Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Mutants

22 Mar 2008, 3:48 pm

The Mutants 1:

Deciding which Doctor Who stories you like is all a question of what bothers you. At what point your bother threshold is crossed.

One of the unfortunate aspects of most great Doctor Who stories is that there’s always at least one thing that you have to pretend isn’t there. Something that bothers you. Giant rat, giant clam, giant snake (it’s often a giant animal of some sort), Magma Beast, David Graham acting with none of the subtlety of everyone else. But it’s relatively easy to ignore because it’s just one thing – in the greater context of the story it doesn’t bother you.

The more things there are in a story that bother you, the harder that story is to like. Most of the stories everyone tends to hate are jam packed with bothering things.

However, things don’t bother you equally at all times. Take The Sea Devils as a case in point. Only a few things - lack of a plot, minor oddities in what happened, crap lip sync - all minor league problems and as a result, the story is still watchable. Whereas take it up to the level of the Space Pirates, say, with atrocious acting, ludicrous plot, tedious pacing. It’s only really a couple of things again, but for me personally, they’re much more troubling, and as a result the story is much much worse. A stupidly insane plot bothers me more than an insanely slight one.

This is further compounded by the fact that different fans find different things troubling. For me, it’s almost always about the plot. If the plot’s good, I’ll forgive anything. But for others, they can’t forgive a story with ropey effects. Or poor production design. Whilst it would be mad to say that I don’t look at a crap set and think ‘oh, I wish that looked a bit better’, it simply isn’t a make or break issue for me.

So what has this to do with The Mutants – well, one episode in it’s clear that this story is going to be filled with bits that are potentially bothering. The ruling classes (the Earth Imperialists) look more like fetish lords than the overlords they’re named as. The natives dialogue is written almost entirely in cod sci-fi balls. And worst of all, it takes literally less than ten seconds before you realise that one of the cast is probably the worst actor in the series to date.

And as result it’s a somewhat derided story. But my initial thoughts, albeit based on one episode alone, is that it’s not actually uninteresting.

It’s probably too early to judge. Certainly, this episode is helped by the legend that is Geoffrey Palmer, but he’s clearly not in the rest of it (why is it that this obviously class actor has never had a major role in Who? Even with the new series, his only real post-becoming acting royalty role in Who, he’s still out of the story before the plot starts). Nonetheless, I like a lot of it.

Firstly, rather like Peladon and Colony, it’s interesting to note that the outer space stories of the Pertwee era to date are the straight ones. Troughton goes into space and it’s all pulp fiction and nutso alien invaders. Whereas the three Pertwee outer space adventures to date are all political. Admittedly, Curse is a bit more of a romp than the others, but it’s fairly clear which are the boys own adventures, and which are the thoughtful pieces.

I think it’s something of a shame that this leaves Colony and the Mutants regarded as dull. The comparative lack of action and thrills is another thing to be bothered by, sure, but are we really unable to cope with anything different? I’m not sure whether I really like the story yet, but this episode seems interesting in a way that the fun, but shallow, Sea Devils isn’t.

Like Curse, this story is rooted in individual weakness and tragedy rather than simplistic monsters with guns. The plot is entirely derived from human beings making selfish choices for small outcomes rather than big invasion plans. The petty self-interest of the Marshal is a gloriously banal motive for a villain, which makes him a thoroughly unpleasant villain, as it’s much more accessible to us. The natives so caught up in their own prejudices they don’t give Palmer the opportunity to give them what they actually want is the very definition of dramatic irony. And the moments of violence and horror are clearly about something – the obvious racism and homophobia allegory with man turning against man for being different. Characters could become the enemy instantaneously and this resonates with the witch hunts we’ve seen in history, where people can become the enemy of overnight and for the weakest of reasons (and isn’t the first sign of the mutation, the spine bursting out of the back, one of the most grotesque images the show’s had?) . It’s all close to home, and so whilst it might not be the most exciting thing ever, it’s certainly adult. Now, let’s be clear here – I’m not saying that all of this is necessarily better, just that it’s an interestingly different approach. It simply gives the story a moral grandeur that has to make it worthwhile as a watch. And that has to compensate for a few dodgy sets and Rick James doesn’t it?

#682 22 Mar 2008, 7:32 pm

Glad to see you like it so far, I just did a review of it in my thread recently. This has always been in my personal Top 20/30, never understood why everyone dislikes it so much. Like you say, there's a lot more going on in one episode than there was in the whole of The Sea Devils.

