By the ninth season, the Doctor Who production team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were finding their reliable Earth based formula for adventures beginning to constrain them. Happily they had cleverly written themselves an escape clause. The Doctor’s exile could be temporarily relieved by the Time Lords who had imposed it, when they wanted to hypocritically send him on a mission to interfere with other civilisations, the very crime they were punishing him for. The Mutants is one of those mid-table stories, decently made but perhaps lacking anything to really push it into the more memorable classics, but its excellently presented on this DVD.
The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo (Katy Manning) are sent by the Time Lords to Solos to deliver a mysterious box to an unknown recipient. Solos is a misty planet colonised by Earth where the native, seemingly medieval Solonians are treated as second class citizens and are not surprisingly bitter about their lives. They are also being terrorised by a spate of horrific mutations, as men and women turn into insect-like creatures nicknamed Mutts. When an ambassador from Earth informs the odious Marshall that their faltering empire is pulling out of Solos and giving it independence, the tyrant cannot bear the thought of losing his power. He arranges for the ambassador to be assassinated. The Doctor and Jo soon find themselves on the run and battling tribal warriors, mutants and Earth troops. Only by solving the mystery of the mutations and exposing the corrupt Marshall can they hope to survive.
It surprising that some fans have recently been complaining about Doctor Who being “preachy” when in Jon Pertwee’s time the programme was often telling allegorical SF tales. Racism had been tackled previously by Letts and Dicks in The Silurians and The Curse of Peladon but this is the most explicitly political take on the subject, a direct comment on South Africa’s apathied regime and the colonial attitudes behind it. There is also an ecological thread about future Earth becoming a barren concrete jungle and thus having to export its pollution to other planets. Mixed in with this is the SF body horror trope of humans gradually changing into something strange and inhuman. John Friedlander’s design of the mutant creatures is splendid and when they are scuttling enmasse through the caves they are pretty scary. On a trivia note, the Mutt made a cameo appearance in Frontier in Space and later was reused as another alien race in The Brain of Morbius.
Paul Whitsun-Jones had a long track record of playing flamboyant, menacing villains on TV and as The Marshall he goes into full Brian Blessed mode, shouting his way through the part in a way that may not be subtle but is certainly entertaining. Pertwee’s Doctor is at his grumpiest in this story, acting as humanity’s conscience and horrified by the treatment of the Solonians and their world. Special mention ought to go to Christopher Coll as cockney trooper Stubbs, making a lot out of a fairly generic guard character, even with the handicap that his best friend Cotton is played by Rick James, one of the worst actors ever in the series.
They’ve fitted a surprising amount of extras on this disc considering it is a six-part story. “Mutt Mad” is an in-depth if straightforward making-of doc, heavy on talking heads and BBC paperwork. More interesting is “Race Against Time”, a look at the show’s attitude towards casting ethnic actors. While admitting the show could have done more to promote more black faces in prominent roles, generally the show is given a clean bill of health. Oscar winning costume designer James Acheson gives a fascinating interview about his time on the programme in “Dressing Doctor Who”. He was responsible in part for the look of the Sontarans and the Fourth Doctor’s famous scarf. Then there’s a slightly random clip from Blue Peter in which Peter Purves talks about Doctor Who monster costumes, including a Mutt. The six episodes enjoy an excellent commentary featuring a rotating cast of contributors led by Katy Manning (Jo Grant), Garrick Hagon (Ky), Christopher Barry (director), Terrance Dicks (script editor), Bob Baker (co-writer), Brian Hodgson (special sounds supervisor) and Jeremy Bear (designer). This good value disc is rounded out by the traditional photo gallery, info subtitles and Radio Times listing in PDF format.
Watching “The Mutants” again on DVD I’ve enjoyed it a lot more this time. I used to think it was too long and slow but in fact there is a lot to stir the mind and enjoy. Pertwee is in great form, the Mutant transformations are quite creepy and I’ll even forgive the dodgy science about what happens when you get a hole in the side of a space station. (clue you don’t stand by chatting next to it just because the air pressure has ‘equalised’).
Photo by Chris Sampson, Flickr, used under Creative Commons License.