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Mind Games

by Tony Cooke

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#10, 1992

Doctor Who -- Fourteenth Season (1976-7)

Masque of Mandragora
The Hand of Fear
The Deadly Assassin
The Face of Evil
The Robots of Death
The Talons of Weng-Chiang

Season 14 was a watershed in the history of Doctor Who. With the possible exception of season 22, it was the last time there was a real effort to keep the audience behind the sofa where they belonged.

This was Philip Hinchcliffe's last season as producer, and his successor (Graham Williams) was ordered to tone down the violence.

Humour was to be the replacement. Mary Whitehouse: 1, Doctor Who Fans: Nil.

Yet, if Hinchcliffe's vision for Doctor Who was wrong, why is it that his three seasons are amongst the highest rating in the show's history?

The safe, comfortable UNIT scenarios were gone. We were to get monsters with a will of their own again, not just to act as dupes for Delgado's Master.

In seasons 12 and 13 we saw Wirrn, Sontarans, Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons, Anti-Matter monsters, Mummies, Kraals, anything Solon could get is hands on, and the Krynoids. All exotic, and except for three of the first four, all new. Hinchcliffe had returned to the roots laid down in Troughton's era. Frighten but don't terrify (too much). Build tension properly. Pick the right moment to wave a tentacle on the balcony. Seasons 12 and 13 were high watermarks of the Doctor Who style. Admittedly some stories didn't quite work, but that is true of any season.

And so, season 14.

The season appears to have been made in two distinct parts: the stories with Sarah Jane and the ones without. It does not seem coincidental that once Leela appears explicit violence becomes almost an integral part of the plot.

Even with this almost fundamental change, the separate stories still fit together as six different facets of the same design.

The fact that the same themes crop up again and again throughout the season is not surprising. The six stories were written by only four authors (one of those being the Script Editor in his third and penultimate season). The most recurrent theme of the season is that of mind control and manipulation. In the right setting this is, for me, a far more terrifying concept than any furtive alien with bloodlust.

In Masque the Mandragora Helix is looking to take free will from humanity. We are to become 'mindless sheep'. The mental powers given to Hieronymous by Mandragora are mirrored later in the season by the powers Greel gave to Chang. A pattern was being set.

The Hand of Fear sees an alien who imposes thoughtless obedience to achieve his/her ends: 'Eldrad must live', at any cost! Doctor Carter and a technician go to their deaths with no chance of saving themselves.

Deadly Assassin finds the Doctor trapped in the Matrix, unable to wrest control of his environs from the mind of his opponent.

More subtle though is the Master's control over Goth. Goth still has free will, but is a slave to his own desires. The Master uses this as surely as Eldrad, and by the time Goth realises his mistake it is too late: the Master has pulled the plug.

Face of Evil more than any other story focuses on the mind. It is Xoanon's mental health that has created the scenario in which the Doctor finds himself.

Initially, both the Tesh and the Sevateem give blind obedience to Xoanon's decrees for the simple reason that Xoanon is a god. It is only late in the story that Xoanon takes control of the minds of everyone (except Neeva) in order to stop the Doctor curing its schizophrenia.

Robots of Death sees the attempts of humans to impose conflicting wills on artificial intelligence (the opposite situation to Face). We see a man, who has lost his identity as a human, trying to become that which he identifies with -- robots. The attempt is doomed to failure because ultimately the robots lack the free will he wants them to have, the ability to think beyond their programming.

The influence of Asimov's robot books (especially Caves of Steel et al) is pronounced: his three laws in particular, but concepts from an earlier book RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots) surface in man's reaction to robots. Robophobia. Even the author's name, Karel Capek, is mirrored in that of the villain Taren Capel.

Finally, in Talons, Li H'sen Chang has been given the power to look into and affect men's minds. He uses hypnotism as well as the reading of men's thoughts in order to provide Greel with victims to shred. At the other end of the mental scale, Mr Sin only has the mind of a pig, yet clearly can think in ways no pig is able. He obeys Greel's orders without question... almost.

As far as the actual violence in the season goes, we see torture, irradiation and falling from high places while Sarah is still there. But death is still primarily implied. We don't really see it in all its gory. There is also death by 'electrocution' (in Masque), but people falling down as a result of a special effect is not particularly horrific, either in concept or realisation.

Once Sarah is gone, however, the change is dramatic. There is still pantomime death via laser, but the use of poisoned water, deliberate drowning, suicide by scorpion venom, Leela's knife and the like is quite different an approach compared to anything that had gone before, especially when the victim is not an inhuman monster.

This was no children's program any more. If the change in violence didn't convince you of that, Leela's outfit would. Hinchcliffe admitted that Leela was aimed at the fathers. He didn't miss his mark.

Yet, to say that it was the increase in violence that made the show seem more adult would be to sell the production team short. The concepts behind the stories were more complex, the settings meticulously constructed. Masque and Talons in particular had a feel usually seen in BBC period pieces, and not in Doctor Who since the historical stories of seasons 1 to 4. (Barry Newbery, designer of Masque, has said that even the books on Hieronymous' bookcase had been researched for authenticity. Roger Murray-Leach, the designer of Talons, requested he never work on Doctor Who again: it was too hard.)

The sets, the costumes and the language were combined to take you into Renaissance Italy and Victorian England. Even the fantasy settings in Face and Robots have the same realism, you can believe they exist.

The characterisation, especially in Masque, Face, Robots and Talons goes beyond the black and white goodie and baddie cliches. The villains, notably Neeva and Li H'sen Chang, have far more to their personalities than the usual lust for power. In Chang's case we see that his first footstep on the road to evil was compassion for the crippled Greel. The result of the depth given the character, by both script and actor, is that we feel compassion for the end he comes to: dinner for Greel's giant rats.

As far as influences go, the writers plagiarised everything from B Grade 50's Sci Fi/Horror movies (moving hands, giant animals on the rampage) to Phantom of the Opera.

Most obvious are the influences in Talons. Apart from Phantom (sans Andrew Lloyd Webber), we can see traces of Dracula (less chewing on the grisly bits), FrankenSin (sorry: stein), Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper and The Cabinet of Doctor Calligari. I won't even mention similarities with Williard, Barbarella and The Good Old Days!

What is the result of it all?

Did the season succeed? As far as the ratings were concerned they did. When there is quality people are happy to be terrified, sometimes even revolted.

The approach Hinchcliffe took attracted viewers who wanted a show that was both well made and entertaining. The realisation goes to the heart of the season. You can enjoy it without the need to spot every detail, every nuance or meaning. The violence, unlike in certain later seasons, does not detract from the stories, it makes them more real.

And isn't reality what we want: from both fantasy and horror?


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