Companion: Jo Grant
Written by: Bob Baker and Dave Martin
Directed by: Christopher Barry
Background & Significance: Having just come off their first story "The Claws of Axos", Bob Baker and Dave Martin decided to do a story based on some real life issues. The idea they pitched that proved most sexy to script editor Terrance Dicks was an allegory about British colonialism in Africa, specifically the then-current "Apartheid" of South Africa, which was a form of racial segregation that kept the different racial groups segregated based on what quadrant they best corresponded to.
In their defense (and I'm normally on such an offensive when it comes to them that I don't see why I shouldn't at the very least throw them a defensive bone once in a while; and this is the last time we're doing a Baker/Martin script so I might as well, right?), this sorta thing is ripe for a good science fiction story. Slap in a bit of a mythology and some crazy out there madness (in this case, Barry Letts's inclusion of the "the natives evolve" angle because he liked moths or something) and you're off to the races with a Doctor Who story based on some crazy expensive high concept shit which is your standard Baker/Martin affair.
The biggest obstacle (in this case) to Baker/Martin's script was the inclusion of director Christopher Barry, previously known for his work on a bunch of major Doctor Who stories, including "The Daleks", "The Power of the Daleks", and "The Rescue" and who would later go on to direct "Robot", "The Creature From the Pit", and "The Brain of Morbius". See, Barry's problem was that he just wasn't interested in all that Apartheid in South Africa stuff. He really liked the sci-fi (did you see the other stories he worked on?) and so was more interested in all the science fiction trappings of the mutations and the space station and (in particular) the asshole of a station commander.
Needless to say, this story is in something of conflict with himself.
That said, it is always nice to see the Pertwee era do something off planet, even if this story is something of a bit of a stumble. The other offering this season, for example, did a much better job with it if you ask me, and it does provide an interlude between the season's two Master stories.... so... that's something. But enough gabbing. Let's just judge the damn thing.
So let's get to it!
Normally I like to talk exclusively about the episode and offering observations and analysis. I try not to bring in any discussions of my experience or what I think or whatever, but…
Okay, there’s this experience I find with Doctor Who stories, and it’s… it’s almost certainly not unique, but it is worth pointing out: when you’re in a really good Doctor Who story and you’re having a good time with it, almost certainly you can judge it by how it seems to be flying by. You aren’t aware of what you’re watching. It just happens. It goes along. It does the work. It engages, it entertains. And before you know it, you’re seventeen minutes in and you didn’t even realize time’s been passing. It happens a lot with the Hinchcliffe/Holmes stuff for me, or even the Davison era, where the story just rockets along and I’m carried by the… fumes of its gorgeousness.
And then sometimes you’ll be absolutely sure the end of the episode should have happened already and you realize you’re barely fifteen minutes into a twenty five minute episode.
Such is the experience I’m having so far with “The Mutants” and that is… that’s something of a sobering thought. If the first fifteen minutes of a story that pushes almost two and a half hours is something of a slog I think it’s safe to say we’re in for a rough trip. And believe me, it’s not for lack of trying. I really don’t want to dislike a story that’s two and a half hours long because love it or hate it I’m kinda stuck with dealing with watching it, observing it, analyzing it, deconstructing it, and more for at least two and a half hours. I don’t want to have to do that. It’s not fun for me and it makes blogging something of a miserable experience.
Yet here we are. So let’s do this.
Right off, I have to say that the Apartheid stuff is fascinating and you can see glimmers of it in the script that make it work. The actual concept and idea of these two civilizations, where one that has colonized and oppressed the other is at the very least interesting. It has built-in stakes, objectives, and drives that propel the story in a specific direction, so it’s no wonder that this concept proved ripe for storytelling potential. To complicate matters, it’s not enough that the natives want freedom, it’s that the colonials aren’t giving it to them fast enough, so the goals are not quite as simple as “We want freedom” and “We’re not giving them freedom.” It provides a nice moral gray area that isn’t quite as black and white as a story like this couldn’t be.
