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Doctor Who: The Mutants (parts five and six)

Something was in the air in the early seventies: David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things,” The Tomorrow People, the renewed Uncanny X-Men in 1974, and this. Evolution was coming, and the next phase would include thought transference, long hair, crazy colors, and glam rock. Much of “The Mutants” could have come at any point during the original 26 year run of Doctor Who, but its climax is remarkably 1972. Gotta make way for the homo superior.

Like most six-part Who stories, it’s one part too long. Part five has some exciting action that turns out to be filler when the Doctor just gets captured anyway after four minutes of avoiding guards, and Rick James’ terrible reputation for his allegedly poor acting really only gets justified with his hear-it-to-believe-it line delivery at the end of that episode. Part six gets an eye-rolling extension because the Earth investigator is such a poor judge of the situation that he’d later get a job with the state court of California and change his name to Lance Ito. But overall, this is a very, very good adventure, far better than fandom judges it. Gives me a lot of promise for the next story, which I already claim to like more than most people.

Our son came around a little in the end. He ranks Paul Whitsun-Jones a 7 on the just-concocted Enemies List. (The Master and the Yeti are 9s, and the Daleks, of course, are the only 10.) I really don’t think he enjoyed this much, but he did like seeing the Marshal get his nifty special effects comeuppance.

One last thing to note about “The Mutants” before moving on is the cliffhanger to part four. It’s nice to finally see this as it had been originally shown. We got this in the eighties as the two-and-a-half-hour TV movie compilation, and whoever assembled it sneezed or something and totally botched the edit between episodes. It’s not the most realistic special effect in the first place, with the actors huddling from a hull breach on the outer wall of Skybase, represented by yellow chromakey screen with a brilliant golden glow. But the American movie version has a gap of at least three seconds in this very fast-paced scene, so I honestly thought for ages that the hull breach was caused by malfunctioning rockets, not a blast from a handgun. No wonder Stubbs got killed with one shot; those bad boys pack a punch!

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Doctor Who: The Mutants (part four)

An odd little acting coincidence: last night we saw Julian Glover in The Avengers, and tonight we see John Hollis in Doctor Who. Both actors had small roles in The Empire Strikes Back, which impressed our son. It impressed him more than this story, which is too confusing for him to embrace.

We had a little recap after it. The whole concept of evolution in a two thousand year cycle was over his head, but I think it’s pitched just right for slightly older kids. It’s outre enough to make the boring side of Dr. Science tut-tut, but just exciting enough to get science-minded kids thrilled. And it’s a great script, with the mystery slowly revealed. This is all much better than its reputation says.

I particularly enjoyed the weird scenes inside the gold mine, as the Doctor and John Hollis’s character fight against a storm of colors and psychedelic patterns to retrieve a crystal from the corpse of a strange figure in a radiation cave. It’s unreal and weird, but it’s not unreal and laughable like the similarly colorful interior of Axos from the writers’ previous story.

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Doctor Who: The Mutants (part three)

“No, I don’t like this,” our son tells us. “They were in trouble in the first two parts, and they’re still in trouble in this part!” I was tempted to ask when is that ever not the case in Doctor Who!

The monsters of this story are revealed in this episode. They’re odd and clumsy, and didn’t frighten our son nearly as much as so many other aliens and creatures in this series. I like how neatly this story is structured, with new information and clues being given very deliberately. So far, this is a much, much better story than I remembered it, or than it’s considered by fans.

Among other treats, there’s a real sense of space here. The old mine system where the heroes have gone to hide genuinely feels like a gigantic maze of tunnels. Compare this to the cramped corridors of Peladon that felt so small and underwhelming and you’ll see what I mean. That’s not entirely fair, since a director shooting on film on location has far more options than somebody working with videotape in the studio, but fairness be darned, Solos feels like a real place.

Still, we’ll respect our son’s unhappiness and give him a couple of days’ break from this serial. Check back Thursday for more.

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Doctor Who: The Mutants (parts one and two)

“The Mutants” is a six-part Who serial from 1972. It’s the second story for the series to be written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and it’s directed by old hand Christopher Barry. It’s nobody’s favorite story, and it has a pretty terrible reputation in fandom as among the worst. Apart from clips, I probably haven’t seen it in about twenty-five years, and was pleased to find that the first two episodes were much, much better than I expected.

