Sunday, January 13, 2013

Accion Mutante

After quite a lengthy period of no Doctor Who last year, I was suffering from withdrawal symptoms and so, during a singularly depressing succession of rainy days I turned to a small backlog of DVDs that I’d had on my shelves for a while but hadn’t yet watched. It didn't take me too long to get caught up (although now, of course, I have some extra Who-ish treats courtesy of Christmas) and with the show's 50th Anniversary year upon us I figured it’d be nice to return to my infrequent habit of offering up reviews.

We begin then with The Mutants, a six-part Pertwee-era escapade from the pens of Bob Baker and Dave Martin.

It’s an interesting one, because I had painful memories of the story from rewatching it once upon a time on UK Gold. It’s a common cliché to say you watched Doctor Who from behind your sofa, but there are some you watch between your fingers, with a hand clasped over your eyes. Indeed I only bought the DVD because it was cheap and, while others were simply neglected due to a busy schedule and lots of other viewing, it’s the one I deliberately put off watching.

A wise man once recommended I watch it one episode at a time. When I finally got around to slotting it into the player, I foolishly disregarded that advice and sat through it all in one afternoon.

And was surprised to discover it wasn’t that bad. I’d even go so far as to say I really quite enjoyed it.

In our whiz-bang zap-pow age of Doctor Who, it’s easy to forget that these six-part marathons were something of a standard for a fair chunk of its tenure. It primes you to expect heaps of padding and a sluggish pace as the story drags its feet like a mutant  across a rubble-strewn wasteland.

Sure, there’s a quantity of to-ing and fro-ing, capture and escape and I daresay the story could have been told in four episodes. But there’s a decent mix of action and narrative progression in each 25-minute segment and it’s reasonably even. It doesn’t have that sense of a two-parter bolted to a four-parter that was a feature of some six-episode epics. It’s colourful and comical at times, sometimes for the right reasons. Not once was I bored.

The painful elements were still there, but maybe I’d been anaesthetised in the years between viewings. It’s biggest fault is, a bit like Baker and Martin’s later offering, The Invisible Enemy, rooted in overambition. The explosive decompression scene is embarrassingly bad, with strings of actors clinging onto each other and flailing around in a desperate effort to compensate for fx that could've used an extra £10,000 plus another twenty years of technological advancement. Some of the spacecraft model work is serviceable, but some shots are as flat as a pancake rendered in MS Paint.

Budgetary restrictions seem to have extended to the quality of actor the show could hire and while the extras include a laudable piece on race, I’d like to feel that in the 21st century we have progressed far enough as a society to be able to state just how dire an actor is regardless of the colour of his skin. Rick James who plays Cotton is supremely awful. He’s an ill fit for what I’m sure is intended as something of a comedy double-act, the likes of which Robert Holmes used to write so well in most of his Who contributions, and he gives us what must be one of the lamest cliffhangers in the show’s history.

He’s joined by others who range from to pantomime warrior Varan (the way actor James Mellor scratches at his mutating hand it’s as though his fist is actually turning into ham before our very eyes) to flat and bland Garrick Hagon as Ky, who does occasionally try to ignite with some signs of life like one of the flares used to light the tunnels on Solos. Unfortunately, he is destined to become a space fairy, the ultimate evolution of the Solons and a poor man’s homage to some of the more effete Star Trek aliens. It’s a culmination that doesn’t do the actor any favours.

The story as a whole wouldn’t be altogether out of place in the Trek universe, with its concept of a world with 500-year seasons, an alien people with a metamorphic cycle linked to those seasons, terraforming-by-missile-bombardment (there’s nothing you can’t solve with a photon torpedo) and all touching on the deeper issues of racial segregation and colonialism.

It’s never intelligent or deep enough to divert from its main purpose as a dash of sci-fi adventure, but it raises it above pure pulp. Some of the cast lend it added weight with decent performances, with Paul Whitsun-Jones’s Marshal providing a passable baddie, about as oafish and monstrous as your average overweight Tory, George Pravda doing a creditable misguided-scientist turn and Christopher Coll as the better half of the ‘comedy’ pairing of Stubbs & Cotton. John Hollis is the standout of the bunch as Sondergaard, as the actor brings a sense of gravity and presence that sits well alongside Pertwee’s Doctor. Pertwee appears at home throughout, with this kind of moral tale suiting his Doctor to a tee. While Katy Manning is Jo, no more no less.

And it’d be remiss not to mention the eponymous Mutants themselves. Never mind that they’re doomed to reach their highly evolved space-fairy stage, the intermediary Mutt stage is the best-realised feature of the whole story. The creatures work especially well in the caves, of course, where the shadows show them off to good effect, but the overall design is pretty (which is to say, not pretty) effective. Monsters, yes, but they have big eyes, which help facilitate empathy when they’re brutally gunned down.

It’s a classic sf twist and The Mutants makes a more successful play on this old ‘beauty only skin deep’ theme than The Claws Of Axos(where it should have been key). It’s richer in ideas and just about redeems its more laughable elements.

Based on the collected evidence, the combination of Bob Baker and Dave Martin and a limited budget is never going to produce brilliance, but it made for a fairly enjoyable 150 minutes and even if there was a moderate amount of pain involved that’s better than a visit to the dentist.


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