Now, that said, my god this is boring.
I think a lot of that is to the aforementioned disconnect between the story as the writers saw it and the story as the director saw it. See, the stuff that Baker and Martin have going on in here, which is to say, the stuff about the struggle of the colonists is all pretty sound, it’s just directed extremely poorly. The scene when the administrator announces that they’re working to give freedom to the colonists is weak sauce at best. Part of that is down to limitations on production, but it’s seriously just four people sitting around a table shouting freedom while the administrator pushes on. I can see it in the script: big crowd, podium, loud speakers, chanting.
But because we’re on a Doctor Who budget, we get this, and it’s almost satirical how poorly done it is.
And I mean like… that’s a limitation of Bob Baker and Dave Martin. The two of them are all about limitless Doctor Who and really impressing with big flashy ideas and stuff that’s far beyond the scope of Doctor Who as it normally is on television. The only problem is when you abridge their work (as you’d have to) but make it as expensive as you can possibly make it while staying on a Doctor Who budget, not only do you take money away from other productions that might need it, but you also betray the light that you’re on as tight a budget as you are. When you see the administrator announcing this shit to three people it’s laughable and really just destroys any sort of fantasy you’ve built up.
Barry is as big a problem.
I’ll point out that I don’t 100% hate Barry’s direction on this story. I think the opening scene is just short of “strong” (which is to say: watchable) and the revelation of the horrific mutation the native is undergoing is a nice touch of horror injected to give life to a story that’s almost completely so far about the politics on situation. Barry does a good job of papering over that fact with a nice bit of promise/kung fu that he’ll follow up on later. The body horror of the eventual reveal of the mutants themselves (which we’ll talk about when we talk about it) is great here and it implies heavily that whatever’s happening to this dude is not exactly comfortable.
I mean, I wouldn’t want that to happen to me.
No, there’s a slightly different problem with him.
From what I understand, Barry’s fascination with regards to the script is the Marshall, specifically. Who he is, what he wants, what he’s doing… And that much is clear based on how much screen time Paul Whitsun-Jones gets, and the fact that he’s the first major character in the story and he shows up screaming his lungs out as he viciously hunts down a native and kills him. It’s also clear from the way he’s marching around the screen and kicking people around and barking orders that he’s all antagonisty. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a huge guy with a raspy voice and so is instantly pegged as a villain…
But I can’t stand this guy.
It’s not that I think Whitsun-Jones does a bad job in the role, I just… I can’t stand watching him on screen and while I realize I’m not supposed to, it’s to the point where it makes me wanna do anything else than focus on it. Compare it to say, Dolores Umbridge, who is the posterchild of heinous awfulness with regards to her character. And yet, with Umbridge she’s totally well drawn and wonderfully realized (on both novel page and film screen) and you can’t look away because you hate her so god damn much. But I’m not sure they accomplish it as well here.
Part of this is because The Marshal is about as unquestionably ungray a character as you can get. There’s no ambiguity to him at all, and it’s clear that what he’s doing is despicable and evil in every sense of the word. Dislike.
And finally, that brings us to The Doctor and Jo. To be honest, I don’t have a whole hell of a lot to say about them in this episode. They mostly just trundle around the space ship opening doors and sitting around captured and waiting for people to do things. They spend the whole time carrying around the little black object that The Time Lords intended for someone, and it makes their story something of a bore. Their goal is so simple and undramatic and one dimensional that it means the typical main character is caught in the middle of a bunch of intrigue, conflict and drama, and he doesn’t have a damn thing to do.
Which, if I may, is a waste, and a waste already. Wait until episode four or five when this story is spinning its wheels (as all stories do). God. Can’t I just skip the rest?
Okay, I’ll make this one shorter, which shouldn’t be too too difficult after getting so much meat off the bone with the last one.
