The 1972, ninth season Doctor Who story, “The Mutants”, is one of the hardest of the early- to mid- ‘70s Jon Pertwee crop of adventures to get some sort of definite critical handle on. For every piece of evidence one could cite to back up an excoriating denouncement of the serial’s undoubtedly confused plotting, overlong episode count, flimsy-looking cramped sets and a clutch of truly toe-curlingly horrendous performances, it seems there’s an equally compelling assembly of facts one could organise to make a correspondingly positive case for the story: there’s the undeniable fact, for instance, of its willingness to address some fairly challenging themes within the context of an entertaining 1970s weekly adventure serial. And there’s also the boundary-pushing, often unsettling, avant-garde electronic score. Then there are the imaginative set designs of Jeremy Bear, bringing a touch of class to even the most wrongheaded plot development, and the excellent mutant costumes by Oscar winning designer James Acheson. And not forgetting the much-needed presence of some top-class thesps such as John Hollis, Geoffrey Palmer and Paul Whitsun-Jones, who know when it’s acceptable to chew scenery, and duly go for it with abandon here, when needs be.
So it’s interesting to hear the various comments and opinions of many of the people who were involved with the making of this story, recorded among the various commentaries and documentaries present on a new two-disc DVD edition from 2 Entertain. They seem to split right down the middle, between those (Katy Manning) who think it is one of the best stories they were ever involved in, and those (esteemed director Christopher Barry) who see things rather less charitably! Throughout the six sprawling episodes of “The Mutants” there are frequently moments which are embarrassingly risible; but they’re often followed keenly by other instances that strike the present-day viewer as being laudably representative of ‘70s “Doctor Who” at its most challenging and imaginative. That’s the trouble with “The Mutants”: the good things and the bad things are wrapped so inextricably around each other it’s hard to know quite what to make of any of it in the end. Unlike the equally dotty but lovable story that followed this in season nine, “the Time Monster”, I’m still not sure if I sort of quite like it, or if I think it’s one of the biggest televisual car crashes of Jon Pertwee's tenure.
This is the second story script editor Terrence Dicks accepted for “Doctor Who” from the writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin -- who were to become mainstay contributors to the series for the rest of the seventies. It’s one of those tales in which the UNIT-based earthbound format, which dominated the majority of the Pertwee years, is temporarily suspended (for the sake of some much-needed variety), in order to allow the exiled Doctor to pilot the TARDIS to adventure on another planet under the pretext of accomplishing some task or other the Time Lords have arbitrarily set for him. The first episode begins with the sudden materialisation of a sealed message pod on the Doctor’s workbench at UNIT headquarters. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) realises that it comes from the Time Lords and sets out immediately with his companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) in the TARDIS -- not knowing to whom he is meant to deliver the pod, not where and when in the Universe the Time Lords will be sending them.
It turns out that the TARDIS has been transported to the 30th Century, and to the dying days of Earth’s Galactic Empire. The Doctor and Jo find themselves on-board the Skybase: a military space-station complex in permanent orbit around Solos. Although this planet on the outer rim of Earth’s crumbling Empire has yet to receive its independence, the native inhabitants -- led by charismatic rebel leader Ky (Garrick Hagon) -- are fighting for it tooth and nail all the same, using any means at their disposal. This despite the recalcitrance and violently repressive methods employed by Earth’s ‘Overlords’, under the command of the deranged racist Skybase Marshal (Paul Whitsun-Jones), who have established an imperial presence on the planet, originally because of its valuable reserves of a crucial radioactive fuel called Thaesium.
Oh yes, and there is also apparently a mysterious plague ravaging the gaseous surface of Solos, turning the natives into scurrying, bug-eyed mutant beetles which the Overlords disparagingly call ‘mutts’!
The plot is basically founded, then, in a jaded commentary on the politics of colonialism, and the morality involved in withdrawal from its attendant responsibilities once the maintenance of Empire comes to be seen as no longer economically viable or desirable by the home power. Like “Avatar”, it’s a story in which the alien natives are (mostly) the good guys and the Earth people are (mostly) baddies – it’s just that Baker and Martin got there first, and their story is a great deal more complicated than the simplistic James Cameron epic, as will become apparent!
