This is a slightly-expanded/tweaked version of something originally published in the January 2011 edition of Panic Moon. Back issues of this excellent fanzine (now, sadly, on hiatus) are still available, here.
In 'The Mutants', Earth’s empire is the British Empire in decline, as it disassembles itself out of economic necessity (true in general terms but misleading in particular; the British were usually savage in their resistance to independence). The Marshall echoes Ian Smith, who ran the racist apartheid state of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and tried to hang on after the British cut him loose.
We get a positive view of a national liberation movement. Ky is clearly the figurehead of a powerful anti-Overlord groundswell; they’re called “terrorists” naturally, and maybe they are, but they’re fighting for their freedom. We get no patronising sermons to oppressed people about non-violence.
The system is depicted as inherently racist, featuring a version of apartheid. The Solonians are not black, but then neither were the Irish… and they were the first to come under the British heel. 'The Mutants' shows racism, quite rightly, as the ideology of empire, not the cause.
There is an apologia for empire that stresses the “progress” it can bring to its subjects. The concept of “progress” is really what this story interrogates. Earth hasn’t brought much to Solos, whatever the Administrator’s ceremonial bromides. Of course, Solos only seemed in need of 'progress' to the humans. It suited the Solonians just fine, as you’d expect. This expresses something very true about colonialism: that what the colonisers see as raw material needing to be shaped, the colonised often see as shaped just fine already thank you very much. To the Overlords, what they’d call “progress” (uniforms, racism and technology that destroys ecosystems) is all up on Skybase, their celestial seat. Understandably, Ky rejects it. The script backs him up with the descriptions of Earth as worn out, a wasteland of ash, slag and clinker: “the fruits of technology” as the Doctor says. This is the real reason for the humans’ presence on Solos. This is fairly accurate as a picture of a declining empire. An empire that, say, runs on fossil fuels that are gradually running out might be keen to control other people’s oil. Of course, you can’t really understand modern imperialism without understanding capitalism, which doesn’t appear in 'The Mutants', not even by implication.
Imperial “progress” often means people like Jaeger using their advanced technology to customize colonies for their needs in ways that will decimate the natives. This is pretty much what happened when the white man arrived in Africa and America. The Doctor is there to personify the other possibility; the humanistic, ethical science that we’d all like to believe in. There is no idiotic blanket condemnation of science, just recognition that it can be a weapon in the hands of power. We are also invited to condition science with an awareness that older forms of discourse might have objective validity. The Doctor brings the ancient artefacts of the Solonians to the attention of hippy-anthropologist Sondergaard and they find accurate accounts of history and biology in the native culture.
I used to think that this story represented evolution (inaccurately) as an upward progress from brutish animalism to enlightened and “higher” forms… but that doesn’t hold. The Solonians, it transpires, are involved in a process of biological change that is not linear but elliptical. The Mutt stage comes between the humanoid and angelic phases. The process presumably reverses itself when the Solonian climate shifts back. The angelic (i.e. glam-rock) Ky isn’t a Christ-like moraliser. He kills the Marshall quite happily.
Meanwhile, the Mutts are not good or evil; they’re no lower than the angels, though they are more vulnerable. This rubbishes the idea that 'The Mutants' is about a mistaken teleological view of evolution (or any racially-loaded cultural condescension like that seen in it by Salman Rushdie). The Mutts are just people undergoing change. That’s why the reactionary Overlords (and Varan, their
comprador) hate and fear them. Irrational prejudice, yes, but also terror of change. Imperial “progress” is thus revealed as nervous stasis... or perhaps an entropic winding-down to those "grey landscapes" that the Doctor mentions. Solos certainly seems to be headed this way under human domination. As in later stories which tackle similar themes - 'Warriors' Gate' for example - this story depicts 'progress' as a flying-apart which creates a vast accretion of rubble in its wake.
The consciousness of Ky certainly changes, but not because he becomes “higher”. Both his biological and political evolution comes from the struggle against imperialism, in which he joins with Stubbs and Cotton. They too join in the struggle alongside the people they were employed to oppress and kill. They come to reject the ideology of the empire that used them just as it crushed the Solonians. There is progress here, but it is the progress of the exploited united in search of liberation.
Of course, in the end, the Marshall gets blamed more than the imperial system and the legal bigwigs of the empire see the light... but all the same, 'The Mutants' asks big questions and offers genuinely progressive answers.