Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Mutants

I don't know how she does it.

Josephine Grant manages to make her job at the United Nations look frightfully glamorous, but I wouldn't want to be in her platform boots. Continual stresses, violations of health and safety, working with two of the most patronising men in Tarminster (three, if there's an 'r' in the month and the Master's dropped by). The hours are decidedly odd, too – some of them are in the future, and when she's there she witnesses the most miserable visions of life on Earth. Yet somehow she remains buoyant.

In The Mutants, she has her second glimpse of the future life of humankind (the dystopia of the Daleks doesn't count because – we assume – it doesn't happen). And it's shit. Earth itself is all concrete and car fumes. Its colonists don't even have the pioneer spirit of Gail Tilsley and co., who were making a fairly miserable job of farming a mudball, shortly before their ship was blown up by venture capitalists. 

At least Gail (and Tlotoxl) were co-existing peacefully with the inhabitants of the planet, even if they are all blown up a papier-mache gnome with a super-weapon at the end of that story. In The Mutants, the project of colonising the galaxy has inevitably begun to implode. The Marshall, expertly performed here by Paul Whitsun-Jones, is a variation on Morris Perry's similarly vile Captain Dent: adding to Dent's avariciousness over mineral rights, the crazed despotism of a business executive. Nevertheless, they are equally inhuman, equally capable of corruption on a galactic scale and cold-blooded murder.

If you were Jo, you might almost wonder if it was worth struggling to save the Earth of the present day. Despite the fact The Mutants evinces the strongest influence of 'Star Trek' yet, it paints a rather less optimistic version of the future.

But Jo just can't help herself. She heedlessly throws herself into the action, and does a good job of convincing the Marshall that she and the Doctor – together with the authorities – have got him on the run. This is before the authorities turn up, in their gold lame judges' wigs, and nearly dither the Solonians (and the audience) into an early grave.

She sees some amazing things, too. A firestorm viewed from the mouth of a cave. Giant flea people who lurch out of the shadows. A cave of pure Colour Separation Overlay which sends her into a slow motion spin. A mutant viking falling through a spaceship wall into the void. Last, but not least, a multicoloured butterfly man who can fly through walls and talk through his eyes.

It's a shame that the Time Lords, as a thank you for risking their necks over the planet's fate, couldn't take the Doctor and Jo to the future of Solos, where the air is presumably thick with butterfly people. But, no. Giant fleas and being locked in a radioactive fuel cell. Then home. You've had your fun.

This is a strange story for the Time Lords. It's never very well explained just what they're doing, and why the Doctor's doing it for them, which wouldn't matter if it wasn't a big part of the narrative. Everyone's behaving out of character, intervening in the affairs of Solos for no particular reason. Jon Pertwee sells it with all the star power of his Doctor, but sometimes you can feel him wondering – what exactly am I after, here?

Call me a fan wanker – you won't be the first – but one's imagination is tantalised by the appearance of George Pravda, Deadly Assassin's Castellan Spandrell. The headwear of the Earth authorities recalls that story too. Mad as it might seem, I long to write a revisionist Target novelisation where the dodgy Earth colonists are mixed up with shady Gallifreyans. I could hardly resist popping a Season 6B incarnation of the Doctor in there somewhere, too.

An alternate fantasy would be to hoover all the Time Lordy bits of the story out, hopefully reducing the whole thing down to four episodes. (No more six episode stories. No more.  I won't stand for this.) I think The Mutants, with its atmospheric locations, mad characters, eerie music, amazing monsters and unguarded political sentiment would be immediately taken to viewers' hearts. Pertwee's outfit is particularly nice this story, too. Like Quentin Crisp in space.

As it is, I don't quite know how Jo and the Doctor have the strength to crack a joke in the closing reel, but it's a hallmark of this era that they try. They're a class act, this team: stylish, playful and outspoken. Long may they reign.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Sea Devils

Isn't it strange how few Doctor Who stories happen around the sea? For me it's the ideal location for the show, heady with historical atmosphere, from the formation of the land to smugglers of old. A liminal space, ebbing and flowing, frequently strewn with mist, fog, rain and waves. A Saturday outing sort of place. And then there's the deep mystery of the waves. I was rather thrown when I realised one of the guest cast here was Maggie, the seaweedy Linda Blair of Fury from the Deep.

What's going on, I wondered. Is the sea itself a recurring villain, disgorging infernal kelp one season, angry reptile people the next? Was Zaroff of Atlantis driven insane by something in the water? Is this, perhaps, Doctor Who in its element? (We are, at least, back in the astounding 1960s era of 'special sound', and I love it.)

