Before he became more famous as the writer behind Nick Park’s hugely successful Wallace & Gromit, Bristol-based Bob Baker was more famously known as the man (along with fellow writing partner, Dave Martin) who created one of Doctor Who‘smost enduring creations, K-9.
However, Baker and Martin’s contribution to the long running serial was rather more varied than just the creation of Luke Smith’s future university roommate. Together they wrote a total of eight Who stories during the show’s 1970s heyday and it would be fair to say that, during this period, putting aside both Robert Holmes and Terrance Dicks for a moment,the ‘Bristol Boys’ were the primary freelance writers for the show.
From their pens we were treated to the psychedelic The Claws Of Axos, the joyous celebration of The Three Doctors, the infamous return of the Sontarans in The Sontaran Experiment, Sarah Jane Smith’s tearful farewell in The Hand Of Fear and K-9’s first ‘affirmative, master’ in The Invisible Enemy.
So, what about The Mutants?
This 1972 serial was the duo’s second contribution to the show and is the only one of their initial four stories to not contain a significant returning element from the show’s canon of villains/characters. Bob Baker says it’s his favourite of the stories he and the now-departed Martin wrote, yet fandom doesn’t seem to hold The Mutants in quite the same regard as some of their other contributions. Why is that?
For a start, I’d suggest that one of serial’s main drawbacks is that, not only is The Mutants a six-part story (which is a beast of varied success in 70s Who), but, perhaps more damagingly, it’s a visually fairly boring six-part story.
Unlike some other examples of this subgenre, The Mutants does have enough character, mad ideas and plot twists to sustain a two hour plus running time, but it lacks the sense of scale, imaginative imagery and quotable dialogue that the most beloved six-parters from this decade (and by this I mean Genesis Of The Daleks, The Seeds Of Doom and The Talons Of Weng Chiang) have in abundance.
The fact that director, Christopher Barry, is rather dismissive of the tale on both the DVD commentary and accompanying documentary is actually pretty revealing, and the feeling one comes away with is that a director with more urgency, flair and enthusiasm for the story would have brought a lot more to the table.
Another significant demerit for the story is that it contains one of the worst guest performances in the show’s history. Portraying the ‘enlightened’ Imperial soldier, Cotton, is actor Rick James, who seems incapable of delivering his (admittedly poor) lines with any degree of conviction or dramatic purpose. If ‘wooden’ could be summed up in a sentence it would be: Rick James’ performance in The Mutants. And that’s being kind!
However, it’s not fair to lay the blame solely at James’ feet and his obvious miscasting is yet another misjudgement by the clearly disengaged Christopher Barry.
Another factor in this show’s somewhat spotty regard is the fact that nothing dates a piece of film or TV show more than its vision of the future. Whether it be the late 60s Technicolor of Star Trek‘s 23rd century, or the late-80s glitz and colour of Back To The Future Part II‘s2015 stories, which postulate a bright, shiny future, they very rarely convince.
This is especially true of Doctor Who (both old and new), where budget is a constant issue and overlighting is the constant enemy of production.
The visions of the future that tend to work best in the show, whether it be the endless motorway of Gridlock, the faux Victoriana of A Christmas Carol, or the Berlin bunker feel of Genesis Of The Daleks, are successful precisely because they eschew the shiny, accentuate the ‘lived-in’, and make use of the greatest friend Doctor Who has ever had: low lighting.
In comparison, the future as portrayed in stories like this one, with its Ikea-like space station populated with overweight thesps in tight blue uniforms and silly hats, just looks, well, a bit daft.
However, despite these negatives, there is a lot to admire in The Mutants. And while I personally enjoy Baker/Martin’s The Three Doctors and The Hand Of Fear more, one can see why, from a writers point of view, that this is Baker’s favourite.
It’s easily the partnership’s most coherently plotted adventure, with a ton of incident and a very clear sense of geography to the story. Every character and layer of the narrative is essential, everyone’s motivations are clear and the more psychedelic and ‘out there’ moments (which had been overdone in The Claws Of Axos) are used here with economy and purpose.
Sure, the whole ‘anti-empire’ story is as old as the hills, but here, allied to a classic Who- trope of villainous middle management desperately plotting to stay in power, it works really well. This is helped by the fact that Paul Whitsun-Jones as the oily figure of The Marshal and George Pravda as ruthless station scientist Jaeger are both very watchable villains who relish, but never overplay, their constant double-crossing and scheming.
At the other end of the scale, this story also finds series regulars Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning on top form. In fact, this adventure gave me new appreciation of just how brilliant Jon Pertwee was as the Doctor. In an era where Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker seem to have become the default classic Doctors of choice among fans, it’s become curiously fashionable to knock Pertwee’s incarnation of the Time Lord.
Without doubt, his character is sometimes overbearing, clubbable and much more aristocratic than many of the other versions of the character we’re used to. But I’d argue that Pertwee’s influence on the character is, in many ways, actually far more profound than either Troughton or Baker’s.
Yes, both of those actors gave brilliant and vivid performances as the Time Lord, which certainly echo within the show and its public perception to this day. But it’s the understated, yet authoritative Pertwee, playing a very moral man of action, who is the absolute bedrock for what actors such as Peter Davison, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant would do with the part in years to come.
No one could say that Pertwee was the most gifted and versatile actor to play the part. But the most important? I think there’s certainly a case to be made.
Which is a longwinded way of saying, despite a number of missteps in terms of its execution, I enjoyed The Mutants immensely. It’s a hugely entertaining slice of time capsule entertainment, and while there are better made and more sophisticated episodes of classic Who available for purchase, if you’re in the mood for a solid slice of belt and braces, early 70s pulp storytelling, then The Mutants will be right up your street.
Extras on the DVD are standard for a 2-disc release. The obligatory feature commentary track is ably moderated by new series Dalek operator Nicholas Pegg and features a rotating cast of contributors, including Katy Manning (Jo Grant), Garrick Hagon (Ky), director, Christopher Barry, script editor, Terrance Dicks, co-writer, Bob Baker, set designer, Jeremy Bear and special sound man, Brian Hodgson. It’s a lively, informative and hugely entertaining track and well worth a listen.
Aside from the commentary, the other main extras are the various documentaries.
First up is Mutt Mad, which, to be honest, is a pretty standard behind-the-scenes/look back documentary that features contributions from many of the surviving key players behind the show.
Of more interest is Race Against Time, a documentary narrated by Who stalwart Noel Clarke, which looks at the representation of black actors on British television from the 1960s through to the present day. With a natural focus upon Doctor Who throughout the years (and some discussion of Rick James’ turn as Cotton taking up some of the running time), it’s a highly interesting and thoughtful piece that ends with a tantalising tease of a whole host of fantastic black actors being mooted as potential future incarnations of our favourite Time Lord.
Rounding out the main extras is the short, but perfectly formed, Dressing Doctor Who, which tracks costume designer James Acheson’s work on the show during its early-to-mid 1970s ‘golden age’. Now famous for his Academy Award-winning work on Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liasons, as well as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, it’s a nicely done retrospective that re-enforces just how talented a backroom team the show boasted during the Letts and Hinchcliffe eras.
In addition to these, there’s also a short Blue Peter clip from the early-1970s, featuring former Who companion, Peter Purves, and a gang of the show’s monsters, as well as the usual photo gallery of production, design and publicity stills for the show.
Doctor Who: The Mutants is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.
Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here.