I’m not sure I like being described as a malfunction.
Though Doctor Who has always been a product of its times, seldom do contemporary events drive the story quite like in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Mutants” (Story Production Code NNN). Here, the United Kingdom’s colonial enterprise (or, more accurately, said enterprise’s haphazard and messy unravelling) serves as the plot foundation for this tale of human meddling in cultures and ecosystems they do not understand, mirroring the UK’s real-life disengagement with colonies throughout Africa, Asia and the Pacific. But, as with Baker and Martin’s prior effort, “The Claws of Axos,” a broad commentary on the energy crisis, there’s still quite a bit of room for derring-do beyond the central parable of segregation, colonialism, and the drive for independence.
Once more, the Time Lords send the Doctor on an errand, whisking him and Jo via remote-controlled TARDIS to Skybase, a space station in orbit around the planet Solos operated by the Earth Empire of the 30th century. He is to deliver a biometrically sealed container to someone on the station; awkwardly, it doesn’t come with an address label, leading the Doctor to try to hand it off to various people until it unlocks. With typically impeccable timing, the container whirrs open when presented to Ky, a native of Solos who has been agitating for independence from Earth—and who is running from guards, having just been implicated in the assassination of the Earth Administrator about to grant his wish.
You see, the Marshal, head of security on Skybase, is an old colonial hand facing the loss of his job. “We can’t afford an empire any more,” proclaims the Administrator shortly before his death. After centuries of expansion, the Earth Empire has begun its decline, explicitly linked by the Doctor to the fall of the Roman Empire. Unwilling to give up the only life he knows—and, to a great extent, unquestioningly believing in the superiority of Earth over its colonial subjects—the Marshal orchestrates the Administrator’s murder as a pretext to declare martial law, which will allow him to complete the transformation of Solos’ atmosphere into an Earth-normal state, a process coincidentally fatal to the native humanoid Solonians, who have toiled for five hundred years in the planet’s thesium mines.
But if that weren’t enough, the Solonians have been turning into “mutts,” the titular mutants. Their skin begins to coarsen into a thick green carapace, and they eventually turn into bipedal insects. The Marshal hunts them down with glee to prevent their “sickness” from spreading, despite the fact that no Earthers are ever affected by whatever is causing the mutations and that the mutants all gather in a single cave on the planet, waiting for something. He sees their otherness as evil, to be destroyed.
Humans are the monsters again in this story; as with many stories in the Third Doctor’s era, the monsters serve as victims, misunderstood at best and exterminated at worst. In “The Mutants,” colonialism and its attendant prejudices drive the oppression against the Solonians in both their humanoid forms and their insectoid forms. It’s up to the Doctor to realize that there’s a third form…