Doctor Who: The Mutants

Let’s start with a quote from Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses

It seemed to him, as he idled across the channels, that the box was full of freaks: there were mutants – ‘Mutts’ – on Dr Who, bizarre creatures who appeared to have been crossbred with different types of industrial machinery: forage harvesters, grabbers, donkeys, jackhammers, saws, and whose cruel priest-chieftains were called Mutilasians; children’s television appeared to be exclusively populated by humanoid robots and creatures with metamorphic bodies, while the adult programmes offered a continual parade of the misshapen human by-products of the newest notions in modern medicine, and its accomplices, modern disease and war.

Fan Lore has it that Rushdie is specifically referring to the 1972 Doctor Who story, The Mutants (where the Mutants of the title are indeed referred to as “Mutts”), and that he

…implies that its characterisation of mutations as evil just because they look different from human beings encourages racist attitudes. He thereby completely misses the point of the story, which in fact has an anti-racist message. (Howe and Walker)

This enables fans to feel superior to Rushdie, in that they can buy into the anti-racist message of the Doctor Who story and pat themselves on the back for being able to see the point better than Rushdie did. I cannot imagine that Rushdie is terribly bothered about this, in that The Satanic Verses gave him bigger headaches to worry about, but I think that Fan Lore is wrong. Rushdie is not attempting to give a blow by blow commentary on the themes of Doctor Who, or a critique of this particular story; it is an incidental illustrative detail in his story (and indeed the description of the semi-mechanical creatures with priest-chieftains that Rushdie gives does not especially resemble the inhabitants of the planet Solos).

In addition, though I haven’t read The Satanic Verses, my research (backed up by this essay) indicates that the book is largely about the ideas of hybridisation, merging, changing, which indeed the Doctor Who story also addresses. Rushdie’s character watching Doctor Who is the viewpoint character Saladin Chamcha, who has himself been transformed into a semi-human figure and back again, and here he is musing on popular representations of mutations which, let’s face it, tend not to be always positive. Rushdie himself states:

The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure.

To accuse Rushdie of “missing the point of the story” by attacking it for racism actually completely misses the point of Rushdie’s book.

(Incidentally later in the same paragraph, Rushdie reports that “Lycanthropy was on the increase in the Scottish Highlands.” An interesting foreshadowing of the 2006 story Tooth And Claw?)

Alas, one can easily write three times more about one paragraph of Rushdie than about the six episodes of The Mutants. Fan Lore may be wrong about the Rushdie detail, but it is right about this story in general. I watched it because I recall rather enjoying the Target novelisation (inevitably by Terrance Dicks) thirty years ago, but this is not good TV. The politics of the story could have been interesting – the colonial military government, scared that the rug is being pulled from under their feet, move towards a Rhodesia-style UDI but are stopped by the Doctor’s intervention; however, the allegory is far more heavy-handed than similarly political Pertwee stories such as The Green Death and The Curse of Peladon, with the evil Marshal completely one-dimensional and the natives either noble savages or deluded collaborators. (Also the anti-racist message is somewhat blunted by the dismal acting of the one black member of the cast, playing an Earth soldier who gets left in charge at the end.) There are also themes here of how dangerous it is to mess around with ecology, and of the importance of not judging by appearances, but it is all lost in the desperate filling of six episodes for a plot which New Who would comfortably do in 45 minutes.

To be honest the only two things about this story that work for me are i) the portrayal of the planetary surface on Solos (played, in a storming performance, by a quarry near Northfleet in Kent, which has been built on since and is now the Bluewater Park shopping centre, supposedly the largest retail and shopping complex in Europe); and ii) Geoffrey Palmer, who is the one good guy among the Earth colonials and of course is killed off before the end of the first episode.

One thought on “Doctor Who: The Mutants

  1. I was surprised when Heinlein died to hear a fair number of people say that he as a father figure for them. I’m not saying that hagiography is called for, but I wouldn’t at mind seeing a book about where Heinlein fit into people’s lives.

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