#683 22 Mar 2008, 8:05 pm

Originally Posted by Stahlman
"Glad to see you like it so far, I just did a review of it in my thread recently. This has always been in my personal Top 20/30, never understood why everyone dislikes it so much. Like you say, there's a lot more going on in one episode than there was in the whole of The Sea Devils. "

Not everyone! I like it too!

And I don't find the acting that bad in this story, certainly not noticeably worse than many others.

#684 24 Mar 2008, 1:21 pm

The Mutants 2:

A couple of years back I was in a production of The Revengers Tragedy (an odd play - no one can decide which of two authors it’s by). And for some reason, it just didn’t seem to work. It took me a long tim to put my finger on why. The acting seemed fine, heck, even very good in parts. The design worked, the atmosphere. And the director was a well regarded up and coming talent who dealt in a lot of new plays with big names, so that could hardly be it. Could it?

Eventually I realised that it could. You see, a modern play is easier to direct than a classic piece. A modern play does all of its work for, it connects to the audience directly. Whereas a classical piece doesn’t have that direct connection.

The director, for my money, simply didn’t have any idea what to do with the play beyond telling the story competently and well. There was no vision, nothing he wanted it to say. You can pull that off in a modern play because scripts today are written for the audience today, and say something directly. Classical plays are written for audiences hundreds of years ago, and are, usually, story rather than thematically based. You’ve a good story well told – but unless you want to do more than just tell the story, what’s the point?

You see, for me that’s something missing in the direction of The Mutants. I don’t often mention direction in these reviews, because I only really notice at the extremes. But, simply put, there’s something… uninspired about Christopher Barry’s helming of this episode. As I say above, he doesn’t seem to want to do anything other than tell the story, to get from a to b.

It’s not that I want him to go nuts or anything – just there’s the sense that he’s gone for the easiest option each time. One of the bits that leapt out at me in this episode was Stubbs and the Doctor discussing the Marshall’s duplicity. This occurs with them walking down the corridor, chatting amiably about it. There’s no sense of urgency, no sense of secrecy, no sense of danger. It’s as if all that they’ve been directed to do is say the lines and make sure the audience hears them. There’s no attempt to do anything more with the scene – say, generate tension.

Likewise, the end of the episode (with Varon attempting escape as the base goes mad) should be exciting… but it just isn’t. Once again, the Doctor and Varon are just walking everywhere in plain sight (not even checking around corners or anything you’d expect someone to do when they’re attempting to leave a place surreptitiously). The only threat represented is one guard who shoots a blast at Varon – but even then, said guard is off screen, and he then, mystifyingly, fails to follow the man he can quite clearly see. Again, no urgency. It’s underwhelming.

And that’s a shame, because the script is really rather interesting. After a lot of fairly padded stories, I was quite pleased with how fast moving these first two episodes are. OK, the attempt to turn the box inside out is a little bit of a sideshow distraction, but it’s less obvious than usual and, because it is a natural offshoot of the Marshall’s established characterisation and the Doctor’s very reason for being there, at least feels like part of the plot (although like the civil servant swap-over in Sea Devils 4/5, the arrival of scientist Jaegar feels less like a natural progression and more like they can afford another actor now they’ve written out Geoffrey Palmer). Everything else, however, feels like it’s going at quite a lick. Certainly, having not seen the story in years, I was genuinely surprised at the pace. Given where we were at the end of episode one, by the time the credits roll on this one we’ve got a lot more progress than in a lot of other stories. Notice, for example, how the story deals with the missing Jo. The Doctor is misled one way very quickly, then told the truth ten minutes later. Likewise, the search for Varon initially made my heart sink. The thought that went through my head was ‘oh, we’re going to have a pointlessly extended chase to fill the episode, aren’t we’. So the fact that it’s over in about ninety seconds is rather cool. Furthermore, pretty much every relationship has progressed and developed over the twenty five minutes – the Marshall betrays Varon, Stubbs and Cotton realise the Marshall’s the baddie and side with the Doctor, Jo and Ky develop a certain trust. Most importantly, the Doctor uncovers what the villain’s up to. Now, unusually, we’re ahead of him on this, but I would, nonetheless, have expected at least another episode before the Doctor figured it out and the plot shifted on. It’s all fast, but it’s not rushed, and in a six parter that’s a blessing.

Good so far then, shame about the direction.

