Top critical review
"No-one lives on the ground."
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.