On the other hand, we had to pause this a couple of times to help explain some context to our son, and he didn’t like this one at all. Not a bit. The story is set in the 30th Century, during the dying days of the Earth Empire, and concerns a planet called Solos getting its independence. As a six year-old, he knows a little – more the mythology than the history – about the thirteen colonies declaring independence from Britain, but this was written for older kids in an age where the ranks of Britain’s civil service were swelled by former colonial administrators from countries like India or Nigeria. We met one in the previous story; Colonel Trenchard in “The Sea Devils” was a former governor of some island nation or other. So certainly the audience in 1972 understood the political implications a lot better than he can.

This story follows the previous season’s “Colony in Space” as depicting a lousy and corrupt future Earth. Because he’s naturally in tune with more a good guys vs. bad guys scenario, he wasn’t pleased to learn that the Marshal, played by guest-starred-in-everything-ITC-made Paul Whitsun-Jones, is the villain, and forces one of his soldiers to lie to the Doctor about Jo being safely in a hospital on Solos. This might have been more his speed had it been a story where the earth soldiers are trying to save the Solonians from a bizarre and frightening mutation, but the story is instead strongly hinting that the mutations are caused by the humans…

But I thought this was much more interesting than he did. I was pleased to see a couple of good actors who’d done Who before and would be back again in the future. Geoffrey Palmer is in part one, and then his character seems to gets assassinated just so the budget could extend to another guest star, George Pravda. The real surprise, though, and it’s a very pleasant one, is that Rick James, seen in the picture above as a guard named Cotton, is nowhere near as bad as his reputation holds. I’m not saying the man’s an Olivier or anything, but he used to show up on those lists that Who fans used to obsess in making when the show was off the air, about the worst performances in the show. Since there honestly weren’t very many actors of color hired for British television during the early seventies – a topic addressed in a very good feature included on this DVD – it was always unfortunate that James got singled out for brickbats when just about every guest actor in “The Claws of Axos” was a hundred times more annoying.

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Doctor Who: The Dæmons (part five)

“The Dæmons” is rightly criticized for its ending, but not for the right part of the ending. The problem isn’t the incredibly rushed and ridiculous part where Jo’s offer of self-sacrifice confuses Azal so much that he immediately starts shouting “Does not relate” – if he were a computer in a sixties drama like The Prisoner or Star Trek, he’d say “compute” – and then self-destructs, most of what he says lost in a whirl of keyboards and special sounds and actor Stephen Thorne bellowing.

No, the problem is all the film stuff they did before the studio session. It’s not just Jo retrieving her clothes from the pub when she was forced to change in the church, it’s the whole way everybody in the village just smiles and grins about all these soldiers turning up, their church exploding, and their new vicar being led away at gunpoint, and then decide it’s time for a nice fertility dance around the maypole. I guess it makes a decent enough image for the season finale, but there’s a pretty big church down the road from us, with their playground across the street, and if their building got blown up by a twenty foot tall 100,000 year-old dæmon from space, I bet that the parishioners wouldn’t be in a big rush to start a game of softball.

On the other hand, Nicholas Courtney is just incredibly entertaining in this episode. He steals the show right out from under Roger Delgado – no easy task – with his frustrated, rational, sensible responses to each new problem. And the fight with Bok is really impressive, too. Our son loved the explosions, both hitting Bok with a rocket from a bazooka and the great big one that destroys the church.

I don’t know whether it’s an old wives’ tale or Terrance Dicks pulling our leg, but there’s a great old story that the BBC received several complaints about blowing up that church for the sake of a silly entertainment show. You watch that today and know that it’s a miniature – a darn good one, mind, but still a miniature – and can’t believe that anybody, no matter how lousy the reception was on their antenna in 1971 to make them think the visual was better than it was, could possibly think they’d actually blow up a real church. But then you remember the stories about old ladies beating up Barry Morse with their handbags demanding he leave that nice Dr. Kimble alone, and all the telegrams the US Coast Guard received asking them to rescue Gilligan and the castaways, and you accept that yes, the BBC probably did get some angry phone calls.

