By Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 320
"The Mutants" is one of those stories generally regarded as the nadir of the Pertwee era. Surprisingly, however, viewing it again reveals that its main problems are an excess of padding and some unimaginative direction. While it may not be one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time, certainly it does have a number of positive aspects which can make for interesting viewing.
Ironically, however, some of the negative points stem from areas which could easily have been the story's greatest strengths. Tristram Cary's music, for example, while brilliant in the 1960s Doctor Who stories, is considerably below par in this one. Similarly, Christopher Barry, another 1960s legend, proves to be more variable in the 1970s: while "The Daemons" is attractively lit, the lighting of Skybase and the caves on Solos ranges from unimaginative to off-putting, making it rather difficult to watch, and the pace is plodding. Some of the effects are also a little ropey, such as the scenes involving CSO (in which simply everybody has a clear yellow "halo effect"), and the mutant warrior whose backbone is a bit too obviously attached to his cloak rather than his body, although admittedly the passage of time is seldom kind to special effects (and it also has to be said that the effects are better elsewhere in the story, for instance the mutant costumes, and the mutant backbone on the old man at the start of Episode 1).
The acting is, by and large, rather good, with the main exception being Rick James: although he is undoubtedly nice to look at, and his performance does improve as time goes on, he has an unfortunate tendency to sound like he's reading off a cue-card. Garrick Hagon, despite giving a good performance otherwise as the naïve and idealistic Ky, sounds rather wooden when delivering his first speech. There is also some unintentionally comedic over-the-top acting from the Overlord guards (who also engage in a bit of Dad's Army-style out-of-step drilling), and the scenes of the shuttle refuelling have vaguely sexual connotations. The title of the story apparently stems from an unused 1966 Doctor Who submission by Barry Letts, entitled "The Mutant" (according to Shannon P. Sullivan's A Brief History of Time (Travel) website, this was also the source of the idea of the Solonians evolving in stages), which is rather a pity, as both of the working titles ("Independence" and "The Emergents") were more interesting, and as the present title is inclined to cause it to be confused with the original overall title of the story which later became known as "The Daleks". Curiously, as well as the Barry and Cary connection to both stories, the sound effect for the surface of Solos is the same as that for Skaro.
By contrast, while Bob Baker and Dave Martin are not terribly well regarded in some quarters of late, the script is basically fine, although the scene where Varan is sucked out into space makes one wonder how a space station could function with such thin walls. The serial's premise appears to have strong parallels with Brian Aldiss' Helliconia trilogy (set on a planet which undergoes a thousand-year-long seasonal cycle which brings about changes in the flora and fauna as well as in the phenotypical makeup of the human inhabitants themselves), although, as the first book in that series was written in 1982, it's possible that this might be a case of Doctor Who influencing classic sci-fi rather than the other way around. There is also a nice bit of psychology in the Time Lords' decision to choose the Doctor to deliver the message, as they know that he will hang about and investigate rather than simply delivering the message and going. The Marshal gets some wonderfully pointed lines, such as, when condemning his prisoners, "Stubbs, treason, Cotton, treason, Ky, conspiracy, sabotage, terrorism, and you, Miss Grant- such a pity," and his exchange with the Doctor: "you're insane." "Only if I lose, Doctor, only if I lose" (in an eerie echo of Hitler's assertion that only if he lost the war would his name become reviled throughout the world). Although the presence of some obvious padding around the middle suggests that it might have made a better four-parter than six-parter, there is little to complain about in the story itself.
"The Mutants"' most obvious strength lies in the treatment of the postcolonial satire elements. A lot of the problems which the former British Empire had experienced over the preceding twenty or thirty years were worked in, particularly, as the inspiration for the story was Martin's concerns about the Apartheid system, with regard to the fate of the African colonies. For instance, the idea of subjugating a native population such that it cannot function without colonial assistance, then cutting them loose and blaming the natives' "inability to govern" for subsequent failures echoes many real-life events on the African continent. According to various sources, the original derogatory term for the mutants, "munts," was removed due to the fact that it was an actual epithet for Black South Africans (although almost certainly its resemblance to a certain four-letter English obscenity much beloved of Johnny Rotten also played a role). The sequence where Ky uses the Solonian transport cubicle to go down to Solos to evade his pursuers even though the Overlord cubicle is closer to him also rings true, considering the petty segregation practiced under the Apartheid system, although it is slightly marred later, when we see a guard taking the Solonian cubicle up from the surface seemingly without hesitation. The story thus, for the most part, does a good job of sending up the Apartheid states, coming across as knowledgeable and ironic rather than merely socially aware.
Other ideas in the story are less specific to Africa, but still rather apt. The fact that the impetuses for colonialism are, as in the nineteenth century, economic exploitation and the attempt to relieve overcrowding recalls India and North America as much as it does Africa (this may be at least partly down to the fact that Terrance Dicks, who was quite keen on the idea behind "The Mutants", had himself wanted to do a story about nineteenth-century British colonialism). In a nice production touch, the Investigator's guards have helmets vaguely resembling solar topees. Even the humans being unable to visit Solos during the hours of daylight without an oxymask echoes the case of the British in India being unable to cope with the local heat and insects. The fact that the Solonians are incapable of reading their own ancient written language, having to turn to a human anthropologist for assistance, also brings up the ironies of colonial situations (as well as bringing home the fact that loss of knowledge, however useless it may seem, potentially means losing the ability to understand and cope with crises). As comments on colonialism go, "The Mutants" is at least one of the most detailed and well-thought-out.
