“The past is a foreign country”, as the saying goes, and pasts don’t come much more foreign than the 1970s; a strange, unworldly place, with garish, ill-fitting clothes, chunky spectacles, and powerful trade unions. Being born too late to have experienced it all first-hand, the 1970s is a foreign country that I can only learn about through books and television programmes. I don’t watch 1970s Doctor Whos out of nostalgia, but out of historical curiosity.
The Mutants is a profoundly dated piece of television. And that is what is so great about it. It’s obviously part of the same era as Bowie on Top Of The Pops, Love Thy Neighbour and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It even opens with a ragged, panting “It’s...” man! It’s informed by post-colonial guilt, where the villains are the empire-builders and the heroes are the wronged natives. It embraces the birth of the counter-culture, what lazy researchers call ‘Flower Power’, an obsession with spiritualism, environmentalism, and wearing far too many beads. And it features that peculiar brand of low-maintenance psychaedelia that the BBC adopted in the early 1970s in order to justify the new colour license fee.
In other words, it is very, very groovy. But it’s also rather peculiar to watch a Jon Pertwee story, as I grew up with these tales through the books. It’s odd how the stories always seem so much slower and laborious because of the amount of waffle Terrance Dicks excised from his novelisations.
On the other hand, though, you get to see the monsters; in this case, the staggering Mutts, which so successfully distort the human body shape that it’s difficult to believe that they contain John Scott Martin. And you can see the actors, most of whom seem to have been employed under some sort of international exchange programme – one wonders whether Michael Sheard spent six months appearing in a Soviet sci-fi show in return for George Pravda. You also get to see the dangerous-looking explosions – particularly on the two occasions that George Pravda is forced to lean over a desk primed to detonate – and the beautifully-achieved effect of Super-Ky gliding down spaceship corridors. And most of all, you have Tristram Cary’s gorgeous, scintillating incidental music; a bizarre, space-rock score performed on vintage Moog synthesizers – well, they were state-of-the-art synthesizers at the time – which sounds like the missing link between Wendy Switched-On Bach Carlos, Rick Wakeman and traffic-cone-era Kraftwerk.
The Mutants is also the first proper Doctor Who story of the 1970s. It is vibrant, imaginative and fun, whereas all of those preceding it – where the Doctor works for the army – were rather drab, serious and lacklustre, with greeny-grey monsters fighting greeny-grey soldiers in a greeny-grey power station. With The Mutants, Doctor Who gets back to doing what it does best – fantastic, colourful adventures in time and space. Colony in Space and The Curse of Peladon are the first buds of hope, but with The Mutants you can see Doctor Who flowering again.
The other unusual thing about The Mutants is that it is actually about something. Doctor Who stories only ever had a point to them during the early 1970s; Doctor Who under Barry Letts was very much a forerunner for John Craven’s Newsround. Each story would explore a topical issue, whether it be entry into the Common Market or more esoteric concerns such as the ethics of war. Admittedly, it never did so to any great depth, but it did nonetheless present clear and justified arguments for the children.
The Mutants’ case is simple and straightforward: why are we granting independence to our former colonies? Because we have reduced our own world to ash and clinker, what right do we have to impose our society onto others? Because the colonists are ugly, sadistic and mad? Because the natives are brave and resourceful – if occasionally a bit quick to take offence and squabble amongst themselves?
It’s frustrating that the story poses difficult and complex questions but only gives easy answers. After all, if Earth is a poisonous slagheap, where are all the people supposed to live? And if the Marshall wasn’t ugly, sadistic and mad, would he still be a villain? But it’s nevertheless laudable that Doctor Who, at least for a while, wore its ideology on its sleeve. Nowadays, of course, a children’s TV show would never dare to address a contentious political issue. Which is a great shame; television should have a point to it. Like it did in the early 1970s.