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Doctor Who: The Mutants

February 27, 2011

Doctor Who‘s relationship to science has always been an uncomfortable one. Some fans, myself included, argue that even to call the show ‘science-fiction’ is inaccurate, not least because that’s generally taken to mean space opera in the Star Wars/Star Trek/Blakes Seven mould — interplanetary escapades, big spaceships, talking robot companions et al, though obviously Who can do these these, both seriously and as pastiche. In the work of writing partnership Bob Baker and Dave Martin we see both serious, ‘hard’ SF and (possibly unintentional) pastiche simultaneously — they are, after all, responsible for Who‘s most enduring Star Wars-influenced creation, the robot dog K-9, designed to simultaneously send up and exploit the fashion for chatty robots in films and tv, and now enjoying his third decade of uppity, heroic adventuring in his own right.

Baker and Martin’s seven collaborative stories — Baker also wrote one story solo — are built around 70s New Scientist buzzwords: microsurgery, antimatter, nuclear power. It’s all very Now, though it can be argued that they are inspired by their own approximations of what these subjects mean. In ‘The Mutants’, a six-part story from 1972, they manage, in a single three-minute scene, to misunderstand spaceships, gravity, and space itself: someone carelessly fires a laser through the side of a spaceship; the air rushes out of the breached chamber and, in leisurely manner, without so much as upsetting their hairstyles, our heroes wander around looking for something to hold on to. (Fans watching may wish to suggest the spaceship generates, for some reason, a gravity bubble around itself, which is no sillier than anything we see on screen.)

As ‘The Mutants’ begins, the lame, spent Earth Empire has been ‘administering’ the fuel-rich colony world of Solos for some time, and the planet is about to gain independence — at least, until an assassination provoked by the power-hungry Earth Marshal puts paid to it. On the surface of the planet, rebellion against the Earth Empire overlords is brewing — but the Solonians are falling prey to a horrific mutation, which is turning them into monsters. The Doctor and Jo arrive with a mission from the Time Lords: to present a mysterious message to someone, somewhere on Solos, and are soon embroiled in the Marshal’s plans for power, the Solonians’ desire for independence, and the plight of the hideous creatures developing on the planet’s surface…

This is early 70s Doctor Who at its most ambitious, wildly overreaching itself on some points and knowing exactly what it’s capable of on others. In common with many stories of the time, it’s overlong (with the budget having to stretch to twenty-six episodes per year, Pertwee is saddled with far too many over-extended six-part stories). Baker and Martin try to pack each episode with incident, but the non-stop action of ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ this is not. One principal problem that’s entirely down to budget is that several locations, notably the various corridors and chambers on the space-station and the planet itself, are very simply redressed and virtually indistinguishable, meaning times (notably when a Mutant manages to teleport itself from planet to space-station in Episode Six) when it’s rather difficult to tell who is in which location. More distinct signage, or even a distinction in the way studio locations were lit, would have made the difference.

On the plus side, the location filming is generally rather good: Overlord soldiers stalk the desperate mutant populace through misty marshland, and the Mutants cluster in the famous Chislehurst Caves. The costumes for the Mutants muck about just enough with the human outline to make an effective monster; our first view of one of the creatures, gyrating in silhouette against a bizarre atmospheric storm, resembles a very strange edition of Top of the Pops. So too does first Jo’s, then the Doctor’s, pilgrimage to a highly chromakeyed central cave, which could induce migraine in a weaker viewer. It’s rather lovelier than, say, ‘Underworld’s attempt to do a convincing subterranean, er, underworld using CSO; you may as well go for broke. By the time Doctor Who reaches into the shimmering chrysalid cadaver at the heart of this psychedelic cave to remove a mysterious tablet, you start to wonder if this would make more or less sense on acid.

I also liked the villain of the piece, the plump and greedy Marshal, desperate to hold onto his tiny sliver of power over a dead-ish world he loathes: it’s a surprisingly complex motivation for Who of the time, and Paul Whitsun-Jones overplays him just enough to be credibly menacing. We know he’s a bad one when he arranges to have Geoffrey Palmer assassinated. A cry of delight went up in this household when Palmer appeared, since I’d completely forgotten his very brief scene here.

