Monday, May 27, 2013

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Mutants

A mutant is an organism or being who arises from the process of genetic mutation.  Natural mutation is a core component of natural evolution, but in cult-television history, mutations are often featured as a result of man’s poorly-considered environmental choices, or sometimes as a side-effect of his contact with unknown life-forms and atmospheres.

The original science-fiction anthology The Outer Limits (1963 – 1964) highlighted mutant characters on at least two memorable occasions. 

In the first, “The Man Who Was Never Born,” an astronaut slips a time track and lands on Earth of the distant future. In 2148 AD, he discovers that most human life has been destroyed, and meets a mutated, sterile creature named Andro (Martin Landau).  Andro insists that his condition -- and the death of humanity -- was caused by an un-careful, ambitious scientist of the 20th century, Bertram Cabot, a man who must be destroyed at all costs…

The Outer Limits episode “The Mutant” involves a strange human mutation on a distant world, rather than in another timeline.  Here, a colonist on a faraway planet, Reese Flower (Warren Oates), is exposed to radioactive, alien rain-fall, and begins to develop frightening psionic abilities, as well as over-sized “bug” eyes.  His new abilities terrify his fellow colonists, who realize he must be destroyed…

Doctor Who (1963 – 1989) featured a serial title “The Mutants” during the reign of the third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee.  Here, the Doctor and his companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) deliver an item for the Time Lords to the distant world of Solos.  There, however, they find that the indigenous population is mutating into hideous, crustacean-like monsters with claws. 

In truth, however, the Earth Empire’s presence (on Sky Base One in orbit…) has hastened the changing of the planet’s centuries-long seasons, and the humans are not actually mutating, but evolving to survive in a world of significant climate and geographic change.

Gerry Anderson’s outer space spectacular, Space:1999 (1975 – 1977), also spot-lighted mutants during its run.  Johnny Byrne’s “Mission of the Darians” sees the alien survivors of a radioactive holocaust aboard an Ark-like ship weeding out “mutants” from their food banks and life-prolonging surgical procedures.  Meanwhile, healthy survivors of the ship are exploited by the command crew to extend their survival. 

In “New Adam, New Eve,” a God-like magician named Magus is actually a genetic researcher, and his previous, hideous experiment -- a pitiable mutant – lives on a world he has made for the unwitting Alphans, New Earth.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981) dealt frequently and cogently with the idea of mutants emerging after devastating nuclear wars.  The pilot episode (originally released theatrically), “Awakening” saw Buck (Gil Gerard) visit the ruins of old Chicago and have a close-encounter with a tribe of savage, scavenging mutants.

In the excellent first-season two-parter, “The Plot to Kill a City,” Buck also met an alien, Valek (Anthony James) whose world had endured a nuclear holocaust.  Valek tells a moving and tragic story about how children on his world must wear masks because it is too terrifying to gaze at their own reflections in the mirrors.  Valek, although a villain at first, joins up with Buck rather than see the children of Earth face a similar fate.

The very last episode of Buck Rogers, “The Dorian Secret” involves the Searcher’s encounter with the “secretive” Dorians.  These humanoid aliens also wear masks all the time, but in this case, a radioactive holocaust somehow made rendered all Dorians clones: exact, indistinguishable copies of one another.  The masks were necessary to maintain civilization, and personal identity.

In the 1990s, The X-Files (1993 – 2002) often featured strange mutants of both natural and unnatural variety.  Victor Eugene Tooms (Doug Hutchison) -- a liver-eating murderer – was an example of the former, while the Fluke Man of “The Host,” created in the searing fires of Chernobyl, was an avatar for the latter.

On occasion, mutants have also been portrayed as superheroes on cult-television.   Marvel’s The X-Men have starred in no less than three animated TV series, including X-Men (1992 – 1997), X-Men: Evolution (2000 – 2003), and X-Men (2011).  A live-action series featuring the same premise but different characters was the syndicated Mutant-X (2001 – 2004) starring Victoria Pratt and John Shea.

Mutants or “freaks of the week” also played a crucial role in the early seasons of the Superman adaptation Smallville (2001 – 2011), but in this case, mutation was caused not by radiation or natural causes, but by exposure to the green meteor rocks from Clark’s home planet, Krypton.

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