Hope for the Oppressed in 'Doctor Who: The Mutants'

“The Mutants” is a tale by two men from comfortable homes expressing their sincere hope that oppressed people will be free.

Doctor Who: The Mutants

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning, Garrick Hagon, Paul Whitsun-Jones, George Pravda
Network: BBC
Release Date: 2011-02-08

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.