...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Day 4591: DOCTOR WHO: The Mind of Evil (in COLOR!)


What strikes me about “The Mind of Evil” is that otherwise perfectly sensible people – Lawrence and Tat in About Time 3, Jack Graham on Shabogan Graffiti, Sandifer on the TARDIS rude room – write long essays trying to explain or taking to task this idea that “evil” is some innate quality or substance in people that the Keller Machine extracts, when self-evidently it does nothing of the sort.

That’s what the Master says it does but... well... he’s the Master!

It’s quite clear that, spoilers, the “machine” is a Mind Parasite that simply, crudely and painfully lobotomises people!

“The Mind of Evil” is, to my mind, second among Jon Pertwee’s stories only to the homely “Dennis Wheatley for a fiver” charms of “The Dæmons”. The second story of Pertwee’s second year as the Doctor, and the second to feature his newly-created arch-enemy: Roger Delgado as The Master.

And this is the story that really cements the Master in the Doctor Who firmament as the classic villain. After a great opening in Robert Holmes’ “Terror of the Autons”, Delgado comes into his suave own here as the Ernst Stavro Blofeld of the series, with a performance better even than in his first story. The plot which links an evil brain-altering machine at Stangmoor Prison, the first World Peace Conference and a nuclear gas missile (sic) called Thunderbolt is, well, faintly ludicrous and couldn’t hold together without him, but he sells us this plot as actually just the sort of thing the Master does, causing havoc on a global or local scale as the whim takes him.

It’s also a transitional story, harking back to the more “hard” (well “hard-ish”) science fiction of Pertwee’s first season while placed within the context of Barry Letts moving the series towards more psychedelic fare such as the story that follows: “The Claws of Axos”, changes that involved dumbing down the Brigadier into a comedy Little Englander and replacing scientist Liz Shaw (lovely Carry John – see the tribute on the new “Spearhead from Space” blu-ray) with rather more dolly-bird “assistant” Jo Grant (played by the irrepressible Katy Manning, who succeeds in being wonderful in spite of the writing).

Don Houghton, writing his second and sadly last Who, follows up the hugely popular “Inferno” with another story that mixes clever ideas and commentary with exciting action sequences (particularly the UNIT raid on the prison) and some nice “Spy-Fi” stuff (thanks to a happy coincidence, Benton gets to play secret agent again, as he did back in “The Invasion”).

As a result, this is about as “gritty” and “realistic” as the Pertwee years ever get (while still having a lead dressed in a purple silk cape and driving a “sprightly yellow roadster”). It’s as near to a Euston films production for children as there will ever be – interestingly, as Alex pointed out to me, thanks to director Tim Coomb making a couple of changes from male to female at casting level and because it was “for children” – i.e. not treating women as “molls” or “victims” – it’s actually got stronger roles for women characters, with them doing “everyday” jobs in two armed forces without anyone passing comment (one gratingly silly remark from Richard Franklin’s gratingly silly Captain Yates aside).

It is often pointed out that the Master’s plan in this story is not entirely sensible: he is, after all, planning to blow up the planet on which he is standing, while stranded without a working TARDIS. Perhaps he’s trying to make himself a new dematerialisation circuit and needs the fusion of a nuclear explosion to create some crucial element (or Slitheen-like wants it for fuel). Mind you, the Doctor’s a bit casual about the working dematerialisation circuit that he took from the Master in “Terror of the Autons” if it can just be picked up by a despatch rider. You’re surprised that the Master hasn’t broken into UNIT HQ and to take it before now. Perhaps he has: defeating ever more complicated safes that the Doctor has prepared for him while failing to realise that the Doctor has outsmarted him by hiding the circuit in plain sight on Liz Shaw’s now-abandoned work bench.

That plot, then, involves trouble with the Chinese delegation when UNIT is tasked to protect the World Peace Conference (while, on the side, being asked to sweep an illegal missile under the proverbial carpet on behalf of the British Government).

The Doctor, however, has taken himself off to Stangmoor Prison because he is more concerned by reports of a new “treatment” for the hardened criminal: the Keller Process of a Professor Emil Keller, in truth – as we shall discover – the Master.

Which brings us back to that “machine”.

Just look at how it works: it stimulates what we might hand-wavily call the “fear centres” of the brain, triggering a terror response and hallucinations to the point where its victims’ higher functions burn out, or they suffer a fatal heart attack or stroke. Do we ever see anyone doing “ooh ooh my brain is being sucked out” acting? No. What we see is “arrgh arrgh it’s in my head!” every time.

