Friday, 25 May 2012

56: The Mind Of Evil - A Metaphor For Terrorism Ahead Of Its Time

Written by: Don Houghton.
Companions: The Doctor, Jo Grant, The Brigadier, Captain Mike Yates, Sergeant Benton.
Monsters/Villains: The Master, The Keller Machine/Mind Parasite.
Brief Synopsis: The Master uses prisoners to hijack a nerve-gas missile to blow up a world peace conference.
Rating: 8/10.

The Mind of Evil is the Pertwee story I always forget about. This is the one where the "United Nations" part of UNIT's acronym was accented as opposed to the "Intelligence Task-force" bit. This is one of the few stories not yet released on DVD so it was back to good old, lovely, fuzzy VHS. Unfortunately not a single frame of The Mind of Evil exists in colour to date. A monochrome print survives thanks to the fact that BBC Enterprise's overseas customers bought black and white transmission prints. This is probably the reason I have overlooked it in the past. A DVD release is planned for 2013, episodes 2-6 have been recoloured, but episode 1 lacks the necessary colour signal for restoration used on the rest of the story.

There are a number of notable things in this story: including the first return of the Master and the first and only use of subtitles in the original series until The Curse of Fenric in 1989. For me the most notable aspect is that of the inclusion and casting of several asian characters/actors. You may be surprised to learn that Pik-Sen Lim who played the Master's unwilling assassin Captain Chin-Lee was this story's writer: Don Houghton's wife. Houghton was clearly trying to increase the representation of actors from ethnic backgrounds on british television; which at this point was practically nonexistent. He tries to show Captain Chin-Lee and delegate Fu Peng as respectable and valid four-dimensional characters. And in Chin-Lee's case attractive, which is presumably why Captain Yates refers to her as, "a bit of a dolly." Chin-Lee appears to be behind espionage and murder of two peace conference delegates but has actually been hijacked and used by the Master. This is perhaps a metaphor for the stereotypes at that time people might have pigeonholed certain minorities into. Houghton doesn't fully achieve what he set out to do, and Lim doesn't give the strongest performance but both must be given kudos for their attempts.

Pik-Sen Lim as Captain Chin-Lee.
The story centres around the Keller Machine that is used to remove all the negative/evil impulses from the brains of imprisoned convicts, which could be used to kill people by turning their greatest fears against them. It turns out to be part of a plot by the Master, with the aid of some of the inmates from the prison to steal a gas-missile, destroy a world peace conference and start a war so the Master could take over. At one point the Doctor shows weakness and limitation when Jo asks "Why don't you just destroy it?[the keller machine]" and the Doctor replies, "Because those idiots in authority won't let me." This is something that just doesn't gell with my idea of the Doctor. He is not someone who does what "those idiots in authority" tell him to do. He does what is best or what is needed. This is certainly an example of where the idea comes from that Jon Pertwee's Doctor was too "establishment." It is a valid instance but there are many more that prove the opposite.

The Doctor fears fire.
Some would say that Children aren't interested in politics, especially these days, but in 1971 Don Houghton and the production team of Doctor Who made an effort to encourage an interest, and subtly indoctrinate the youth to invest in caring about their future. Through an adventure setting, children would learn the importance of politics.

A shocking image of children in a playground when Chin Lee burns documents, she claims have been stolen.
The story has clear influences from James Bond and A Clockwork Orange, but the most interesting element to this story is the story itself. Emil Keller A.K.A the Master, a terrorist (from a time before that phrase was in common usage) hatches a complex scheme to plunge the world into war by using a group of convicted criminals and a machine that turns people's fears against them to steal a missile  to launch at a world peace conference. It really couldn't be a clearer metaphor for terrorism, a machine that literally uses fear against people for political reasons.

The machine becomes/is revealed to actually be a mind parasite (a sort of brain in a jar) and as the creature's hunger for minds grows, it develops the ability to teleport itself around; as terrorism grows, it spreads like a disease.

The Mind Parasite.
Even more interesting, are the working titles for this episode, which were The Pandora Machine, The Pandora Box, The Pandora's Box. They demonstrate a strong understanding of then-current events and amazing foresight on Houghton's part to establish "terrorism" as a fast growing and troubling issue. The age of modern terrorism as we know it today might be said to have begun in 1968 when the Liberation of Palestine group PFLP hijacked an El Al airliner en route from Tel Aviv to Rome. Modern terrorism didn't hit it's peak until the events of 9/11 but Houghton clearly saw that terrorism was like pandora's box; a jar which contained all the evils of the world.

Pandora's Box.
Today, to open Pandora's box means to create evil that cannot be undone. Originally in Greek Mythology after Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus took vengeance by presenting Prometheus' brother Epimetheus with Pandora and a container which she was not to open under any circumstance. Impelled by her curiosity given to her by the gods, Pandora opened it, and all evil contained therein escaped and spread over the earth. She hastened to close the container, but the whole contents had escaped, except for one thing that lay at the bottom, which was the angel of Hope named Astrea. Houghton was saying back in 1971 when modern terrorism was still in it's relative infancy that once that box had been opened there would be no closing it.

Barnham, an idiot or a saint.
Barnham, a prisoner who had all the evil/negative impulses removed from his brain, "leaving him either an idiot or a saint," is probably the closest comparison with Astrea. He literally neutralises the influence of the creature, which enables the Doctor to use it against the Master. Barnham actually tries to help save the Master when the Thunderbolt missile is about to detonate, and the Master repays him by running him over, killing him symbolising the death of hope.

The Master fears the Doctor laughing at him and his failure.
The Master "controls" the machine/creature/terrorism, but it turns against him, he loses control of it, and the Doctor, perhaps unwillingly, uses it against the Master. Too often the actual episodes' pacing and momentum lull and dissipate, and the ending seems quite weak. But what is missing in execution is made up for in intention. The Keller Machine/Mind Parasite is destroyed by the blast of the aborted Thunderbolt and the day is won, but the evil Master, like the evil from the box, escapes and with his recovered dematerialisation circuit in hand.

The story's execution often falters but there are some great moments and writer Don Houghton encapsulates his concern of the growing issue that we now call terrorism with a clever and clear metaphor. In short it's not the best story ever but the ideas are top notch. This is a story that will no longer go unremembered by me. It is just a shame that it goes largely overlooked because to date it is only available in black and white and VHS. This just moved to the top of my wish list for a DVD release.

Join me next time for The Claws of Axos.


Caitlín Matthews said...

I think I must have been at drama school when this one aired. Frightened of fire, indeed!  Keep up the blogging!

G.R. Haines said...

The fear of fire was a reference to "Inferno", when he saw the parallel Earth destroyed.