There are vague, non-specific parallels throughout with the end of British dominance in India in 1947, when the country at last gained its independence with the removal of the Raj; the increasingly demented Marshal character could be seen as a sort of regressive Governor Edward John Eyre figure (the 19th century British colonial Governor of Jamaica who imposed ruthless martial law to quell riots among the black population of the island in the 1860s – a deeply controversial move back home, even at the time, for a country that still prided itself on having abolished slavery); and the writers’ satirical attitude towards the political system then in effect in South Arica, is made blindingly obvious with the highlighting of the segregationist policy being pursued on the Skybase with regard to its teleport facilities -- the Solonians and the Overlords being required to use separate teleport booths in order to beam down to the Planet surface!
More generally, the story probably originates in a then fairly recent debacle related to Britain’s vanished Empire, concerning the illegal Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) by Ian Smith’s racist regime in Southern Rhodesia, and the consequent setting up of an all-white minority rule Government. All a huge embarrassment for the then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson, whose attempts to forge a reputation as a great international statesman during the crisis never recovered. This took place against a decade-long backdrop of gradual post-war Imperial decline, as Britain, under Harold Macmillan’s previous Government, wound down the Empire as quickly as possible throughout the early sixties, granting independence as fast as it feasibly could to a long string of former dependents while dithering over the issue of the settler community in Rhodesia, since it continued to enjoy the support of many in the Conservative party right wing. These issues were very close to the surface of national consciousness in 1972 when this series first aired. It wouldn’t have escaped many adult viewers at the time what was being referenced when Geoffrey Palmer’s Administrator arrives from Earth for a conference with Ky and the Solonian ‘terrorists’, and tells the horrified Marshal of Skybase that Earth is pulling out of Solos and granting the Solonians complete independence ‘whether they’re ready for it or not!’
The Marshal colludes with Varan (James Mellor) – a Solonian clan leader and opponent of Ky’s policies – in order to have the Administrator murdered and then have Ky blamed for the assassination, thus justifying in one bound the Marshal taking complete control of the planet using all of the military muscle at his disposal, and running Solos himself under martial law imposed from Skybase but without any Earth authority. Part of the Marshal’s plan involves getting his chief scientist Jaeger (“Doctor Who” guest star regular since the sixties, George Pravda) to alter the atmosphere of the planet in order to make the gas-cloud fumes on the surface naturally breathable for humans. Ky is adamant that the plague that is affecting his people and turning them into aggressive beetle-like mutations, is being caused by Jaeger’s atmospheric experiments.
This introduces the story’s second theme – that of ecology. In fact, Earth’s decline as an imperial power is specifically linked to its ecological ruin in this tale. The Administrator informs the Marshal when he first arrives on Skybase, that Earth at this point in history is, ‘politically, economically and biologically finished.’ The death of Earth’s Empire and its ecological meltdown are yoked together (for the convenience of plot, admittedly) with the Doctor continuing to describe the home planet to Jo as: ‘Grey – land and sea; with grey highways linking grey cities across grey deserts.’ A further metaphor gets mixed in to cloud some muddy waters further, with a rather weird mystical, evolutionary predestination subplot involving some stone tablets, a glittery radioactive cave and the Solonians ascending to higher, non-corporal spiritual beings under the combined influence of a mysterious crystal and the planet’s five-hundred year season cycle.
If the original theme of colonialism seems to you to be getting submerged at this point, despite a vague analogy between the diversity celebrated in the evolution of the Solonian life-cycle with the persecution of ‘otherness’ by the Imperialist forces, then consider that this is the simplified version of the plot: originally, Baker and Martin also had further subplots running simultaneously about interplanetary asylum seekers and cloning, but script editor Terrence Dicks excised them from the script claiming (with no small degree of understatement) that they made the story too complicated!
In fact, as Tat Wood points out in his in-depth summery of the story in Volume 3 of “About Time: The Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who”, the apartheid metaphor is kind of cancelled out by the plague subplot that sees the Solonians painfully turning into the despised beetle creatures called Mutts. Since nobody -- neither Solonians or Overlords -- knows for sure what is actually causing the outbreak (and even the Solonians believe it is a disease at first, even if they think it is one caused by professor Jaeger tampering with the dynamics of their atmosphere), then that would make the teleport segregation an entirely sensible precaution against infection. (Although a pointless one as it turns out, because everyone materialises in the same spot on the planet surface anyway! – But that’s just one of innumerable nonsensical things in the story.)
