Doctor Who: The Mutants (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros review what they consider a low point of classic Who...
We have seen every scrap of Doctor Who footage that is known to be in existence. We have been Doctor Who fans since the late seventies and stayed with the show until it's untimely demise in the late eighties. There are great Doctor Who stories; there are bad Doctor Who stories; there are also ones that are so utterly dull and lifeless that you can feel your life drain away like chocolate sauce down the plughole of the shower in cabin 1 of the Bates Motel. For us, The Mutants fits that last category almost as though it was a purple velvet jacket tailored in Saville Row itself.
For now, we shall save our criticism of the story for later...
Whilst still in exile on Earth (despite the fact that he had already made at least one interstellar trip already) The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) receives a message from the Time Lords which is intended for someone on the planet Solos - temporarily suspending his home-from-home arrest on our blue planet, the Time Lords send The Doctor and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) in the TARDIS to the planet to deliver the message. They find a planet in turmoil, where the natives of the planet are treated as second-class citizens and the Earth colonists - known as Overlords - rule with an iron fist as they try to lethally suppress a mysterious mutation that is spreading among the natives.
All is not as it seems, as The Marshall of the planet (Paul Whitson-Jones) is determined not to let go of Solos, and his chief scientist Jaeger (George Pravda) is in the process of finding a way of changing the toxic atmosphere of the planet into one that could be habitable to humans, thereby solving the problem of what to do with the population of Earth. The only problem is that the native Solonians will die out and The Doctor, along with an assortment of humans and Solonians are determined to stop The Marshall's planned genocide.
Doctor Who has occasionally tried to incorporate real historical events in an intergalactic setting that successfully bypassed any direct connection by dealing with them in allegorical or metaphorical terms. The Monster of Peladon dealt with striking miners; Genesis of the Daleks tackled the rise of Nazism and The Rescue showed the perils of not noticing the bleeding obvious when it's right under your nose. Prior to The Mutants, any attempt at social commentary had been fairly subtle, but things were about to change with this story - The Mutants deals with the subject of the dying days of the British Empire in India; the torturous writing process involved a three-way battle between the Bristol Boys Bob Baker and Dave Martin, along with producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrence Dicks. The end result still carried the Bristol Boys' original idea about Apartheid in South Africa, but the end results - in our opinion, at least - are more aligned to the last days of the Raj.
We're not great fans of this story; as we have explained in several other reviews, a few years ago, we decided to perform a "mopping-up" operation and watched the remaining Pertwee and (T) Baker stories that we weren't old enough (or even around for) to see when originally broadcast. The results were fairly disastrous, watching one a week on UK Gold, all edited together in ominbus form that didn't present them in the most flattering light and there were certain Pertwee stories that were like watching paint dry and we regarded The Mutants, along with Colony in Space as being the very worst examples of them. The passage of time and watching this story in the manner in which it was originalyl intended has helped a bit, but we have always thought that Pertwee six-parters (or more) have always been a slog to sit through.
Despite the length and some of the more shabbier elements of production design (it looks like the station orbiting Solos was constructed on the planet Emeffeye), The Mutants isn't a complete bust - there are some interesting little directorial touches, such as nice swooping camera moves and Adam West Batman-like of-kilter angles to enliven what would ordinarily be deathly-dull expository dialogue sequences. The story itself is a surprisingly grown-up one for what was a family show, with a tale of brutal colonisation and assassinations and double-dealings taking place.
There are also some interesting twists and turns in the story, with an assasination (of Geoffrey Palmer, no less!) near the end of the first episode and then the assassination of the assassin shortly afterwards, not to mention the revelation of the exact nature of the mutation that features so prominently in the storyline. The depiction of a segregated society also works well, with directional signs up telling which race can go where is reminiscent of the pre-civil rights movement era in the US, where "whites" and "negros" signs were a depressingly common sight.
An interesting part of the plot is the attempt by the nameless Governor to change the atmosphere of Solos into something that can be suitable for humans to live on; this can be seen as a metaphor for the way the British colonials wanted to change the cultural environments of places they conquered, making them more in line with the requirements of the colonists and not giving much of a toss for the regards, cultures and beliefs of the people they oppressed in the process.
Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning are their usual dependable selves, with Pertwee wheeling out his usual stock physical mannerisms - we're not poking fun at the late actor, but it would be easy to make up a drinking game for watching a Pertwee Doctor Who story, it could be as follows...
1) Have a shot whenever Pertwee rubs the right-hand side of his neck with the palm of his hand
2) Down a pint whenever Pertwee runs his finger down the side of his face and onto his chin.
3) Knock back a can of super-strength lager whenever Pertwee smiles sheepishly at Katy Manning after briefly losing his temper.
Follow these simple rules and you'll be pretty sauced after watching one episode - follow them whilst watching a six-parter and you'll have to call the paramedics to rush you into casualty for emergency detox.
Actor Paul Whitson-Jones perfectly embodies the type of British Colonial Governor who has grown fat and complacent in his job, stripping the natural resources from the colonised lands purely to provide for his own people and caring not a toss about those he is supposedly sworn to oversee, instead seeing them as little more than vermin. Jones' generous frame adds appropriate weight to his character, echoing Churchill, who was vehemently opposed to granting independence to India (he even said that Ghandi and everything he stood for would have to be "grappled with and crushed"), and it's little touches like this that give The Mutants a little more substance than some of the other six-part Pertwee stories. What is also fun is that the Governor becomes increasingly despotic and megalomaniacal with each episode, culminating in making the smooth transition from being merely officious and callous to being stark-staring apeshit bonkers.
Garrick Hagon plays Ky, and makes a pretty good fist of it, too; it is puzzling that Hagon didn't go on to have a high-profile career, because in The Mutants he is rather dashing and puts in a good performance and a few years later, he gets a prominent role in Star Wars (although his main scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor), but after that, he didn't really ascend to the levels that some of his peers did and never really seemed to realise the potential that was shown in this particular Doctor Who story.
Coming in a little late into the story is John Hollis as Sondergaard, a scientist who has been studying the mysterious mutation for many years. Hollis is always good and his performance here is one of his best; Hollis was one of those actors who would turn up in bit-parts in major films, but would rarely be given a part on the big screen to truly get his teeth into - he played Lobot in The Empire Strikes Back, he was in three of the four Christopher Reeve Superman movies and even played Blofeld (in all but name, due to a legal dispute) in For Your Eyes Only. Hollis seemed more at home on television and his performance as Sondergaard most assuredly reflects this.
The Mutants was another of the stories in the early part of the Pertwee era that fell victim to the BBC's short-sighted policy of wiping and reusing videotapes of shows that were not deemed viable to keep. Fortunately, it didn't suffer as badly as others, with only the first two episodes being wiped; these parts are presented in colour, coming from NTSC copies that have been transfered back to PAL using the Reverse Standards Conversion method that was first employed back with the DVD release of Pertwee's classic story, Inferno. The results, though looking like a pretty good off-air recording is light-years ahead of anything that has been seen on video or satellite television broadcasts. The remaining PAL episodes all look pretty good, with the colour on Pertwee's burgandy jacket looking particularly robust.
Nothing to complain about here - The Mutants sounds as good as possible, with little in the way of distortion for a show of this particular vintage.
Audio Commentary: Moderated by Nicholas Pegg, we have the company of (at various point during the story) co-writer Bob Baker, Katy Manning, Terrence Dicks, director Christopher Barry, sound designer Brian Hodgson, Garrick Hagen and designer Jeremy Bear.
Getting off to a flying start, Pegg’s opening gambit is joining the rest of the guest in saying “IT’S…” in unison at the Python-esque opening shot of the old guy running up to the camera. The chemistry between Manning and Hagen is really pleasing, and the unearthing of an accident report when Hagen dropped her during filming providing some great laughs. They discuss their love of going to conventions, and the presents they get from fans, not to mention Hagen firmly stating that he hasn’t worked for George Lucas again.
