A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine from 2011.
That’s not my opinion. It’s the judgment handed down by the huge Doctor Who Magazine survey of 2009, when every Doctor Who story was dragged squealing into the light, probed and prodded by 7,000 fans, and then brutally ranked to within two decimal places of its life.
In this instance, the verdict of that survey strikes me as unfairly harsh. Certainly, The Mutants is lacking in sparkle and spunk. And yes, there’s not a single memorable line of dialogue (well, not that’s memorable for the right reasons). But at least it has some brains in its head. The Mutants is about something in a way that few Doctor Who stories are. It takes place in the last days of the Third Doctor’s sojourn on Earth, offsetting his Artron footprint. The curious thing about this period is that, despite the Doctor spending so much time on our planet, he was obliged to travel to other worlds and times to discover life in the 20th Century. Down here, it was spitting daffodils, hopping gargoyles, Pigbin Josh and five-rounds-rapid. Out in space we found the miners’ strike, the EEC, the cold war and – in this story, on the planet Solos – Apartheid and the struggle for colonial independence. Stifle that yawn, will you? It’s true that Doctor Who generally becomes less entertaining the closer it gets to a Big Theme, but here our message is woven into the plot with some subtlety. Last issue, I poked fun at the leaden exposition of Meglos. The Mutants, in an early scene, shows how to do it better. The Marshall of Solos, fearful of losing power, is at odds with his superior, the Administrator, about the planet’s imminent secession from Earth’s empire. When they argue, it really feels as if they mean it, as if we’ve just happened to tune in as an ongoing debate has reached its natural climax. We believe these characters have a life, and hence we believe in the whole planet. This is thanks to careful scripting and strong performances, notably from Geoffrey Palmer in his all-too-brief turn as the Administrator. In playing this discussion as a mere irritating distraction from his business, Palmer completely sells it. This is some trick, given that he’s wearing a black cocktail dress at the time. The Marshall, meanwhile – our underrated villain – is wonderfully unbearable to look at. He’s a portrait of greed; a fleshy Freemason from a Hogarth engraving. As he ponders how best to sate his appetites, his fat tongue rolls across his lips, in the manner of Jabba the Hutt or Jamie Oliver.
Planet Solos itself is an excellent job of work, and the scenes filmed in the caves at Chislehurst are as genuinely otherworldly as any you’ll find in the series. Director Christopher Barry certainly seems more alive and attentive on location, but credit is also due film cameraman Fred Hamilton – one of the great unsung heroes of Doctor Who.
In the caves lurk first the sinister silhouettes and then the scuttling reality of our mutants. They’re a rare example of a Doctor Who monster proving even better than the tease. They still look good in the harsh lights of the studio. Meanwhile, most of the CSO and model effects impress 40 years on; and that’s no small achievement.
So the question remains: why, with so much going for it, is The Mutants found lonely and unloved at the back end of that survey?
I think it’s because we never quite feel it. Characters and issues remain at arm’s length throughout, never quite coming into focus. The production seems determined to obfuscate the narrative however it can, both by not drawing our attention to what really matters, or by failing to sell the emotional beats. There’s a disappointing ‘that’ll do’ attitude at times, and many occasions where a second take would have improved matters enormously. I’ll give a couple of examples to illustrate this. They will seem petty grumble when taken in isolation. But I think it’s the drip-drip of many small disappointments and errors that steadily erodes a viewer’s goodwill.
In part five, the scientist Jaegar – played with laudable vim, but variable clarity, by George Pravda – confronts the Marshall over the failure of their plan to convert the atmosphere of Solos to something acceptable to humans. Pravda gets one of the script’s better lines, raging: “You’ve made yourself master of a desert, Marshall!” It’s a good line because it gets right to the heart of the matter. It brings home, in a vivid way, the ultimate pointlessness of the Marshall’s obsession. But the camera isn’t actually on either Jaeger or the Marshall at this moment. It’s peering pointlessly at Jo. So rather than drawing us in to the drama of the Marshall’s spiral into madness, we miss the beat, and our emotions remain unstirred.
That’s an error in direction. It’s one of many moments of misjudged emphasis, but equally often it’s the script that fails to up the ante. Early in the story the Doctor teams up with guards Cotton and Stubbs, who work for the Marshall but decide to help our heroes, at no small risk to themselves. Stubbs is brave and kind and trusting. Jo finds him “sweet”. He gets a friendly nickname. We become fond of Stubbsy ourselves… right up until part five, when he’s shot dead. Sweet, Scouse, Stubbsy-Stubbs – who by all the rules should live to wave the Tardis away at the end – is killed. We should be horrified. Jo should be in floods, swearing to bring down the Marshall personally. Properly played by the writers, and suitably milked by the director (it doesn’t help that Stubbsy appears to be shot in the bum) it could be one of Doctor Who’s all-time great moments. But no. The storyline just steps over the body and sways blithely on.