This episode is boring. Plain and simple. It does not accomplish anything and it does very little to move the story forward. All that happens is Jo is taken from the base to the planet and into a cave while The Doctor discovers that there’s some science going on in the base and he seems to help it but really just messes it up because really, these guys are assholes and The Doctor will be damned if he’s going to help them out even one iota.
But really, it’s more of the same.
We get yet another reminder that The Marshal is a huge prick. He murders one of the Solonians in cold blood and then tries to fake it, saying it was in self-defense despite the fact that the other guy didn’t have a weapon or anything like that. So once again The Marshal is a douche nozzle. A rotten to the core douche nozzle whose goal is to I don’t even know. Is he trying to take over the colony for his own purposes? It’s not like he can even live there. It’s just… he’s just a bad character, and the bad character just means that I don’t care at all because it’s not engaging or interesting as a story.
It’s also here that we start to meet the character Cotton, who’s played by Rick James (no, not that Rick James), who happens to be a black actor (still not that Rick James).
Now, I know it’s a rarity in Doctor Who to see any actor who isn’t white, but it’s worth noting here that I don’t think Rick James is a very good actor at all. In fact, I think he’s rubbish. His line deliveries are awful and he’s about as stiff as a board in this. It’s unfortunate because we want such actors to succeed and do good, but man oh man is this bad and it sucks me right out of the story like the character of The Marshal does but for entirely different reasons. Bad acting is… it’s not good.
It’s also something of a rarity to see Pertwee… I don’t want to say he’s phoning it in exactly, because I don’t think he is. But the energy’s off and the rhythm’s off. He’s doing all of these things in the lab but this is far from his best performance and I really think it’s a missed opportunity, especially given the fact that it’s one of the few times he’s allowed to go off planet and out into the cosmos. He always seems to have such fun on those stories, but here he is now decidedly not and it… it makes it hard to engage in the story. We want to be there with The Doctor. Often times we watch the show *for* The Doctor. But this is… this is not that story, and the one sort of safe harbor we might normally have is not here.
And finally, we get to the bit where one of the natives (the one whose son was killed by the Marshal) goes underground and then attacks people because he does. This is all on the spaceship. Whatever. If you saw this episode you know what I’m talking about. Whatever. Yeah. He’s fine. But he’s not awful and not great so I’m left with a resounding apathy with regards to his character. And even the cliffhanger of him taking The Doctor hostage is a falsity even now because we know he trusts/likes The Doctor because of what happened just earlier in the episode. So I bet that’s going to help get The Doctor out of it.
How many more parts to go?
See, now we’re moving, but it’s… it’s still molasses.
I’m having trouble being negative about this one, if for no other reason than because I just can’t bring myself to even care enough to think about what makes this story less than good for me. I don’t find myself interested or engaged in this story about evolution (nor was I engaged the last time we discussed evolution just last week)… and I think that’s because the thing I find most interesting about evolution comes from the way Victorians approached evolution, in which evolution was such a complete break from all Victorian ideas of God and religion that they just… they couldn’t handle it. It threw them into a complete tizzy because suddenly the world was unknowable. And unknowable with proof.
But watching a species evolve is about as interesting to me as watching paint dry.
See, the evolution as they’re presenting it is only interesting to me if it comes from a real, human place. The scene towards the end of the episode where Varan returns to the camp and finds it empty save for one person is just about the only scene that really works for me because it shows him as more than just a caricature of “guy with club” and takes everything away from him. Well almost. Suddenly, at the end, he realizes that he himself is evolving into a mutant and that it’s toast for him very very soon. The horror of the moment is interesting and engaging to me.
Now imagine how good it would be if I actually cared about him beyond just the fact that he’s a that one guy with the sword.
We also get some cool elements where we see the eponymous mutants for the first time. It’s a welcome thing, especially because the story really needed something like this, I think. Baker and Martin are known for their big ideas and set pieces and without that their stories are really not much to speak of. So when the middle of this episode features a whole bunch of mutants attacking Jo and Ky, I can’t say it’s not welcome. I mean, for one thing the design of the mutants is bizarre and off putting and I must admit I’m something of a fan.
