|“But I stiiiillll haven’t fooouuund what I’m looking for…”
It’s April 8, 1972. Nilsson is still at number one. After one week, however, they are stunningly unseated by, and this is one of those moments where I love following the British charts, Pipes and Drums and the Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard, with “Amazing Grace,” which further impresses by staying there for five weeks. Also in the charts are Lindisfarne, Ringo Starr, Tom Jones, Neil Young, and T. Rex.
The IRA sets off a wave of fourteen bombs in Belfast in response to the Bloody Sunday Massacre. In a show of all being friends now, China gifts two giant pandas to the National Zoo. (Some time later, in my sister’s favorite story about her traumatic childhood, my mother has her walk across a frozen expanse of Washington DC in February, promising her pandas as the incentive for her not to have a nervous breakdown, only for everyone to discover, upon reaching the zoo, that the pandas have been dead for some time and instead there’s a memorial full of children’s drawings and poems about how much they miss the pandas. This was over a decade ago, and she still complains bitterly.) More of Pruitt-Igoe gets blown up, the Paris Peace Talks to try to end the Vietnam War derail spectacularly, and Nixon announces that the US will be mining North Vietnam’s harbors. And J. Edgar Hoover finally displays an ounce of taste and dies.
And oh, hey, we finally got through those bits in two paragraphs again. That hasn’t happened in a while. So in any case, on television it’s The Mutants, the second outing by the madmen behind The Claws of Axos and, for my money, the best Pertwee story since The Ambassadors of Death. Which, puzzlingly, does not seem to be what you’d call the consensus view of this one. So I guess we know what we’re doing with this entry.
The thing about Baker and Martin is that, more than any other Pertwee-era writers, they are a pile of strange tics. Going into one of their stories it is necessary to simply accept that the characters are going to be intensely programmatic, the narrative aimed primarily at spectacle, and that the whole thing is going to be completely gonzo. But it’s not as though any of these things on their own are unique to Baker and Martin. The programmatic character was invented by Robert Holmes, nobody out-gonzos a Robert Sloman script (Or The Curse of Peladon for that matter), and those inclined to complain about a spectacle-based script should probably take a long, hard look at exactly what all those shots of impressive ships cutting through the ocean are doing in The Sea Devils. Rather, it’s that Baker and Martin have shown more willingness than almost anyone save perhaps the Sloman/Letts team to push all of these to their max. But unlike the Sloman/Letts team, who contributed four of the great Curate’s Eggs of Doctor Who history, Baker and Martin offer a sort of ruthless consistency to their stories.
The thing about Baker and Martin is that they’re not just impressive at coming up with a spectacle (in fact, most of the really top notch spectacle in The Mutants is the effects department anyway). They’re damned good at using spectacle for other purposes, instead of just setting spectacles up and going “Ooh, shiny.” This may seem like a strange claim, given that we usually treat spectacle as just about the lowest of the low in terms of artistic goals. And there’s something to be said for that as a critique of pure spectacle. The problem is that those of us with “proper” taste tend instinctively to confuse “creates a spectacle” with “creates nothing but a spectacle,” and thus to treat spectacle as a bad thing in and of itself.
If you’ll forgive me brandishing my PhD in English for a moment (and look, it’s not like it’s gotten me a job, so brandishing it on the Internet is about the only way I can come up with to vaguely redeem the ten years and thousands of dollars I put into it), think about how narrative works for a moment. Compared to real life, narrative is strangely lo-fi. By which I mean, we get a lot less information in a movie or television episode than we do in real life. But this information is bizarrely efficient. We can make judgments about fictional characters based on five minutes of screen time that would take hours to learn by actually talking to a real person.
The reason for this is that narrative is structured according to its own logic. And you’ve got multiple options for what that logic is. There’s realism, for instance, in which we understand how something works because it resembles how a real thing works. We don’t need to be told the meticulous details of the governmental structure of the Solos colony because we’re familiar with the real structure of colonial government, and can just assume it’s similar on Solos. There’s also Aristotelean logic, summed up best by Chekov’s maxim about the gun on the mantle. This is just the assumption that things we’re shown in a story are going to matter.
Spectacle is another one of these logics. And it’s a very straightforward one. In the logic of spectacle, one accepts whatever it is that creates the biggest spectacle. It’s a logic where we accept that characters, when given a range of options, will pick the one that leads to the most interesting results even if it is not strictly speaking the most sensible one according to other logics. The big visual moments are what provides the logic and justification for the rest of the material, which is just filler to link them up.
The thing about the logic of spectacle is that it allows for some really strange linking material. You can put all sorts of weird stuff in the spaces between big set pieces and it will hold together because the logic of the spectacle means that as long as we get to another cool sequence of flashy lights and swirling colors, we don’t care too much about how we got there. And what Baker and Martin do with The Mutants is that they pack the filler stuff full to the brim with images and concepts, then trust the spectacle to tie it all together somehow.
To wit, let’s ask what should be a fairly simple question. What exactly are the humans in this story supposed to be representing? On one level, the answer seems like it should be obvious. They’re explicitly colonialist, a declining empire, and giving some of the last of their colonies independence. That’s self-evidently a metaphor for the British empire. On the other hand, the German rocket scientist OK with exterminating a species and the use of gas specifically to kill the mutants in the cave is blatantly a Nazi reference. Then there’s the inclusion of Cotton and the presence of an Afrikaan accent, suggesting South Africa. But of course the teleporters are segregated in a blatantly American south sort of way.