#685 24 Mar 2008, 3:57 pm
Sir Anthony Eden

Interesting review. This certainly is a big beast of a thread.

#686 30 Mar 2008, 11:26 pm

The Mutants 3:

Crikey, I really do have to write these reviews up a bit more promptly. I watched this episode about three days ago. Just haven’t had the opportunity to drone on about it yet, and as a result haven’t had the option to watch episode four!

OK, first off – I may have been a little unfair on the direction last time. It’s still not great, but there are a few obvious flaws with the writing – the resolution of the cliffhanger is really rather weak (mainly due to it being a contrived set up in the first place, but also because the Doctor seems to be grabbed outside the teleport initially, then is inside it the next) but particularly we have the fact that the Doctor and Varan can land on the surface and just chat for two or three minutes. There were two guards literally seconds behind them. Why aren’t they following?

Equally, it seems, frankly, suicidal as a scripting choice to write a world where people have to wear masks at all times. Yeah, that’s going to make your dialogue easily comprehendible for every one.

But generally I think the writing is solid, if a touch workmanlike and uninspiring. At worst, everyone speaks like a sci-fi cliché, but once you get into the pulpy mindset of the story, this is hardly a problem. What works about it, works well.

For example, the script deals with the mysteries well. It’s the difference between something like Babylon 5 and Lost. I recall that when Sky got the rights to show Lost, I reckoned that they thought they’d get loads of viewers switching over desperate to find out what happened next – in reality I think people reacted like me: first thought, ‘Thank the Lord, I’ve a reason not to watch it now.’ And the reason for this? Because the mystery just got boring. Two years in, fundamental questions of the show weren’t answered. Questions get dull. Whereas in contrast, most of the questions posed by the initial episodes of Babylon 5 were answered by the start of series 2. But to keep the audience interested, they were replaced with new questions, developments of the others.

That’s what The Mutants is doing terribly well, in my opinion. Look how every episode teases you. The initial episode sets up the mystery of the strange box and who it’s for (and we get the answer to the latter at the end of said episode, the former held off til this). But rather beautifully, the opening of the box, the event we’ve been waiting three episodes for, leads on to new questions. What are these mysterious tablets that no-one can understand. It’s hard not to wonder why the Timelords have made passing a message on so bloody tough (no name, nothing obvious) but it’s impossible to deny the dramatic effect it has. But it’s not the only hook. The story is always moving on, adding new elements. It’s very easy to overlook, for example, but with this episode featuring the first appearance of the full scale Mutt monsters (and excellent they look too), you’ve still been given a neat hook in the last – familiarity makes it easy to miss, but we’re given the brief silhouetting of one of the creatures as a fairly portentous image. This episode does it best though with the strange cave and suited figure that Jo encounters – a very real indication that the story is going to go somewhere odd and unexpected. Up until this point you sort of feel you know where it’s going. Something new and disjointed implies there is more to this story than you’d assumed. OK, it’s fairly easy to guess who the man is – partially due to Ky’s somewhat over-emphasised story, but mainly due to them putting his name in the sodding credits.

In addition, the story remains in fairly constant motion. There are constantly shifting alliances – The Marshall breaking from Stubbs and Cotton, Varon and the Doctor’s on/off partnership. It’s great to see a story that’s really progressing. That’s really a story, in fact.

Good fun.

#687 1 Apr 2008, 12:31 am

The Mutants 4:

After cutting Christopher Barry some slack last time round, I’ve got to get back on his case again. There’s potential for quite an exciting episode here, but he keeps fudging it.

The episodes earliest set piece features the Doctor and his friends in an imminently collapsing mountain. But much as with episode two, there’s just no urgency. Jo, Ky, Stubbs and Cotton all head off looking for the sole escape route – and they’re just ambling along like they’re on a particularly dull nature trail. This leaves the whole collapsing mountain thing deeply unconvincing. Without any real sense of danger, you’re left with a camera wobble and a sound effect whenever they remember to do one. You never get the sense that anyone’s in danger.

There are other things that are badly done – the first appearance of Sondergaard, for example, has all the characters saying ‘what is that thing’ or words to the effect, and then acting all shocked when he reveals himself to be human. This would be fine, if he doesn’t blatantly look like a man in a radiation suit from the second you see him. Then there’s a weird special effect camera that’s designed to have an elongated angle that’s put on straightforward shots for no clear reason.