But they don’t do much beyond trying to do the stuff. It’s all just posturing and not doing anything different.
I also think the Marshal is as big a problem (not that that’s anything new). For the first two episodes he’s been conveyed as something of an amoral, conniving dickweed. No one says no to him and if they do say no he has them killed. So why in the world would they get away from this in this episode when he is forced to hide the bombs that he’s going to use to seal off the cave everyone spends most of this episode in. Why bother with that? Doesn’t he rule with an iron fist? Apparently not.
So we’re left with a silly comedy joke where he has to hide the bombs behind his back.
And then we’re left on everyone getting sealed in the caves with the gas. Stubbs and Cotton are there and so is Ky and so is The Doctor and so is Jo. Oh no. How will they ever get out of the evil caves that are filling with the gas of two grenades? Honestly… I dunno. We’re dealing with a script in which Stubbs and Cotton run up to The Doctor and say “It’s us! Stubbs and Cotton! We need to get out of here” while The Marshal listens over their open comm.
You don’t even know how hard it is to keep writing this. You really don’t even know.
I think the best way I can sum up this episode (and no, I’m still not having a very good time at all) is by pointing out that there’s a five minute sequence towards the beginning of this episode in which The Doctor and Sondergaard stare at four tablets with engravings and puzzle out what they mean and how this relates to the story we’re getting told. Essentially (let’s make no beating around the bush about it) what we get is a big ol' infodump of all the mythology Baker and Martin want us to know before the story can go on.
Now, I love puzzles. I really do. It’s why I like Chris Nolan movies, or even some of Moffat’s early Doctor Who work. And this is much the same thing: what is this trying to say?
But here’s the problem: all of the puzzles these guys are proposing are both completely impossible to solve and not presented in a way that makes me think it’s anything but trying to get the information across. The Doctor and Sondergaard both look at the tablets in turn and keep coming up with theories about what they are. Now, meta-textually, these two characters will understand the truth of the tablets whenever Bob Baker and Dave Martin deem them ready to know this, so any sort of stakes this sequence might have is completely covered over by the fact that it doesn’t matter at all.
And really, it’s just completely masturbatory. It’s Baker/Martin designing their own mythology and then riffing on it ad nauseum. So… forget my interest in that.
We also have some more boredom brought to you by people walking from point a to point b. So really, it’s a double threat. We also get a cool bit of action as the natives march their way into the enemy base with the express purpose of taking it over. So… that happened. But we also get weird choices like some poor blocking (more of that in the next part; trust me) and your typical leading man go-getting and leading the charge of violence against the invaders.
I can’t complain, though. Those moments always get me.
We also get some action set pieces. No mutants this week (why? No fucking clue, but shouldn’t we be getting that set piece? They can certainly afford the costumes), but we do get a sequence where The Doctor walks towards a bright light and steals a rock that is certainly of some sort of importance or another. I don’t know. Is it really that important? I don’t know. Whatever. It goes for a while and everyone ends up okay because it’s just Jon Pertwee acting in front of a lot of CSO, so… it’s pretty typical Pertwee era shenanigans.
But the final beat of the episode is… I’ll freely admit it’s pretty damn badass. A dude standing in front of a wall. The Marshal shoots it. He blasts a hole in the side of the ship. Guy goes out into space (and we get a grizzly shot of him dangling there dead in the vacuum) and everyone in the room holding on like a chain for dear life so they don’t get sucked out into the infinite black vacuum of death and space-place. And it’s pretty good with its effects and stakes and hardcoreness. But it’s also… I dunno, I try not to judge a cliffhanger by its resolution, but this… man… We really need to talk about that resolution.
So let’s talk about it.
Here’s how the cliffhanger is resolved: Cotton shouts something about waiting for the pressure to reset and then all of a sudden they stand up and stumble out of the room.
