The Mutants

Written by:
Bob Baker and Dave Martin
Directed by: Christopher Barry
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1972
Video Availability: Try

Right from the start I'll make one thing clear: I'm not going to be negative about The Mutants. Okay, I'll mock Rick James and I'll deride the padding, but if there's ever a story that doesn't need slagging off it's this one. Everyone, it seems, hates The Mutants. So instead of kicking its corpse, why don't I point out what's actually good about it, and the potential that it has?

Okay, the first shot is a clip of the "It's…" man from Monty Python, but a Doctor Who story attacking apartheid, however unsubtly ("Should have given them independence years ago." "Segregation?") is surely worthwhile? One interesting element of The Mutants is that it presents the third Doctor as a background strategist, playing psychological games like Troughton, unlike the usual "hit and ask questions later" third Doctor persona. So that's the first positive. It dares to present a new take on the third Doctor's somewhat rigid characterisation. Unfortunately, Jon gives arguably his worst performance outside of Planet of the Daleks, showing his boredom with this less star-driven concept. So bored is Jon that, almost in a homage to Hartnell, he says the same line twice in only his first scene: "I'm not allowed to open it… well I couldn't even if I wanted to. No, I'm not meant to… I couldn't open it even if I wanted to."

One thing I do love about the story is that, apart from around half a dozen isolated sequences, I can never remember anything about it. Every time I see it it's fresh, by virtue of it being so forgettable. As for Jon this time, he attempts a rarity - the triple mouth stroke! So bored is he, that twitching his fingers and rubbing his lip as if in deep thought constitute his performance. Yet it's an arduous task for anyone, and he can't quite manage it. He goes for the first, and all is well. Anm audacious second stroke. Then…. he goes to the nose. A hesitation… then - he's nailed it! There it is, the third lip stroke for all to see!

Okay, if we're really being honest, then the support cast in this one aren't the best. Some of the civilian classes in particular are appalling, while I want to have Rick James's babies so I can spread his thespic talent throughout time. But the Marshall, despite having to speak his commands into an old bicycle pump, does have a real presence, and, if played opposite a more depth-filled, or interested, Doctor, would have worked winders. The presence of the guy from Reggie Perrin is a distraction, and it's strange to realise that the expression "Good Heavens, man!" will become popular once more in the 30th century. There's a slow build-up here, but as what is presented isn't suspenseful or immediately compelling, then it means viewers wouldn't have been persuaded to tune in again the next week as a necessity. Therefore, as a first episode to a six-part story its purpose fails. Not as bad as they say, though.
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Here's a question: is The Mutants anyone's favourite story? I can imagine some minority of fans thinking it's a top fifty story, a top twenty maybe… maybe even top ten in, say, one in a thousand cases. But would anyone, even someone who's never seen any other stories before, class it as their absolute favourite? The Mutants is okay, average even, but a great it is not. But I'd love to meet the person who thought so.

After the pace and high gloss of the preceding story de ray diarrhoea. I actually received a mail (even after Day of the Daleks!) this is a major comedown. The script isn't actually that bad by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, certainly better than their season ten opener, yet the word pedestrian was surely invented for The Mutants.

The sets look obviously artificial, but, even despite the presence of an old overhead lamp, work well. This is actually the first time I've seen the story on broadcast quality (my two previous viewings being on a copy so dog-eared it kept fading to black and white) and it's really pleasant to see all the nice colours involved.

Jo is heavily sidelined in this one, giving Jon a clear opportunity to showcase the more complex sides of his character. Sadly, he doesn't take it, and falls asleep instead. His rage about genocide is a rare shot in the arm of this story, but it's only the second episode and already we're into double figures PMS-wise. "She is receiving… oxy-gen treat-ment… in a day or so." Oh, how wonderful Rick James is! What's he up to nowadays, I wonder? Winning Emmy Awards or something?

Okay, here's my theory: do people find this story irritating because of the rolling door sound effects? If I'd thought of it I'd have counted how many times it appears, because in this episode alone I feel like we've heard the bubbling noise around fifty times already. And that's no real exaggeration.

Okay, I said I'd be positive. Well, no, actually, I said I wouldn't be negative. And if I wanted to tear this story apart I could do so. But while the execution is lacking, the ideas and intent are a very commendable case.
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Jon gets some "Hai!" schtick at the start of this one, but it's the exception here and not the rule, so it's entirely forgivable. Watching season ten just before this one I was struck by how much more attractive Jo Grant was and couldn't put my finger on why. The brain she grew, perhaps? The more ruffled, less bobbed haircut? No, I think what it was was the absence of her horrible stick-on eyelashes, as seen here. Even when she blinks, her bottom lids remain in place. Ick!

There's some awful CSO at work that, in a lesser story, I would slate. However, despite what anyone says about The Mutants ("It's rubbish", normally) you can't say it never tries. It might not get anywhere, but at least it tries. There's an awful cross between film and video towards the end of this one, and some horrific false beards, but I still enjoyed it.

The Mutts themselves are very good indeed, with a nice anecdote recounted on the Carnival of Monsters DVD commentary as to how Jim Acheson stayed overnight to make them. They look quite cute and funny at times, actually, and their larger role in events does add some charm to proceedings, making it the best episode so far.
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I've always wanted to read a proper, in-depth analysis of The Mutants, but I don't think I'm the person to write it. Some scholar out there should really get stuck in though, as there's lot to study if you really delve deep enough. This is no flash-bang Pertwee adventure: in fact, it's arguably the densest text of his last four seasons. As it stands, The Mutants' highest claim to fame is being slagged off in The Satanic Verses.

