This story takes
place BETWEEN THE
BIG FINISH AUDIO BOOK
"FIND AND REPLACE"
AND THE TV STORY
"THE TIME MONSTER."
BOB BAKER &
'THE MUTANTS' DVD (BBC
DVD3042) RELEASED IN
WHEN A MESSAGE POD
TURNS UP AT UNIT HQ,
THE DOCTOR AND HIS
ASSISTANT JO GRANT
FIND THEMSELVES WITH
MISSION FOR THE TIME
THE TARDIS TAKES THEM
TO SKYBASE ONE ABOVE
THE PLANET SOLOS. IT IS
THE 30TH CENTURY AND
THE PLANET IS ABOUT TO
FROM EARTH'S EMPIRE.
BUT SOMEONE HAS VERY
DIFFERENT PLANS AND,
OF THE NATIVES ARE
MUTATING INTO FIERCE-
THE DOCTOR AND JO
MUST FIND OUT WHY...
8TH APRIL 1972 - 13TH MAY 1972
The Mutants is, quite understandably, often confused with The Mutants – Terry Nation’s first Dalek serial, better known these days as simply The Daleks. This is actually rather remarkable as both stories are very rich thematically, each taking the political and social crises of their respective eras and veiling them in monster-clad allegory. However, whereas The Daleks is almost multiversally regarded as a classic, and its popular pepper pots are still running rampant in the mainstream today, Bob Baker and Dave Martin’ s tale marks one of the lowest points in Jon Pertwee’s long reign, its titular “Mutts” destined to scavenge forever after on any planet in need of a ready-made insectoid nasty.
The DVD release’s first disc sees all six episodes of the serial complemented by a cheerful commentary track moderated by Dalek Operator Nick Pegg and featuring (amongst others) co-writer Bob Baker, script editor Terrance Dicks, director Christopher Barry and the ever- effervescent Katy Manning. In my view, you can’t beat Dicks or Manning when it comes to a DVD commentary – the former is a fountain of knowledge, which he imparts with deliciously wry wit (his loathing of the Solosian rabble-rouser, Ky, is particularly amusing here), and the latter spontaneously invents words to describe what she’s watching, “Avataresque” being the latest addition to the dictionary.
Oddly, nobody seems to recall the exact origin of The Mutants. Early 1970s producer Barry Letts originally pitched an idea that sounds very much like it back in Patrick Troughton’s day, but the story was turned down by the production office on the ground that it was too complex. Neither Dicks nor Baker – who are both on hand for the commentary – can recall whether the Bristol Boys’ pitch appealed to Letts as it was so similar to his own, or whether Letts gave it to them to run with, but either way the central conceit is a most appealing one. The Mutants may be a timeless tale of beauty masked by beast, but in presenting an ostensibly fearsome monster as an evolutionary stepping stone – an ugly caterpillar, if you will – the writers were delivering the notion in a fresh and suitably scientific way. It’s a pity, then, that the intricacies of the script wouldn’t live up to the ingenuity of its core idea.
It’s not surprising that a story about
the evils of empire developed and
script edited by a pro-imperialist
has something of a conflicting tone.
The story wanted to be bold and
eschew many of the conventions of
the series, yet for every minute of
intelligent comment there are ten
minutes of trite; for every blazing
metaphor, there is over an hour
of histrionic farce. The serial’s
shortcomings are probably best
exemplified by the writers’ recycling of the old “Doctor… Who?” gag, which is questionable
enough at the best of times, but unforgivable mere weeks after another writer had wheeled it
out. Besides, it’s “whom.”
“It seemed to him, as he idled across the channels, that the box was full of freaks:
there were mutants - ‘Mutts’ - on Dr Who, bizarre creatures who appeared to have been
crossbred with different types of industrial machinery...” - Salman Rushie,The Satanic Verses
Take the story’s principal villain. The Marshal is a ten-a-penny megalomaniac who’s notable only for his fervent bigotry and the mocking performance of Paul Whitsun-Jones. It’s not so much characterisation as caricature. What’s more, the plot is predicated on the Doctor and Jo undertaking their second mission for the Time Lords in three stories, the mystery of which is completely blown within about ten minutes of Episode 1. Charged with delivering a large, mystifying cube to an undisclosed somebody, the cube reacts favourably to Ky, leaving over two hours’ tedium ahead of the discerning viewer.