Now I know that I’m being overly harsh on it, in a way. We’re dealing with a scene in which the major characters literally just writhe around on a stage in some London warehouse (essentially), but the truth of the matter is this isn’t their fault. The script treats what happens to them here as gospel facts. No really, this is what happens. The pressure equalizes (do Baker/Martin know where pressure comes from?) and then everyone can stand up and go out of the room because the oxygen is still there.
Sigh. That’s just bad, bad writing. How awful.
The rest of this episode doesn’t feel like anything else happens. In fact, we’re five episodes into this story and it feels like nothing’s actually happened. A lot of that is the fact that there’s nothing new or special here and what progression there is is the sort that I find neither engaging nor interesting. It’s a lot of walking around from place to place and figuring out what to do next. It’s this era of Doctor Who at its absolute most unoriginal and boring. Super panto villain. All ideas, no character. Poor acting. A story caught in the vicious cycle of capture and escape…
Where’s the heart? Where’s the soul? It feels like I’m watching something that has all the spirit of something like “The Phantom Menace”. Ugh.
And here we have much the same. The Doctor is coerced into helping out what’s their face plan, which is to make the surface of the planet habitable to most people. But I’m also confused as to what the initial missile strike did to the planet. Wasn’t it like the planet got bombarded with radiation and now no one can live on it? But isn’t there a strike force on the planet’s surface? Grawr! Science! Why do you not make sense when you’re haphazardly slopped together?!?!?!
I’m still less than impressed with both Pertwee and the direction of the story. In particular, can someone please teach Rick James how to act? I’m begging you. He gives the “Oh shit” for the cliffhanger and it’s easily the worst thing so far in this story. Not even joking.
So what we’re left with is a product that has yet to impress me. It’s surprising, sure, but that’s because all of a sudden the mutants really are intelligent and that they can talk. So why haven’t they before? And why… just why? The rules of the world feel like they’re fairly arbitrary, and fine. You could argue that they are (they’re beholden only to the imaginations of Bob Baker and Dave Martin), but the internal logic needs to be sound in ways that I feel it’s not. The whole thing feels rushed and slopped together and I’m sorry, but I demand more.
So let’s just get this over with.
So this story is basically framed by two of the most inane, crazy things I’ve ever seen in Doctor Who. Ever.
The first is the inquisition that arrives to investigate the supposed crimes The Marshal has been committing against the Solonians throughout the story and beyond. And… am I wrong or does it seem like this crew of inspectors is blind? Can they not see the way The Marshal functions through fear and intimidation because of the way he threatens and stares at The Doctor? Can he not see The Marshal make terribly racist and violent slurs against the Mutants?
Because I’ll be honest, if someone calls anyone or anything a “mutt” I’m immediately suspect of their objectivity or whatever they say about anything. Such derogatory language should set off alarm bells and gun flares or something. I’m just saying.
And then to make matters worse, The Doctor reveals that he was coerced and details all the elements of the situation and tells the story that makes sense and says “The Marshal is a bloodthirsty killer”, after which, during an attack by one of the mutants, The Marshal guns it down and murders it in cold blood because he’s afraid of it. And how does the Inspector respond? Well let’s start differently: how does any sane person respond to a person who has been proven to use fear tactics, who is proven to be a vicious racist, and who has just murdered an innocent life form in cold blood? Do you let them continue to be the leader of men they want to be?
No. No you do not. Oh, and by the way, the inspector does do that.
I’m sorry, but come on. This has gone on long enough. The Marshal acting like a complete psychopath like this is… it’s so far beyond the realm of believability that I’m left asking “what the fuck” because seriously? Seriously.
And then we get the end game of the story, in which The Marshal gets his come-uppance. And I know plenty of people have lauded this moment because it’s a fist-pumping “oh yeah” moment complete with The Marshal getting callously vaporized and in cold blood. And sure, I’ll give you that. The Marshal is an asshole. He has only ever been an asshole. He would go on to rule an entire planet without actually being there. The man is a complete psychopath with delusions of grandeur far beyond the scope of his capabilities.