Some often say that getting a black man to play a role called "Cotton" is extremely insensitive, but if you think about it's just right for the story. Having said all this, I had problems trying to find episode four just now. With no title breaks on the UK Gold repeats, I had to go from the video counter and advert breaks to gauge where the episode began. Yet, even though I'd rewound the tape back to episode three (this was on till 3 in the morning and I wasn't staying up) I couldn't remember whether it was something I'd already seen or not. The fact that an episode is forgettable not just months later, but even overnight, is not a positive thing. But again, I say - go easy on The Mutants. As a Pertwee story that dares to have a plot, and doesn't resolve its problems with explosions, then this is highly commendable, if not actually any good.

Again, Rick James puts in some sterling plankosity here. I love him to bits. Whereas some wooden actors (Jennie Laird, Leee John, Sarah Sutton…) just make you cringe, James is so mind-numbingly awful that you feel they must have hired him on purpose. He even got an acting gig in the penultimate episode of Blake's 7, almost as if they were jealous of Who.

Look out for this episode's highlight: a mean PMS/Neck scratch combo. The guy's a professional, marvel at his work.
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One problem with the release of the best Who stories first on DVD (and The Five Doctors, The Three Doctors and Resurrection of the Daleks) is that the commentaries are always positive. Okay, Barry Letts and Katy Manning might be luvvied-up, but would even they praise Rick James? I can just see them now: "Oh, he was a lovely actor, Barry, did you ever work with him again?" Bring it out on DVD now, let's hear the slag-off or vain justification!

Anyway, fans of this story can afford to feel a little intellectual snobbery over people who claim it's boring. It might not be Kinda or Warriors' Gate, but this is certainly a cut above the average intellectual gamut of usual Pertwee fare. Yes, there are chases with guns and things, but they're all there to support the story rather than be the story in itself. It's the constant feeling I get throughout watching The Mutants, comfortable in the knowledge that while I may be watching crap, it's at least crap that had a defined purpose and unexploited potential. I say all that ignoring, of course, the broom cupboard that still has air left in it despite being depressurised. (Though maybe the base had a force field? And I saw Buzz Aldrin talking on TV once about how men exploding if in the vaccuum of space is a myth. So Who was right with its falling in space shots?)

The concept of a war mongering Marshall determined to go to war and dropping bombs on a planet is of course a topical one, with one of his prisoners even charged with terrorism. One interesting thing about Paul Whitsun-Jones as the Marshall is that his nose is so lined he looks like one of the Bajorans from Star Trek. Another point I've not mentioned yet is that, while not outstanding, the direction of this one is interesting, and Tristram Cary's music is a slight step above Dudley's usual score.

Having said all this, the unique pacing of this six part story (the pace only really picking up three episodes in) means that this is the first really padded episode, when normally you'd expect the middle ones to tread water. Or is the Doctor running around, fighting and being captured an essential narrative progression? And, while the CSO used in this story is nowhere near as bad as they say, there is a particularly crap effect shot of an incoming ship. Yet the climax, which we shall look at in the next episode reprise, deserves five stars alone. But "un-people un-doing un-things un-together"? Like un-acting I suppose, Jon?
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When I see The Horns of Nimon, I always laugh at Graham Crowden's OTT performance. Yet it's an intentional send-up, and when placed against the unwitting genius that is Rick James, it seems weak in comparison. Graham knew exactly what he was doing, but the twisted brilliance that is "We'll all be done for!" crushes all before it. This goes beyond bad and into unmissable, essential Who.

Whitsun-Jones's performance sadly doesn't hold up until the end, but bearing in mind the ultimate form and voice of the mutts, was Ghost Light an unofficial sequel to this story?

Okay, they had to spread the budget on one extra story per season, but even though I bigged up the set earlier, cast your mind back to the one in Doctor Who and the Silurians and wonder where the quality control went to. The investigator finally arrives in this one, and he's a camp old mincer with a pink prophylactic on his head. Look at the scene where the Marshall justifies himself to the Investigator - there's a guard extra in the background looking at the ground the whole time. Is he acting discrete or just plain asleep? I believe it's probably the latter. Yet though he doesn't get any lines, it's interesting to note that one of the three Investigators is Asian. Cotton may have been a role written for a Caucasian, but Rick James's eventual casting perfectly complements the racial dynamic, and all the rockets and probes present will give Freudians a good time. There's plenty to get your teeth into if you really want it.

In many ways this is a solo Doctor Who story before The Deadly Assassin, but as I've said many times, Jon isn't up to the task before him. But, given different circumstances, this could have been one of the strongest stories in the Who canon. The moment when the Marshall says too much is a fine piece of work, and almost garnered this episode four stars. With tighter direction, (much) better performances, a little script pruning and a greater design budget, it could have been so different. The Mutants is an old morality play, akin to The Savages, with the Doctor in the style of the second, using his wits to manipulate the situation for the right reasons. Yes, the Mutts look a little funny outside of the caves, but if this was a Hartnell story we'd still be praising its ingenuity. Because it's a Jon Pertwee story we escape UNIT and lots of bangs. The Mutants strengths are, oddly, its failings.
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Arguably the weakest story of season nine, even though it has more - much more - to say than Day of the Daleks. Despite its many, many shortcomings I can't find it in myself to slate The Mutants and declare it to be below average. Whatever flaws it may have, it always makes an effort to do something different and to tell a tale. Rick James's performance is actually so bad it becomes an art form, meaning that the worst offender is Jon himself. As the lead in this story, his total lack of involvement squanders any form of real potential this one had. A missed opportunity.
PMS: 17 Jehosophat! It's a record!
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