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9x04. The Mutants
Writers: Bob Baker & Dave Martin
Director: Christopher Barry
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: The Time Lords send the Doctor to deliver a message to an unknown recipient on the planet Solos in the 30th Century, where a declining Earth empire is preparing to withdraw its forces over the objections of the ruling Marshal. The Doctor and Jo find themselves in the midst of a conflict resulting from the Marshal's tyrannical plans to maintain control of Solos and his determination to exterminate all "mutants" who are undergoing a strange evolutionary development.

Review: I seem to be at cross-purposes with the conventional wisdom of Doctor Who fandom lately: first I judged "The Sea Devils" to be only average, and now I find myself having rather enjoyed "The Mutants." While the script by Bob Baker and Dave Martin has its share of problems, it also does some important things right and earns points for originality.

Concerns about racism and imperialism are hardly new to the Pertwee era or to Doctor Who in general, but the two societies in conflict are portrayed with enough variety to keep the story from becoming a simple black-and-white exercise. On the human side, the Marshal may be a xenophobic, power-crazed nutcase, but most of the other humans are not die-hard supporters of the occupation of Solos. The scientist Sondergaard is the most sympathetic to the Solosians, having come to the planet to study their civilization and finding himself an outlaw when he tried to report the Marshal's abuses to Earth Control. Stubbs and Cotton come to sympathize with the Solosian rebels, but they've previously participated in the Marshal's persecution and killing of the "Mutts" (as they call the mutating Solosians), and they initially seem to support the Doctor and the Solosians as much for the purpose of ending the occupation, of which they are both weary, as out of any innate preference for one side or the other. Jaeger, the Marshal's top scientist, is strangely amoral: he bears no malice of his own towards the Solosians, but he willingly carries out the Marshal's orders and causes a great deal of death and suffering with his experiments. Among the Solosians, Varan takes a collaborationist approach towards the humans and himself displays prejudice against the mutants; this changes when the Marshal tries to have him killed, but then he attempts rebellion by appealing to a "warrior code" tradition that proves ineffectual. In contrast, Ky is more defiant, refusing to accept the Administrator's sugar-coated spin on the planned withdrawal and insisting that the killing of the mutants stop, and he also shows his humanitarian side by trying to keep Jo safe even after taking her hostage at the beginning.

The most significant virtue of "The Mutants," however, is that it has a spirit of imagination and mystery that plays to the Doctor's unique strengths as a protagonist. While the broad outlines of the plot are sketched in early on, Baker and Martin keep us guessing for quite a while about the nature of the mutants and what it has to do with the Time Lords' message for Ky. The scenes with the strange figure in the cave (who turns out to be Sondergaard) yield some striking visuals, and after Sondergaard's identity is revealed, he and the Doctor have some good scenes in which they unravel the Solosians' history. The Third Doctor has usually been at his most expressive when voicing moral outrage at some form of prejudice or injustice, but Pertwee proves equally skilled at portraying the character's intellectual energy here, and his discovery proves to be one of the most creative sci-fi concepts on Doctor Who in quite a while: the Solosians undergo a radical biological change every 500 years, in synch with their planet's seasonal cycles, and the "mutants" are simply in a transitional phase, their final state being the ethereal and powerful form into which Ky is eventually transformed. This nicely underlines the point about racism, by showing that those who may seem viscerally frightening (the "Mutts") or strange and intimidating (Ky, post-transformation) still deserve to be treated as equals, and it also portrays science and the natural universe as a realm of discovery and wonder rather than just something that madmen or evil geniuses use to wreak havoc.

"The Mutants" is only the third Pertwee adventure to be set in outer space, but the production team continue to meet the improved standards set by "Colony in Space" and "The Curse of Peladon," particularly in the scenes on the surface of Solos. The mist-laden exteriors and the dark caves provide a convincing post-apocalyptic landscape, and the eerie music adds to the slightly uneasy feeling of these scenes. (Unfortunately, the same style of music is often used for the studio-bound scenes on board Skybase, and in that context it's just bizarre and grating.) On the other hand, the now-familiar "mission from the Time Lords" device for getting the Doctor away from Earth and UNIT is an almost absurdly transparent contrivance. It was fine in "Colony in Space" when they wanted him to stop the Master from obtaining a dangerous weapon, and I could reluctantly accept that they had some interest in the interplanetery peace conference in "The Curse of Peladon," but unless I missed something, Baker and Martin never even attempt to explain why thesium radiation (which the Doctor eventually declares must be the reason for their involvement) is so important. More to the point, if they can transport a message in a container to the Doctor on Earth, why couldn't they just send it right to Ky instead of dispatching the Doctor to do it for them? I've generally been a fan of the exile arc and the UNIT stories thus far, but since the writers had evidently given up on following its parameters at this point, I'm ready for its impending end in "The Three Doctors."

I also can't really quarrel with the assessment that characterization in "The Mutants" is really nothing to write home about. The characters work as an ensemble, but the dialogue is frequently pedestrian and clichéd, and none of them really stand out. Sondergaard and the Doctor stand opposite Jaeger on the issue of moral responsibility in scientific research, but I'd be lying if I said Sondergaard and Jaeger were very distinct as characters -- they're there to provide exposition, serve as foils for the Doctor, and little else. "The Mutants" also fails to provide a particularly memorable villain. The Marshal is adequate as a symbol of reactionary forces hindering the possibility of understanding between different species, but as a person he's utterly shallow, displaying no dimensions beyond egomaniacal bluster and irrational hatred. While I don't doubt that people like the Marshal have at times risen to power in colonial regimes, he just isn't that interesting compared to more tragic Pertwee-era villains like General Carrington or the High Priest Hepesh.

Still, I found myself generally satisfied with "The Mutants." Perhaps I'm overrating it due to low expectations and my disappointment with "The Sea Devils," and certainly anyone looking for especially sharp characterization and dialogue will not find it here. From my perspective, however, the freshness of the underlying concepts, the overall portrayal of the two societies, and the stylistic approach to the scenes on the planet outweigh the serial's flaws.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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