Skip to main content

Slag, ash, clinker.

Doctor Who
The Mutants

I don’t think anyone out there is lauding The Mutants as an unsung classic, except perhaps those invoking The Daleks by one of its working titles (but let’s not go there), or possibly those with fond memories of the Target novelisation (Terrance Dicks at his most spartan, but what a cover!), but I do feel it’s on the receiving end of more than its fair share of disdain. Sure, it’s threadbare, slipshod, with some terrible casting decisions, ropey design work (and effects), and – despite a typically idea-laden script from the Bristol Boys – unable to sustain its six-episode length. It’s also got Big Nose on particularly abrasive form. But, in its favour – and it’s a magnificent favour – it features the one and only Professor Sondergaard. And as we know, or should, Sondergaard ROCKS!


As with most Doctor Who stories, documented to the nines as they are, The Mutants comes replete with its own set of oft-repeated wisdoms, from how it’s an allegory for the fall of the British Empire to one on apartheid, to how it starts off like the average Monty Python episode, to the legendary, Olivier-like performance of Rick James (he’s shit). And then there’s Tristram Cary and his Marmite moog (I’m a bit in between actually, not sold the way I am with Malcolm Clarke’s electronic assault on the eardrums in The Sea Devils; sometimes Tristram works, sometimes he gets Cary-ed away and the result is an unpleasantly atonal wall of noise).


The attempts at political subtext feel rather quaint now, not helped by the overstated and silly uniforms and entirely uncommitted performances (it’s mystifying that this bunch, a corpulent commander leading disinterested assistants, could subdue a planet full of Solonian warlords for five minutes, let alone 500 years). The Doctor is even required to spell it out in the first couple of scenes (“Well, Empires rise and fallAnd if this is their idea of a reception, this one has obviously imploded”). Inadvertently, it also gives the bastions of the Empire a trace of good graces (they’re pulling out, now they’ve strip mined the place), so the Marshal is positioned as a bad egg spoiling an otherwise, if not upstanding, no longer overtly adversarial carton.


But The Mutants definitely has something. That’s generally an excuse used for not wanting to label something terrible as terrible, and certainly around the midway, things are looking a bit dicey.


By this point, we’ve experienced classic lines such as “Die, Overlord Die!”, with James Mellor’s Varan making a highly unconvincing badass warlord, so much so one could easily imagine Matt Berry playing him for laughs and proving more fearsome. But one gets used to the unabating clash of performance styles (or, in James’ case, no style at all) after a while.


Paul Whitsun-Jones plays the Marshal as both pathetic and spiteful, but he’s never really intimidating: more plain churlish. Ky (Garrick Hagon – latterly Biggs Darklighter) is a dashing chap who really ought to have swept Jo off her feet, and as guest heartthrobs go Hagon makes a good stab of it, when not having to spout guff like “We want freedom and we want it now!” And then there’s Geoffrey Palmer, bringing effortlessly stuffy cool to – just –  the first episode, and George Pravda bringing George Pravda to scientist Jaeger. There’s also a curious Eastern European thing going on, what with Pravda’s natural tones and the accent adopted by John “Lobot” Hollis as Sondergaard (who, simply, ROCKS).


Jaeger: There’s no proof at all that my atmospheric experiments have anything at all to do with these mutations.

Bob Baker and Dave Martin entreat not only against oppression, but also the erosion of our imperilled environment. The above line is one for the climate change deniers, although one might perversely get the wrong end of the intended stick and posit that in the The Mutants the pollutants do no ultimate damage, merely accelerating a natural process, to an ultimately positive end.


The Doctor here is still an activist, though (“Land and sea alike, all grey. Grey cities linked by grey highways across grey deserts… Slag, ash, clinker. The fruits of technology, Jo”). And, at times, given to loony stream-of-consciousness abandon (“The slightest accident in this stage of the proceedings and we’d all reverse instantly into antimatter. Blasted out to the other side of the universe, as a flash of electromagnetic radiation. We’d all become unpeople undoing unthings untogether. Fascinating”: indeed, just ask Omega).


Ky: The disposed, the outcasts, the terrorists, as the overlords label them.

Being the ‘70s, we could get behind terrorists and see them as justified. Ah, heady days. What works its retro best in The Mutants is the psychedelia, though. It doesn’t have the creative flair Michael Ferguson brought to earlier colour foray The Claws of Axos, mainly because Chris Barry doesn’t seem to be putting in very much effort. But some of the ideas can’t help but bleed though into the visuals, mainly evidenced in the cave scenes and the garish lighting thereabout, all reds and greens, and the CSO-rendered radioactive chamber (and then there’s the presence of Sondergaard – did I mention he ROCKS?)


We also have a suitably New Age plot about metamorphosis, not the rather mundane (but let’s face it, much more integrally told) metamorphosis of the later Full Circle, but a transformation into a more evolved life form on every level. This is all about uncapping potentiality, achieving transcendence. Ethereal glowing and telepathy become second nature (“Go Varan. Go to the place of sleeping. The place of darkness and night”). Although, admittedly, the story isn’t really selling the “beauty within” thing, since ugliness is ultimately discarded (so it is what’s on the surface that counts?), and shiny, happy-floaty Super-Ky isn’t suddenly above getting his hands dirty (“Die, Marshal. Let there be an end to the torture of my people”).


Sondergaard: Strange things are happening to Solos, Doctor.

And you have hippy-shaman Professor Sondergaard (who ROCKS), a very groovy, chrome-domed anthropologist dude who isn’t smart enough to worked out that Solonians have lifecycles (he needs the Doctor’s help, naturally) but digs beads and has a winning way with Mutts (he’s a regular pied piper come the third episode, and has a good line in reverse psychology; “Very well, I shall go on. And you shall stay as you are now, forever”).


In fact, he’s a much more engaging doctor than the actual Doctor in The Mutants, who repeatedly calls the Marshal “quite mad” and is really little more than a delivery boy (talking of which the whole “particle reversal” obsession of Jaeger, simply because the Doctor mentioned it and anything’s worth a try, is desperately weak).


The Discontinuity Guide would have you believe Geoffrey Palmer is the best thing in this (he’s not, Exhibit A being the pre-preceding paragraph), and that his death in the first episode evidences its overall deficiencies in quality. But they also let Rick James off the hook with the the excuse that he’s “given some of the worst lines in Doctor Who’s history” (he isn’t, he just can’t act for toffee), so their appraisal is somewhat suspect.


If Barry had been a touch more engaged, and the escape-and-capture, stir-and-repeat, of longer stories such as this had been limited, and the casting had been more judicious, and the music more moderate, and the effects more consistent… No, I’m not sure The Mutants might have been a classic, but classic moments do shine through, and James Acheson’s mutant designs remain iconic (not quite as much as that Jeff Cummins Target cover, but effective nonetheless). And, of course, Sondergaard ROCKS!












Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.