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…
The Time Lords’ message sphere contains tablets etched with hieroglyphs in the language of Solos’ Old Ones, the ancient forerunners of modern Solonians remembered only faintly. With the assistance of Professor Sondergaard, an Earth researcher exiled to Solos years ago by the Marshal for threatening to reveal the slave-like conditions in which the Solonians toil, the Doctor discovers that Solos goes through centuries-long “seasons” that drive the evolution of the species. Tampering with the atmosphere has hastened this transformation, turning Solonians into “mutts” before the conditions are right to receive them in the cave complex towards which they all migrate.
The person to whom the tablets were to be delivered, Ky, winds up turning into the first of the new species of Solonians, thanks to the Doctor previously purloining, from the heart of the cave complex, the seed crystal containing the blueprint for transforming insect-stage Solonians into incorporeal beings of immense mental power and general glowiness.
The role of the Time Lords here remains curious. Where (or rather, when) did the tablets come from, and why send the Doctor into the situation with no knowledge of what to expect? The latter, of course, can be put down to plot reasons, with the inscrutability of the Time Lords continuing to serve as a handy narrative tool while also deepening their mystery in the show’s canonical universe. As for the former question, perhaps the Time Lords knew that the neo-Solonians would need assistance given the intervention of humanity—whenever humans, particularly Earth humans, get involved, events in time and space tend to need mending.
Buttressing this evolutionary arc, the colonial story centers on the megalomania of the Marshal, the blind obedience of the military forces under his control, and the disinterested nature of the researcher leading the atmospheric transformation. Mostly through sheer charisma rather than any sort of compelling argument, the Doctor manages to convince two guards, Stubbs and Cotton, that the Marshal has gone power-hungry and mad. Both guards had previously felt the occupation of the planet to be a waste of time, rather than unjust. Seeing the Marshal being willing to exterminate all the “mutts” on the planet by attempting to destroy the cave complex—with the two guards still in it—leads both men to ultimately side with the Doctor and the Solonians, at risk to their own lives.
Worth noting is the central focus afforded to Cotton (Rick James), the first black actor to have any significant speaking role in a Doctor Who story, a six episode story at that. There’s no attention drawn in the story to his skin color, the prejudice in the Earth Empire of the 30th century being Earther vs. Other; he’s just a regular security guard, loafing with Stubbs between “mutt” hunts and wishing that he could go back to Earth. But at the time the story aired, in 1972, it’s a significant bit of casting, one that Baker and Martin surely wrote into the script to highlight the absurdity of the Earthers’ prejudice towards the Solonians, and also contemporary prejudices as well. Cotton uses the “Overlords” entrance to the segregated transfer station, not the Solonian entrance, calling to mind the contemporary segregation of the American South and South African apartheid. Earth had done away with its prior prejudices, but the rise of new ones helps explain the empire’s demise. Sadly, Cotton’s lines fall mostly into the category of “regrettably obvious utterances” that Doctor Who specializes in, but he’s not the only one burdened with such linguistic luggage in this story.
The figure of the Marshal, played to the screen-chewing hilt by Paul Whitsun-Jones, falls somewhere between laughably petty dictator and sadistically solipsistic xenophobe. The Marshal practically beams whenever he has the opportunity to gun down a mutant Solonian, and it takes but little goading for the Doctor to get him to exclaim his desire to exterminate the lot of them in front of an Investigator sent from Earth.
There’s not much nuance on display in this story, with sympathetic Earthers (Sondergaard, Cotton, and Stubbs) banding together with the Solonians to try to stop the single-minded Marshal, who believes that if he can only transform the planet’s atmosphere into one breathable by Earthers, the powers-that-be back on Earth will have to accept the death of the native Solonians as a fait accompli, and then there would be no reason to leave a perfectly-good, now-empty planet behind. Many of Doctor Who‘s future Earth stories have focused on it being a frankly unpleasant place, from the wasteland of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” through to the hyper-crowded Earth of “Colony in Space.” In “The Mutants,” 30th century Earth is described by the Doctor as, “Grey cities linked by grey highways across grey deserts.” Earth’s future in the show seldom reaches utopian ideals; it’s usually a hell of some sort, the more readily to make some narrative point.
Once the Doctor and Sondergaard manage to get the seed crystal to Ky, who is conveniently being held prisoner in a thesium fueling room, the radiation activates the crystal and turns Ky into the super-Solonian, which promptly floats through the station and kills the Marshal. An inauspicious start to the new Solonian “season,” perhaps, but one that no one present seems fit to remark upon. Even the Doctor isn’t going to admonish a floating glowy being with a built-in disintegration ray, no matter how distasteful the revenge might feel.
Everything wraps up neatly, with Cotton staying on at Skybase as the new Administrator, presumably to finish the process of granting Solos independence, and Sondergaard helping Ky convert all the remaining Solonians to the new form. The Doctor and Jo, as is their wont, slip out before anyone has to answer any pesky questions, like what will happen with a planet-full of incorporeal super-beings who have been oppressed by Earth for five hundred years and who have a demonstrable taste for revenge…
Jo Grant spends quite a bit of time either captive or running away from capture in this story, but again, Katy Manning gets a few good speeches and demonstrates a fair bit of initiative when separated from the Doctor. Her history isn’t quite up to O-Level, Jo not knowing Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and she doesn’t quite catch on when the Doctor is trying to make a hasty exit, but a fine story for her, all things considered. She even keeps track of the Sonic Screwdriver when the Doctor has it taken off of him by a guard she subsequently tricks.
The word “companion” makes a welcome return, with the Doctor himself using the phrase, but in reference not only to Jo but also to Cotton and Ky, who have all been captured together:
Doctor: And my companions?
Marshal: Will be released, as soon as the job is done.
It’s still not the default term-of-art for those who travel extensively with the Doctor, but we’re getting there.
The Doctor himself shows off quite a bit of scientific knowledge, such that the Marshal and the resident scientist, Jaeger, deem his assistance vital for completing the atmospheric transformation. He’s thus left to tinker in Skybase’s laboratory several times, each time creating a booby trap. Such is the Marshal’s desire to have the project completed that he keeps letting the Doctor back at the equipment.
And, since this is Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, several unfortunates are temporarily paralyzed or otherwise incapacitated via Venusian aikido, including a rear neck pinch that looks suspiciously similar to, ah, Vulcan aikido.
Baker and Martin’s script manages to entertain without coming across as excessively didactic, but also without exploring any of the deeper ideas in their framing device. Especially given six episodes of running time, a little more focus could have been spent on conditions on Solos, or conditions on Earth, just to give a sense of what drove all of these peoples’ decisions. Instead, we’re left with this: colonialism and prejudice are bad, monsters aren’t all bad, stealing radioactive eggs from the center of a ritual chamber is usually fine, and if the ruling council of a race of regenerating time travellers gives you a mysterious box to deliver, well, why not?
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Post 65 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project