Most annoyingly of all, there’s the cliffhanger. Now, I find Family Guy much more annoying than My Family, because the former has the potential to be good, even great, and doesn’t really do it – the latter’s just not something I like from the get go. And it’s the same with this cliffhanger – it’s annoying, because it’s about an inch or two away from greatness. With a countdown in the background, and the Marshall’s men lurking in the background, there’s a genuine sense of it all rushing to a head… and then it’s just fumbled. The staging of the Marshall ambushing Varan’s rebels is so ineptly staged it resembles nothing less than an amateur company’s desperation improvisation. They all seem unsure what to do, cramming themselves up next to each other in the tiniest space, with no one quite timing it right. Then we have Varan finding his mark and attacking unconvincingly, much as the Marshall does in response. It’s only at this point that it gets good again, with the slow motion effects of Varan getting sucked into space, set against the struggles of the others and the launch of the missiles, has a genuinely powerful impact. It’s just a shame it’s a mess getting there.

Equally, though, there are writing problems. The revelation of what the Doctor’s tablets mean in particular. Not because of what they say, but the sense that this otherwise well put together hook for the story seems stupidly illogical in hindsight. The box is intended for Ky – but for no obvious reason, as he can’t read the tablets. They’re then taken to Sondergaard who gives the Doctor a few hints – because he can’t really understand them either. Eventually the Doctor figures it out. Great. Wouldn’t there have been an easier way to pass this message on? Surely the message is for the Doctor himself. And is there any reason why it had to be in the form of a code? Unless the Timelords just wanted to give him an adventure (I suppose it could be viewed as a loophole in the ‘no-interference’ thing – when pressed the claim can be made that no help was sent, just a couple of Sudoku’s and a Codebreaker).

But I still think it’s outweighed by the good. The cast are, almost, pretty good to a man. OK, sometimes the characters are a little one note (I’m looking at you Marshall) but the actor’s do what they need to do. I like John Hollis as Sondergaard, though the part’s a little generic. The Afrikaans accent is a nice touch, if a little disconcerting – apparently there was an attempt to have different accents in order to make it feel multi-cultural. But up until this point, we’ve only dealt with accents we regularly hear in the show anyway – heck, even Jaegar’s Germanic tones feel like standard mad scientist.

And I think the story remains strong. It seems to me that one reason this story isn’t popular is the fact that it isn’t a plot driven story, per se. The villain doesn’t really have a grand plan or objective, there aren’t any real plot markers being switched on and off. What it is instead is character driven. The story has a vague premise (mutation as part of a natural cycle) against which is sets a wide range of warring factions and just sets them off. It sees how various characters – all of whom have believable and comprehensible motivations, ordinary motivations rather than domination of the universe – impact on each other. The closest story I can think of to it in structural terms is, amazingly, Caves of Androzani. The Mutants isn’t as complex as that script, but it’s storyline is propelled by the interaction of its cast in the same way, and as a result it has the same epic tragic feel – every character’s fate is determined by who they are, by actions and decisions on a very personal level. This is why I think suggestions this story is padded are missing the point. Because it’s not a case of random fight scenes and characters fill out a painfully thin plot – The Mutants is a story where the plot is merely a hook to get a lot of disparate characters to come into conflict. The padding is the point.

#688 1 Apr 2008, 3:55 pm
The Secretive Bus


An enjoyable and well written review, as always. I've always had a liking for The Mutants. Sure, it looks cheap and a bit murky but it rattles along at a good pace. There's certainly nothing objectively terrible about it compared to aspects of The Time Monster.


#689 2 Apr 2008, 11:56 am

The Mutnts 5:

It’s an odd episode here. A lot of things the previous episodes did badly, this does well. And a lot of things the previous episodes did well, this does badly.

The central set piece of the episode is Jo and her gang escaping the Marshall’s imprisonment and being chased through the ship. And hallelujah, it’s actually directed with a sense of urgency and pace. It’s exciting, it’s fun… but, four episodes in, it’s the first bit of clear padding, standard capture/escape/capture stuff. And it’s not the only bit.

For example, I’m struggling to see what the point of Sondergaard is, other than to give the Doctor someone to talk to. When he was introduced, it felt like he was going to be a device to push the story off somewhere new, but in reality he’s just a sounding board. And that’s a shame.

