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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
nteresting tidbit about “The Mutants”: Salman Rushdie mentions it in his famously controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, although not by name, but rather by bringing up the Mutts from the story and offering up a few observations. Some fans have derided Rushdie’s brief commentary as misinterpreting the messages of the story, but that’s a debate for another forum. What’s noteworthy, though, is that Rushdie was paying close enough attention to see any kind of message at all. It’s not that the messages are muddled, so much as they’re covered in enough layers of sci-fi that they don’t dominate the story. Ostensibly, “The Mutants” is something of a metaphor for colonialism, Apartheid and xenophobia, although one can hardly claim the story beats you over the head with any of these ideas. Certainly the messages are no more prevalent than in dozens of other similarly structured “Who” stories, but if somebody wants or needs to see them, they’re definitely there.
The action unfolds in the 30th century, and the Doctor (Jon Pertwee), with Jo Grant (Katy Manning) in tow, has been sent on a mission by the Time Lords to deliver a message to an unknown person on the planet Solos. Solos has for hundreds of years been under the rule of the Earth Empire and the indigenous population has long since grown not only restless, but rebellious even. But something else is happening to the Solonians – they’re mutating into a new race, which the human refer to as Mutts, and they look something like giant cockroaches that walk on two legs. Why is this happening? Does it have anything to do with the poisonous atmosphere on Solos, or is it just a natural stage of their evolution?
Maybe the real reason this story gets singled out for its political content is because it feels more mature than not only other stories from its era, but also much of classic “Who” in general. The characters are complex and layered, but not always in the most engaging of ways. Likewise, the story either takes numerous needless detours to get where it’s going, or it’s a genuinely multifaceted piece of work. After two full viewings, I still can’t decide which, but I’d imagine much of one’s take on it would depend entirely on how much enjoyment one gets out of it. The tone of it frequently doesn’t feel as much “Doctor Who” as it does another great ‘70s British sci-fi series, “Blake’s 7,” and while viewing “The Mutants” I kept imagining Blake, Avon and the rest of the crew from the Liberator in charge of fixing the situation.
About half of the action takes place on Solos, while the other half happens above, on Skybase One. “The Mutants” frequently has some gorgeous model work going on, while the stuff down on the planet also works well thanks to simple lighting choices – particularly when the story moves underground into the planet’s vast cave system. The cast, too, offers up several surprises, especially for “Star Wars” fans, as two major characters are played by actors who had much smaller roles in the original trilogy. Garrick Hagon, who played Biggs in “Star Wars,” is one of the central characters, Ky, the leader of the Solonian revolution, while Professor Sondergaard, the man who may be the key to the Solonian’s salvation, is played by John Hollis, better known to fans of “The Empire Strikes Back” as Lando’s mute but still badass aide, Lobot. Both guys bring a great deal of texture to the story, and as a result it’s easy to see why Lucas would want to cast them in such small but pivotal roles in his saga. On the other hand, there’s Paul Whitsun-Jones as the Marshall, who’s the main bad guy in the story. He’s one of those overweight villains that’s full of bluster and hot air. Not necessarily a bad performance, but also not one that’s destined to go down as one of the Doctor’s great nemeses. And the less said about Rick James’ Cotton the better. (No, not that Rick James, which is too bad for “The Mutants.”)
“The Mutants” is a tricky one, that’s for sure. It’s never been the kind of story that’s taken any kind of beating to its reputation, but it does seem to be one of those “Who” entries that over the years has kind of fallen through the cracks and is all but forgotten. Probably half the people who watch it will find it and its six-episode length to be interminably boring, so this is likely one for only the hardcore fans to dive into and pull apart. Yet I’ve not seen a classic “Who” story in quite a while that seemed more deserving of being given a new life on DVD so that folks can watch it and decide for themselves.
Special Features: There is (of course) a commentary track, and it’s one of those in which the participants take turns from one episode to the next. Nicholas Pegg moderates Katy Manning, Garrick Hagon, director Christopher Barry, script editor Terrance Dicks, co-writer Bob Baker, special sound designer Brian Hodgson and designer Jeremy Bear. Not a bad commentary by any means (there’s an almost preposterous amount of good-natured laughter during Episode One), but most noteworthy is that even with all of these participants, nobody can ever quite seem to agree on whether or not “The Mutants” is genius or garbage.
“Mutt Mad” is your standard making-of “Who” doc. “Race Against Time” is a particularly effective doc hosted by Noel “Mickey Smith” Clarke that examines how race was portrayed over the years in “Who” and other British shows, as well as giving a detailed breakdown of the allegorical aspects of “The Mutants,” and probably even another topic or two. An excellent piece with a 37-minute running time, this is one of the more insightful docs I’ve seen on a “Who” disc in some time. There’s a quick bit from a “Blue Peter” episode that’s pretty throwaway, and a lengthy, fun interview with costume designer James Acheson (who these days does things like design costumes for the “Spider-Man” movies), as he sits back and recounts every single story he worked on during his time on “Who.” Also present are the usual PDF materials, a photo gallery, production notes option and a trailer for “The Ark,” which comes out next month.