The Mutants is a well-structured four part Doctor Who adventure. Unfortunately, it happens a six-part Doctor Who adventure. Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin were always skilled at pacing their twists and reverses, but here they are all played out by the 100th minute. Thereon in, it all turns rather abstract as the Doctor struggles to (deep breath now) reduce the areas of unstable crystal contamination on Solos using particle reversal transferred through a macrothizer to reduce the nitrogen isotope level. Exciting! Was ever a statement of intent less likely to get the adrenalin pumping than “I’m going to reduce the nitrogen isotope level”?
As we’re hip-deep in the Pertwee Era, mention of the imminent arrival of an Investigator from Earth Control raises hope that the Master might soon get the joint jumping – but no dice. Frankly, to give this tale the injection of life it needs in its final hour would require the surprise arrival of no less than Supreme Commander Servalan of the Terran Federation, having taken a wrong turn while pursuing Blake’s Seven. She could lazily dispatch the Marshall with a plasma bolt in the back, before greeting the Doctor with an intrigued, “And who – pray tell – are you?” (“Who indeed! Thupreme Commander!”) It’s a happy daydream; but really, is there any TV show that wouldn’t be improved by the arrival of Servalan two-thirds of the way through? She could appear upstage during The X Factor boot camp – “Kill them all. And kill them now” – or give the mystery house on Escape to the Country some real surprise value, as a Federation guard appears at each window.
I digress – apologies. The point is that The Mutants uses two whole episodes just to slither to a stop. It’s easy to understand why few people are left cheering for it as the final credits roll. But as you watch again on this DVD, you might see – as I did – that there’s something rather wonderful struggling to show itself between the fluffs, the compromises and the misplaced emphasis. It’s a story that gets the big stuff right, but slowly wears out our patience by muddling the details. Lop off the last hour and The Mutants would be just one draft and a few studio hours away from greatness. That’s a claim that can be made for many a Doctor Who serial, of course. But it’s never more true than here.
The highlight of this disc is the documentary Race Against Time; a look at the history of Doctor Who’s depiction of, and casting from, ethnic minorities. In taking every angle on a fascinating subject, canvassing a wide range of views, and drawing upon excellent sources, this film sets a new benchmark for the Doctor Who DVD range. It’s a thoughtful and thorough piece of work that everyone should see.
Our production documentary, Mutt Mad, is a well-made but low key affair; a collection of anecdotes from key players, and our usual chance to check how everyone is ageing. It’s sobering to think that Bob Baker is now the only surviving Pertwee scriptwriter.
The commentary track covers more ground, with an ever-changing roster of participants skilfully kept simmering by moderator Nicholas Pegg. It’s the ideal Doctor Who commentary – positive, jovial and informative – and the oddest little revelations stay with you. A personal favourite – springing from discussion of costume designer James Acheson – is Terrance Dicks’ quiet admission that he used to pop to London’s old Museum of the Moving Image just to, he says, “visit my robot.” By this he means smiley old K1 from Robot. It conjures the delicious image of Terrance sitting down – I think with a flask of tea and a potted meat sandwich – to tell the robot stories of his week, much as Kassia did with Melkur. After an hour, Terrance would perhaps give his old friend a wave and depart with a cheery “Goodbye, Wobot!” Left alone in its display case, K1 would either pine away the days until the next visit, or else silently plot to destroy the one who created him.
Mention of James Acheson brings us to Dressing Doctor Who; a feature devoted to the Oscar-winning costume designer, who tells us of his delight at working on The Mutants: “I rather fancied that Katy Manning, you see.” He’s clearly still proud of his time on Doctor Who. Every anecdote is followed with a gurgling chuckle and wide Aardman Animations grin. Acheson is one of Doctor Who’s genuine, 100%, top-to-bottom geniuses. His talent is proved by the fact that so much of his work can still be seen in the programme today. The Sontarans and the Time Lords survived unchanged, and I’m sure the Zygons can’t be far behind. And while the word ‘iconic’ is bandied about too freely, it certainly applies to Acheson’s other lasting contibution to Doctor Who: Tom Baker’s scarf. It’s a visual shorthand for the show that will stand forever. Actors and producers may change, viewers and reviewers will come and go, but there will always be the Tardis, the Daleks and that scarf. The show’s three great unassailable totems: one a last-minute compromise, the second almost banned by the show’s first executive, the third the accidental gift of an overeager knitter called Begonia. So if you ever hear anyone claim to know the secret of Doctor Who’s success… Don’t believe them.