There are a few Doctor Who stories that I can’t help but love, although I know they are sub-par when I look at them analytically. I suppose that comes down to style over substance, or actors transcending the material they are given. Likewise, there are a handful of stories that have everything going for them, but I just can’t get enthusiastic about them, and The Mutants is one of those.
On paper it has the makings of something very interesting. This is one of those where Doctor Who tackles a big theme. At the time this was made there was the apartheid regime in South Africa, and it was all over the news. The regime was nothing new, stretching back to 1948, but things were getting worse with forced resettlement to group areas and the early days of resistance to the regime with the growth of the Black Consciousness Movement. And here is where The Mutants comes in, a story about cruel, racist colonialism. The Marshal goes off hunting the mutants for sport, and bandies around the insult “mutt”. In the original scripts this was “munt”, a term of racist abuse from South Africa dating from the 1940s, based on the Zulu word for a person “umuntu”. It was changed because for a Western audience it sounds too close to a blending of the “m” from “mutant” with a very strong swear word, but the compromise chosen is a clear reference while also working cleverly within the storyline about mutants.
This is strong stuff from Bob Baker and Dave Martin. A plot with the message that divisive colonialism is bad might seem like preaching the obvious, but in the UK we were far from having political unity on the issue of South Africa, and would still be a long way from that point for over a decade. And part of the problem with The Mutants is that Baker and Martin are perhaps too careful to avoid being open with their politics within the story, shutting down any possible opposing interpretation by quite clearly making the Marshal a monster of a man. So the message gets somewhat lost in amongst a story of somebody who is pure evil from beginning to end, not just treating the native people of the planet with contempt, but happy to kill his own people and commit genocide. The writers also hedge their bets with a scientist who is a Nazi parallel, and Ky who is a Christ figure, ascending to an angelic being of light. Ky is almost certainly a reference to the Greek letter Χ (chi) as in Χρ (used to represent Christ). So the waters are muddied with two alternative interpretations of oppression throughout history: the Nazi oppression of minorities, and the oppression of early Christianity. Then we have a theme that pops up from time to time in Doctor Who: ugly doesn’t equal evil. It all fits together seamlessly, and that’s an amazing achievement in itself, but it does feel like a bit of an exercise of dodging the critic bullet by hiding a political message in plain sight. And if you are going to go big on what at the time was left-wing politics, it would be at least helpful not to write a story that excludes female characters entirely, with the exception of the one you have no choice but to include.
The fact that I have got this far without even mentioning the ecological issue of mankind affecting the natural life cycle of the inhabitants of a planet shows how much is going on here. All the issues are tackled within a story that has some real depth and beauty to it. We also have Stubbs and Cotton to provide some much-needed humanity. But yet again the Pertwee era stumbles when it comes to how to handle the Doctor himself. Despite being exiled by the Time Lords for interfering, they send him to interfere. The distinction has been made that they are putting things back on track so that’s fine, but it’s not, because that’s what the Doctor generally tries to do anyway. And the way they use him is as a bizarre sort of postman with a relatively useless message, as if they just want to send him on a fool’s errand to somewhere dangerous and get him killed off. Then, at the resolution to the story, he stands and watches a murder without comment or any attempt to intervene. The moment is reasonably justified by the murder victim being the Marshal, who is beyond redemption, but what is the Doctor for? If we wouldn’t be happy with him killing somebody himself, we should at least be a little troubled by him watching somebody else do it and saying nothing.
But none of that is the reason I can’t warm to this story, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article. I referred to style over substance in other Doctor Who stories, and actors transcending the material. This is the opposite. There is substance but little style, and actors who take great material and phone in their performances. The Marshal is a giant ham, there are few likeable characters and most of the ones that are likeable are acted poorly, and the Third Doctor when removed from the coziness of UNIT is lacking in much charm that would, for example, make us want to keep watching just to see Hartnell or Troughton light up the screen. I can’t condemn a story that is so interesting, but I would rather Doctor Who combines interesting with fun. RP
The view from across the pond:
It’s possible that I’ve mentioned that I started watching Doctor Who around 1980 with repeats of Tom Baker’s era. One of those, a marvelously eerie gothic story called The Brain of Morbius, opens with this horrible looking creature crawling out of the wreckage of a spaceship only to get beheaded Well, this was one of those magnificent moments where Doctor Who appeared to be a part of a cohesive universe because that creature was encountered before in a Jon Pertwee story called The Mutants. The weird thing about The Mutants is that I have a weird reverse earworm situation going on and it’s gone on for ages! Typically an earworm gets a song stuck in your head. Maybe I have an ear bore-worm which dug a hole and dropped the Mutants into it because every time I watch this story, I like it and then promptly forget so much about it as to make it nonexistent in my mind. So this last time I watched with my son, I was determined to find out why I couldn’t hold onto more than the CSO for the caves. (CSO, color separation overlay, is like green screen done by a 5 year old, which was once high tech and is now a bit sorry looking, but still has a charm that makes it fun to watch regardless of how far we’ve come!)
I’m all for science fiction that has a message. Arguably, that’s what makes science fiction better than most other genres; you can say things without saying them outright and offending people. For instance, most people probably would not rate Star Trek’s Let That Be Your Last Battlefield as a great story, but the idea of using science fiction to drive home a point about the idiocy of racism is an idea I can get behind. Bele (Frank Gorshin) discussing why Lokai (Lou Antonio) is inferior to him because one has black on the right side of his face, while the other is on the left, is using a clever storytelling idea to make an obvious point; namely racism is ignorant. But maybe that’s also what worked heavily against The Mutants for me, because we’ve been there and done that with Trek so many times before and, I hate admitting it, to better effect. The fact is, in this case, Trek got there first! There’s a very distinct anti-racism and anti-colonialism sentiment to this story, which is great, but it is also hindered by what so many of Pertwee’s stories suffer: it drags on for 6 episodes (coming in around 2.5hours). This, to tell what Trek pulled off in 50 minutes, gets tedious. With so many episodes, there’s got to be a lot of filler and it feels that way throughout the episode. Like much of Pertwee’s series, having cut the story down to a 4 part tale would probably have made it more palatable.
The thing is, taking it on its own merits, it’s a good story. It’s a proper sci-fi tale in the middle of an era that is very largely Earth based, so it’s refreshing in that regard. On top of that, as a fan of the classic video game Starflight, this episode really meant something to me for another reason. See, in Starflight, there was a race called the Ng-Kher-Arla that every ten days would metamorphose between one of its three distinct races (the Ng, Kher and Arla). Rumor had it that one day out of the year, they’d become all three races at once. I never verified this. Each looked different and had different skills and attitudes. So the idea of a race that goes through multiple transformations is ingenious and having never seen it done on television before made this story even more enjoyable to me. I have a lot of respect for that. Realizing that the mutants are merely a phase in a cycle makes for more great science fiction storytelling and I have a lot of respect for it, but for me, Trek and Starflight came first.
The Mutants suffers because all of those “firsts” came from other places and even the cast really isn’t very memorable (with the possible exception of Cotton and Stubbs who make a good double act). So we rely on a story that had been told before in better ways. I think I can safely say I have successfully identified why the bore-worm kept removing The Mutants from my memory banks.
What were we talking about? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Time Monster