Why assume that it “does what it says on the tin” when what it says on the tin was written by the Master?

I mean, he’s lying about his identity as “Professor Emil Keller”, but surely he wouldn’t fib about how his machine works. Aside from the fact that it’s not actually a machine. And it doesn’t work.

That big bank of controls clearly doesn’t “control” it at all, and is probably a big box of lights and dials.

And the Doctor, rude as ever talking over the explanation at the beginning, hears Professor Kettering say what the machine does and interrupts with: “It doesn’t”!

Jack says that the story’s point of view is:
“Crime is something that people with Evil in their heads do, and people like that go to prison. If you're in prison, you're Bad. It's that simple. This is implicit. Also implicit is the assumption that humans are clockwork oranges. Use technology to remove the Evil from the brain and the brain will function properly again.”

While Sandifer has it that:
“...this script is firmly in favor of the Keller Machine... ...Bad people are inherently bad. Good people are justified in what it takes to stop bad people. And it's that simple.”
But this is clearly the point of view of the scientists and prison governors who are shown to be (a) deceived by the Master who has sold them this load of old honk and (b) totally wrong. And they pay for their error with their lives.

“The Mind of Evil” raises these points of view satirically; in order to rubbish them. It is astonishing to me that people seem not to see this.

The story repeatedly makes the point that this belief in whatever it is (bad blood, original sin, genes for criminality) is wrong, indeed is itself “evil”; I mean, the “machine” is literally the monster of this story, how blatantly obvious do they have to make it?

(Perhaps that’s the problem: when the Keller Machine turns out to be a bubbling brain in a jar, everyone starts to take everything very literally. If this was “Buffy” it would be completely obvious that the “monster” is a metaphor for Sixties-style psychiatric electro-chemical mind control being literally “monstrous”.)

The Doctor himself expresses that the process is “evil” even before he sees it in action, and his opinion is confirmed by what he sees it do to prisoner Barnham.

And the whole opening sequence is very deliberately presented to us as an execution.

The condemned man is read his sentence and solemnly taken to the place where it will be done, where witnesses, doctors and priests are in attendance.

Professor Kettering, who will be operating the “machine”, makes a speech about how “Science has abolished the death penalty” – well obviously “science” didn’t abolish the death penalty, though the allusion is clearly to the “scientific advance” of the guillotine. Remember that when this was shown in 1971, it was barely five years after the abolition of the death penalty in Great Britain, and two years before it would be abolished in Northern Ireland.

Everything about showing us this “treatment” as if we’re about to kill a man is saying to us that this “death of personality” is actually worse.

Nor does anyone – or at least anyone who cares; mainly Jo and Dr Summers (Michael Sheard), though the Doctor condescends to express concern when he remembers – think that Barnham has been “cured” or that his brain is functioning “properly” afterwards. Quite the reverse: he is hospitalised and treated as the victim of a serious accident.

Barnham is presented as childlike and innocent, which does not mean “good”. In fact it means “without knowledge of good or evil”. You might – at a pinch – say he’s been returned to the Garden of Eden. But the truth is, this serpent has taken away his free will which is pretty much the Acme of evil in ’Sixties/’Seventies Doctor Who.

Jack’s a good, old-fashioned communist and tries to make out that “this is a classic bit of reactionary Cold War ideology” where “good” Westerners are led by a proper patriarchal figure and women/Chinese/Chinese women represent the threatening “other” while the prisoners in Stangmoor are the “uppity working class” whose revolt needs putting down. Well, I suppose you can if you must, but it does seem to overlook the rather elegant way that the story has the riots in the prison parallel the threatened global conflict – as above so below, perhaps, or that the Master is in a sense goading the planet to violence at every level because he "can't resist pulling the wings off the flies", or perhaps that the threat of World War is as much a petty squabble as the one in the prison. Also, the best way to survive attack by the Keller Machine appears to be: be working class (i.e. Barnham survives but all those nice, middle-class scientists end up dying with improbable physical evidence of their phobias made manifest), while the true villain of the piece is the self-styled Lord and Master.

Sandifer, meanwhile, is keen to play up the racist aspects of the story, trying to tie it to a line between “The Celestial Toymaker” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”. That means having to ignore that the first Chinese Ambassador is actually the first victim of the Mind Parasite, and that his replacement, Fu Peng (Kristopher Kum), is only portrayed as sympathetic, courteous and wise – Nicholas Courtney gamely playing along in making the Brigadier look like a fool for his “Little Englander” attitude.