Dicks‘ usual blend of observation and humour comes to the fore once again when he notes that “They always have sliding doors in science-fiction. Nobody ever just pushes one open”. He’s right, you know! He also details the perils of being a script editor, which causes a condition known as “script-editor’s angst”, for which the only treatment is large doses of alcohol in the Lime Grove bar. Christopher Barry notes that he was supportive of black people in the business, and tried to use them where he could, increasing the amount of ethnic faces seen of TV. Someone needs to play that to Bidisha Bandyopadhyay (who appears in the Race Against Time documentary elsewhere in this set), which shows that there were people doing what they could for equality.
It’s been a while since a commentary was as packed with chemistry and genuine laughs, and there is no better way to sit thought six episodes of The Mutants than with this track engaged. Listen and have fun, as we certainly did.
Info Track: Well, this is a close runner up in how best to watch The Mutants. There is little more to report, as it’s another bang-up job from the guys at 2Entertain. Much needed background on Britain’s colonial past and segregation is provided for those born outside the times in question, allowing them to gain richer experience whilst watching the story. Achingly detailed changes between script to screen are noted, along with instances where actors’ work was hurried/rearranged to get them recorded quickly so as to not have to pay them for the following day - not an uncommon trick, even in this age. In short, this is all you ever wanted to know about The Mutants, but were afraid to ask for fear of looking nerdy.
Mutt Mad: The much maligned story comes with a very nice selection of extras, which many might say is more than it deserves, in spite of its noble intentions.
The differences in political ideology made for an uneasy alliance between pro-Empire Terrence Dicks and Barry Letts, who was not entirely in supposed of the British influence abroad. Bob Baker and Dave Martin (The Bristol Boys) were gravitating towards the show becoming a forum for politics, utilising the veneer of science-fiction as a way of sugaring a bitter pill. Obviously the topic for The Mutants is that of racism, and coming just after the decade where segregation had ended in America whilst with Apartheid was still rampant in South Africa, there was no hotter subject.
That the Bristol Boys were more inclined to be off-the-wall and “right-on” than the more staid Terrence Dicks is typified by their opposing styles of working. The guys came onto the show bursting with ideas and full of energy, which caused great headaches for Dicks, who set about “moulding” them into Doctor Who writers. Given that this process happened during their Claws of Axos debut, which is agreed as being one of Pertwee’s finest hours, that The Mutants came after the Boys had been licked into shape doesn’t say much for towing the party line and writing to accepted standards.
Director Christopher Barry scores a bulls-eye when discussing the thematic content of The Mutants, saying that the Imperialist themes were “rather muddled”, and that it didn’t really know where it is coming from, only that it was left-wing in its approach. Anyone who has seen it will echo such wise sentiments about the end product, but this - once again - makes you wonder how much of the original intent made it to the final draft.
With racism on the menu, the Bristol Boys decided to use “Munts” as a derogatory term for the mutants, so liberally utilised by The Marshal. Dicks ordered an alteration, changing it to “Mutts” after discovering that “munts” is a word used by white communities of South Africa towards the black population. Given that this Afrikaans word is still used with stunning venom to this day shows that it was probably the right choice to not include it directly at the time. Connections with the UK slang of “getting munted” are probably best let alone.
Jeremy Bear explains his lasting contributions to the show, literally coming in the form of his distinctive, triangular-textured walls, which he moulded himself and turned up in numerous stories later on. Matching ingenuity of design at every turn was the future Academy-Award winning Jim Acheson, who produced the really rather cool “Mutts” costumes. Testament to his abilities was that these suits could have gone badly wrong, that of Zarbi proportions, where you are left with all the emotional range and manoeuvrability of a wardrobe, but the Mutts are able to convey a pathos which serves to make them the loveable underdog. It speaks volumes that Christopher Barry praises the costumes’ ability to emote and generate sympathy whilst Dicks focuses on them being “terrifying”.