Ironically though, The Mutants is better known for
things that it isn’t guilty of. Rife with anti-apartheid
undertones and sledgehammer-subtle melting pot
messages, The Mutants was famously lambasted
for its racism by Salman Rushdie in his notoriously
divisive novel The Satanic Verses. It seems that
the last-minute script change (the offensive South
African term “Munt”, employed as a contraction of
“Mutant Native” in the original script, was dropped
in favour of the friendlier-sounding “Mutt”) didn’t
pull the wool over old Salman’s eyes – it’s not what
you say, it’s how you say it. He does seem to have
completely missed the point though – whilst British
polytechnics were naming their buildings after this
story’s demonstrably liberal authors, Rushdie was
citing them as freak-bashing bigots. If you’re going
to criticise The Mutants, do it right: it’s not racist,
it’s rubbish. Indeed, were it not for the unwitting Python pastiche at the beginning of Episode 1,
the Doctor’s devastating wit, and Jo’s exuberant
enthusiasm for the cause (not to mention the zesty
performances of their real-life counterparts, Jon
Pertwee and Katy Manning) then this adventure
would be down there with the likes of Paradise Towers and Underworld.
However, The Mutants is buoyed by a distinctive look. It’s as if the muffled hues of the title sequence have been allowed to bleed straight into the scenes shot in Chislehurst Caves, where they are fused with some gorgeous shadowplay courtesy of Christopher Barry. Say what you will about James Acheson’s unusually sympathetic “Mutt” design (don’t they look sad?), there’s no denying how menacing the Mutants look in silhouette. Certain scenes are also given a very effective psychedelic twist that only heightens the serial’s unique feel, and even if you close your eyes, the aural landscape is every bit as exceptional. In fact, I don’t think that there had been such a vibrant mix of accents in a Doctor Who serial since The Wheel in Space four years earlier. One can’t help but wonder if the comparatively exotic casting was influenced by the story’s racial themes – themes that serve as a launch pad
for many of this DVD release’s bonus features.
Above: Noel Clarke narrates Race Against Time, examining the dearth of non-white actors in Doctor Who
The flagship documentary Race Against Time takes the themes explored in The Mutants
as a starting point, and then goes off on a bit of a tangent, looking at the representation of non-white actors in Doctor Who, and particularly the classic series. Narrated by the Doctor’s first black television companion, Noel Clarke, the programme treads both enlightening and humbling ground. I had no idea, for instance, that The Talons of Weng-Chiang has never been transmitted in Canada as it is feared that John Bennett playing what could – wrongly,
I feel - be seen as a heavily-stereotyped “evil oriental” would enrage the country’s Chinese populous, or that The Mutants’ Rick James was the only black face to appear during the whole of Season 9. Indeed, having grown up with the comparatively multicultural McCoy-era, I’ve never noticed the dearth of non-white actors in the classic series, save for in its earliest serials where “blacking up” was routine. Unfortunately this programme does get preachy at times – one of the contributors in particular - and needlessly so. Most Doctor Who fans will agree with actor Fraser James, who opines here that it isn’t a matter of whether the Doctor will ever have a black incarnation – it’s a matter of when. And, for the avoidance of doubt,
I’m not talking about a blacked-up ‘Arabian Nights’ version as we might have had if Patrick Troughton had got his way – I’m talking about an actor the calibre of Hustle’s Adrian Lester, or even Peep Show’s Patterson Joseph.
Race Against Time is complemented by a far less remarkable, but nonetheless polished, ‘making of’ feature. The twenty-minute Mutt Mad looks back at The Mutants’ development and production and features contributions from most of those on board for the commentary as well as the late Barry Letts. A fleeting Blue Peter clip that sees former companion Peter Purves rubbing shoulders with Ogrons and Sea Devils is also included for posterity, along with a featurette entitled Dressing Doctor Who. This final, half-hour feature is essentially a clip-complemented interview with Oscar-winning costume designer James Acheson which sees him discuss his time on Doctor Who which, of course, included designing this story’s Mutts. As I’m not all that interested in costume design, I wasn’t expecting to get much from this programme, but to my surprise I found it rather riveting. A dry tale of transparent bowler hats, cod liver oil, baco foil and even fourth Doctor lookalike Aristide Bruant (or is it the other way around…?), Acheson’s story is certainly a colourful one.
Above: “Bristol Boy” Bob Baker recalls scripting The Mutants with his writing partner Dave Martin
And so whilst The Mutants will never be a serial that I’d recommend to anyone besides the Pertwee die-hards and completists, the effusive special features make the lush double-DVD worth a punt. Just make sure that you don’t accidentally purchase it when you’re meaning to buy The Daleks - if you do, you’re going to be bitterly disappointed.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008, 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Unless otherwise stated, all images on this site are copyrighted to the BBC and are used solely for promotional purposes.
‘Doctor Who’ is copyright © by the BBC. No copyright infringement is intended.