Doctor Who: The Mutants Review
“A mysterious summons from the Time Lords takes Jo and the Doctor straight into danger” -The Radio Times
Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, respectively the Producer and Script Editor for the whole of Jon Pertwee’s stint as the Doctor, always felt hamstrung by the Third Doctor’s exile to Earth. As friend and sometime Who writer, Malcolm Hulke succinctly put it, the quandary of the Earthbound set-up basically had only two stories to tell: Alien Invasion and Mad Scientist. Letts and Dicks couldn’t argue with this stark assessment and were keen to expand the creative palette by allowing Pertwee’s Doctor to visit other planets. While it was necessary, mainly for budgetary reasons, to bench our hero for most of his tenure, the team hit upon the idea of allowing the Doctor to vary his adventures by receiving ‘missions’ from the Time Lords whose policy of non-intervention in the affairs of ‘lesser’ races, precluded them from interfering themselves. Amusingly this made the Doctor a kind intergalactic ‘black-ops’ specialist.
The Mutants is the second of these special missions (the first being Malcolm Hulke’s own Colony In Space) and begins with the Timelords sending the Doctor a mysterious black container to be delivered to… who? It seems here, the Timelords display a hither-to unknown penchant for dramatic tension by not telling the Doctor who the gift is for. Armed with the package (a kind of crazy paved Easter egg), the Doctor and present companion Jo (Katy Manning) are whisked away in the Tardis to a Skybase orbiting the planet Solos in the 30th Century. Here, they find a situation at near crisis point with human colonist ‘Overlords’ fighting the natives of Solos for control of the planet. Renegade Overlord The Marshal (Paul Whitsun-Jones) against orders from Earth who want to give the Solonians independence, hatches a plan to change the atmosphere of Solos and then become its ruler; the monstrous side effect being that the native Solonians would perish as the air that we breathe, they can't.
Once the Doctor discovers that Solonian rebel leader Ky (Garrick Hagon) is the person for whom the container is for, the Doctor and Jo become embroiled in the struggle against the bluff, megalomaniac Marshal and his genocidal plan. All this is set against the backdrop of a mysterious process that turns the Solonians into insect-like creatures which gives the story its title.
“My thought on messages in stories is the same as Samuel Goldwyn’s: “If you’ve got a message, call Western Union” “– Terrance Dicks
The Mutants is a perfect demonstration of the show's own internal struggle: between producer Letts’s social conscience and script editor Dicks’s insistence on a rattling good story. Here we see a compromise. The situation on Solos obviously mirrors the then current South African situation, with its enforced colonisation and its colonist-favouring Apartheid rules (separate teleports, et cetera). The Mutant creatures of the title were even going to be called ‘Munts’, which was both a suitable contraction of Mutant Natives, as well as being a real-life racial slur in Afrikaans. The Marshal is also a satire on the kind of Upper Crust colonialist common in countries under British rule - that their charges were less than them, and that the interests of the ruling class trumped everything else. The story though is well served too, with a neat explanation for the mystery of the ‘mutant’ creatures and, despite the usual Pertwee padding that was common to his six part stories, it builds nicely to a well-realized (for the time) conclusion.
There are many things to note in The Mutants's favour – the use of black actor Rick James (no, not the Superfreak one!) in a role where his race is neither integral nor commented upon. It is to Doctor Who’s credit that no casual racism is involved that was common both at the time and years later (see Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language and even some episodes of Only Fools and Horses, which the BBC no longer airs).
Rick James’s performance has come in for some rather unfair criticism for his portrayal of kind-hearted guard Cotton. Yes, his delivery of the line 'We'll all be done for!' that is the cliffhanger of episode five is weak, but he was struggling with a role written for a Cockney and his West Indian cadences just weren’t suitable for many of the lines he was given. Indeed it is ironic that writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin (The Bristol Boys as they were called) saw his similarly heroic best mate Stubbs as a black character and they got a white Liverpudlian (Christopher Coll). Still, it is heartening that the cosmos isn’t peopled completely by species that learned RP at RADA. After all, all planets have a north.
As for the other performances, while the Doctor is on fine form in this story and Jo is outfitted in one of her better costumes, I still find Katy Manning’s performance as Jo a little over the top. Admittedly it’s not one of her worst performances, but if she ever had a good one, this ain’t it. But her character is well used and central to the plot, while she displays heroism and assertiveness in only her second journey to a new planet. It doesn’t seem to faze her one bit (This is why these days, the Doctor tests out companions – see Rose and Smith and Jones because if he ended up with someone like me, I’d just stay in the Tardis and chill by the swimming pool after checking the Tardis lock had been deadbolted). As for the guests, the main antagonist Paul Whitsun-Jones gives his usual fat-man-with-a-power-complex performance which is never less than enjoyably nasty, and John Hollis as Sondergaard gives a decent performance in a role that's far from his usual Cockney characters.