You see, we’ve kind of figured out where the story’s heading now, and this episode’s only real function is to mark time until the conclusion and confrontation can be reached. For most of the time it’s concealed relatively well (the sideplot of the Doctor working to clear Solos of poison is a logical step given the circumstances), but we’ve got to the point where we really need to be moving into the endgame now – all the questions are answered, let’s finish this. I suppose it had to happen eventually, but it’s a shame to see the writing slide this close to the finishing line.

Still, some of the rest of it’s still going well – the plot remains interesting and low-key. It was good to see the old line about ‘only obeying orders’ mentioned here, because it does emphasise what’s going on (much as does Stubbs basically having to hold off his mates during the fire fight). The story is driven by politics and character. The Marshall is nothing more or less than a political tyrant clinging to rule, motivated by simple greed and ego. If I’m honest, I think he could do with a touch more menace. He’s so clearly barking mad, and what he’s asking people to do is so clearly evil, that you kind of wonder why people are obeying him. Blind obedience seems to be the answer implied, but I’m not totally convinced that’s enough. Either the Overlords have to agree with him, or they have to be afraid, and there’s no real sense of which they’re motivated by. Still, there is at least historical precedent, which could be the point.

It’s still fun, then, but I’m glad there’s only one episode left, cos I don’t think it can sustain much more.

#691 24 Apr 2008, 1:34 pm

It's been a while since The Mutants for me, but one thing I recall is that like some other Baker and Martin shows it's really well geared up to the series-serial format. The episodes pretty much stand up as being about one thing every week as well as joining up to make a larger whole. For example the whole Earth judges bit (with their Acheson proto-Time Lord look) is, as I recall it, a one episode job.

The most obvious example is the Invisible Enemy which is pretty much a different situation every episode- Titan/Bi Al and its attack/Inside the Brain/ Oh hang on back to Titan, blow it all up.

They're much better shows if you watch the episodes one at a time, and probably much better for the general audience as a result, even if it does sometimes mean the cliffhangers and resolutions can be a bit on/off.

#693 25 Apr 2008, 12:02 pm


The Mutants 6:

Crikey, it's been ages since I watched this one. Hope I can remember anything...

Well, firstly, it's a gloriously crammed episode. I've said before, probably in this very thread, that sometimes final episodes can write themselves - all you need is to put enough threads in the previous episodes that you just have to tie them all off and resolve them. Amazingly, the Mutants tries to squeeze in a few more - with the Doctor first blackmailed to back the Marshall, then free to speak the truth, then the Mutt's arrival changing the Investigators position, then the Investigator himself is betrayed... it's jammed to the gills. OK, the story did tread water a little in the last episode, but it's making up for that now. The plot shifts in new directions practically every scene, and once again, it's all rooted in the themes of the story - politics and perception. You get the sense that Baker and Martin are really pulling out the stops. This episode is all hell breaking loose - albeit, in a quiet and restrained manner. Everything is reaching a head, which is exactly how a story built around character should end. There's a genuine sense of it all coming together, leaving it quite an exciting episode - though again, a quiet and restrained exciting episode.

Particularly of note are the fate of Jaegar and the Marshall. Both are hoist on their own petards, which is always a dramatically satisfying result. Jaegar is killed by his own unpleasant experiments and the Marshall by one of the Mutants he tried to destroy - just think how dull it would have been if someone had just rocked up and shot him. In deed, this entire episode is almost about the Marshall pushing it too far and effectively asking to be killed off. It's the episode in which he switches from misguided nutter to just 'nutter'. His betrayal of the Investigator is entirely about his increasing lack of perspective and judgement. It's something of a shame that the character never really is quite rational as I think this would have a greater impact - again, going back to the classical tragedy motif, it would be the story of a man who's fatal flaw was a lack of perspective. Who starts with the best of intentions and increasingly forgets why he's doing anything, misses that he's actually turned evil (something I've often felt is potentially true of the most legendary dictators and tyrants of our time - the who 'absolute power' thing). As it is, he's always fairly mad, which does weaken the credibility of the story (as I said last time, why do people follow him? Heck, how did he even get the job in the first place?)

There are problems - Sondergaard feels as redundant as ever, there's a little too much escape/capture going on, the Doctor solves the mystery far too easily and the Marshall getting his enemy to work for him remains a daft idea... but generally speaking, it's a superb episode that answers every questions it's posed, and ups the stakes til it reaches a gorgeous ending that works in a beautifully inevitable and neat manner, ultimately resolved in the way it's been told - by the interaction of character. The whole thing comes together ending in a glorious whole.


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