❉ Kara Dennison reviews The Mind Robber, the latest in Obverse Books’ Black Archive series putting individual Doctor Who serials under the microscope.
I’ve said it before elsewhere and I’ll say it again: The Black Archive is exactly what the Doctor Who fandom needed at exactly the right time.
In an age when opinion travel fast and anger travels faster, it’s extremely difficult to find or engage in thoughtful discussion of the series. It’s even more difficult with regards to 20th-century Who, where commentary tends to fall within one of two extremes: either the story is held to standards that didn’t (or, in the case of budget, couldn’t) exist at the time of production, or the story is considered immune to critique Because Classic Who.
Taking on The Mind Robber was clearly a challenge, and you only need to get a few paragraphs into Andrew Hickey’s book to see why: besides being a surreal, metafictional piece focused on fictional characters and the concept of free will, it was fraught with production problems – everything from budget cuts to chickenpox. But Hickey’s take on this Patrick Troughton serial chooses to address these issues not only in the context of production notes, but also as concerns their relevance to the theme of the serial itself.
It’s important to note that each volume of The Black Archive stands alone: while they are linked stylistically, they don’t all set out with the same mission statement. Some volumes address whether or not a story succeeded at doing what it set out to do; others cover a wide variety of topics addressed to the fans’ view of it. In this case, the serial is broken down to its most basic elements – its characters, actors, and crew members – and then examined one piece at a time. Yes, there is time taken to address fan theories or ‘problematic’ elements (there’s an entire section on that shot of Zoe on the console and why in the world it would be there), but primarily it is an examination of the whole via the sum of its parts.
Additionally, it looks at the story as a part of a whole: that is, its place in the Second Doctor’s run, in what was still quite a young show (well, young for a show that’s currently 53 years old), and how its structure differentiated from its surrounding stories. A knowledge of the Second Doctor era isn’t necessary to appreciate this, beyond knowing that there was a Second Doctor era. Everything, or at least as much as is needed for an appreciation of why The Mind Robber was so different by the show’s standards at the time, is presented in its own section. Though, as with the rest of the Black Archive books, it’s best digested with a rewatch – or first watch.
For non-Brit, this book is especially enlightening, as a few of the fictional characters included in The Mind Robber are based on books that aren’t quite as broadly known in other countries. Too, there are other references scattered throughout the story that would be known to a family of 1960s England, but lost on modern-day and/or foreign audiences. The work that went into pinpointing all these characters and sources, including ones we already know but could always use more context for, is impressive. And note is made not only of which imported fictional characters the demographic of the time would know, but how and why, giving us as close as we can to a chance at a contemporary view of the story.
Best of all, the aforementioned concept – how elements of production actually mirror the theme of the story – allow Hickey to talk about them in a way that is neither critical nor overly ‘fannish.’ It is what it is; Doctor Who has never not had issues with production, and they were even more pronounced in the early days. It’s a fun, benign way of looking at it: ‘Yes, this happened and affected the resulting TV episodes, but isn’t it sort of neat that this all feeds into each other?’
If you’re picking this up on its own, with no prior exposure to The Black Archive, it might feel a bit short. But these are, as a rule, slim volumes, and there’s no padding or spinning-out to be had. Hickey’s writing isn’t sparse or dry, but it gets the job done quickly and cleanly while still holding the reader’s interest. For a New Who fan delving into the early days of Classic, it could serve as a comforting metaphorical hand to hold… especially if said New Who fan is going as hard as The Mind Robber right out of the gate. And for long-time fans, it’s all sorts of interesting new insight that we might not have had access to otherwise.
❉ The Black Archive #7: The Mind Robber by Andrew Hickey is out now from Obverse Books
❉ Kara Dennison is a writer, illustrator, self confessed geek and convention organizer.