Written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
Directed by Christopher Barry
The Doctor and Jo receive a mysterious sealed message pod from the Time Lords, and are directed by them to an orbiting space station above the planet Solos in the 30th Century. The pod will only open itself when it is placed in the proximity of its intended recipient, and as neither he nor Jo know who that is, the Doctor is forced to get involved.
Solos has been under the control of Earth, who have been exploiting its resources and oppressing its indigenous people. As the Doctor and Jo arrive, Earth is about to give Solos its independence, much to the fury of the Marshal of the Skybase. Filled with ambition and bigoted contempt for the people of Solos, he murders the Administrator sent to manage the hand-off and hatches a plan with his chief scientist, Jaeger, to convert the atmosphere of the planet into one more suitable for Earthlings.
The Solonians has a leader in Ky, a passionate young man who is falsely accused of the murder of the Administrator. Ky feels the humans are brutal overlords, and blames them for the mutations of some of his people into insectoid beasts. Ky flees from the Skybase to Solos, taking Jo with him, and is pursued by the Doctor. They all meet in the mines, and the Doctor discovers that the message pod's recipient is Ky, and it promptly opens for him to reveal ancient stone tablets with carved inscriptions.
The Doctor and his friends encounter Sondergaard, a human scientist leading a hermit-like existence in the mine while searching for a cure for the mutated Solonians. He and the Doctor decipher the inscriptions, revealing that the mutations are a natural part of the Solonian life-cycle, a mid-way point of their ultimate evolution, and the planet's natural radiation plays a vital part. This radiation will be eliminated by the Marshal's plans, dimming the Solonians.
The Doctor retrieves a crystal from a cave where the radiation is concentrated but is recaptured by the Marshal and is forced to perfect the machine with which Jaeger plans to transform Solos or Jo will pay the price.
Meanwhile, Sondergaard gives Ky the crystal, which turns him first into a mutant, and then into an ethereal super-being which is the ultimate stage of the Solonians' life-cycle. Jaeger is killed when the Doctor sabotages his machine, and the Marshal is vaporized by Ky.
There's a good story in here somewhere, or at least there are the ideas for a good story, but the execution of these ideas are done so poorly that we're left with one of the worst Doctor Who stories of the classic era.
There are two types of bad Doctor Who. There are the ones that are bad, but so ridiculously over the top, bonkers, bananas misguided that they wind up being fun (hello, Underwater Menace), and then there are those that are just bad and poorly executed and no fun in any way. The latter ones are far more rare, but The Mutants is most definitely one of them.
Baker & Martin's scripts contain some really interesting ideas, as their scripts almost always do. The concepts of intergalactic apartheid and the mutation of the Solonians are both strong and intriguing. But director Christopher Barry plays down the first aspect (with one exception I'll get to in a minute) to just a few mentions and a general tone of prejudice, and the evolutionary idea is a focus point but doesn't really impact the plot until the final episode. As is customary, the Bristol Boys (as Baker & Martin were known) overreach in ideas and don't quite nail down the execution.
Most of the time we get an uninspired runaround that is never given energy or focus. The Marshal is certainly an unpleasant villain, one of Doctor Who's most unpleasant ones, I'd argue, but he's so much so that he's no fun to watch at all, and his plan eventually degenerates into madness which is pretty boringly done. The cast is all pretty dreadful, but given the atrocious dialogue it would be hard for anyone to excel.
I mentioned that Barry downplayed the apartheid aspect as much as he could. It's still present, but according to Baker & Martin it was originally much more prominent. So, it's odd that Barry made the call to cast an actor of colour as Cotton. It was a bold decision in the early 1970s, and it's certainly one to be lauded as the programme throughout its classic run was rarely as good as it should have been about using different ethnicities, and often in fact was appallingly racist.
But you cannot tell me that the best actor for this part was Rick James. He gives the worst performance in the history of the show to this point. Look, there are plenty of actors that go way, way, waaaaaaaaaaay over the top in Doctor Who. Some actors thought simply being cast on the show was a license to start slicing great whacking chunks of ham all over the place (and some of them are in this very story). And those performances are laughably bad. But none of them are as downright amateurish and hopeless as James. He cannot speak a single line convincingly, and he is a major, major part of the story. Granted his dialogue is among the worst, but Christopher Barry never should have cast him in the role, and you can visibly see all the other cast dancing as fast as they can to cover up for his shortcomings. I don't like to kick the actors on the show, for a variety of reasons. And I certainly applaud the decision to think outside the BBC's box to give underused ethnicities the equal presence on TV that they deserve. But this is a performance that should never have gotten to air.
All in all, The Mutants might be, in my opinion, the single worst story of the Pertwee era.