Note that the problem here is not, as it seemed to be in The Curse of Peladon, a lack of clear reference points. Rather, what we have here is an excess of reference points – four separate over-arching metaphors, each of which is clearly signified. It’s not that the metaphors are contradictory as such, but on the other hand it’s tough to argue that they go together straightforwardly. But none of this renders the story nonsensical because it’s structured around the opportunities for glittering caves of shifting lights, weird looking mutants, and strange ideas. With those to anchor the narrative, the linking material can become over saturated with signifiers safely.
Where it all gets very interesting, at least for my money, is in the fact that the ideas, much as they may not go together straightforwardly, do at least exist in the same general orbit. Effectively, the spectacle allows these disparate metaphors to fuse together into a functional overall whole that, while gratuitously an overdetermined signifier, still hangs together, making a massive web of strange juxtapositions and equations.
The focus on spectacle also allows the story to do something interesting with the Solonians, which is to create an indigenous culture on a planet that has its own value. And more to the point, that value is neither instrumental (as was ultimately the case with the primitives in Colony in Space) nor purely ethical (as is ultimately the case in The Silurians). Rather, the Solonians are valued aesthetically – not even because they produce spectacle, but because they are simply interesting and fascinating.
A fair part of this is down to Barry Letts, who apparently originated the idea for the Solonians. And it is a good idea – one that feels like it must be a nick from Star Trek or some other science fiction show, but isn’t. The idea of a planet with a two millennia long year, and five hundred year seasons, whose people engage in a sort of chrysalis-like evolution as the seasons change, presumably with no individual generation ever encompassing more than one phase. The monsters, in other worse, aren’t monsters at all, but an intermediate stage of evolution. It’s a brilliant sci-fi idea, and it’s all Doctor Who for once.
The other thing that this story does, though, is make the Doctor vulnerable in a new way, and one that provides an interesting wrinkle to our understanding of the Time Lords. In The Curse of Peladon entry, I suggested that the easiest way to understand the Time Lords in this phase of the program is as enforcers of the arc of history – that they’re the regulators of a natural tendency in the history of rational species towards certain outcomes. Here, however, there’s something puzzling going on about them.
Simply put, their method of getting the Doctor involved in this one is nuts. They give him a package that he has to deliver to someone, but don’t tell him who to deliver it to. When the package is opened, it contains stone tablets unreadable by the recipient, and those stone tablets just reveal a helpful historical tidbit about the nature of Solos. As attempts to intervene and help an oppressed indigenous population go, this has to be considered something of a debacle.
But more broadly, it makes sense. One thing to note is that the humans have no place whatsoever on Solos. The overwhelming message of the story is that they should simply get out. And because the question of what the humans represent is so over-signified, this ends up having a pretty wide-ranging effect as a moral consequence. Effectively, it appears that white western European culture has nothing of value whatsoever that it can contribute to the indigenous culture. It can only screw things up.
And this ends up applying even to the Doctor and the Time Lords. The Time Lords try to help and end up doing so in appallingly stupid and ham-handed manner. The Doctor tries to help, and mostly manages, but is actually absent from the main moment of resolution for the Solonians (about which more in a moment). The polite but mildly patronizing paternal tone that Pertwee takes has always borne a slightly uncomfortable resemblance to the patronizing “it’s for their own good” ethos with which the British treated colonial subjects, and which justified so many atrocities. This is a critique of degrees – it’s unquestionably the case that the Doctor is a good guy, especially when compared to the delicious over the top lunacy of Paul Whitsun-Jones’s Marshall. But crucially, the Doctor is allowed to be imperfect in this story in a way that strengthens the story’s ethics – something that the show hasn’t really managed since the very earliest days of William Hartnell.
Let’s talk about that final resolution of the Solonian plot. Ky eventually succumbs to the same mutation affecting there set of the Solonians. But because the characters have figured out what the mutation really is, they’re able to help him by giving him a crystal that allows him to make the next evolutionary step as well. But look at who’s in the room with Ky when that happens. You’ve got Cotton, Sondegaard, and Jo. That is to say, the one non-European character, the white guy who has forsaken his culture and effectively joined the Solonians, and Jo. Leaving Jo aside for a moment, notably this salvation of the Solonians happens with no representatives of the mishmash of white European ideologies that are portrayed as problematic. And when the newly ascended Ky arrives to vaporize the Marshall, the Doctor is uncharacteristically silent, standing by and not even offering any condemnation of Ky for murdering a man, as if to finally admit that this just is not a world in which he has any right whatsoever to comment.
(As for the tabled Jo, let’s just note for now that Jo has, all season, been a fascinatingly transgressive character. Look at the way in her opening scene in which she responds to the mysterious box appearing, asking the Doctor if it’s lunch, and when he says no asking, with equal calm, whether it’s a bomb. Jo has taken the programmatic character to new levels by this point, remaining completely separate from the narrative logic of the story, and combining this with plucky determination that means that she has an enormous ability to transgress against the actual logic of the story. Thus it’s not inappropriate for her to be the lone “pure European” in the room when Ky ascends, because her character is defined precisely by the ability to simply walk across lines like that and stray into unlikely roles. I’d say who she reminds me of, but there’s a better story to point that out in coming up shortly.)
The result is a story that combines the social relevance pursued by Holmes and Letts with the glam spectacle pursued by Holmes and Sloman, all the while beginning to push towards some genuinely interesting critiques of both the Doctor and the Time Lords. It’s a startlingly ambitious story, but unlike the ambitions of The Sea Devils, it’s also a story that is completely in command of the capabilities of television in 1972. And more than that, it’s tough to think of a story that feels more like we expect the Pertwee era to feel than this one. If we take this story as a test of whether the Doctor is ready to leave Earth, it’s tough to come up with any answer other than “Hell yes, give us more like this.”