Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Mind of Evil - "People who talk about infallibility are usually on very shaky ground."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Mind of Evil - Details

Season 8, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #56) | Previous - NextIndex

Season 8, you're a strange beast and I adore you. You introduced Roger Delgado as the Master in the last story, you give us another action heavy, competently directed story in the mode of last season's "The Ambassadors of Death" in this story, and then you get your bizarre on in "The Claws of Axos." The Doctor gets to leave Earth again after that, and you close with a story hints at the Hinchcliffe era that's still a few years out. You've got the Brigadier and UNIT, Jo's a solid companion and you're (mostly) still in color -- this story being the notable exception.  (Full disclosure: my DVD editions does a pretty fair job restoring the color to this story, so I didn't watch in black-and-white, which I may have done in the past [too long ago to remember for certain] if this one ever got broadcast on Public TV in the 70s or 80s, but I'm not sure it did.)

Part of why this story might be hard to recall is structural, it's a six-parter with two quite different plots that only overlap because they're both part of plot by the Master to cause a World War and, I guess, get himself killed since he's stuck on Earth? Anyways, we've got to be able to put it all together to recall it's the one with the teleporting, alien-powered, evil-sucking, phobia-exploting Keller Machine used to pacify the violent offenders in Swiss and English prisons until it builds up enough strength pursue its own agenda. It's also the one where UNIT is providing security, rather poorly, for a global peace conference that's running short of delegates and in the crosshairs of *cue dramatic music* the Master!

Should we complain that the Master's scheme is Byzantine beyond all reason? Well, it's certainly a fair cop. But I'll watch Roger Delgado charm and menace his way through ludicrous plan any chance I get. More of an issue here is how shunted Jo is in this story, except when she's being far more action heroine than we're accustomed to seeing her, what with wrangling firearms from rioting prisoners and the like. Katy Manning is marvelous, but Jo is written as if by someone who wasn't familiar with her character and so gets it wrong when giving her something to do, then gives her not much to do but get scolded.

You know with a Chinese delegation at the peace conference, we're in perilous territory. I'm the guy who bent over backwards to defend "The Talons of Weng Chiang," so I recognize that I'm not writing from a the most unassailable of positions when it comes considering how well, or how awfully, this story handles matters of race. Still, I don't think this story deserves much of the criticism leveled at it on that front. When the American delegate to the conference sees Chin Lee as a terrifying (?!) dragon (dubbed 'Puff the Magic Dragon' on set), that's pretty awful. Awful looking, and awfully racist, but that's the American senator's problem, not the show's. Yates commenting that Chin Lee is a "quite a dolly" is more problematic, as it's not clear the show understands what a twat Yates is, yet. Lee is at least played by an actual Asian actress -- the writer's wife, I learned from the DVD's infotext -- not a yellowed-up Anglo. Fu Peng is also played by an Asian actor, a lousy one (lousy actor, I hasten to clarify), but again we're not always so fortunate.

The most bizarre aspect of the Chinese element of the story is that the Doctor seems to have been buddy-buddy with Chairman Mao, a rather surprising association. (He doesn't seem to have much of an issue with Nixon or Churchill either, so maybe distressingly less surprising than it ought to be?)

When it comes to questions like, "Is it appropriate to use physical means to change the minds of prisoners in order to correct their behavior?" this story is punching a bit over its head. Not exactly in an admirable way, although not completely flailing either, as critics have accused. Sandifer, for example, argues that the story has no issue with what is done to Barnham and seems to be endorsing the idea of lobotomizing criminals. When we look at what actually happens in the story, I think we should reach the opposite conclusion. Barnham is treated by duped scientist, a tool of the Master. What looks like a fairly innocuous bit of tech is actually an alien menace, any evident success as a result of its use has actually been fueling a disaster. Barnham himself become an object of pity as a result of his treatment, reduced to childlike simplicity. He behaves heroically, but I think does so hoping to destroy himself in the process, not functioning in the narrative as a hero made by the solution imposed on him. This, to me, reads like a condemnation of attempting to directly alter the minds (by altering the brains) of humans, no matter their crimes. The Doctor rejects the machine and the intention, acting as the conscience of the story.

The criticism here I think should be that the Doctor's position should have been more forcefully argued and a constructive alternative presented. That's asking a lot of the sort show Doctor Who is though. It's been too many years since I've watched the Star Trek episode "Dagger of the Mind" to use it as a yardstick by which to measure this story's handling of similar themes. (It's on Prime, so perhaps for a future revision of this post.)

Stray Observations:

This is an early (first?) instance of one of the Doctor's hearts stopping.

The Doctor tells Jo a tale of being imprisoned by Elizabeth I in the Tower of London with Sir Walter Raleigh (who droned on and on about potatoes). Strange he doesn't recall it when the War Doctor, Ten, and Eleven being imprisoned together in the Tower of London by Elizabeth I in "Day of the Doctor."  He/they may have forgotten about it. Her not mentioning it is understandable since it must've been about thirty years in her future that those events happen based Raleigh's timeline.

Following up on the comment I made about the direction of this story, it's a shame this was director Timothy Combe's last for DW. He might have been one of the best they ever hired. Even colorized, this one looks great thanks to his director's eye.

Giving Kristopher Kum grief above for his stilted, halting portrayal of Fu Peng probably means I should point out he must have been an improvement on the other guy. Evidently, the scenes with Fu Peng were re-shoots after the first actor's performance was reviewed by the production staff and found to be intolerable.

Some other tidbits I picked up watching this one with the Infotext turned on: Stangmoor, the name of the prison in "The Mind of Evil" was a mash-up of Strangeways and Broadmoor; and that's how I learned the context for the Smiths album title I am blushing with embarrassment to admit I didn't have before; and pointed me towards a bit of trivia about Lis Sladen, who was one of the first to participate in a program to bring theater to inmates in the late 60s. (She discusses her visit to Strangeways briefly in her autobiography.)

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