It’s never made entirely clear just why the Time Lords are so interested in the matter of Solos, the Mutt problem, and Earth’s decaying Imperial ambitions at this point in history; or why they don’t just send the message pod with its stone tablets straight to rebel leader Ky (he turns out to be the one for whom it opens, and therefore the intended recipient of the contents) instead of leading the Doctor on a Cinderella-like quest in which he spends all his time handing the object around the guest cast for several episodes; and it is even less clear just why the tablets are needed by anybody in the end anyway! We’re soon reminded, though, that this is 1970s “Doctor Who” during the middle episodes, by the preponderance of way out, psychedelic goings on in the Thaesium caves on Solos’ surface. All these scenes (shot at Chislehurst caves, apart from the more way out ones) are lit like a dreamy, Gothic-tinged Mario Bava film, with red and green-coloured gels popping up everywhere; and once Jo and the Doctor discover a magical, radioactive crystal in one of the caves that sends out sparkly liquid-lamp light show emanations, the effects department get to go ape with the CSO, and Brian Hodgson’s trippy sound effects compete with the already dislocated and discordant jazz scale electronica score of Tristram Carey to spiral off into the outer reaches of New Age madness on a proper electro-jazz wig out -- with backwards slow-motion shots and dazzling trippy colours and sparkles flashing all over the screen. The whole thing looks like a Glam Rock version of “Solaris” shot by the 1970s crew of Top of the Pops – especially with Jo Grant’s fetching Ziggy Stardust-style Biba trouser suit on prominent display!
Although the BBC Effects department was being pushed to the very limits of what it could achieve by the ambitious requests beings made upon it by this story, quite a lot of what ends up on screen is surprisingly effective. The Academy Award winning designer James Acheson began his association with the programme on this story, and the design of the Mutt mutation is great -- presenting us with an insect pupae ‘monster’ that is both repellent yet curiously sympathetic, and which anticipates the latter stages of the insect transformation seen in David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” by a great many years. When the plot requires a section of Skybase to be blown out, putting half the cast at risk of being sucked out into space, the laughably primitive effect is made almost acceptable by the cast giving it their all, even though there would be no chance of anyone surviving such an event in reality. As has been mentioned, the guest cast gives rise to some nice performances dotted among the strange, sometimes ridiculous events of the story, particularly from John Hollis as the rogue Skybase scientist Sondergaard, who ‘goes native’ and eventually figures-out what the Mutt transformation actually represents; Paul Whitsun-Jones as the megalomaniacal Marshal, who is great at strutting about Jeremy Bear’s inspired but cramped space-station set looking for someone to shoot or to shout at; and a special mention has to go out to Katy Manning too, who gives the lie here to the notion that the Doctor’s companions were always simpering, deferential and ineffectual up until the arrival of Sarah Jane Smith. The relationship between Jo and Pertwee’s flamboyant yet somewhat patriarchal Doctor was always rather sweet, and if Jo was frequently required simply to ask lots of questions (as the clichéd description of the companion’s role in the series has it) so that Pertwee could explain great globs of plot for the sake of the audience, she always did it with a charmingly cheeky glint in her eye. But here, Jo Grant actually gets to act decisively and commandingly on several occasions, while everybody else is running around like a bunch of confused amateurs.
Great costumes, interesting sets, intriguing and socially relevant ideas, and some enjoyably over-the-top performances: this should be an easy classic “Who” to recommend then, right? Well, not quite. Christopher Barry (whose association with the programme goes all the way back to the original Dalek serial in 1964) directs the story in an often curiously lacklustre, apparently offhand manner, perhaps revealing his lack of faith in the over-ambitious script. During that Skybase explosion scene for instance, Paul Whitsun-Jones’s character barely gets any camera coverage at all as he escapes from being sucked out of the hole in the side of the space base. You can just barely glimpse him getting away in the upper corner of the screen. Seeing as how this event is rather an important part of that scene, you’d think that there would have been a cut to a proper shot of it at some point!