I hadn't seen The Sea Devils before and I wasn't sure quite what to expect. In preparation, of sorts, I read David A McIntee's novel, The Face of the Enemy, which takes the genius step of imagining what was happening on Earth for the Master, the Brigadier and (for some reason) Ian and Barbara, while the Doctor and Jo are hobnobbing with giant phalluses in outer space. It even manages to deliver an unexpected, fully justified sequel to a prior Third Doctor story.

I wouldn't say it went to the sorts of places I would have liked it to go – despite seemingly focusing on some of the side-characters of the show, McIntee doesn't spend much time on exploring their characters or the dynamic between them. They remain side-characters. On a grander scale, though, it's a cynical, down-to-earth, 'gritty' story. It almost feels like a straightlaced response to the childlike naivety and colour of the story it parallels.

The oddest thing, following it up with The Sea Devils, is that half its raison d'etre – imagining the Master's incarceration, before the story in which he (spoilers!) escapes – makes no sense. If the Master had just managed to liberate himself/be rescued/kidnapped from a remote prison, would the Brigadier really pop him in the lax security establishment seen onscreen? Would the Doctor and Jo approach him with the same guilelessness, the mix of goody-goody opprobrium and forlorn sympathy?

The weird thing being, onscreen it reads very well. In the novelisation (which I picked up in Bromley at the same time...!) it reads even better. In the novel, a fisherman rowing the Doctor to the island makes it clear he feels the Master, a criminal celebrity (although nobody's heard of the Doctor: a nice touch) should have been executed. The continued references to 'the chateau', wrapped in red tape and not much else, produce a perfect setting: serene, stuffy, ripe for corruption and in fact destruction.

And yes, here's the Doctor feeling sorry for the Master, a man who (a couple of months back) was running a real black magic coven. Sympathy for the devil, indeed! The Master wasn't performing some petty fraud. He was trying to inherit the power of Satan (the actual Satan) and destroy the world.

If Curse of the Peladon is the story where Jo really springs to life, The Sea Devils lavishes some time on the Master and it's hugely rewarding. At the start of the story, he's already in control, and not because of a hypnoray but through the force of his personality – we see him at work. The Doctor is soon the prisoner of his mortal enemy, with Jo running desperately around a British prison where the guards have been told to shoot to kill. I've never heard anyone describe this as Who's take on The Prisoner, but it seems that way to me.

The Establishment takes more than one knock in this story – no sooner is the childlike prison governor Trenchard dead (and read the Target novelisation for how it really happened!) then his role is taken up by warmongering minister, Walker (just one letter away...). He's not evenly used in the story, but he does deliver one of the more pointed lines in the story:

Murder? War always is, my dear. Where on Earth's that girl with my toast?

It's almost a pity the Sea Devils have to turn up at all. The Cybermen are never in the right stories. What do the Sea Devils represent here? Upright seahorses with turtle faces, wrapped in netting (one of them, in a sort of fishnet cape, taking things a step too far) who begin with some light sabotage and quickly fall back on nuclear war.

When I was watching my latest Pertwee adventure, I happened to be reading Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban, or to be more exact, re-reading. Hoban, who passed away just a couple of years ago, was a prolific novelist of the eccentric variety, and his birthday is celebrated by fans every February 4th. I was re-reading Turtle Diary, in fact, for the third time I think. It turned out to be strangely resonant.

In the novel, two rather melancholy individuals independently decide to liberate the sea-turtles of London Zoo. There is nothing glib about the book. They simply realise, slowly, that the reality of the turtles' captivity is intolerable. The thought of liberating the turtles, once accepted as possible, is intolerable to suppress. The turtles represent all animal life – birds, gibbons, water-beetles – in their capacity to deal with the world as is, directly, not synthesised into, for example, cute animal stories or turtle soup.

Animals, like shamen, experience a higher level of reality. Not only that, they respond to it instinctively: 'A turtle doesn't have to decide every morning whether to keep on bothering, it just carries on. Maybe that's why man kills everything: envy.'

The turtle-like, even child-like Sea Devils complicate Hulke's narrative. The story of the Master's takeover of his own prison is the story of a nation state that is weak and self-interested enough to be led, by the devil himself, into corruption and violence. Perhaps there is something about the minister's ability to bomb an enemy he can't see. But what actually excites us about these tadpole-men from the deeps? Are they inhuman, un-human, better than apes? What a shame the story resolves in so bizarre a mirror of The Silurians. What about the Doctor? Is he alien? Inhuman? Doctor who?

And next - The Mutants! Another story I've never seen...