12/02/2011

Rhythm of Life by John Connors

`The Mutants` is 1970s Doctor Who at its most allegorical, packed with themes such as colonisation, scientific morals, economic reality and racism, often delivered in dialogue heavy scenes. If that makes it sound dull, then you’ll be surprised just how involving it is, how the six part format allows plenty of time for running about and action to balance the more issue driven aspects. Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin deserve credit for keeping such a bunch of characters interesting. When you look at the roll call –marshall, administrator, scientist, guards – you might be forgiven for thinking nothing will spark but it does. The plot remains inquisitive at all times, finding new angles and developments all the time even if by the end you feel a little bit Solosed out.
In the far future Earth colony Solos is being abandoned after experiments with atmospherics to make it habitable have failed and the empire can no longer afford to stay. This is bolstered by rivalries amongst the Solonians and a strange mutation that all initially see as a disease caused by the humans’ experiments. Baker and Martin wrote several ambitious stories for the third and fourth Doctor yet this is probably their most satisfying mix of ideas and content. The script manages to give the Doctor moral points to make yet he does so in much less patronising fashion than he sometimes did and you can sympathise with what he is saying. Equal measure is afforded each point of view meaning the Marshall is more than a hammy villain (even if he sometimes acts like one) and the bickering tribes actually have a point. Most effectively, the scientific issues are well debated with more maturity than you’d expect. Each character argues thier corner so condignly any shortcomings in acting –and there are a few- are forgotten. Some have said the story lacks emotion and that is true to some extent but you can feel emotional about the issues. I feel too that in making the Solonians rowdy argumentative types it gives them a dignity that would have been missing had they been too obviously passive. They give a feeling of exploitation far better than a lecture from the Doctor. When Ky shouts the odds at the Administrator you can absolutely believe he feels passionately about the situation. In fact, the themes are so strong for this type of series that both Doctor Who-  notably `Full Circle`- and the writers themselves- especially in `Sky`- would retun to them.
Doctor Who stories set on other planets are often unconvincing but under Barry Letts and Terrance Dick’s stewardship, the series bolstered its concepts by spinning them from contemporary issues and like `Curse of Peladon, `The Mutants explores them at a level that is serious enough to warrant attention but without falling into being boring. The Doctor is on fine form here. At the peak of his powers around 1972-3, Jon Pertwee’s portrayal is a fascinating mix of politician, teacher, parent and scientist- in theory all the sorts of people that a young teenager watching would not find cool. His occasional cloak swishing hai jinks are not what this Doctor was really about. Letts and co seemed to take the show back to some of its roots, with the Doctor’s moral lessons, fatherly advice and sagely intervention defining the plot turns. He did this with strongly argued reason, a harder sell than the later charisma of Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant. Pertwee is the least tricksy, most sensible Doctor, wearing the clothes and sometimes the attitude of the upper class establishment yet he comes across here as the rebel and the instigator, comfortably himself and convincing. The early1990s when fandom took against him seems a misguided world away when you watch him in this story. Alongside `Carnival of Monsters`, this is probably his best individual story in terms of putting across what the third Doctor stands for and how he sees things.  A long way from his unconvincing faffing with test tubes in his first season, this is pretend science taken to an art and only real scientists will spot the illusion. 
Of course The Mutants is best remembered for its strong visual appeal. Christopher Barry and his crew make Solos look like Solos instead of Chislehurst caves and a quarry. The locations are shot with feature film finesse with the surface of Solos made up of smoke and dead plants while the real caves are lit with rainbow coloured lights. Needless to say the Mutt monster costumes are terrific but what does come across is how well sound is used.  At times the style of the story foreshadows the work Graeme Harper would bring to the show a decade later, with hand held camerawork and tight contained shots. At other times it does betray it’s 1970s origins with discordant noises from Tristram Cary providing an electronic soundtrack and a totally trippy scene set in the radioactive core of the planet. The editing is more chaotic in the studio with the excellent sets never quite coming across as well as they should and some curious editing decisions.
There’s much to be enjoyed on the extras disc too. `Mutt Mad`, the making - of feature shows just how inventive 1970s production teams were in utilising limited resources. As can be seen from the production, a few well placed lights, judicious re-use of sets and good direction can make something look far more expensive than it is. In `Dressing the Doctor`, James Acheson recounts with much jollity what was his formative early career while on the show . It’s surprising to learn that he walked out of `The Deadly Assassin` during pre-production casting doubt after all this time as to whether he is wholly responsible for the Time Lord’s iconic costume design.
 The most talked about extra is likely to be `Race Against Time`, the content of which does not quite live up the standard of its punning title. While everything that is said about the (lack of) representation of black actors in Doctor Who is true, the documentary fails to underline that people in past years thought differently and it’s rather presumptuous of us to judge them. Who knows, thirty years hence, current society’s views on a range of issues may well be seen as lacking. It seems unpalatable to say it, but the majority of people in the 1960s simply did not know or see many people of ethnicity other than their own and so as a topic `racism` would not exist for them. Today, things are very different. Neither was casting as exacting. TV production in those days was far more rushed than it is now- partly because more original drama was made- and in all likelihood directors used actors whose work they knew, thus it would be hard for other actors- whatever their skin colour – to get a break.
`The Mutants` may not be the most commercial adventure but it looks great and is strong on content and in extras which makes it a recommended purchase.

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