“You cannot escape. But we will play your game a little longer…” – The Controller
One of the oddest stories of the Troughton era, the opening episode is particularly striking. Having used an experimental device to elude danger by sidestepping outside of space and time, the TARDIS crew end up in “unreality”—a white nothingness where they are subjected to psychological pressures to exit the TARDIS. The odd setting and the mental battle undertaken by the Doctor while Jamie and Zoe seem to slowly turn into part of this white non-existence create an impressively tense episode given that nothing is really going on. An empty set and shifting viewpoints put us off kilter—like when Jamie and Zoe react to seeing copies of themselves all in white only a few minutes later for us to see that those copies actually are the companions. The effect is slightly ruined by the appearance of some very clunky robots that seem totally out of place in the otherwise abstract danger in the story. It’s particularly interesting that the Doctor finally succumbs to the temptation to leave the TARDIS by pressure of needing to save his friends. He does so and, thinking they are getting away, all of them are caught off guard when the TARDIS explodes into pieces leaving them drifting in a misty void.
We eventually realize that none of this is real, an illusion that will be the start of the story proper. They have entered the Land of Fiction, a surreal existence inside the area outside space-time where words (and puns) matter—and create matter. Seemingly presided over by the Controller, there is some randomness to what is encountered: Gulliver, unicorns, Greek myths, and a rather ridiculous comic strip character from Zoe’s time. Some bits of the tale are rather clever such as the way the scenery keeps shifting and changing at every turn or how the oddly shaped trees that they wander among turn out to actually be gigantic letters. Key to the story is the Doctor being very sharp to figure out the “rules” of the land that they are in and ending up in a battle of wits with the controller. Jaime and Zoe get some credit to their strengths too with Zoe’s “arithmetical brain” spatially figuring out the maze and Jaime’s brute strength allowing him to scale the rocks to the tower.
I misremembered it simply being a computer that dictated this unreality but the Controller actually refers to “another power higher than you could begin to imagine”. Despite its power, the unknown alien and its Master Brain computer need the human mind to maintain their existence. (“This is the one field in which the intelligence I serve cannot compete. They need man. A man of boundless imagination as a powerhouse–a lifeline, you might say.”) An element of particular note is this story is that the Doctor realizes he and his companions can’t do any of the things seemingly laid out for them to do because they would be taking part in a story already written out about them and would thus become fiction themselves, part of the fiction world not outsiders within it. Just as the Controller is simply a pawn, the Doctor has to work to save mankind from benevolent enslavement too. This leads to the great line: “Sausages! Mankind will just become like a string of sausages: all the same!”
Overall, the writing and progression of this story is much better than I remembered. Having not watched it for years, I was reminded of the reasons I originally liked it so much and why it’s still considered a classic, back in form with the overall high quality of the Troughton era.
- Zoe in a glittery catsuit (and that infamous shot from behind!)
- Escape by denying the reality of something
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
The almost psychedelic weirdness of the first episode has some nicely trippy moments that leave you on edge. Much of the danger in the rest of the story is fanciful so there’s not a lot that is shocking or unsettling. However, while it’s just a small part of one scene, the way that Medusa’s outstretched marble hand wraps around Zoe’s chin is rather creepy.
Watching this story again, I did like it despite the elements that tend to put me off like the silly Karkus (maybe he’d be less ridiculous if he wasn’t wearing a muscle suit) and his wrestling match with Zoe.