So good riddance, yes. I agree.
But here’s the thing: did it have to come at the hands of Space Jesus?
I can buy this story. I can. It’s based on the idea that every five hundred years the people of this planet evolve into a new form of life that can live within certain parameters based on the current climate conditions on the planet’s surface. For five hundred years, the planet has been in a period of spring, but they’re about to have five hundred years of super hot summer, punctuated by a nice healthy influx of daily radiation. Like rain. From the sun.
Fine. That’s the idea of the story, but holy crap. Seriously, holy crap. Ky becomes a glowing god-like entity who can fly, communicate telepathically, move through walls, and vaporize mother fuckers. And that’s just what he does in the first thirty seconds of his new life as Space Jesus.
I’ve long since said that this is a deus ex machina ending, and I really stand by that. Now, I understand the poetry and the argument of the subject. Like we said earlier, this was supposed to be allegory for the treatment of the oppressed Africans in South Africa, but it hardly came out that way. Regardless, there is a beauty in what happens here. The natives unlock their potential, become more than they seem to be, and transcend far beyond anything we could have ever possibly guessed they would have been capable of. There’s a poetry to that, and it’s quite the enjoyable thing, if I may say so.
But here’s the problem.
The version of this we have is Ky. Ky is our friendly local native we’ve been living with the whole story. He’s been set up to lead the revolution (see episode one) and thusly, this brings him full circle where he leads his people into their next stage of development, or at least, the next stage until it becomes autumn again. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with a Doctor Who story written by Baker/Martin, who have given no character arc to any of this shit. So I don’t care about this because it’s not my job to care. I literally need to care about “oh shit they just vap’d the Marshal. That’s some serious shit.”
And there you have it. The end of this story takes what could be the beautiful poetry of an arc fulfilled and then completely undercuts it by the cute and adorable moment of “Space Jesus just got sweet vengeance on that fat asshole.”
So basically, a mission statement for the whole episode.
That leaves me frustrated and angry. Not only could this nonsensical bullshit excuse for a story not even come close to sustaining a whole cohesive narrative across six episodes, but the end result is something that feels like a complete deus ex machina to clear up a problem that the story literally couldn’t fix. Wouldn’t it have been better if Ky had turned into a Mutant and led the mutant revolt against the Marshal and they all dog piled on him and ate him alive (believe me, there’s enough to go around; lookit that guy) and on screen?
But no. We get Glowy Space Jesus. And it’s dumb.
Final Thoughts?: I fucking hate this story.
The Wedding of River Song" twice...).
I mean, look at the actors we have. I think George Pravda's Jaeger (aka Castellan Spandrell) is fairly passable in the role and I don't have any qualms about John Hollis's Sondergaard at all. They're not amazing, but at least I don't notice them, which is totally fine for Doctor Who, or anything really. Expecting mind-meltingly good performances at a rate of anything less than "occasional" is quixotic at best. Sure, "The West Wing" pulled it off, but after watching "The West Wing" I'm fairly convinced there's not much that show isn't capable of.
The Time Monster" and/or "Monster of Peladon" over this loaf.
Lastly, I'm going to just come out now and apologize for the contents of this entry. I know it probably wasn't fun reading it, but I'll be honest. It was much worse writing it. Sometimes they just come out bad and you get a bad story. Can't be helped. Hopefully one of these doesn't come up again for a while (in fact, I'm almost certain one doesn't) and I can guarantee you that next week and for the next couple months (I believe until mid-May, even) we won't have another bad one like this one. So thank you for putting up with me and this entry. And again, I'm ever so sorry.
Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Action! Adventure! DALEKS! A big ol' mystery! The Dalek/Human factor! A booby trapped house! ALCHEMY! And an explosive final showdown that still could rock Doctor Who fans down to their corest of cores! (If only it wasn't missing...) "The Evil of the Daleks"! Coming Next Tuesday!