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Doctor Who: The Sun Makers

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
2 Entertain
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Pennant Roberts
Tom Baker
Louise Jameson
John Leeson
Henry Wolf
Richard Leech
Bottom Line: 

 ‘We tried war once, but we’ve found economic power to be far more effective.’    THE COLLECTOR – in “The Sun Makers”

‘But who gets the profit … where does it go? Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out?’    THE DOCTOR – in “The Sun Makers”

It could cost a lot of money to make DOCTOR WHO in 1977. Inflation was running at such a high in the UK at the time that even attempting to budget a serial in advance could turn into a fool’s errand that resulted in stories such as “Underworld” (the one that comes after this) actually being broadcast; a story which is supposed to be set in a cavernous underground system of echoing tunnel ways, but which was in reality made by having all the actors running around an empty studio set while some static photographed shots of flat caves were badly CSO’d into the background … all the way through!

But the economic climate of the 1970s did also have at least one positive outcome, though: and that was Robert Holmes’ “The Sun Makers” – a story which suffers all the budgetary short cuts and cut backs that afflict this period in the fourth Doctor’s seven year reign, but which works nonetheless as a charming, light-hearted piece of state-of-the-nation satire, at the same time as it cheerily lays into the entire basis of the global market finance-based system of capitalism! “The Sun Makers” really shouldn’t work as well as it does (we saw how this sort of satire can all go so terribly wrong in “Paradise Towers”). Somehow, the combination of a witty script, some delicious fruity performances from a strong guest cast, and the fourth Doctor --  a still vital Tom Baker -- at his most surreally dotty produces one of the unexpected delights of season 15, despite some flimsy story beats and even flimsier props, as well as an alien city on Pluto that looks more like a roof-top car park on a cloudy day in Bristol … oh, wait!

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his two companions, the scanty-clad Sevateem warrior woman Leela (Louise Jameson) and new robot ‘friend’ K9 (John Leeson), arrive on Pluto to discover that what should be a lifeless chunk of ice and rock has been transformed into a network of six city colonies called Megropolis’ heated by artificial suns. Here, the human race has been put to work in service of The Company: all actually a front for a race of evil galactic commercial imperialists called the Usurians, who subjugate their workforces across interplanetary space with grinding hours of monotonous utilitarian work spent underground, recouping the workers’ meagre wages through a ruthless system of ever higher taxes enforced with the aid of crippling bureaucracy, Orwellian propaganda and an anxiety inducing agent that’s pumped into the air to prohibit any thoughts of overturning this unfair regime.  With the help and guidance of the Doctor and Leela, though (who get separated to help the mid-level executive and the lower order human slaves respectively), the inhabitants of Megropolis One join forces to stage a revolution against their oppressors, who are being led by fiendish and sadistic alien financial overlord The Collector (Henry Wolf) and his pompous state tax-man and human collaborator, The Gatherer (Richard Leech).

It’s fascinating, thirty-five years later, to look back at this broad satire from our current perspective, given what is currently happening on the global stage economically. The story is a product of the confluence of two influences on the pen of writer Robert Holmes: the first stems from Holmes’ original idea of tackling the theme of imperialism and its suppression of indigenous peoples’, in part modelling the oppressive alien organisation depicted in the story on the activities of the East Indian Company, which was originally set up as a British monopoly trading operation in 17th century India, but which had by the mid-nineteenth century developed in a way which saw it increasingly taking on the task of administration and making law in running the entire country (with the help and complicity of a few Indian princes) completely in the commercial interest of the British Empire. A source of influence that was much closer to home also came to exert a pull on the general tone of the story though, after Holmes allegedly received a huge tax bill from the Inland Revenue!

