which the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) uses the Tardis's emergency unit to pull the Tardis out of the approaching path of a lava flow. The Doctor's companions--the Scotsman Jamie McCrimmon (Frazier Hines) and the young genius Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury)--relax, despite the Doctor's warning that the emergency unit has evacuated them to a non-place, a void that exists nowhere in time and space, outside the confines of any known universe.

This non-place evolves from a white void into a realm of stories, which begins with Jamie and Zoe being lured from the Tardis by visions of their homelands. Though his young companions are easily compelled outside the time machine's safety, the Doctor resists the strange, telepathic strength of an unknown force--until, that is, he must exit the Tardis in order to save the hasty Scotsman and the over-analytical Zoe.

This Second Doctor story is rife with what we might expect from the early years of Doctor Who--the Doctor's cleverness saving his companions, a foreign world, a bit of techno-babble, and Patrick Troughton's characteristic playfulness. But this story makes itself unique; across five episodes, this 1968 serial treads on some pretty postmodern territory.

For starters, the non-place that the Tardis arrives in is blank. White. An unmarked page. Once the Doctor and his companions are lured away from the Tardis, though, they begin traveling through a realm where a forest is composed of jagged, printed letters; a world in which Lemuel Gulliver travels and provides the Doctor with random tidbits, all quoted straight from Swift's iconic novel; a land with caverns through which the horrors of Greek mythology wander; and a rugged terrain where past stories--along with future tales not yet written--mingle and encounter the Doctor.

Confronting characters such as the Minotaur and Medusa, the Doctor must teach his companions that these are fictions--creations--which are real only if we allow them to be real. All the while, a sinister force attempts to write the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe, eternally into this world of mingling fictions.

So there we go--not only do we have fictional characters meeting up with the Doctor in an impossible realm, we also have an unlikely conflict between two author-figures: The Doctor, and the controller of this strange realm. But if the Doctor loses out, he and his companions will become text--nothing but ink under the controller's command, nothing but words to be interpreted by somebody else.

The narrative structure of "The Mind Robber" isn't unlike our own adventures in reading. We begin with white space, move on to words, and then encounter a range of characters. But we also have stories to tell ourselves, and what we believe can influence our lives. And through this all, the Doctor guides us to an understanding that we, even when surrounded by stories, have to maintain some storytelling agency of our own in order to survive.

Overall, I'd suggest looking into "The Mind Robber" if you're a fan of the original run of Doctor Who, or if you even have an interest in all the fun postmodern play of stories building into stories building into stories.


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