02 Sep 2003The Mutants, by Paul Clarke
01 Sep 2004The Mutants, by Tim Dawson

'The Mutants' has a bad reputation. It's often considered a turkey, in fact. The truth, in my opinion only of course, is that it doesn't quite deserve being dismissed so out of hand, but it comes perilously close. It is, ultimately, ham-strung by deficiencies in two crucial areas and these deficiencies seriously undermine the stories.

Before I discuss these deficiencies, I'll first explain why I think 'The Mutants' has merit. Firstly, the plot is sound. Both plots in fact. The first plot, one of racism and apartheid, is a sound premise for a Doctor Who story, allowing the series to tackle real-life issues. This plot is simple; the colonial Earth Empire enslaved the Solonians five hundred years earlier, recruiting them into the Empire whether they wanted to be recruited or not, and plundering the resources of Solos. In case any viewer misinterprets the message being conveyed, we have teleportation booths segregated for use by Solonians and "Overlords" (humans). The Solonians are, quite naturally, unhappy about this state of affairs and demand their freedom, which Earth is now prepared to grant them, but interference comes in the corpulent form of the Marshal, a megalomaniac bully who has no intention of being deprived of his powerful position. This is all solid stuff, drawing on many historical scenarios, and is generally well handled. A particularly nice touch is the Administrator's terminally aborted speech in episode one, as he tries to tell Ky and his fellows that Solos is being granted independence. He rather pompously tries to sing the praises of the oppressive Empire by explaining during his speech that Solos has benefited from occupation by gaining technology and education; never having asked for this in the first place, it isn't surprising that the Solonians are unimpressed. 

The second plot contains the life cycle of the Solonians themselves, which is quite interesting, and well presented. Baker and Martin appear to have put some though into this, and the concept of a planet with a two-thousand year orbit, with a transformation of the population every five hundred years in order to cope with this, is rather novel. In addition, the Mutt costumes look rather good, although Ky's eventual transformation into an extra from a nineteen-eighties music video is rather tragic. 

In addition to the plot, 'The Mutants' benefits from excellent direction from Christopher Barry; the cave scenes are particularly impressive, especially the surreal effects used in the cave containing the crystal. The location work meshes nicely with the studio footage, and the model work is rather good too. So given that 'The Mutants' has a good plot and excellent direction, how can it possibly be considered to be a potential turkey? Well there are two reasons really, and they are the acting and the scripting. Which, unfortunately, interact synergistically to have a much more negative impact than either of them alone would. 

There are four guest members of the guest cast of 'The Mutants' who I have seen acting elsewhere, and of those only two put in a half decent performance here. The first is Geoffrey Palmer, playing the ill-fated Administrator, a man seemingly incapable of bad acting but who unfortunately doesn't last beyond episode one. The second is John Hollis, who played the devious Herr Kaufman in A For Andromeda and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough. He's a pretty good actor and he struggles bravely here in the role of Sondergaard, who exists purely to help the Doctor explain the plot to the audience. The other two actors that I've seen elsewhere are Paul Whitsun-Jones and George Pravda (Castellan Spandrel in 'The Deadly Assassin'). The former previously played reporter James Fullalove in The Quatermass Experiment, and on the evidence of the surviving two episodes, he can act rather well. Unfortunately, he seems here to have read the cringe-worthy dialogue offered by the script and decided to go as far over the top as is humanly possible without actually reaching the other side. The Marshal is absolutely terrible, spouting ludicrous dialogue such as "I'm surrounded by incompetents!" It doesn't do the story any favours that we have such an unsubtle villain; a colonial type who genuinely believes in the Earth Empire, rather than a ranting xenophobic stereotype that is concerned solely with his own power and sudden desire halfway through the story to become ruler of a terra-formed "New Earth", might better serve the plot. Whitsun-Jones' over-acting grows and grows throughout, presenting us with such unintentionally hilarious moments as when he whips the blast packs behind his back as Stubbs and Cotton approach the cave mouth in episode three, in almost pantomime fashion. 

George Pravda meanwhile, seems thoroughly uninterested in his role as Professor Jaeger, although bearing in mind his dialogue I don't really blame him. His sudden obsession with particle reversal is extremely annoying; he insists that he needs the technique to complete his atmospheric experiments, but prior to the Doctor's arrival he was getting along fine, albeit more slowly; he didn't even believe that particle reversal was possible. More annoying though, is his purpose in the story. Jaeger exists to illustrate the principle often espoused (quite fairly) in Doctor Who that science must be tempered by ethics; Jaeger is the anti-thesis of this principle, not remotely concerned with the consequences of his actions for the natives of Solos. Unfortunately, the script is so unsubtle that he more-or-less states this himself, especially during the "genocide as a side-effect". 