We’ll start watching season nine of Doctor Who in September. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Dæmons (parts three and four)

There is probably a thing or ten to dislike about each of the four Doctor Who serials that Barry Letts and Robert Sloman co-wrote, but while none of them are my favorites, I really enjoy the way that each captures a little essence of the early seventies in a perfect way. Even “The Time Monster,” which I probably enjoy more than anybody else, not that I’m going to call it art or anything.

“The Dæmons” is a lot like the Bigfoot episodes of the Bionic shows in that regard. From the bit in part one where Jo says that this really is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, they’re off in a story that couldn’t have been made in any other era. Of course there’s a Satanic coven sacrificing chickens underneath the village church. This was made in 1971, so I’d expect nothing less.

In About Time, Tat Wood assembled what I think is the best ever timeline of the UNIT stories, and he figures season eight as taking place from October 1971 to May 1 1973. This has to be May 1, because the Doctor gets caught up in the village’s sinister May Day celebrations. Wood also noted that this means that “The Dæmons” takes place on the same day as the events in the remarkable 1973 film The Wicker Man. What a delightful happy accident! “The Dæmons” uses some of the same iconography as horror films of the period, including, of course, The Devil Rides Out, Witchfinder General, Virgin Witch, and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man then served as the last word on the sinister subject, incorporating all that came before, including this Who adventure.

Because I have a mild interest in period horror films like these, and some of the other stuff that Hammer, Tigon, and their competitors released in the late sixties and early seventies – 1971’s Lady Frankenstein is another, but that may have more to do with Rosalba Neri than much else – my son has been aware of me talking about old horror movies but not getting to see them. He asked what a horror movie was earlier this year, and I think my explanation satisfied his curiosity completely. But one day down the line, he’ll probably look into scary movies. He may be quite some time in finding the interest in sampling creaky old stuff like the old Hammers or The Devil’s Wedding Night – Neri again – but if he ever does, the fear that “The Dæmons” sparked in him might just pop up in a little corner of his memory somewhere. Some of these scenes have him absolutely petrified, and he says, firmly, that this is the scariest Doctor Who story ever.

Not a bad little introduction to horror movies then, is it?

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Doctor Who: The Dæmons (part two)

I think that Bok the gargoyle is one of the great Doctor Who monsters of his day. He makes a tremendously horrifying first appearance at the end of part two of this story. Our kid was behind the sofa like a rocket and he’s grousing that this is not a good story, because it’s far too scary.

But with fear comes imagination. He’s let us know that since gargoyles are made from stone, then the Doctor will have to use a rock hammer against the menace. “And those weigh 20,000 pounds!”

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Doctor Who: The Dæmons (part one)

“The Dæmons” was the final story of Doctor Who‘s eighth season, and the first of four serials to be co-written by producer Barry Letts and his colleague Robert Sloman, who usually got the screen credit due to BBC regulations. This one’s got a pseudonym, Guy Leopold, attached. It was directed by Christopher Barry and the cast and crew had such a great time making it that it became the center of a million loving anecdotes and, in time, received wisdom among the fans of the early seventies turned this into one of the all-time Who classics.

I remember that in the early nineties, when a colorized “Dæmons” was finally shown again in the UK, there was a big backlash against it. It’s a story that really doesn’t quite live up to the hype, but it’s still a very, very fun story with lots of great moments. The problem was that for years and years, newer and younger fans in Britain had to put up with blowhards talking about the good old days, and how “The Dæmons” was an unparalleled UNIT classic, unlike all this eighties rubbish. The myth was just enormous. In the US, where the black-and-white TV movie compilation, with its massive editing error midway through it, was shown in most markets, we could see this story wasn’t the greatest thing ever, just a fun romp with lots of location filming and the Master leading a Satanic coven in a remote English village while posing as the new vicar.

A lot of this, it must be said, went over our son’s head, but he really impressed us with one observation. That’s the actress Damaris Hayman above as Miss Hawthorne, the local white witch, who warns of doom and disaster should an archaeological dig in the Devil’s Hump barrow continue. Our son spotted the ankh that she wears around her neck and noted that it’s the same symbol that Jessica wears in Logan’s Run. I can’t swear that I would have noticed that if he hadn’t pointed it out to us!

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