Although the cramped space-station set, with its circular atmosphere laboratory, is impressive from a design point of view, it’s not best suited to the kind of running-about-while-being-fired-on-by-blasters scenes that begin to become more frequent in the last few episodes. The cast have to resort to a sort of pretend, theatrical ‘slow-running’, whilst being fired upon at point-blank range by incompetent soldiers who can’t seem to hit a target even when they’re virtually jammed up against it and it is standing still. Many scenes seem sloppily staged and amateurish in this kind of haphazard rushed manner, as though (again, I reference Tat Wood’s “About Time” essay for making this point) the whole thing had been just a rehearsal run that somehow ended up being used in the finished programme by mistake.
For all the good performances, there are countless pitiably bad ones dragging the whole enterprise down. Although the script isn’t exactly replete with the most scintillating dialogue ever conceived, the better actors are able to make it work, while those playing Varan and the other native Solonians -- for instance -- struggle with their over-ripe pantomime parts. The most infamous example of this dubious casting crops up with the appearance of the two Overlord guards, Stubbs and Cotton (Christopher Coll and Rick James,) who go over to the Solonian side and help the Doctor, Professor Sondergaard and Ky in their battle against the Marshal. Black actor Rick James was cast to play Cotton -- a character that Baker and Martin had originally written as a Cockney, although Barry hadn’t noticed this! The appearance of black actors in Doctor Who became quite a rarity during the seventies (for reasons an excellent accompanying documentary about race and ethnicity in the programme picks up on) and Barry’s decision to cast this inexperienced actor was either foolhardy or brave, depending on how you look at it. Whether this can really be an excuse for James’s complete inability to act, I don’t know, but his cringe-worthy performance, the overstretched visual effects budget and the story’s increasingly muddled plot elements, all converge at the end of episode five to produce what can only be described as Doctor Who’s worst (or best) “Acorn Antiques” moment ever -- with Barry holding the fade-out to the end title credits a fraction too long, and capturing the assembled actors looking almost as confused as the viewer feels by this stage in the proceedings.
Whether to champion the story’s good intentions or condemn its wildly overambitious failures is a decision each viewer will have to make for themselves. Personally, it’s never going to be one of my favourites; when I want psychedelic New Age whimsy, I’m more likely to turn to “The Time Monster” for it than this. But there’s enough going on in it, and enough evocative ideas in play to make “The Mutants” one of the more fascinating stories of the Pertwee years. The commentary track is a generally good humoured, not to say uproarious affair, with a total of seven participants in all taking it in turns to form groups of four, moderated by Nicholas Pegg. Katy Manning is enthused and upbeat throughout, and cites this story as one of her favourites. Script editor Terrence Dicks is sardonic but amusing and has many a merry quip at the expense of Jon Pertwee’s expanding bouffant hair and Baker and Martin’s unruly screenplay, to name but two subjects. Garrick Hagon, who plays the rebel leader Ky, is still a cult figure among Sci Fi fans for having played Luke Skywalker’s buddy in “Star Wars” -- although he ended up on the cutting room floor. Here he looks back with fondness on his time running around a quarry in the middle of February, carrying Katy Manning. It’s clear that everyone involved had a great time making the programme, which probably accounts for the cast’s generally more positive response to the story than the director. Writer Bob Baker clearly feels this story was a success and the writing duo regarded it as their best contribution to the series. Christopher Barry is a bit more subdued on the subject, saying he enjoyed making it but that it wasn’t one of his better efforts, while not being his worst either (remembering “The Creature from the Pit” at this point, no doubt). Designer Jeremy Bear and ‘special sounds’ supervisor Brian Hodgson (he who created the TARDIS materialisation effect) appear on the commentary for a few of the episodes to explain their particular contributions to the sprawling saga. All in all, it’s an entertaining, none too serious commentary, with plenty of anecdotes, jokes and opinion dotted throughout.
Disc One also includes the usual extensive text-based production note commentary, with all the production info and actor bios, as well as practically all relevant information that can conceivably be dug up on the making and the reception of the adventure.
