on October 31, 2003
Upon seeing the old bearded man running towards the screen through the mist and bushes at the onset of the story, no, it isn't the "It's..." man from Monty Python's first season. Rather, it's a mutant native of Solos, derogatorily called "Mutts" by the Marshal of Solos.
The appearance of a small sphere resembling a cross between a basketball and a coconut is a three-line whip from the Time Lords to the Doctor, a task that's an emergency. The TARDIS takes the Doctor and Jo to a Skybase hovering over Solos in the 30th century Earth Empire. "Once [Earth] sacked the solar system, they moved on to pastures new. Solos is one of them, one of the last [to gain independence]. Did you ever read Gibbons' Decline and Fall?... Empires rise and empires fall."
They instantly fall in trouble. The Marshal, the blustering, stout colonial ruler of Solos with piggish eyes and expression, is stunned to hear that Earth is finally giving Solos its independence. "We can't afford an empire anymore. Earth is exhausted, finished, politically, economically, and biologically," says the Administrator (Geoffrey Palmer). In a panic, the Marshal has the Administrator murdered, then imposes martial law to continue his reign over Solos, which has been exploited for its thaesium. Ky, leader of the more radical natives, is not only framed for the murder, but the sphere is intended for him.
The Doctor, Jo, and Ky are befriended by two of the Marshal's guards, Stubbs and Cotton, who learn of the Marshal's plot and see Solos as a "stinking rotting hole" that should've been given independence years ago. The planet is grey, but that's nothing compared to the Doctor's description of 30th century Earth, "land and sea alike, all grey. Grey cities linked by grey highways across grey deserts. Slag, ash, and clinker. The fruits of technology." Hmm, sounds like 20th century Earth to me.
But the Marshal also has a dream to turn Solos's atmosphere into one breathable for humans and to heck with the Solonians. Experiments by his scientist Jaeger has caused pollutions that have caused the mutations among Solonians. At least, that's the ostensible explanation. "Genocide as a side effect? You ought to write a paper on that, professor," the Doctor angrily tells Jaeger. As for the mutants, they resemble giant, grey, large-eyed armoured insectoids.
Paul Whitsun-Jones pulls in a strong performance as the sadistic Marshal, accused by the Doctor as being responsible for "one of the most brutal and callous series of crimes against a defenseless people it's been my misfortune to encounter." Indeed, the Marshal ranks as one of the most heinous villains in Doctor Who's history. When told he is quite mad by the Doctor, he replies calmly, "Only if I lose." And George Pravda (Jaeger) would later play Castellan Spandrell in The Who story The Deadly Assassin.
There are three elements in this story comparable to The Empire Strikes Back. One, the navy blue uniforms and helmets of the guards are similar to that of the Bespin Guards. Two, the Skybase and Cloud City float above their respective planets. Three, John Hollis, who plays Dr. Sondegaard here, also played Lando Calrissian's bald android assistant, Lobot. And speaking of Star Wars, Garrick Hagon (Ky) played Biggs Darklighter, Luke's best friend from Tatooine who ends up being toast in the Death Star battle.
Also, this was the story Saladin Chamcha watches in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, only it was mistakenly called The Mutilasians.
Despite being criticized for its overlength and bad performances, this allegory on the fall of the British Empire and apartheid is thematic of British guilt in the 70's for exploiting native peoples, and a striking Pertwee story, well worth its six episodes. John Hollis, Rick James-no, not the Superfreak, (Cotton), and Christopher Coll (Stubbs) lend credible support. The mutants are effectively realized, with the Doctor and the lovable Jo still a great team.
on November 23, 2003
After its reboot in 1970 with "Spearhead from Space", "Doctor Who" -- with Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks at the helm -- settled into a very successful Earth-bound formula, mixing together James Bond, a post-colonial social conscience, and bona-fide alien races that weren't monsters. A year later, with a permanent arch-nemesis in the form of the Master, "Doctor Who" could be relied on for one great story after another, every four to six weeks. "The Mutants", however, is without UNIT, and without Roger Delgado's Master, and thus is regrettably one of the weaker entries in Jon Pertwee's tenure as the Doctor.
It didn't have to be that way. "The Mutants" was directed by Christopher Barry, and the incidental music was composed by Tristram Cary. This team worked an another "Doctor Who" story also once known as "The Mutants" -- "The Daleks" -- in 1963, and that was the story which put DW on the map. This time, though, their work is less successful. Barry's direction takes a wrong turn as the story stops short for literally minutes at a time, with location footage and CSO blue-screen sequences that do nothing but put the audience the sleep. The music, so eerily discordant in "The Daleks", here does little more than annoy.
The story's heart is in the right place, as comedy writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin play it straight. Their story is set in the 30th century, in the decline of Earth's empire. Solos, a struggling colony, has made no advances in 500 years, and its population is still segregated, banned from Skybase but for the use of separate transfer portals. Jon Pertwee's Doctor was always at his best when indignant, and here he has a pretty hammy villain to point his finger and lecture at.
There are no monsters in this story -- no alien monsters, anyway. The Solonian mutants (costume-designed by Doctor Who's Academy Award winner, James Acheson), lurch and screech a lot, but they never kill. They're benign creatures. The villain (fittingly, for such a progressive story) looks eerily like Rush Limbaugh, and, with his plan to gut Solos of its native atmosphere, while strip-mining the planet of its fuel, plays like a caricature of the Bush/Cheney administration. Paul Whitsun-Jones, as the Marshal, is one of "Doctor Who"'s least credible villains, but because of that, he's also one of the most quotable.
The Baker/Martin script is pretty weak (apart from the Doctor's diatribes). In fact, the Marshal is best remembered for something he never really said -- a line of dialogue only present in the novelization by Terrance Dicks. "It was a booby-trap, Jaeger, and you were the booby." Jaeger is the Marshal's mad scientist, a morally ambiguous bad guy woodenly dragged through the story by George Pravda's heavily Czech accent. Speaking of accents, the variable-voiced John Hollis (Professor Sondergaard) plays two accents in the story, none of them his own. And, in a story about segregation, one of the main characters is a black man, significantly named Cotton. Unfortunately, Cotton is played by the worst actor of the lot, and the only noteworthy cliffhanger in "The Mutants" is brought to life (so to speak) by Rick James' disastrous line reading: "We'll all be done for!"
One aspect of this story still doesn't make sense. The Doctor arrives on Solos on a mission for the Time Lords. He's supposed to deliver ancient tablets to Solonian terrorist/freedom-fighter Ky. So, how did the Time Lords get the tablets? Just what is their interest in the mutations on Solos? At the end of the story, Ky evolves into a higher power, which we learn is the birthright of all Solonians. But we never learn why this affects the Time Lords. Many "Doctor Who" TV stories were later sequelized in print or on audio. However, no-one has yet displayed enough interest in "The Mutants" to follow up on this loose thread. I'm not exactly waiting to find out.