The Mutant Phase is the first audio that I’ve listened to from Big Finish that has been and out and out disappointment. Although bear in mind it’s only the fourth one I’ve sampled. But while the others have ranged from really good to so-so, The Mutant Phase is muddled, aimless, and ultimately senseless.
The failure comes in one of the areas that is the most important for Doctor Who to work. Remember, this is the series that for years has had fans building up a “The Special Effects aren’t all that important” defense. We’ve known the show can look stilted and awkward and cheap, but we loved it because it worked well in the arenas of character and premise. But even character and premise struggle to hold up under the weight of a bad story, and it’s in the area of story that The Mutant Phase falls terribly flat.
The four part drama begins with an intriguing scene where a crew of a ship, represented by the Captain and the resident Scientist, encounter a swarm of creatures flying in a tight, planet-sized formation. After this strong start, it skips forward some number of years and these guys are now in an unwelcome partnership with the Daleks, of all creatures. The rest of the two first episodes are spent in a tedious process of getting the Doctor (in his fifth incarnation here, played by Peter Davison) and Nyssa connected with these guys. A handful of other characters and potential plot threads are introduced to serve no purpose but to fill up the time, and they are handily obliterated at the end of Part Two to 1) remind that the Daleks are evil and dangerous and 2) to clear the way for the main story to finally get started.
Sadly, that main story involves one of those convoluted time travel plots in which effects turn out to be their own causes, and all the illogic is buried under some attempts at pithy dialog. In other fictions, you’d get lines like “Time travel gives me a headache,” but here you instead get the Doctor being Time Lordy and mysterious, refusing to explain to Nyssa the dark secrets of time in case one day some enemy tortures them out of her!
Thus, there’s no explanation for how the Dalek Emperor can go back in time to avert a disaster which is caused by his going back in time in the first place, but which he is able to avoid by heeding the warnings from the Doctor (who has enabled his time travel in the first place), thus avoiding the disaster thus avoiding his need to intervene thus avoiding the entire story. See, this isn’t complex, high-concept storytelling – it’s just the worst sort of dopiness that time travel writing can produce, and the fact that it’s been used a lot over the years doesn’t justify it.
[Has anyone told a story that really deals with these sort of time loops? Where a cause and an effect that are completely disconnected from anything else that has happened are vying, in a sense, to become real? To become canon, even? Is this sort of the plot of Donnie Darko? I’ve never seen that one…]
So yeah, lots of disappointments. Near the start, the Tardis visits the scene of the Dalek invasion that was dealt with in The Dalek Invasion of the Earth back in the days of William Hartnell. I thought that it was going to be interesting seeing those events from another point of view, but it came to nothing when the Doctor and Nyssa escape from being capture by Daleks by…running away.
Positively, Nyssa gets to be a bio-chemist in this adventure (which is supposedly part of her backstory, but rarely discussed). Negatively, her primary contribution as a scientist or as a character for the first half of the story is to be stung by a wasp; the same wasp which nearly causes the destruction of the entire Dalek species! (Pesky time anomalies!)
The story also features the Daleks, of course. I am not the biggest fan of the Daleks, and the audio format highlights one of their most annoying qualities, which is of course their grating voices. Try to imagine a bunch of panicking Daleks screeching “The Mutant Phase! The Mutant Phase!” over and over again, to get an idea of what I mean.
Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton are both fine in their parts, and I still enjoy listening to new adventures featuring favorite Doctors and companions from the past. I’m glad that there are still another 10 adventures in the year-long subscription that I bought, another 37 beyond that that are available quite cheaply, and over 100 more beyond that if I want to start investing the bigger bucks.