 By 1977, a shift towards the right was beginning to make itself evident in public life, after the many economic crises of the previous decade, which eventually manifested itself in the anti-public spending and anti-tax rhetoric of the Conservatives under Margret Thatcher. Today, “The Sun Makers” feels like a curious hybrid of opposing political diatribes forged from elements taken on from the dystopian world-making of George Orwell (“1984”) and Aldus Huxley (“Brave New World”) as well as a heavily felt influence from Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 silent movie “Metropolis”.  On the one hand it  undoubtedly feels like a brilliantly acerbic, right leaning parody of the tax and spend policies associated with the Labour Government of the 1970s, in which the pompous Gatherer (over-adorned with his absurdly grandiose ceremonial robes and a sun worshipping Aztec-design hat that makes him look like a great purple humbug) presides over death taxes (not inheritance tax - but an actual tax on dying, to be paid by the immediate relatives of the deceased!) and breathing taxes from his luxurious office, while functionaries such as the D-grade Cordo (Roy Macready) are forced to work double shifts and then to forgo their ‘sleeping time’ altogether  just to pay their way.

Between them, both the Gatherer and his boss, the diminutive, bald headed and beady-eyed Usurian Collector, who moves about in a motorised wheelchair but never strays far from a giant calculator which continually sends out a trail of ticker tape read-outs that allow him constantly to monitor productivity output and current profit levels, sport two fine pairs of magnificently bushy eyebrows, which gives them both the appearance of the then Labour Government’s famously bullish chancellor, Denis Healey. For a modern audience, the scenes in which the hapless Cordo is driven to attempt suicide by throwing himself from the top of the Megropolis because of the level of the burden of tax being extorted from him by The Company, all bring to mind the current outlook of America’s Tea Party right wing, with its extreme antipathy to all forms of Government spending and state paid social aid.

On the other hand, the latter episodes of this four parter make clear that Robert Holmes’ original satire on Imperialism has taken on the guise of no less than a complete excoriation of the mechanics and methods of Global capitalism, in a form that would surely ring a bell in the present day with beleaguered cash-strapped Eurozone countries such as Greece. The Company specifically sets out to profit from the crippling financial servitude of its citizens: ‘Grinding oppression of the masses is the only policy that pays dividends,’ gloats The Collector. Every aspect of the entire societal system, from its hierarchical worker-executive grading system to its preparation centres for children (schools here are used to churn out fodder to maintain the system rather than provide an education) has been instigated by the Usurians in order to perpetrate their enormous  tax scam on the human population, who, having been brought up with it from birth ever since their ancestors were first offered the chance to come to a terra-formed Pluto when the earth was exhausted and lay dying, don’t even know that they are in fact slaves of an intellgient interplanetary species of fungal growth.

The various grades of human toil away at their tasks on the various levels of the Megropolis, and even the undercity of criminals who come up from the darkened lower levels to perpetrate their particular form of banditry, are really just a tolerated part of the system that monopolises wealth for the Usurian Company masters, their form of rebellion being the kind that doesn’t in any way challenge the general system of exploitation which the aliens have put in place.  Little do the humans know that once all resources have been plundered for maximum profit, The Company will close down its investment in the Megropolis, leaving the population to flounder until the power of the artificial suns eventually runs out -- while the aliens move on to exploit another species using exactly the same methods elsewhere in the galaxy. ‘You blood sucking leech!’ exclaims the Doctor confronting the rat-like little Usurian Collector in his motor-chair, ‘You won’t be satisfied till you’ve colonised the whole Galaxy, will you! Don’t you think commercial imperialism is every bit as bad as the military kind?’