Mention of the guest cast brings us inexorably to Rick James, playing the rather uncharitably-named Cotton (as accompanying documentary ‘Race Against Time’ points out, James is the only non-white actor to appear in the entirety of Doctor Who‘s ninth season). Part of a double-act with Christopher Coll (playing similarly disenchanted Overlord guard Stubbs, whose accent goes for a prolonged wander round the British Isles before settling on Liverpudlian), James gives the impression of someone who has only just committed the words of the script to memory, and will come round to thinking about their meaning later. In fairness, he may have been a stage actor accustomed to a rather, er, stagier way of performing; in ‘The Mutants’ he is so out of step with the rest of the cast you’d rather one of the slobbering, gyrating Mutants had been the de facto companion of the week. In a bizarre moment, he travels through time himself, lapsing into authentic 2010-era Dalston cockney, greeting bad news with a flat, “Great. Innit,” which had us rewinding the scene in astonishment. When he gets excited he’s even more alarming: inexplicably, the script kills off Stubbs, leaving Cotton to carry the cliffhanger to Episode Five, in which our heroes face being gassed to death by a refuelling rocket. “We’ll all be done for!” he squeaks, somehow mixing hysteria with absolute woodenness. How’s he do it?

‘The Mutants’ is long enough that it starts to lag, though it’s hardly lacking in incident or changes of scene. There isn’t a great deal of a sense of urgency, and some of the scenes (the botched assassination attempt in Episode 1 which sees off Geoffrey Palmer) feels less than clear, more down to the direction than the script. Mid-70s Who sillinesses — CSO aside — means we see people in alarming wigs discuss the pros and cons of possible revolution with intensity, but not much conviction, in a debate which doesn’t rage back and forth over six episodes so much as get rehashed. The unravelling of the Mutants’ true nature is unhurried, in a bad way, and the events leading up to the Marshal’s downfall could have been compressed quite happily. As often in the Pertwee era, the stories undersell the show. ‘The Mutants’ isn’t really a repetitive runaround, it’s just that it’s made in such a way that it looks like one.

*

The Mutants arrives on DVD with a series of bonus features I’ve only started dipping into. Much-vaunted documentary ‘Race Against Time’ is a punningly-titled but worthy investigation into the representation of non-Caucasian actors and characters in Doctor Who. The findings, which are as you might expect, are generously glossed: on more than one occasion we’re reminded that we shouldn’t judge old television programmes by today’s standards, and at least, it says rather pleadingly, we don’t get outright racism a la Love Thy Neighbour. It’s only in 1989 — the final ‘classic’ season — that Doctor Who starts to include non-white actors in prominent supporting roles, which seems appallingly belated. Post-2005 Who has a rather better track record on this, including the show’s first black companions, Martha Jones and Mickey Smith: this documentary correctly dismisses the accusation, occasionally still given problematic voice on nerd-forums, that casting non-white actors in leading roles is somehow tokenism; I might have liked the script to maybe question, however, why these two characters, so entirely unsuited to one another, end up married (in the footage used here from The End of Time Part Two). Mickey actor Noel Clarke narrates this feature, but is not a natural orator, and at times (notably in his opening remarks) sounds deadly bored of the material. On the other hand, he’s no Rick James.

No-one could accuse costume designer James Acheson of being bored — of anything, ever. Interviewed in New Zealand about his eight Doctor Who serials for documentary ‘Dressing the Doctor’, Acheson starts soberly enough with his first story, ‘The Mutants’,  starts laughing when describing the response to his Gell-Guard costumes from ‘The Three Doctors’ and by the time it comes to his work on ‘Carnival of Monsters’ is laughing so much and so infectiously he can barely get his words out. This is an entirely charming tribute to one of Who‘s most famous alumni, whose modesty extends to trying to sidestep taking credit for Tom Baker’s costume, one of the programme’s unforgettable icons. Ask the man on the street how Doctor Who dresses and — fezzes aside — I bet “floppy hat and long multicoloured scarf” is still the commonest answer.

Plus! There’s an exciting, fast-paced trailer for next month’s release, ‘The Ark’, which shows off one of that production’s most notorious features: in a thirty-second compilation, companion Dodo manages to perform each line she’s given in a wildly different accent. Can’t wait for that one.

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From → Doctor Who

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