Sunday, 30 June 2013

The Mutants written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin and directed by Christopher Barry

This story in a nutshell: ‘What you are proposing is an all out rocket attack on a defenceless planet…’

Good Grief: After a trip into the future under Dalek rule, a trip to an alien world at Time Lord’s behest and an adventure beneath the ocean with the Sea Devils, the Doctor is back to his old routine working on the TARDIS in his UNIT laboratory. He looks quite excited to break the cycle and go on another assignment for his people, even if what he says is to the contrary. Couldn’t the Time Lords have given the Doctor a less cumbersome parcel to deliver? All it seems to contain is a small slab of stone with some markings on it which would have fit snugly in a far less congruous briefcase. The Mutants is such a excruciatingly po-faced story that it requires the Doctor to be anything other than straight laced and yet Pertwee wanders the sets with even more gravitas than usual and thus seems to blend into the scenery somewhat. What this adventure desperately needs is Troughton, arsing about with a little physical comedy, taking the piss out of the Marshall and running rings around everybody else. There’s very little contrast between the serious machinations of the Marshall and the pensive methods deployed by the Doctor, what is needed is a much more reactionary protagonist. At the very least Troughton would provide some little entertainment whereas Pertwee feels bizarrely at home in this oppressive environment. He clearly doesn’t think to much of Jaeger after their little discourse on genocide as an unfortunate side effect of his rocket attack as he sets up a piece of equipment to explode in the scientists face and doesn’t spare him a glance as he departs. And people call the sixth Doctor heartless!

Hippy Chick: Jo and the Doctor are so in sync with each other these days that she knows exactly when she needs to distract somebody with talk of home so the Time Lord can take the opportunity to disable them. Manning takes her cue from Pertwee and is also attacking this material with deadly earnestness. Why is nobody having any fun with this story? It looks as interminable for the characters to endure the events of this story as it is for us to watch.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘That’s your alternative to independence, genocide?
‘Slag, ash, tinker. The fruits of technology, Jo.’

The Good:

  • Garrick Hagon is by far the most impressive performer in the cast. A young, beautiful actor who tackles a difficult part with real aplomb, injecting a level of drama into the piece that is sorely missing in the direction. Unfortunately he gets off to a poor start in episode one by not giving the Administrator a chance to speak and inform them that they are gaining their independence and thus setting off a chain of events that nearly wipes the Mutts from the face of the planet. However once Hagon is paired off with Manning, Ky calms down considerably and becomes the viewpoint character for the rest of the story. This is why his transformation at the climax is supposed to be such a shock, because something unseemly is happening to what is essentially the hero of the piece.
  • Paul Whitsun-Jones on the other hand turns out to be one of the shows casualties but not from lack of trying. He is actually giving a very good performance (if a little over the top at times) but he needs a much more impressive production to let him shine. Jones as the Marshall is delivering an overtly theatrical performance that winds up somewhere in the stratosphere before the conclusion which would be fine if the setting, pace and score were much more ambitious and monumental. He is just too big for such a contained story and as such he comes across as far too boorish and outrageous. It’s the Colin Baker syndrome, the television is almost too small to contain an actor of that magnitude. Shove him on stage or in a big budget movie of the same story and Whitsun-Jones would prosper. This is the sort of man who ropes in a primitives son to do his dirty work and then murders him, and seconds later tries to explain to his father that it was a necessary act but in a story this insignificantly realised these feel like perfectly reasonable acts. When he is pouring over his vision of a new Solos it should have been an insanely sized globe that he could enthuse over like Nero before the burning of Rome but instead he can be seen staring down at the equivalent of a stress ball on his desk. When he grabs a gun in episode five and starts firing like a madmen it should have been a sub automatic machine gun causing endless destruction, not a dozy BBC prop that goes phut. This could be a really powerful drama with the egocentric Marshall at the heart of it. He even has a great motive for behaving the way he does (which for once has nothing to do with wanting power for its own sake or money such is the way with a lot of Doctor Who villains). If he doesn’t find some way of keeping hold of Solos and proving that they are incapable of independence he (and all ex colonial officials) will be carted off to menial positions, his career effectively over on a doomed world. He’s one of the old school, unwilling to admit that the golden days are over and wants one last stab at power for the Earth Empire on Solos. For someone with an ego this gargantuan, this simply is not an option. Despite being a big fish in a small pond, the story would be even more unbearable if it wasn’t for the Marshall’s pantomime antics and it is hugely entertaining to watch his own hubris consume him in the latter half of the story and ultimately bring him down.  He gets some great lines too – ‘Marshall, you are quite mad!’ ‘Only if I lose!’ Watching him rant his way into a criminal conviction proves quite satisfying after suffering six episodes of his overblown villainy.
  • Much like Colony in Space, The Mutants offers a bleak vision of the future for the planet Earth. The wonderfully Geoffrey Palmer is on hand to deliver the operative line: ‘We can’t afford an Empire any more. Earth is exhausted Marshall, finished. Politically, economically and biologically…’ With the Solonians gaining independence and the general feeling of the best days gone by for the Empire, it isn’t too hard to read a subtext into this story. As much as Terrance Dicks disliked adding a political slant to tales for its own sake, this is one Pertwee adventure that benefits from having something to say about the rise and fall of the British Empire. The parody gives the story some depth that is otherwise missing. Like the rest of the script, there is often a realistic motive behind the action and the Earth Empire came to Solos originally to strip it of its mineral wealth. It’s an unpleasant reason to enslave a species (and cause a mutation in their gene pool), but a pragmatic one. There is more talk of sky cities and humans being factory farmed because of overpopulation.
  • Episode three contains the shows best scenes, the exquisitely lit cave sequences (shot on film so they look a million times more expensive than anything else in the story) that highlight John Friedlander’s marvellous Mutt costumes. Considering this is the sort of thing that Doctor Who is infamous for (the man in a monster suit) these work shockingly well, looking for all the world like genuine insect men with heavy carapaces and terrifying mandibles. The sequences of Jo being menaced in the caves are one of  a handful of moments where this story manages to provoke a reaction other than ambivalence. At times, it is genuinely quite frightening.

The Bad:

