It’s difficult to believe that all oppressed people will eventually be free, and that every cruel, heartless leader will someday be toppled through protests, peaceful or otherwise. It doesn’t take an historian to see the cycles of revolt and retreat throughout history, the most recent of which is currently sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East. In America, it seems impossible to imagine our own revolution as an actual struggle against tyranny as opposed to an excuse for disgruntled conservatives to wear tricorn hats to Glen Beck rallies.
Of course that’s the opinion of a comfortable, white American man typing on his Apple computer in his safe home with a full belly and bright electric light shining in every room. It’s easy to make sweeping pronouncements about the world from your home or your office, and it’s even easier when that home or office is located somewhere generally free from the instability so common in other parts of the world.
This idea is clear in the genesis of the “The Mutants”, a 1972 Doctor Who serial about the end of an empire and a colony’s struggle for independence. Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s story is an obvious allegory for the destructive nature of imperial ambitions upon both the colonizer and colonized. As subjects of the former British Empire, they clearly felt a degree of remorse at their nation’s place among the ranks of the world’s great powers, but their story isn’t an attempt to rewrite history. Instead, “The Mutants” is a tale by two men from comfortable homes expressing their sincere hope that oppressed people will be free.
When the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) receives a mysterious package from the Time Lords, he and Jo (Katy Manning) head off to Solos, a planet controlled by the fading empire of Earth, to find the only person who may open the box. When they arrive they find themselves caught in the middle of the planet’s struggle for independence. Ky (Garrick Hagon), leader of the rebels, blames the imperial Overlords for a mutation spreading among his people, while the warrior Varan (James Mellor) sees their departure as his opportunity to seize power. After the assassination of the planet’s Administrator (Geoffrey Palmer), the Marshal of the imperial Skybase (Paul Whitsun-Jones) enacts a plan to seize control and change Solos forever.
There’s a lo-fi brilliance to all of Doctor Who, and “The Mutants” is no exception. The Overlords dress in black costumes with metallic piping because all clothes in the future must either shimmer, sparkle or shine. It gives them an aura of the inhuman, as if underneath each helmet and visor pulsed an unfeeling robot brain. Each soldier carries a weapon that looks like a clamp one might find at a hardware store, and the Marshal carries a baton that extends into a Bob Barkeresque microphone with which he can communicate with his underlings.
Skybase itself is a cold metal environment with textured white walls and the Doctor Who hallmark of anonymous corridors that provide ample room for chase scenes. Skybase anticipates the Death Star in its blocky, industrial design and massive banks of computers, but it’s brightly lit like a hospital than an instrument of planetary destruction. That’s appropriate because that’s just the Marshal’s view. The Solonians’ mutations are viewed as a sickness, one which the Marshal hopes to “cure” by changing the planet’s atmosphere to one more hospitable to humans. The cost of this, the Doctor points out, is the genocide, but to the Marshal that’s merely a convenient side effect. This gives the Overlords a Nazi-like overtone that is heightened by Jaeger (George Pravda), a Skybase scientist that speaks with a German accent.
The Marshal himself is more like Rush Limbaugh than Hitler, both in his looks and his tendency to bloviate. A sweaty, pale and rotund man, the Marshal is exactly the kind of villain a story like this needs. He’s a bureaucrat gone mad with power, constantly barking orders at his subordinates, and he is thoroughly unlikeable. The Marshal seeks the transformation of Solos not for the Empire’s glory but as a replacement. He’s been gone from his home world for so long he intends to recreate it, no matter the cost. That his methods are evil is without question, but more than anything his motives are sad. Sad because he would choose the death of an entire race to preserve his own, sad because he knows no other role in life than that of oppressor and sad that he tries to proceed with his plans even as power continues to slip through his fingers.
That’s how it works in stories. The villain, the dictator, the despot who was so strong at the beginning, flails about until he or she is taken down at the end. It doesn’t always work out that way in the real world, but whether you’re safe in your home or standing defiant in the streets, one can always hope.
This latest batch of Doctor Who DVDs continue to pile on interesting special features. In addition to audio commentary and a charming interview with Academy Award-winning costume designer James Acheson, there’s a thirty-seven minute documentary called “Race Against Time” about the portrayal of black actors on British TV in general and Doctor Who specifically. As the first black companion to the Doctor since the show began in 1963, narrator Noel Clarke is a prime example of how far television has come since the days of putting white actors in black face. As the documentary points out, however, there is still a line which hasn’t been crossed—the Doctor is still a comfortable white man.