The overthrow of this entire system of governance is the Doctor’s aim, which unusually makes him a thoroughgoing revolutionary for the purposes of this story. By opening the eyes of the blinkered, drugged population, the Doctor helps them to come together to stage their own revolutionary coup. There’s no diffidence at all here about portraying the newly militant workers in a completely positive light – something which would have been unusual even in 1977, when you could expect any TV representation of the working classes to be presented in terms of their being excessively unionised, lazy, selfish and feckless. The Doctor forms his core group of insurrectionists from a rag-bag collection of humans taken from various levels of the Megropolis: the nervous worker functionary Cordo, who pays his taxes obediently until driven to the edge of sanity by The Gatherer’s excessive demands; the polite civil servant Bisham (David Rowlands), assigned to neural reconditioning for expressing curiosity; and the previously ineffective underclass-cum-resistance movement in the bowels of the Megropolis, led by the rough and ready Bill Sykes-like Mandrel (William Simons). Each of these needs the Doctor’s outsider’s eye to help them see that things actually needn’t be this way and Leela’s fearless warrior spirit to lead them in revolutionary insurrection. This actually ends up leading to an extraordinary scene at the end in which Richard Leech’s always amusingly pompous, obsequious and perpetually blustering Gatherer is bodily picked up by a crowd of chanting revolutionaries and summarily tossed to his death from the top of the Megropolis tower, while afterwards, the workers shake hands with each other and cheer and congratulate themselves about the fact! There’s no moral ambiguity about the action being presented here at all. We’re meant to rejoice in the overthrow of the Company system and the death of its perpetrators! Talk about radical and left wing … this all seems positively Trotskyist!

This whole dystopian set-up, with an autocratic power ruling over a sophisticated futuristic city that keeps its worker underlings in ignorance, slaving below ground to maintain the upper levels in luxury, is reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” as has been previously mentioned, while the doping gas which keeps everybody docile and too anxious to rebel is an element that originally appeared in Huxley’s “Brave New World”. The actual production certainly doesn’t resemble Fritz Lang’s classic in its realisation, though: the Usurians may well have used crippling economic conditions to maintain control of their enslaved populace, but similar conditions also affected how DOCTOR WHO looked during this period, too.

In fact, “The Sun Makers” looks startlingly like any early episode of “BLAKE’S 7 (though with a slightly more Gilbert and Sullivanesque tone to the satire than one was apt to find in Terry Nation’s dystopian sci-fi space opera saga), the first series of which started filming soon after this. The budgetary restrictions are one of the main reasons for the similarity of course: BLAKE’S 7 famously operated on such a tight budget that it was forced to film many of its stories, usually set on supposedly alien outposts, in locations that always contrived to look startlingly like 20th Century Earth -- with the usual quarries in abundance, of course (a staple of DOCTOR WHO for some time) but also many places where there seemed to be an awful lot of concrete and gravel about. Federation facilities were always filmed on location at some old gasworks somewhere or at a factory or a power station, with little attempt to disguise this fact. You simply had to use your imagination as a viewer back in those days. The same principle is being put into effect with this story in DOCTOR WHO, and the similarity of the subject matter means “The Sun Makers” is bound to look a lot like Nation’s series. Here, we just have to accept that a towering Megropolis on Pluto is in fact a tobacco factory’s car park, and that lots of people in strange costumes are running about this tarmacked car park pretending to stage a revolution against alien fungi. Although studio sets were of course made for the videotaped sections, the factory also featured the single longest corridor ever encountered in DOCTOR WHO, painted stark white and lit with disorientating fluorescent strip lighting – naturally such a location just had to be used in corridor loving WHO!

 The “BLAKE’S 7 aesthetic also extends to the style of some of the costumes of the workers and the fact that director Pennant Roberts went on to work on the early episodes of the first series and helped cast Michael Keating (who plays one of the bandit thieves Goudry in “The Sun Makers”) as Vila, the only actor to appear in every episode of BLAKE’S 7. Terry Nation also borrowed from the same literary sources as Robert Holmes (who also wrote several episodes in later years) when he created the oppressive Federation, which ruled over Earth using the usual mixture of Orwellian propaganda techniques and Huxley’s doping gas -- pumped into the air of the giant Domes the people are forced to live in because of a mistaken belief that the air outside is poisonous. Finally, composer Dudley Simpson worked on both DOCTOR WHO during this period and on all 52 episodes of BLAKE’S 7.