Speaking of questionable racial inclusions, the thorny issue of the character Cotton is addressed. This very much Afro actor Rick James was cast as a Cockney imperialist. Yes. James struggled with accent, although Christopher Barry didn’t detect any trace of being a Londoner in the dialogue, so either Mr Barry is somewhat hazy about the details, or terms like “mate” and “innit” were added on the fly to try and support the curious origins of the character. You have to wonder why the interviewees didn’t pick up on the name of the character as being questionable, given how many black American slaves were used out in cotton fields. Still, the inclusion of “My Old Man” over this sequence is genuinely funny.
Garek Hagen is charming, looking back fondly on the show, with almost getting lost in Chislehurst Caves just part of the rich Doctor Who experience. He’s not the only guy to go down there and find weirdoes dressed in odd costumes running around the place, trust us. As we mentioned previously, Hagen should have been a bigger star than he became, with his role in Star Wars being largely truncated and poisoning the water when going to subsequent casting sessions. He’s genial, and with precious few males as young as he was during the Pertwee era in such an explosive story, he’s going to have some interesting stories.
Bob Baker goes record as saying that The Mutants is his favourite of the stories to come from The Bristol Boys, with the themes being addressed in a family show making him proud to have gotten it onto the screen. Speaking of all things ending, there is something rather sad when watching new documentaries about the Pertwee era and seeing interviews with Barry Letts taped prior to his death. Christopher Barry ends by paying tribute to Letts, and it’s a nice way of rounding off an entertaining look at The Mutants.
Dressing Doctor Who: James Acheson is a man of great repute in Hollywood, his work snagging him numerous awards, including a certain one named “Oscar”, and whilst his days of working for the BBC might long be behind him, us Doctor Who fans who him as a “boy who done good”. Interviewed at him home in New Zealand, he take us through the creative delights and tight-budget perils of working on the show.
Yes, this is the man who came up with The Zygons, and created the mask of the awesome Omega (in spite of it having the same shape mouth as Bungle from Rainbow) and the titular Robot (or Giant Robot) from Tom Baker’s first outing, but his lasting contribution to the show is that he was responsible for creating Baker’s iconic, Toulouse-Lautrec-inspired wardrobe. Yep, including the scarf, which was not incredibly long through careful deliberation, but because Acheson instructed his knitter to make a scarf using all the masses of multicoloured wool her gave her, not realising she would take him literally.
His work on The Three Doctors provides some cracking stuff, including the embarrassing incident when travelling to the studio with materials for the “devil” costume upon which Pertwee unleashes his Venusian Aikido. Acheson learned very quickly that when sitting in the back of a taxi, always make sure that the cap to your drum of Evo-Stick is securely fastened! The story of the teaming of Time Lords also provided Acheson with one of his career low-points, namely when the “Gel Guard” costumes were unloaded off the back of the truck at location, only to be greeted by gales of laughter from the crew. They were crap, though, let’s be honest.
Best of all are his experiences of flying over to Rome scouting for costumes to include in The Masque of Mandragora. Hoping to save labour, time (and presumably money) on the elaborate tailoring required for the story, Acheson persuaded the BBC to let him fly out to Italy in search of the original outfits made for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The whole affair was a disaster, from the exceptionally cheap flight out, which landed on an airfield outside of Rome, to having his bags weighed on a set of bathroom scales before takeoff, but all was trumped by discovering far too late that he was renting the garments from the 1948 version instead! This whole experience would come as less of a shock today, as anyone who has ever flown Easyjet will tell you.
The workload of The Deadly Assassin proved too much, and Acheson requested assistance during the production. Being told to “shut up and get on with it” by his bosses was the final straw, and left both the show and the BBC on bad terms. Regardless of this, Acheson has fond memories of working on Doctor Who, and has managed to use the tricks and lessons learned on it in the mega-budget productions he works on in Hollywood. Acheson is a man of very good humour, and we could listent to him spin off stories all day. We’ll let you discover the final anecdote for yourselves, as you know that any which involve John Landis is going to be a good one. A thoroughly entertaining look at a boy who certainly done good.