  • Whilst you could hardly call the location work poor in this story (because it is effectively shot for what it is), it is possibly one of the grimmest, bleakest settings that the show has ever managed to find (and that is up against some stiff competition). The opening shot of a barren quarry swathed in mist is possibly the least inviting introduction to a Doctor Who story. With a mutt looking like an extra from Monty Python and Paul Whitsun Jones wobbling through the smoke and bellowing at the top of his voice, it feels as though we have dropped in halfway through a (not particularly good) story.
  • Rick James, man. Here was Christopher Barry looking at the general lack of ethnic casting in Doctor Who (unless they were looking for victims to be dispatched early in Troughton stories) and deciding to do something about it. He has a character that survives all six episodes (despite declaring ‘We’ll be done for!’ ad nauseum) and so this is his opportunity to prove that a black actor has just as much right to a slice of the pie as any other. Oh dear. Couldn’t he have picked anybody else for the part? Cotton is written as a cockney and I am fairly certain that there must have been plenty of black cockney actors at the time so why did he shoehorn a man with a heavy Jamaican accent into the role who has clearly come from the Jackie Lane/Matthew Waterhouse school of Cardboard Acting Inc. He has little presence, looks decidedly uncomfortable when asked to emote (which unfortunately is in every other scene) and lacks any chemistry with (the much superior) Christopher Coll. As a result of this failed experiment we don’t see another ethnic actor in the show for quite some time… There’s a drinking game to be enjoyed (and let’s be honest the best way to appreciate The Mutants is under the influence) where you throw back a shot every time Cotton shrieks ‘Stubbsy!’ or ‘Mate!’ You can down the rest of the bottle when his best friend dies in his arms and Cotton manages ‘Stubbsy…mate!’ all in one go. Had James been able to bring some magnetism to this role we might have been able to buy into Stubbs and Cotton’s friendship (clearly an emotional lynchpin of the story in the script) and the formers death could have been a real tear-jerker. Instead you may find yourself laughing as the camera lingers on an uncomfortable James who looks panic stricken as though uncertain if he has another line or not. His best line (altogether now…): ‘We’ll all be done for!’ Although ‘great innit?’ has its place in infamy too.
  • I take issue with the sets for this story too which are far too claustrophobic and bland, the designer failing to inject any kind of pleasing aesthetic into them. When you have some pretty grim looking location work to endure it would be nice to enjoy a little visual splendour in the studio sets but this story has generally repugnant look about it. Whilst you could argue that this is one of the more convincing space stations because it has an air of functionality and practicality to it, it still doesn’t make an already drab story any more pleasing to stomach. The sets look artificial too for the most part and this is one story that suffers an extreme bout of Wobbly Flats Syndrome (a much talked about but rarely seen affliction). Some of the sets are actually very large but you would never be able to tell because of how tightly they are shot, made to feel cramped and uncomfortable. The environmental chamber is the one exception, a solid looking room, designed to the hilt with impressive looking equipment. Check out the hastily thrown together ‘village’ set that Varan returns to and how the story awkwardly skips from location to studio work in a heartbeat. It is part of the general laxity of The Mutants’ realisation. Model work of this period veers to the extreme one way or the other (Colony in Space = abysmal, Frontier in Space = exquisite) and The Mutants’ Skybase verges on the former, promoting ping pong ball chic.
  • This is one story that would have benefited from a more melodious, melodramatic and musical Dudley Simpson score. After the experimental wailings of Malcolm Clarke in The Sea Devils it was perhaps time to get back to something more traditional. Instead Tristram Cary provides a series of cacophonous electronic beeps that fail to cohere into anything symphonic, lacks the ability to make the emotional moments resonate and prevents the injection of any pace or excitement in the piece. It is one of those stories with a germ of a good idea but it feels like all of the production staff are coming at the story in different directions.
  • It is rare to find a story with so many miscast parts. Paul Whitsun-Jones I have already discussed (and whilst competent, he does belong in a much grander space opera of Star Wars proportions) but there are many other character parts which could have been salvaged had a more astute director been responsible for the casting. George Pravda seems much more at home amongst the cloisters of Gallifrey in The Deadly Assassin but looks completely lost as the scientist Jaegar, involved in many tedious scenes of ego bashing and experimentation with Pertwee’s Doctor. James Mellor’s Varan barely impacts but then it is the sort of role that is easy to deride so the fact that he manages to underplay it to any extent is a near miracle (although when he realises he is turning into a Mutt he reacts to his disfigured hand with all the subtlety of a character reaching the dramatic climax of one of Shakespeare’s tragedies). John Hollis was a much respected radio actor but it feels like he has wandered into the wrong set in The Mutants, sounding utterly bewildered as the scientist Sonderguard.
  • It seems when it comes to watching the evolution of a planet that Doctor Who is either in a hurry (such as in The Doctor’s Daughter where it occurs in about 30 seconds) or really likes to take its time (such as this adventures six interminable episodes). This is the more thorough, intelligent approach but without an emotional hook (which The Doctor’s Daughter pushes too hard) it is hard to invest your time in the process. When the Doctor and Sonderguard try and make sense of the carvings and explore the cathedrals of this ancient civilisation it is hard to invest any personal interest in this dead society because it is so far removed from anything that we recognise. The eccentric effect of Jaeger’s environment changing missiles is…that it all looks exactly the same. All that build up for nothing? By the time that Sonderguard is trying to engage in conversation with the Mutants the story had completely lost the plot, it’s the sort of nonsense that non-fans seek to take the piss out of the show. It’s the antithesis of drama, lacking any emotional resonance or sense of realism. Perhaps Terror of the Vervoids took its inspiration from The Mutants, offering a similar climax where characters experience extreme climate change and metamorphosis to bring the story to a close. I would say that the genocide of the hissy Vervoids is ten times more effective than Ky transforming into a poster child for gay rights and floating about the corridors of the Skybase though. In a story that has already tested the patience by pushing us to the fringes of mortification, this is the deal breaker. As Ky floats into the room and defeats the Marshall, I was struck by the similarities to the conclusion of Last of the Time Lords and baffled as to why Russell T Davies would take inspiration from such a humiliating source.
  • The end of episode four should be the most exciting set piece that Doctor Who has ever seen – rockets firing at a helpless planet, a shoot up in a corridor and walls blasting into open space and threatening to toss the Doctor’s companion into the vacuum. But it proves to be the ultimate case of ambition over capability. This is what Michael Grade should have chosen as his example of why Doctor Who was overly ambitious to the point of embarrassment when he appeared on Room 101. Pathetic sparks fly as guns fire, a poorly choreographed fight, plywood sets breaking apart as it has clearly been designed to, butt clenchingly awful CSO depicting a man floating in space and a camera tilting as actors pretend to be sucked towards the break in the hull. Just diabolical. This is what Letts and Dicks sought to achieve as an alternative to the stylish looking Earthbound adventures?

