The Doctor is tinkering with the TARDIS, trying to get it working, when a capsule arrives from the Time Lords. This multi-faced container can only be opened by the intended recipient, so the Time Lords control the Doctor’s TARDIS to take him where he needs to go. Jo travels with the Doctor to a space station orbiting the planet Solos in the 30th century. There they encounter the Overlords, Earth colonists who rule the planet, but are on the verge of withdrawing. The security officer, known as the Marshal, opposes withdrawal, and conspires to have the Administrator from Earth assassinated as he is about to grant Solos independence. The Marshal takes command and accuses Ky, one of the Solonians attending the Ambassador’s speech, of murder. Caught up in the confusion, the Doctor and Jo run into Ky who activates the message capsule. The message is for him! But before they can do anything about it, Ky takes Jo hostage and escapes back to Solos. The Doctor, meanwhile, remains a guest of the Marshal and his chief scientist, who together plan to reconstitute the lethal atmosphere of Solos making it deadly to the native inhabitants, but friendly to humans. The Doctor needs to fulfill his mission from the Time Lords, but how can he as a prisoner of the Marshal? And how will he rescue Jo from the Solonian tribes, and the mutant creatures (“Mutts”) that roam the poisonous planet…?
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
Bob Baker and Dave Martin return as writers for this six-part story. Once again, we see the production team trying to escape the confines of Earth-bound stories, this time having the Doctor play messenger boy for the Time Lords. It’s a bit of a flimsy premise for getting the Doctor away from 20th century Earth. There are many other Time Lords they could have used, least of all one who’s supposed to be serving time for interference. Perhaps they appreciate his tenacity and ingenuity, and are willing, therefore, to take the risk that he will do the job? I’m not 100% convinced, but it serves the purpose as a plot device.
On the whole, “The Mutants” is a good, solid story, with plenty of hot political topics running through, not least of which are colonialism, racism, and ecology. The Earth Overlords are the dominant people, and they treat the Solonians as their underlings. Even the space station has segregated areas for Overlords and Solonians. As for the “Mutts,” the Overlords regard them as dangerous monsters that deserve to be destroyed.
One of the ingenious plot surprises is the fact that these mutants are not, in fact, monsters, but are the next stage in the Solonians’ natural life-cycle. Like butterflies, the Solonians transform from humanoid to “Mutt,” and then finally to a kind of super being, able to control energy and fly through walls. The Overlords’ experiments on the atmosphere of Solos has affected the natural cycle of change, so people are transforming into “Mutts” ahead of schedule, “like a butterfly coming out of its chrysalis in winter,” as the Doctor puts it. Thankfully, with the information from Ky’s message, and a special crystal, the Doctor is able to put things right.
The Marshal is a wonderfully evil character, full of ego and malice. His eventual demise is a bit of an anticlimax, but I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. On the one hand, you kind of want the Solonians to make the most of his sudden defeat and take revenge on him. But having the Marshal zapped into non-existence removes the possibility of revenge, which, I think, is the better path. It certainly gives the Solonians the moral high ground.
The mutant costumes aren’t bad, especially for their time. It’s hard for 1970s monsters to not look like people in costumes, and here we have a valiant attempt to make giant bug-like creatures that are unnerving, at least in design if not in execution.
Probably the most awkward scene is when Jo and others are about to be sucked out into space after a hole is blown in the side of the space station. The hanging-on-for-dear-life acting goes on a bit long, and they all look like they’re just waiting for someone to shout “cut!”
Aside from these few weaknesses, “The Mutants” is a worthy addition to the Whovian playlist. Perhaps not vital to one’s DVD collection (unless, like me, you’re a completist), but certainly one to watch.