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Doctor Who Re View The Mind of Evil

July 11, 2021

The Story

The second story of Season 8 is a 6 part story that features two strands. The first features the Doctor and Jo at Stangmoor Prison where they are observers for a completely new type of rehabilitation approach for violent prisoners. The Keller Machine, named after its creator, removes the evil impulses from the minds of criminals leaving them with no memory of their past and no risk of reoffending. It also leaves them with significantly reduced intelligence, but this is considered a price worth paying by the prison governor. However, when the machine is used it makes the other prisoners even more violent than usual. The Doctor realises that something is wrong and decides to investigate further, leading himself and Jo into significant danger.

The second strand features UNIT at a world peace conference that sees escalating tensions between the Chinese and the Americans. Chin Lee, the second in command of the Chinese delegation, seems determined to stop the peace conference from succeeding. It becomes clear that she is working for someone who has a vested interest in World War III taking place and will stop at nothing to ensure that that happens. The Brigadier finds himself having to play peacemaker as things threaten to get out of hand.

What is the connection between the two events? Well, I’m not giving much away to say that it is The Master! However, the biggest issue with the story is that the connection between the two is, to say the least, contrived, so you effectively end up with a four part story set in a prison and a two part story set at a conference. Thankfully, the prison story is far the strongest part so you can sit through the other part as you wait for it to continue. In common with a number of the longer stories of the time there is the feeling of a fair amount of padding. There is even the frankly bizarre plotline of the Keller Machine being able to move between rooms by some form of apparition and kill people on the run, as it were!

There are a number of faults with the story that could have been solved by making it a four parter focused entirely on the prison, but the quality and enthusiasm of the cast carry the day. Special mentions go to three of the supporting cast in particular. Michael Sheard, the legendary Mr. Bronson of Grange Hill, in a rare heroic role as Dr Summers. He is a calm, assured character who is cerebral in approach but who is prepared to endanger himself by taking action to try to escape. Sheard added quality to everything he did and this was the second of half a dozen guest appearances in the programme, most famously as the villainous Scarman in Pyramids of Mars.

William Marlowe plays Mailer, leader of the prisoners and the Master’s second in command when he takes over Stangmoor. He is a genuinely nasty piece of work who will kill, beat up and threaten anyone who gets in his way or who could be useful as a hostage. His most famous role was on the other side of the law as Maggie Forbes’ boss, DCI Bill Russell. He also appeared in another Doctor Who serial, Revenge of the Cybermen with Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor. His final Doctor Who connection was that he was married to Roger Delgado’s widow, Kismet, for the 20 years before his death in 2003.

Finally, Neil McCarthy was absolutely superb as the hardened criminal Barnham, who was turned into a childlike innocent by the Keller Machine. He turned in a performance of real subtlety and you ended up caring about Barnham just as much as Jo did when she took him under her wing. What he did very well was to completely convince the viewers that he was now no danger to anyone, but that Barnham’s punishment was in many ways as cruel and unnecessary as those he dished out to his victims. In a sense, he was a symbol of the negative effects of prison and the unintended consequences state punishment in a system that brutalised rather than reformed prisoners. McCarthy’s was a familiar face on TV and film during the 1970s in particular, but he died at the tragically early age of 52 after developing Motor Neurone Disease.  

Favourite Moments

The relationship between Jo and The Doctor becomes a much closer one as a result of this story. It is Jo who often takes the initiative, showing bravery and imagination in her attempts to escape. When the Doctor needs her she is there and by the end of the story you can tell that he is starting to see her as more than just another companion.

The prison siege is a genuinely unsettling event with Marlowe’s unpleasant, uncompromising, and ruthless leadership making sure that absolutely no character, regular or guest, is safe. It shows that 1970s Doctor Who could be as hard hitting as any mainstream drama.

The Keller Machine becomes a real danger when you realise what it feeds on and how it works. The idea is no doubt taken from Room 101 in George Orwell’s 1984, but it very much works on its own terms in this story.

Both the Master and the Brigadier get a chance to don disguises in this story and they are clearly both having a great time! The Brigadier in particular has a twinkle in his eye throughout his time dressing up as a workman in order to get his soldiers into the prison.

Finally, the missile in this story is a proper military missile called the Bloodhound which was on loan from the RAF. It adds a reality to the scenes that transcend the plot and is genuinely impressive on the screen.

Final Thoughts

The cliffhanger of Episode 3 is the first scene of Doctor Who that I genuinely remember, but it freaked me out so much that I was not allowed to watch it for a few weeks! All these years later it is still an effective set piece.

The Master is always good value and always effective, but his reappearance in this episode is not quite as impactful as his first appearance given the convoluted nature of the plot. You would think that a genius like the Master would have been able to see where problems might arise, but he seems to be too busy trying to prove how clever he is to notice the obvious flaws. This makes him somewhat less of a Moriarty figure in this one. I also wonder whether the fear that the Keller Machine unearths really does the character any good.

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