Thursday, 7 March 2013

Story 63 - The Mutants

In which the Time Lords have another mission for the Doctor. In UNIT HQ a strange black sphere materialises in front of the Doctor and Jo, and the TARDIS suddenly becomes active. It takes them to Skybase One - a huge space station orbiting the planet Solos. It is the 30th Century, and Earth's empire is in decline. It has been decided that Solos should be granted independence. Opposed to this is its governor - the Marshal. He plans to derail the handover and seize the planet for himself. An Administrator has arrived from Earth to oversee the independence talks, and the Marshal employs the son of warlord Varan to assassinate him - putting the blame on the young firebrand Ky. The Doctor discovers that the black sphere is a message container intended for Ky. The young man flees down to the surface - taking Jo with him as a hostage. Humans need breathing masks to survive on the planet, and they take refuge in an extensive cave system. Ever since the Marshal's incompetent scientist, Jaeger, has begun experiments on adapting the Solonian atmosphere many of the people have been struck down by a mutation. They turn into savage insectoid creatures - and the caves are full of them.

Varan finds that the Marshal has betrayed him and has killed his son. The Doctor joins forces with two guards - Cotton and Stubbs - who are opposed to the Marshal's plans. They help Varan escape down to the surface. The Doctor is forced to work with Jaeger, but he also escapes down to Solos. He is reunited with Jo in the caves and meets Ky. The black container contains small tablets with ancient writing. It can no longer be read, but there are similar markings in the caves. The Doctor meets a scientist named Sondergaard who lives in the caves and has been studying the markings. Together they work out that Solos has seasons of some 500 years, and that the mutation is a natural process. Jaeger's experiments have triggered the metamorphosis prematurely. A crystal in a radioactive cavern at the heart of the caves can aid the process.

Varan is starting to mutate. He captures Jo and Ky and takes them with him on a doomed attack on the Skybase. He is killed when he is sucked out into space. Stubbs is killed in a gun battle. An Investigator arrives from Earth to assess the situation. Cotton, Jo and Ky are trapped in a refuelling bay which is about to be flooded with radiation. Ky starts to mutate. Sondergaard manages to get the crystal to him and he transforms into a radiant energy being. The Doctor has sabotaged Jaeger's equipment - killing the scientist. The Marshal is about to kill him when he is destroyed by Ky. Cotton will work with the Investigator to oversee independence, and Sondergaard decides to return to the surface to help Ky with the transformation of the rest of his people.

This six part adventure was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and was broadcast between 8th April and 13th May, 1972.
The writers took as their inspiration the end of Britain's colonial period and South African apartheid. For instance, Solonians and Earth Overlords have their own separate transmat booths. The Mutants are referred to as Mutts by the racist Marshal, and this was originally scripted as Munts - a derogatory term used by white Rhodesian police for black people.
The story features the highest profile black performance in the programme to date - Rick James' unfortunately monickered Cotton. However he is rather wooden and unnatural. Bob Baker has since stated that the part was written for a Cockney character. James is not alone in the poor performance stakes. The usually reliable George Pravda struggles as Jaeger, and the Solonians rather overact (James Mellor's Varan and Garrick Hagon's Ky). Best performances are Paul Whitsun-Jones' bombastic Marshal - clearly channelling Herman Goering - and John Hollis' noble scientist Sondergaard. Perhaps the best performance of the whole story is Geoffrey Palmer's Administrator - and he gets killed in the first episode.

Special mention must be made of the superb Mutant costumes, by James Acheson. They are particularly effective in the cave setting, though less so in the harshly lit Skybase corridors. The caves were filmed at Chislehurst in Kent.
Episode endings for this story are:

  1. Ky drags Jo into a transmat cubicle as the Marshal orders his guards to open fire. The cubicle appears to explode... 
  2. The Doctor is on his way to the transmat when he is attacked by Varan...
  3. The Marshal orders that toxic gas be pumped into the caves...
  4. Varan is sucked into space, and Jo, Ky, Stubbs and Cotton are threatened with the same fate...
  5. Jo, Ky and Cotton are trapped in the refuelling bay which is about to be flooded with deadly  radiation...
  6. The Doctor and Jo slip back to the TARDIS, hoping to avoid any awkward questions from the Investigator.

Overall, not a bad story, with strong political undertones. It suffers from the usual 6 parter problem of sustaining interest for the duration. Excellent "monsters", which are nothing of the kind, of course. The real monsters are the racist and immoral humans Jaeger and the Marshal.
Things you might like to know:

  • Producer Barry Letts had submitted an unsuccessful Doctor Who script in 1966 called "The Mutant" which featured a butterfly-like metamorphosis.
  • The first Dalek story - also (partly) directed by Christopher Barry - was generally known as The Mutants. Whilst purists maintain this earlier title a lot of us just call it The Daleks now - such as this blog - to avoid confusion.
  • It was purely by coincidence that Christopher Barry found himself filming a Mutant again 3 years later in the opening scenes of The Brain of Morbius.
  • Salman Rushdie refers to this story in his book "The Satanic Verses" - commenting on how the Marshal and his ilk equate mutation and physical difference with evil.
  • If you visit Chislehurst Caves today, you can still see some of the Solonian markings on the walls.
  • If you listen to the DVD commentary, no-one can resist saying "It's..." as the bedraggled Solonian lurches towards the camera - a reference to Monty Python...

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