“That’s Impossible” – Sondergaard (John Hollis)
One of the Bristol Boys’ many faults was their understanding of the laws of physics. While I’m not one to down-mark a Who serial on its scientific fallibility, to me it has to pass the aesthetic realism test (basically a test where the science ‘looks’ feasible), and the hole in a spaceship cliffhanger where people merely hang on in that amusing Doctor Who dance of ‘acting’ being pulled toward a gaping hole does not. This science faux pas and others, however, have little bearing on the viewer's enjoyment of the story – the show pitches the need for scientific veracity against the needs of an exciting adventure story, and justly the story always wins out. It is an ironic truism that those most knowledgeable in science are those most likely to object to Doctor Who’s brand of science fiction. It is enough though that the lay-people are introduced to fascinating concepts and that as long as there is an aesthetic logic, most viewers will just accept the letter of the science laws being blown out a hole in a spaceship.
This wasn’t the only problem Baker and Martin presented Terrance Dicks with. Of the many trials in trying to get this story to the screen, he not only had to rein the Bristol Boys’ unrealisable excesses – which at the time were legion - but he also had to steer their story in a more plausible and understandable direction. Note also the trademark Dick’s arguments, honed on his work in Soap Operas and ingenious for not only padding under-running episodes but also injecting more conflict and thus more drama. It seems that with the Baker and Martin he had his work cut out, and a lot of what made it to the screen was either directly or indirectly attributable to him, as well as Barry Letts who pitched in with some interesting concepts.
“Bombastic Signature tune” - The Doctor
This serial’s incidental music composer was the institution that was Tristram Cary. He certainly had talent as evidenced by the otherworldly score he created for the first Dalek story, and was a trail blazer for electronic scores, of which his one for The Mutants is a moderate success.
Which is about where this story sits in the pantheon of televised Who - a moderate success. It was praised widely by the BBC higher-ups at the time, and now, though a little dated, is a thoroughly decent evening’s entertainment and one that embodied Pertwee’s Glam Rock multi-coloured era (you’ll need to stare at a grey wall to counteract the effects of the rainbow transformation at the show’s end). Combine that with Chris Barry’s competent FX heavy direction, where his reach often exceeds his grasp (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when directing Who), and James Acheson’s brilliant creature costumes and what we have here is a bit of an overlooked- well gem isn’t quite the word, but it’s a damn sight better than some of the recent 2Entertain releases.
This 2Entertain release is 2 discs (9/5) encoded for Region 2
On inserting the disc, before the Main Menu, an Audio Navigation Menu is offered. The story and all extras apart from the commentary are subtitled. With the Video the Restoration Team really have come up trumps with this restoration job. Considering the source’s near 40 year-old origin, the picture is bright and clear with only a little grain. The Audio is also impressive.
Now the Extras
Now is the moment I feel that 2Entertain should move to all-moderated soundtracks. The argument in the past was that they should only need a moderator when the source material was of an age where the memories of the participants would be hazy, but hearing this moderated one so close to Meglos’s, I believe the Meglos track would have benefitted from an on-air prompt much more than this older story’s one, since anything involving the mighty Terrance Dicks will never be short on anecdote and amusing observation. And since all classic Who is at least 20 years old, it follows that a fan moderator will get the best out of any group and, as here, can fade into the background when a raconteur such as Dicks is in full flow. A great track.
Mutt Mad (20.40) A brief but brilliant account of the Making of The Mutants (Bob Baker thinks this is the writing team's best story by the way. Considering the slim pickings, I have to say I agree with him), with a little colonial history thrown in. I like that 2Entertain obviously estimate that us Who enthusiasts are interested in other subjects and often dedicate whole segments to a scientific principal or historical event that a story is connected to.
And in Race Against Time (37.38) we have one of those intelligent segments, an excellent documentary narrated by Noel Clarke on the issues thrown up by this story, and the history of non-white actors and their treatment in Who and British telly in general. One of the best documentaries 2Entertain has produced, almost worth the price of the DVD alone. Stunning.
Dressing Doctor Who (27.04) A solid, surprisingly long documentary on Doctor Who's most fêted costumier. I suppose getting such a well-respected, Oscar-winning designer who'd done extensive Who work deserved the time. These are some meaty extras in this set.
Blue Peter (1.34) A mercifully short though enjoyable trip down memory lane for all those of you out there who were around when The Mutants first aired. For the rest of us, a good laugh at what passed for Hairstyles back then. Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men has nothing on Peter Purves here.
And finally, the obligatory features - Coming Soon (The Ark), Photo Gallery(2.57), Production Subtitles (provided this time by Richard Bignell) but sadly, this time there's no Easter Egg
An excellent release of a fine story, with a wonderful documentary that you normally only find on themed three or four story releases