The Shallow Bit: It is fortunate that the writers pair up Jo and Ky, the two prettiest things on offer, and offer some respite from the oppressive plainness of the rest of the story. Pertwee looks very dashing in crimson velvet.

Result:Stubbsy! Mate!’ There is something terribly jarring about The Mutants from its first episode which features grim location work, claustrophobic sets, Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning wandering around the future as though they are popping out for the milk, hippy natives with big knives, OTT villainy in the form of Paul Whitsun-Jones, overdone politics and Geoffrey Palmer that feels as though it has been tossed together on the hoof without much care. Unfortunately it is then followed up by five more episodes with exactly the same kind of antipathy. Every now and again every element of a story comes together perfectly and stories like Genesis of the Daleks and Caves of Androzani are created for posterity. To keep the universe in balance there are also times when everything that can possibly go wrong does so and the end result looks a lot like The Mutants. Bizarre casting choices, an ugly aesthetic, distracting music, an overlong and all too businesslike script and a story that fails to allow the Doctor and his assistant impress, this is one such story. I like to think that every single Doctor Who story is lauded by somebody, that each adventure has somebody out there who considers it their favourite. Saying that I find it hard to believe that anybody can have their critical faculties so eccentrically attuned that The Mutants is their idea of the perfection. Whilst the idea of a metamorphosis occurring in a species every five hundred years with a radical climate change is intriguing, season eighteen’s Full Circle plays about with the same ideas with much more aplomb and provides a great deal more distraction too. For all it’s intelligent ideas and allusions it is for the most part hideously realised and there is so little that the audience can connect with on an emotional level that it is tempting to just switch off (figuratively and literally). Whatever Christopher Barry brought to the screen in The Daemons seems to have deserted him here and the general feeling is that his heart isn’t in the project. Ultimately it feels like The Mutants spends so long making its point that it forgets to entertain and feels like the most misguided attempt at playing at adult drama in the Pertwee era. Unlike stories like Colony in Space and The Monster of Peladon I don’t think reducing the episode count would remove any of its problems because most of them are concerned with its execution. Excellent monster costumes aside, this is infamously vapid: 3/10

1 comment:

Anthony Pirtle said...

I have to admit I do enjoy The Mutants in a "so bad it's good" kind of way. The villain is ridiculously villainous, the supporting cast is (largely) awful, the plot is pitiful, and Pertwee and Manning look like they can't wait for the whole affair to be over. It'll never be a classic in my book, but it's contender for 'Best of the Worst' award.