I first watched this Second Doctor story back in the wilderness years, between McCoy and McGann, and I remember at the time thinking it was a little bit silly, what was supposed to be a science-fiction show getting lost in the land of fiction. But maybe my tastes have changed since then, I’ve certainly seen a bit more of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, and almost universally liked him.
And, of course, the Thursday Next effect makes this episode fun to watch for more than the slightly surreal feel that the story always had.
So, we start out with the Tardis about to be encased in molten lava, and the crew left with no choice but to hit the emergency button which shifts the Tardis and it’s crew outside of reality – into
an empty studio a white void where Jamie and Zoe are briefly chased by some robots left over from an earlier BBC sci-fi show – and from there… well, actually, when they leave there the Tardis blows up, leaving Zoe clinging to the console in a scene that would have been at home in 2001 or one of the weirder Star Trek episodes. But that’s all just pre-amble really, as the real action takes place in the land of fiction.
It all gets a bit meta here, with the Doctor at one point risking turning himself and his companions into mere characters if he makes a wrong decision; and together with the mix of mythology, literature and history that our heroes encounter, it all makes for a fun blurring of the lines between truth and fiction, reality and unreality. And just to add to the strangeness, the human mind responsible for maintaining the land of fiction turns out to be an author, kidnapped while writing about the adventures of Captain Jack Harkaway – who sounds oddly familiar in the 21st Century, as does ‘the Master’, the name given to the writer in question.
The existence of this master mind operating the ‘land of fiction’ does lend it a scientific basis of sorts (and let’s face it, of sorts is often good enough for Doctor Who) and, on the whole, I didn’t find the whole idea as silly when I most recently watched it (but see again the Thursday Next effect). There are certainly lots of fun ideas in there, some of which could probably be used to better effect with a new-Who budget, but it was 1968 so we can’t complain about that really. You get riddles, you get the odd sword fight, you get existential Gulliver, and you get a reason to contemplate the nature of reality, the purpose of story, and the existence of free will.
As there often is with the Second Doctor, there are also some great moments of humour – the resigned sarcasm of Rapunzel, and the Doctor accidentally rearranging Jamie’s face (apparently a creative way of continuing production while Frazer Hines was sick).
This is worth watching for ’60s psychadelia, experimental fantasy, Rapunzel jokes and, basically, the Doctor doing Thursday Next.
We obey our creator, that is all that can be expected of any character, unless the Master bids us otherwise.
To close, I must go back to Existential Gulliver. Like many of the fictional characters our heroes encounter, his is just a cameo role, but he does make an interesting point about the nature of a fictional character: ‘We obey our creator,’ he says of himself and his fellow characters, ‘unless the Master bids us otherwise’. It could be said that we are all characters in some epic adventure being written by our Creator; he has a story arc in mind for us all, but all too often some other ‘Master’ bids us otherwise, and we lose the plot, so to speak. Maybe, if we stop trying to be our own Master all the time and just follow the Creator’s intention, life would be a lot more satisfying.
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