I’m not saying it’s completely un-dodgy (there’s only one black character and he’s a non-speaking extra as the Master’s chauffeur) but I think you are really overreaching to say that the Chinese are at all depicted as the baddies here. It’s even nice about Chairman Mao (neatly retconned in Big Finish’s “Sympathy for the Devil”).

Certainly, the story is more dubious in its treatment of women, even while giving them positive roles, because there are almost none in it. Blink and you’ll miss Corporal Bell, of course. And Captain Chin Lee (Pik Sen Lim) is the Master’s victim and tool, inexcusably disappearing in the second half of the story (when she should have been “earning redemption” – I use quotes because as a victim of the Master’s hypnosis she doesn’t really need to be redeemed – by participating in bringing the Master’s plan down. I’d suggest incorporating her into the Mike Yate role).

But I do have to disagree with the assertion that Jo is side-lined, which makes me wonder if Sandifer even watched the serial. Katy Manning is magnificent here: generous to Pertwee in their scenes together, and really seizing control when on her own. She single-handedly ends the first prison riot. And she’s the person who shows most resistance to the Mind Parasite, aside from Barnham whose “accident” has somehow rendered him immune.

The monster does get bigger over the story, so the implication is at least there that it does somehow “feed” off its victims. Somehow.

(Though it’s also possible it actually eats electricity – initially from its “control” box and later from the Doctor’s attempt to keep it contained – and just uses its mind powers to murder people.)

Equally, it grows most significantly after its encounters with the two Time Lords, so it may be that it is absorbing knowledge – certainly it doesn’t start teleporting until after rummaging about in the crania of the only two people who might know the secret of space/time travel, so it does appear to be learning something from the folks it messes with – so it may get either sustenance or the ability to sustain itself from the Doctor or the Master’s mind.

But whatever it’s eating it’s not “evil”. If anything, it’s fear.

The Doctor himself admits that he cannot resist the machine – that, in a neat foreshadowing of “Planet of Spiders”, he cannot face his fears. The insight into his greatest fear: the destruction of an alternate Earth that he witnessed in “Inferno” is also nice continuity (and one I’d have liked to see reflected again in “...Spiders” by having the Great One’s cave of crystal be a cave of fire). And in the colour-restored version, we can now see that there are more flames flickering over the infamous “monster parade” from the Part Three cliff-hanger.

So the message of the story – far from being one of original sin – is that the more fearful you are, the more you are likely to be killed by your fears: whether you’re an American Senator whose no-doubt guilty conscience means he goes down like nine-pins where Fu Peng stands up better to the psychic attack, or the vicious gang-leader Mailer (whose “fears” get him in the end by the poetic justice of being shot by the Brig just in the nick). William Marlowe (does that make Delgado Faust?) is terrific as Mailer, easily locking horns with the Master in order to achieve his own agenda, like a kind of anti-Brigadier to the Master’s anti-Doctor (something which makes his end all the more apt).

Barnham’s lobotomised condition renders him without fear (not without “evil”) and so he is immune. And Jo is shown as essentially braver than the Doctor here, as though she has learned and grown following her experience in “Terror of the Autons” – I like to think this is a first step on her path towards resisting the Master in “Frontier in Space” (and again, I should have liked to see Chin Lee leading the way by standing up to the Master here).

It is fear that makes good people think they are justified in doing bad things (like lobotomising prisoners to stop them being violent or anti-social); fear, as it were, is the mind killer, the real mind of evil here.

I have to say that the DVD release comes with my highest recommendation. The traditional fan reading that “Mind of Evil” is “better” in black and white almost certainly doesn’t stand up to seeing the beautifully restored colour – in particular Episode One, thanks to the enormous hard work of Stuart “Babelcolour” Humphryes in hand-colouring many, many key frames and Peter Crocker for computer-interpolating the rest to produce a genuinely astonishing result.

“The Mind of Evil” is not just a great story, but one where everyone involved – in the original production in 1970 and the restoration for the DVD in 2013 – have gone the extra mile to turn out a true classic.
A great way to complete the Pertwee Era’s DVD releases.


Elizabeth Sandifer said...


Rude Room? I think we're all surprisingly civil over there. :)

IZP said...

Sensible stuff, and I think you may have put your finger on it flagging up the concerns re. free will. It looks like it may have a theme Houghton was interested in given the Doctor's erm... interesting 'proof' of free will's existence in Inferno.

Jack Graham said...

Thanks for calling me "otherwise perfectly sensible"! ;-)