Despite the inherent budgetary limitations and even with the many inconsistencies and omissions in Holmes’ plotting, “The Sun Makers” still works, and the main reason is that the Doctor is for once being pitted against some great villains who are being played with relish by two great character actors in their prime, rather than a standard rubber-suited monster of the week. Henry Wolf is a delight as the tiny bald alien mastermind The Collector, giving a bravura performance which isn’t afraid to strike out to the outer edges of parody but which is able to sustain itself because Holmes was such a great writer of dialogue scenes. Richard Leech too, gets some wonderful moments of pomposity and smug complacence until The Gatherer gets tossed off a tower at the end, while Tom Baker is clearly relishing playing off both throughout. The departure of producer Philip Hinchcliffe had instigated a new approach to the show under the watch of new producer Graham Williams; the Gothic monster adventures were out and a more space opera tone, influenced by “Star Wars”, began to make itself felt, while Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor got less intense and more prone to whimsical comedy, often introduced into the scripts by the actor himself during rehearsals. We see this in “The Sun Makers” and at this early stage it works a treat – primarily because Baker is getting as good as he gives from Leech and Wolf. There’s a totally hilarious moment in one episode, completely unscripted, in which the toad-like, totally bald Collector starts enviously caressing the Doctor’s luxurious curly brown hair in the middle of their dialogue together! Arguably, this jokey trend was to get out of hand in later years, with an increasingly bored Baker taking his comic prating too far into the realm of pantomime and the guest actors often following him all the way over the top (see “The Horns of Nimon”), but here it is perfectly judged and even Leela gets plenty of poignant action thanks to Homes’ script separating her from the Doctor (supposedly because Louise Jameson and Tom Baker had a somewhat tense off-screen relationship at the time) for much of the story, and giving Leela plenty to do in her own right. It's no wonder this is Jameson's favourite story.

The adventure features an audio commentary with various combinations of the following being heard across the four episodes: Tom Baker is his usual dotty self (‘I once had a job combing the hair on the bellies of the dead … I get on very well with the dead.’), while everyone else is respectfully tolerant of his eccentricities. Louise Jameson (the two now get along fine and have reprised their roles in some Big Finish audio adventurers) has clearly done here homework and is full of interesting observations and facts about the production. Director Pennant Roberts and guest actor Michael Keating have fond memories of making the programme. The main point to emerge from this is their nostalgia for the rehearsal periods that were allowed for by the old multi-camera studio system as opposed to today where the actors turn up on set and are expected to produce the performance instantly. We also learn that the chess position in the game between the Doctor and K9 at the start of episode one, comes from one of the endgames seen in the then recent World Championship match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov! 

“Running from the Tax Man” is an excellent making of cum analysis of the various influences on the story featuring Louise Jameson, Michael Keating and director Pennant Roberts, with incisive and interesting comment and historical political analysis from the writer-historian of several books on Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, Dominic Sandbrook. Astronomer Marek Kukula also appears to explain why Pluto is no longer considered to be a planet!

“The Doctor’s Composer – Part Two” is the second part of an interview with composer Dudley Simpson which covers his work on the programme from the electronica of 1971’s “Terror of the Autons”, right through the Baker years, up to 1980 when new producer John Nathan-Turner decided to bring in a new synthesizer based approach to the incidental music and so dispensed with his services. Simpson discusses his approach to writing for the programme over the years and his collaborations with sound designer Dick Mills.

Outakes are included from one particular scene in which a gun prop repeatedly refused to fire as it was supposed to, along with a trailer originally broadcast on BBC 1 to advertise the start of the adventure; plus, the usual text production notes, a photo gallery of production and set design stills, programme subtitles, PDF files of Radio Times listings, and a ‘coming soon’ trailer for the forthcoming release in the range, are all included as usual.

See you soon for a double-disc special edition of the third Doctor adventure “Day of the Daleks”!

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