The Mutants ***

With its psychedelia, hippy aliens, socio-political subtext and avant-garde electro-score, The Mutants reeks of the early 70s zeitgeist...

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
The Mutants ***

Season 9 – Story 63

"Once my people were farmers and nomads. Now look at them. Slaves in factories and mines! Already the pollution is causing mutations - the "Mutts" as the Marshal calls them" - Ky

Storyline
The Time Lords send the Doctor and Jo on a mission to Solos in the 30th century, a world plundered by humans but about to gain independence. From his orbiting space station Skybase, the despotic Marshal refuses to relinquish control. He is fixated on eradicating mutated life forms on the planet below, while his scientist Jaegar tries to adapt the atmosphere for humans. The Doctor and Jo befriend an impetuous Solonian leader, Ky, and realise the mutations are part of a "life cycle unique in the history of the universe". The Marshal must be stopped.

First transmissions
Episode 1 - Saturday 8 April 1972
Episode 2 - Saturday 15 April 1972
Episode 3 - Saturday 22 April 1972
Episode 4 - Saturday 29 April 1972
Episode 5 - Saturday 6 May 1972
Episode 6 - Saturday 13 May 1972

Production
Location filming: February 1972 at Western Quarry, Northfleet; Stone House Farm, Frindsbury; Chislehurst Caves in Kent
Studio recording: February 1972 in TC4, March 1972 in TC8 and TC3

Cast
Doctor Who - Jon Pertwee
Jo Grant - Katy Manning
The Marshal - Paul Whitsun-Jones
Varan - James Mellor
Ky - Garrick Hagon
Stubbs - Christopher Coll
Cotton - Rick James
Varan's son - Jonathan Sherwood
The Administrator - Geoffrey Palmer
Jaeger - George Pravda
Sondergaard - John Hollis
Old man - Sidney Johnson
The Investigator - Peter Howell
Mutt - John Scott Martin
Guards - Martin Taylor, Roy Pearce, Damon Sanders, David Arlen

Crew
Writers - Bob Baker, Dave Martin
Incidental music - Tristram Cary
Designer - Jeremy Bear
Script editor - Terrance Dicks
Producer - Barry Letts
Director - Christopher Barry

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
As a testy Patrick Troughton once told me, the future is in the past. And that was never truer than with this "futuristic" production. With its rainbow-strobing palette, socio-political subtext and avant-garde electro-score, The Mutants reeks - not always unpleasantly - of the early 70s zeitgeist.

The all-male Solonians look like hippies aching to become glam rockers. Varan could be a tranny roadie who's failed an audition for rock band Wizzard, whereas Ky eventually transmogrifies into a sort of technicolor-dreamcoated Joseph. Then there's Sondergaard, the shaven-headed shaman in a pink robe, festooned with beads. When he leads the Doctor into a green/gold/purple cavern to locate a powerful crystal, the psychedelia is supreme.

The Mutants is a peculiarly variable serial. The first episode is surprisingly leaden and unengaging, whereas episode four is one of the most stimulating and creatively innovative under Barry Letts' stewardship. Young guest actors Garrick Hagon and Rick James look relaxed on film but are very shaky in the recording studio.

Katy Manning is resolutely perky, while Jon Pertwee appears bored stiff at the start, even stumbling over dialogue. He warms to the material as it progresses. In his memoirs he admitted, "I don't really recall anything about the making of The Mutants." The picture quality varies, too: the first two instalments exist now as fuzzy conversions for the US market, while episodes three to six are pristine originals.

Uneven performances and awkward dialogue aside, Bob Baker and Dave Martin's second commission is an exemplar of a Doctor Who story that works on two levels. There's plenty of action, suspense, villainy, monsters and body horror for younger fans, while adults watching should appreciate the underlying messages - both ecological and political.

The dying days of colonialism in the 20th century are echoed in the collapse of Earth's Empire in the 30th. Just as undeveloped regions of our own world were plundered for wealth, so Solos has been mined for radioactive thaesium. South African apartheid is mirrored in the Skybase matter transfer cubicles, which are segregated between Overlords and Solonians.

And if Colony in Space (1971) predicted a dystopian future for the 25th century, The Mutants depicts an even worse scenario 500 years on. "Earth is exhausted, finished - politically, economically and biologically," says the Administrator (a whey-faced Geoffrey Palmer). A view backed up by the Doctor: "Land and sea alike - all grey. Slag, ash, clinker… the fruits of technology."

The rotund Marshal cuts a Mussolini-like figure, whereas "professor" Jaegar's deadly atmospheric experiments stir up other allusions to the Second World War and the Vietnam War. In some ways, these two rogues are magnificent: one a devious megalomaniac, the other a bungling charlatan. But taken together, it's hard to imagine them running a village post office let alone an entire planet. Perhaps that's the point.

One of the major successes is the crustacean carapaces of the Mutants or "Mutts", excellent designs from James Acheson in his first Doctor Who engagement. He'd go on to design the Sontarans, Zygons, Tom Baker's costume… and eventually win Oscars and oversee the Spider-Man movies.

Seasoned Who director Christopher Barry makes some unsuccessful casting choices, which lend an "am dram" air, and he allows through shots of mutant vertebra swishing about on Solonian cloaks. But the film work at Chislehurst Caves is beautifully lit and the mist-choked quarry is particularly uninviting. In places, Solos feels like Who's first truly convincing alien environment. The otherworldly sensation is bolstered by an atonal backing track from Tristram Cary, with whom Barry collaborated on the first Dalek story in 1963.

And there are a couple of brilliant "What the hell…?" moments that come out of nowhere. When Jo wanders deep into the thaesium mine, she collapses and a silver-suited figure blurs into view and bears down on her… And one of my favourite cliffhangers from childhood: the Marshal accidentally blasts a hole in the Skybase hull, Varan tumbles out into space, then Jo and the others, baddies and goodies, are drawn towards the breach…

The Mutants may not be gold-star Pertwee, but it's undeniably purple.

- - -


What Katy did next…
“I was always in quarries and caves, so none of that really sticks in the mind. Jon and I went everywhere together, driving to location together. Lovely Garrick Hagon was in that. The butterfly bit [superbeing Ky] was the hardest to get right.”
(Talking to RT, April 2012)

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[Available on BBC DVD]

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