Over on Disc Two “Mutt Mad” is a 20 minute ‘Making Of’ featurette covering most of the same ground as the commentary but in a more digestible documentary format. Terrence Dicks reveals that he wasn’t keen on the anti-Imperialist theme, since he was broadly in favour of the British Empire! Barry Letts, in an interview recorded not long before his death, explains that though he thinks that the British achieved many positive things in India, he was on balance an opponent of Colonialism. Garrick Hagon once again recalls his experiences of shooting the adventure, and designer Jeremy Bear explains the thinking behind his Space Station set design. Bob Baker sticks up for the Left Wing agenda of the original screenplay and Christopher Barry is slightly less than enthusiastic about the whole project.
“Race Against Time”: this 38 minute documentary is an honest look at the development in the representation of black actors and ethnic minorities in “Doctor Who” and on British TV as a whole during the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, and in the new post-2005 era. The political and social backdrop of each decade is examined and explained, and the social and allegorical points which are being made in the 1972 adventure “The Mutants” are examined and analysed in some degree of detail by narrator Noel Clark (Micky Smith in the 2005 and 2006 series). Commentators such as cultural critic Bidisha, writer Stephen Bourne, actor Fraser James and Doctor Who Magazine assistant editor Peter Ware offer a range of opinion in this award winning film produced by Simon Guerrier. One of the amazing issues it brings to light is that black actors appeared quite frequently in the early black-and-white series in the sixties, but then almost completely disappeared come the seventies after the rise of Enoch Powell and his opposition to anti race discrimination legislation brought in by the Labour Government of the mid-sixties. This is a thoughtful, carefully worded film on what might be seen still as a contentious subject, but it’s done with a great deal of sensitivity and without any sense of a hectoring, brow-beating tone. The range of ‘70s clips and the quality of the commentary and analysis makes this one of the finest documentaries 2 Entertain has ever produced for the range.
“Dressing Doctor Who”: from his rather luxurious cliff-top pad in New Zealand, three-times Academy Award winning costume designer James Acheson takes an affectionate look back over his earlier work on Doctor Who. Nowadays, Acheson is better known for his work on “Spider Man”, “The Last Emperor” and “Dangerous Liaisons”. Back in 1972, he designed the ill-fated insect mutants the Mutts, the penile-shaped heads of the Zygons and Tom Baker’s long-scarved bohemian costume for the fourth Doctor (based on a poster by Toulouse Lautrec) among many other iconic images the seventies series produced. This 28 minute featurette explores some of the highlights of the 32 episodes of Doctor Who that he worked on, starting with “The Mutants” and finishing up with “The Deadly Assassin”, with assorted clips featuring many of his most memorable designs coupled, with a rather jolly Acheson recalling some of his experiences of working for the BBC with no budget to speak of and very little in the way of resources. Judging by the size of the house and the splendid ocean view he now enjoys, he can afford to look back and laugh! Simon Ockendon narrates.
“Blue Peter”: A Doctor Who DVD is never quite complete somehow without a Blue Peter-based contribution. This time we get a short feature from the 1970s in which presenter (and former Doctor Who companion) Peter Purves takes a look at a collection of Doctor Who monsters, prior to the opening of an exhibition of visual effects. In a dimly lit studio full of dry ice, Purves introduces life-size models of a Sea Devil (‘he shakes hands like a wet fish’), an Ogron (which Purves hugs and calls an ‘Oberon’) and a Draconian (‘he needs to clip his nails!’).
A gallery of publicity shots, many of which display Jeremy Bear’s curved, stark white space station sets to great effect, is included to the accompaniment of Brian Hodgson’s unsettling sound effects and Tristram Carey’s futuristic electronic music.
“The Mutants” is a hugely variable and somewhat inconsistent piece of ‘70s Sci-Fi drama, but it’s a creative and peculiar entry in a season that otherwise produced nothing else that looks remotely like it. It gets excellent treatment from 2 Entertain in this double-disc DVD edition that will be required viewing for all “Doctor Who” fans, however they feel about its wide-ranging experimental ideas and ambitious attempts to bring a sense of rebellious ‘70s glam, bug-eyed beetle monsters, and serious race politics to the tea-time masses.