The Solonians don't fair much better. Garrick Hagon isn't bad as Ky, but James Mellor's Varan is another matter entirely. Varan, a man whose appearance is crying out for the addition of an electric guitar, is a character blighted by some truly awful dialogue, most of which involves him talking about himself in the third person. This is presumably to indicate that the Solonians are less advanced than the Overlords. Armed with such unwieldy lines, Mellor hams it up almost as much as Whitsun-Jones. Back with the Overlords we also have Rick James as Cotton. James has occasionally been described as the worst actor ever to appear in Doctor Who, but with lines like "we'll all be done for!", I'd challenge any actor to do better. Even one of the extras is bad enough to be noteworthy; the old man in Varan's village is reminds me of the crone from the Blackadder II episode 'Bells'. 

So if the acting's that bad, presumably we can look to the regulars for solace. Or not. Katy Manning is her usual reliable self, but Jo gets so little to actually do, being forced to tag along with Ky, Stubbs and Cotton, or a combination therefore, that she serves only to explain the obvious to particularly dim viewers. Pertwee on the other hand, actually below par here, seems genuinely bored with the script. He even fluffs a line near the start of episode one, in true Hartnell style. His lack of enthusiasm is most obvious when he's confronting Jaeger or the Marshall; the Third Doctor is particularly good at righteous indignation, but his objections here to the treatment of the Solonians just seem half-arsed.

In summary then, 'The Mutants' has potential, but fails to realize it. After a strong trio of stories, this is particularly disappointing, but not as disappointing as the fact that the season is about to get unbelievably and astonishingly worse…

Filters: Television Third Doctor Series 9

‘The Mutants’ is the penultimate story of season nine, coming directly after ‘The Sea Devils’ - a story which is engraved on many fan hearts as being a classic. In my humble opinion, ‘The Mutants’, sadly, is not.

I shall begin by discussing the plot which, although superficially fairly sound (with an obvious anti-colonial message), has two major problems working against it:

1) The story tells of the Doctor and Jo being sent by the Time Lords to deliver a sealed message pod to an unknown person aboard a Skybase orbiting the planet Solos. At the beginning of the first episode, the message pod materialises in front of the Doctor. This begs a hugely important question that pretty much renders the story so convoluted as to be immediately dismissed: why did the Time Lords not simply materialise this pod in front of the unknown person in the first place’ Hmm’

2) It is stretched out over six episodes. This is far too long. By episode four it is really beginning to drag and, by episode 6, I was in serious doubt of how much I cared. Indeed, episodes three and four are almost entirely padding consisting of the Doctor and co. flitting fractiously between Skybase and fannying around in the caves on Solos.

There elements of the plot that are enjoyable, however. The life-cycle of the Solonians is interesting - and the idea that they mutate every 500 years is particularly quirky. The quest for the crystal is also well handled, and leads to some very bizarre sequences in the caves. The transformation of Ky into an ethereal super-being is also quite fascinating - and it’s realisation on screen suitably weird. Having said this, the story’s solution is completely unsatisfactory: the Marshal is killed and everyone just packs up and goes home. What a damp squib of an ending!

Episode one begins promisingly enough. The delightfully abstract opening titles that so define the Pertwee era fade into a wonderfully atmospheric sequence involving a Mutt being hunted across the swirling mists of the planet Solos. This is followed the group of Skybase guards in pursuit standing victoriously over it’s limp body as it lies broken on the ground. Very good, I thought.

And then Rick James (Cotton) opened his mouth to speak.

Now, let’s not beat around the bush. Rick James is quite the worst actor ever to have graced Doctor Who. He’s so atrociously dreadful that I’m surprised our beloved John Nathan-Turner didn’t later cast him as a certain Alzariun boy genius. Yes, Rick James is SO horrendous that he makes Matthew Waterhouse seem like Lawrence Olivier. Destroying every scene that he’s in, Rick has the expressional repertoire of Pinnochio and delivers his lines like a Dalek. He really is that bad. I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry when he uttered his first line, a description of Solos: ‘It-is-a-rot-ten-stin-king-hole-of-a-planet.’