Blue Peter: The well must be running dry now, as this one only lasts for about ninety seconds. Peter Purvis shows us three classic villains from the series, all presented as inspiration for making costumes at home, all set against a rather nice swamp design in the studio. We get to see a Draconian, a Sea Devil and an “Oberon”. Mr Purvis has clearly been doing too much rep over the summer. A nice inclusion for the sake of completion, though.
PDF Materials: The Radio Times listings are yours to browse, and who can’t get a rush of nostalgia when they see them. Well, kids who weren’t born at the time, anyway. It’s wonderful stuff, and you win a cuddly bear if you can work out how that drawing of Katy Manning is in any way supposed to look like Jo Grant…
Photo Gallery: Once more we have a lovely collection of rare and much-printed photos from the vaults. Although not as copious as others, it’s great to see these snapshots from filming, with a large chunk of them clearly taken for continuity and reference purposes. Most of the publicity shots are from the location work in Chislehurst caves, which gave them “money-shots” with photos of the Mutts for selling the show. Set to appropriate music once again, this is another mini-treat.
Race Against Time: Noel Clarke is the host for a look at the way both Doctor Who and the BBC as whole addressed and reflected racial issues during troubling times of integration.
The enigmatically-named broadcaster Bisisha (full name Bidisha Bandyopadhyay) gives her take on The Mutants and the Bbc’s policy of ethnicity during the troubled decades. Bidisha, who seems to delight in putting the boot into the efforts of Christopher Barry to get an ethnic face in the story; Bidisha bemoans the lack of effort of the various previous and subsequent Doctor Who production teams to get actors of different ethnic backgrounds into the show (though a certain caucasian actor playing an Asian character in Planet of the Spiders makes us shudder every time), even if Rick James isn't the greatest of actors, it at least presents an ethnic character doing heroic and noble things, whereas ITV were making shows like Love Thy Neighbour, which seemed to be acceptable on paper, but were truly ghastly to watch (not to mention On The Buses, where they had "Chalkey" delivering token lines or white actors being caked in make-up to play ethnic characters). Bidisha can best be described as a smiling malcontent, so lets move on swiftly...
It is argued that The Doctor is more a troubleshooter than a colonialist, but in spite of other contributors arguing to the contrary, Bidisha still puts him in with “trusted white voices of authority” bracket. How HERE they bring up about the character of Cotton and the connotations of his name.
During this documentary, there are conflicting reports about the amount of exposure of black thespians on TV, with Clarke stating that there were few, but authority & author on the subject Stephen Bourne claims otherwise.
There is a toe-curling look at the ghastly abomination that was Black & White Minstrel Show, which is contrasted with a ground-breaking and progressive 1955 production of Othello, which had a black actor in the lead, rather than simply getting a white actor to generously apply a bit of slap. It's just a pity that the promise of multiculturalism that was hinted at during the 1960s seemed to suffer a spluttering setback that lasted a good couple of decades or so.
It wouldn’t be a look at racist Britain without footage of Enoch Powell and, sure enough, we are given the displeasure of watching his part of his infamous “Rivers of Blood“ speech, allowing a younger generation to get their fill of bigoted bollocks from the old school tie.
The bottom line is that Race Against Time is an interesting and illuminating documentary, with some insightful observations from the contributors, which even if you might not agree with some of the veiled cries of "institutionalised racism" within the BBC, there is plenty of food for thought in it.
The Mutants is a frustrating story - the basic idea is a very noble one, which takes what was (and in some respects still is) a pertinent social issue and presents in a science-fiction setting. Like many of the longer Pertwee stories, it might have played better as a four-parter, as the interest starts to wane during the mid-section, but fortunately, things pick up for a rousing finale that sees the oppressed rewarded and the bad get what's coming to them.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 31st January 2010
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Aspect: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Race Against Time, Mutt Mad, Dressing Doctor Who, Info Text, Photo Gallery, PDF Materials, Coming Soon
Easter Egg: No
Director: Christopher Barry
Cast: Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning, Paul Whitson-Jones, Geoffrey Palmer, Garrick Hagon, Rick James
Length: 143 minutes
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