Unfortunately, the script is marred by the fact that Episode 1 appears to have been rewritten to make the situation simpler and more child-friendly. It would make much more sense in plot terms, as well as fit in with what we see from the paranoid and clever Marshal later, if the Marshal knew that independence was imminent, and was plotting from the very first to assassinate the Administrator. As it stands here, it just looks as if the Marshal, otherwise fairly on top of things, has slipped up, and yet comes up with an opportunistic plan to take over on the spur of the moment. As the rest of the story is well-done, with the Marshal cunningly lying to various parties and playing them off against each other, it is rather a pity that it should get off to such a rough start.
The message of the story, however, and what truly sets it apart from many others of the time, is actually a quite savage indictment of authority in all its forms. The very premise is that the Earth has been poisoned through mismanagement by greedy, unscrupulous authority figures, who then spread out to other areas of the galaxy to do the same. Within the story itself, no authority figure comes out of it at all well; not only is the Marshal power-mad and unscrupulous, but the Investigator from Earth is inclined to believe the Marshal over the locals despite the former's unhinged and erratic behaviour due to his unwillingness to upset the status quo, only becoming concerned when the Marshal starts threatening him personally. Even the benign-seeming Administrator is only giving the Solonians independence because the Earth is finished as a colonial power, and he remarks that he doesn't much care what happens to them after the handover takes place. More to the writers' credit, the Third Doctor's usual pro-authority stance also takes a rubbishing, as he sucks up to the Investigator only to have him decide in favour of the Marshal, and as he is forced to play along with the Marshal to save Jo's life.
While "The Mutants" has the usual Pertwee-era references to environmental crises, furthermore, this story breaks from the normal pattern in that there is never really any talk of resolving these. Earth is more or less given up as a bad job, and the seeming central conceit of the plot- the Solonians being turned into mutants as a result of the colonists' activities- turns out to be a McGuffin as, while the mutation has been brought on early as a result of Jaeger's experiments, it is a natural process which is meant to happen. Rather than the Doctor meeting a scientist who is intelligent and inclined to see the Doctor's point of view, also, Jaeger is a distinctly unsympathetic figure: although the Doctor casts a number of aspersions upon his title of "Professor," he is definitely intelligent, but completely unwilling to stand up to authority, or to try and resolve his own problems rather than depending on the Doctor for help. "The Mutants" thus goes against the normal pattern for Pertwee stories in interesting ways.
The Solonians throughout are ambiguously portrayed, rather than being cardboard noble savages. Ky, on Solos, is not above stealing a mask from a guard to protect Jo; although he reassures her that the man will be all right if he "takes it easy," he overlooks the fact that things could go wrong and the rescue party might not get to him in time. It also has to be said that, as Jo is an attractive woman whom he knows has access to potentially valuable information, he is most likely not saving her entirely out of the goodness of his own heart. The Doctor, at one point, accuses him of making a political speech. When Varan declares the Marshal his enemy and Ky suggests they band together, Varan rejects the offer, saying that he will fight him on his own, effectively stealing Ky's political clothes; Ky himself is dumbfounded, which suggests that he wouldn't actually be that great as a leader. Varan, also, supports the conquerors for selfish rather than ideological or pragmatic reasons; his "rebellion," is not particularly honourable, as it stems not from recognising the Marshal's evil nature, but from the fact that once the Administrator has been assassinated, the Marshal (having declared martial law), no longer has any need for Varan, and acts accordingly. At the end of the story, the mutated Ky, rather than achieving a higher consciousness, kills the Marshal in cold blood- understandable under the circumstances, perhaps, but clearly demonstrating that, while he may have mutated physically, his moral development still needs some work.
The multiculturalism of the story is also a nice touch; the fact that Sondergaard and Jaeger are obviously Swedish and German, but not ostentatiously so, is praiseworthy (although perhaps having the German be the one who goes about obeying orders he knows to be morally wrong, condoning genocide and indiscriminately firing off rockets may be a bit of a cheap shot). Cotton aside, there is at least one more Black, and one Asian, guard on the station. Whatever the unfortunateness of naming a West Indian character Cotton, he does at least wind up unquestionably in charge at the end of the story. This indicates that prejudice is not just a simple matter of one group versus another group, but something which transcends social and ethnic boundaries. Similarly, when Varan starts to mutate, he forgets his earlier prejudice against mutants, and instead rallies his troops- all mutants- against a new enemy, the Marshal. The story thus also points out the ambiguities of discrimination.
The subplot involving Stubbs and Cotton further points up the situational nature of human behaviour in such cases. The pair are rather like the German soldiers in WWII who, once they realised the game was up, collaborated with the Allies, or the soldiers in Vietnam who assisted the anti-war movement; although they are willing to put up with things to a certain point, they are now well beyond that stage. They are not particularly natural idealists or politicians; we see amusingly jobsworthy scenes of the pair cheerfully ignoring malfunctions simply because they can't be bothered to get up and investigate, and more or less blatantly revealing to the Marshal that, whatever they say, they are in fact collaborating with the Doctor (it also becomes obvious that they don't realise that the Marshal is not above having them killed). Cotton and Stubbs, indeed, as much as the Marshal, symbolise an empire in decline gradually falling into factionalism and internecine conflict. We may also note that the guards are reluctant to shoot Stubbs and Cotton, and vice versa; again, "insurgent elements" are easier to attack if they are faceless natives rather than one's colleagues. As with the Solonians, the guards are portrayed as reacting to the moment rather than as representing particular ideological positions.
In sum, then, while it is far from the deepest and most subtextual Doctor Who story, "The Mutants" is also far from the most superficial. While the effects and lighting might not have stood the test of time, and the first episode is somewhat hampered by a bit of clumsy plotting, the overall story is a watchable, and sometimes clever, allegory of postcolonialism, which also slyly points up some of the clichés of the Pertwee era.
Effects courtesy of Fiona Moore and Maureen Marrs