1986: Doctor Who - Looking Back At MINDWARP

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Tony has his mind rewritten. 


If the Trial of a Time Lord season was attempting to win back viewers turned off by the violence in Colin Baker’s first season, it’s hard to explain Mindwarp on almost any level.

That said, Philip Martin and Sil were absolutely guaranteed to be offered a return engagement - Vengeance On Varos was one of two genuine hits of Season 22, establishing Sil and the species of which he was a member, the sluglike Mentors, as the first Sixth Doctor-specific villain that had the chops to stand up to some of the Classic villains – it was surely irresistible to the Production Team to bring them back and see what they did next.

What they did next was deliver a story of unparalleled grimness, unreliable narrators, medical experimentation, brain manipulation, and ultimately the violation and death of a female companion – at least partly due to the Doctor’s bad decisions. Mindwarp is shocking on many levels, without having a clearly visible political and economic moral to underpin the shock, as Varos had. Its mood is alien, above all. From the whacky visual effects, including green skies and pink seas, to the weird and never entirely successful aliens, like the Raak and the Posicar ambassador, which add a surreally unconvincing, almost school nativity dimension to the otherwise gritty unpleasantness of events on Thoros Beta, this is a million light years from the ‘romping with savages’ fun of The Mysterious Planet. More to the point, the Doctor’s behaviour as we see it, whether he’s been affected by Crozier’s machinery or whether the evidence has been altered by the Valeyard, is alien to us. His interrogation of Peri, his exposure of her when she’s in hiding, his convincing siding with Sil, his giving away advice that will make the Mentors richer, and his collaboration with Crozier on the terrifying brain manipulation and transfer machinery, all present the Sixth Doctor as absolutely the antithesis of the knight errant with whom both fans and casual viewers were familiar, and if you were watching for the first time in a few years, and happened to catch Mindwarp, you could be forgiven for thinking that Doctor Who wasn’t the programme you remembered at all, and potentially not tuning in any more.


As is almost a given when dealing with Philip Martin, what Mindwarp has is ambition, bravery and an almost scary degree of foresight which isn’t recognisable as foresight at the time of transmission. If you look hard enough, there is also a message there – while The Mysterious Planet was essentially knockabout fun with savages, Tube-dwellers and stupid robots, Mindwarp is an attempt to bring some real, insidious darkness to the business of the trial – if we can be sure that the evidence against us is fair and balanced, we’d all like to think we’d come out of a trial free and clear. But if the evidence has been corrupted by some shadowy authority figures, if the truth isn’t the truth, or if at least we can’t be sure it is, then the notion of being on trial for our lives becomes infinitely more frightening, and Mindwarp certainly advances the overarching plot that uses the trial to set the Doctor up as a patsy for High Council duplicity. It also forces us to ask uncomfortable questions about the value we put on life, and makes us question the ethical basis on which commercial interests fund research into medical advances. If you really push the quest for meaning when watching Mindwarp, it can make you deeply uncomfortable about medical science as a whole – Crozier’s experiments would have been of enormous, far-reaching benefit to plenty of (presumably extremely rich) clients throughout the cosmos, and an earthling like Peri would be a small price to pay to perfect the procedure. So it makes you ponder the ethics of scale – would we stop medical testing on mice if they stood up and screamed at us in a language we could understand, or are all advances necessarily made at the cost of less ‘valuable’ lives?

As we say, there’s ambition and bravery in Martin’s script, and for one of those very rare occasions in Who, he presents us with an enemy capable of taking the life of a companion of the Doctor’s. But unlike Katarina, who sacrifices herself, and Sara Kingdom, who dies fighting, and even Adric, who dashes back onto the space freighter in Earthshock, convinced he has the answer than can prevent a cataclysm, Peri dies strapped down to a table, screaming, silenced by gags and violated, her head shaven, her personality surgically erased and then replaced with that of the master of her tormentors. It’s by far the most shocking death of any companion in Who history, and when she sits up and speaks the thoughts of Kiv, Lord of the Mentors, it’s enough to send a shudder down the spine. But more than that – whether it’s Martin’s intention in the writing, or the Valeyard’s intention within the story to distort the image we have of the Doctor, Peri’s horrible death makes us question the role model that the Doctor has always been. More than any of the quipping or the hands-on murder of people who would, given half a chance, have killed him too, the alien behaviour we see from him in Mindwarp makes it a story throughout which it is impossible to relax, and in which there’s no comfort zone to which we can retreat – the landscape is alien, the politics those of a punch in the face and the grinding of a boot heel; it’s 1984 in space with extra body horror, and the Doctor being so fundamentally unDoctorish, and the consequences of his actions and inactions being so appalling, make for a harsh lesson in power and an unpleasant watch. If we assume that much of the ‘testimony’ of Mindwarp has been altered by the Valeyard, then it reveals a kind of breathtaking, twisted vision of the Doctor we’ve always known and cheered for, a vision that sees only the cost of his actions, never the positive results that they can have. Mindwarp is us on our very worst day, seen and interpreted by our worst and most contemptible enemy and used to prove we are what they say we are. In a way, like Varos, the genius of Mindwarp is that it is appallingly prescient of our own society, just decades down the line – these days the destruction of a person’s character is achieved through the destruction of their public image and sense of self – phones are hacked, unguarded, private emails slapped across column inches, to find the worst interpretation of a person’s character and trumpet it as the indisputable truth. Philip Martin translated the likes of Kafka’s Trial and Orwell’s 1984, and gave us a system of justice where the truth was apparently inviolable, but was actually almost infinitely corruptible by the hidden hands of those who would bring us and our heroes down.


None of which high-minded or prophetic interpretation came across in 1986. Where Vengeance On Varos had taken the viewer by the hand and said ‘This is what happens when yuppies are allowed to go feral,’ there was no such guiding hand to Mindwarp, and at the time, it came out of the screen and smacked you in the face as simply shocking and unpleasant. If The Mysterious Planet was a great, undemanding traditional Who story ruined by the intrusion of the trial format, Mindwarp was like nothing we’d ever seen before, advancing the trial storyline at the expense of any comfortable notions of certainty on the part of the viewer, and at the expense of Peri, a companion who was just beginning to re-establish the pleasant relationship she had with the Fifth Doctor with his successor. At a distance of thirty years, there’s no denying that Mindwarp was by far the more complex, the more insidious, and the more prophetic story of the two. But still after thirty years, Mindwarp’s not an easy watch, for all it has Brian Blessed Being Weird in it to take some of the edge off the rawness of its themes, its jittery alien scientific coldness, and the insidious mindset of the Mentors. At the time, any good work that survived the trial sections of The Mysterious Planet as far as re-establishing Doctor Who in the public confidence as the non-threatening story of a temporal knight errant was entirely undone by Mindwarp. At this far a distance, Mindwarp has been thoroughly redeemed by virtue of its storytelling, the dark accuracy of its science-fiction prophecies, and the strength of both its play with forms like the unreliable narrator and the strength of performances from the likes of Nabil Shaban, Brian Blessed and Nicola Bryant. But at the time, it did the cause of Doctor Who absolutely no good at all with BBC executives or casual non-fans checking in to see what Doctor Who would be like after its long enforced rest.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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