I could decide, however, when it came to Paul Whitsun-Jones as the Marshal. Needless to say, I laughed. Like a strange cross between Arthur Lowe and Windsor Davies, Whitsun-Jones spends most of ‘The Mutants’ delivering his lines with such an air of malicious flippancy and untamed pomposity that almost everything he says or does is unintentionally amusing. At times - even when talking of such weighty matters as genocide - I half expected him to shout out ‘Don’t tell him, Pike!’ Whitsun-Jones is, quite frankly, highly entertaining as the Marshal. But, in a story charting the barbarity of oppression and colonialism, he’s highly entertaining for all the wrong reasons. 

James Mellor is okay as Varan - his performance is rather OTT but actually quite entertaining, if not a tad cringing, and rather suitable for the character. Christopher Cole is reasonably convincing as Stubbs. Unfortunately, his performance is detracted from by his character being, for the most part, paired with Rick James’ Cotton. Even a competent actor like Cole is not going to give his best when spending five episodes interacting with a cardboard cut-out. That said, he’s bound to be marginally better than when spending five episodes interacting with Rick James!

Of the rest of the supporting cast, I thought that most of them were rather good. John Hollis as Professor Sondergaard is excellent - very entertaining during the sequences in the caves, he steals every scene he’s in. Quirky and weird, it’s a shame Sondergaard only appears in the second half of the story - he’s certainly an interesting diversion, serving well to lighten up the flagging action. Garrick Hagon is also excellent. Reminding me slightly of Richard Beckinsale, he gives a really convincing performance as Ky - the most interesting character in the story.

Before I continue, I’d better mention Geoffrey Palmer. He’s an extremely talented actor and, as one would expect, is totally convincing as the short-lived Administrator, even managing to die (something which can easily look very false) quite well.

I shall now turn my attention to the regulars. The Third Doctor seems to be going down a bit of a blind ally by the time of ‘The Mutants.’ For me, he becomes remarkably less likable for a short period around this point in the series history. The character just seems to know ABSOLUTELY everything and seems utterly infallible. If he’s attacked, he performs a bit of venusian karate; if he’s trapped, he whips out his sonic screwdriver and escapes; if Jo asks him a question, he snaps back irritably; in short, he’s arrogant and un-likable. And his is not the arrogance that I find so amusing in the Sixth Doctor, where it is constantly and persistently pricked (and garnished with a liberal dose of fallibility), but an arrogance unchecked to an extent that the impression is given of the Doctor’s head being forced too far up his own proverbial chute. In short, the Third Doctor of late season nine is not particularly attractive, desperately in need of character development and a rethink - a shot across the bows that begins him back to reality (if there is any such thing as reality in ‘Doctor Who’!). This shot, thankfully, comes at the beginning of Season Ten, when he is forced through the humiliation of teaming up with his other selves in ‘The Three Doctors’.

Pertwee’s performance in ‘The Mutants’ is lazy. Most of it is spent fluffing his lines and delivering self-righteous speeches with absolutely no conviction at all. In short, he seems bored by the script and, perhaps, by the role.

Katy Manning is much better as Jo. Apart from coming across as a little stupid - at one point, the Doctor gives her a perfectly reasonable explanation of events and she still claims that she doesn’t understand - she remains likable and constantly bubbles with enthusiasm. Who cares if she’s not the best actress in the world’ I don’t - she’s got a nice bottom.

The Mutts are well realised on screen - looking like weird (and handily man-sized, when it comes to the costumes) ants. Their various stages of metamorphosis are also well done - all credit to visual effects for some superb looking creatures.

When it comes to incidental music, ‘The Mutants’ possesses the most dreadful I have ever heard in ‘Doctor Who’. Bizarre, yes, and, some would say, perfectly suited to the story but, in truth, it’s just darn right irritating. As with tropical skin diseases, one wishes a simple lotion could be bought to get rid of it forever.

All in all, ‘The Mutants’ is one of the most disappointing stories that ‘Doctor Who’ has ever turned out. Despite some good special effects and acceptable direction, the plot is hole-ridden, the incidental music is horrendous and the acting (in most cases) is well below par. Despite that, it is, in places, vaguely entertaining and, quite frankly, you can’t despise it. You can’t want it banished forever into the darkest caves of Solos. You can’t want to put a sword to its neck and scream, in true Varan style, ‘Die, Overlord!’ And do you know why? Because ‘The Mutants’ is six of the shoddiest episodes from the finest science fiction series ever made. And, as such, it’s far, far better than any of the trash that you’ll find on TV today.

Filters: Television Third Doctor Series 9