The Sun Makers
Or The Sunmakers, if you first came to the story via its Target novelisation. I’ve generally regarded this one as not quite making it. Call it the Pennant Roberts factor, if you like, degrading any bite and sharpness into a slightly bland soufflé. That approach failed to dent the later The Pirate Planet, where the script’s knockabout energy is complemented by the outrageous performances, lending the whole a ramshackle spark. But departing script editor Robert Holmes granted The Sun Makers a shed load of wit and perversity, and it didn’t feel like it was being done justice. Revisiting the tale on this occasion, however, I found it considerably more rewarding. If still some distance from being any kind of classic.
There’s a flip side to this, of course. While a Graeme Harper would surely have added the kind of visual flair and verisimilitude that would galvanise the faintly dull rebel interactions and make the particularly rotten Episode Three action material actually exciting, he would likely also have ensured the supremely hilarious demise of Gatherer Hade over the rooftop – “Let’s see if old rubber-guts will bounce” in the novelisation – was faintly grim and distasteful (I love that shot of “him” in flight).
Of course, some find the scene faintly grim and distasteful anyway, not least Terrance Dicks, making sure to inform us in the novelisation that the rebels were a bit disgusted with themselves afterwards. I’m with Gareth Roberts on this one (DWM 290). Holmes “invests this unlikely scenario, played against panto scenery, with a sense of realpolitik missing in similar Who stories. Helen A is allowed to slink off in tears, but it’s a joyous moment as Gatherer Hade is thrown off the very same tower Cordo had voluntarily chosen”. And as David Owen in In-Vision observed “It is the production style alone which makes this adventure more fitting for the label ‘family viewing’ than its dozen or so predecessors”.
The Collector: I sense the vicious doctrine of egalitarianism, Hade!
Elizabeth Sandifer, prone to applying insufferably progressive platitudes to historic Who, submitted of The Sun Makers “It is currently very much trendy to enjoy”. She proceeded to get bogged down in the ideological internal conflict Dominic Sandbrook takes in his stride as part and parcel of the story’s appeal (his thoughts aired in the DVD “making of” Running from the Tax Man). For Sandifer, it’s “hard to get excited about a story that rails against the evils of taxation” (before asserting that it’s the “most Occupy movement friendly story to date”. Yes, I know). But it’s hard to be a thudding literalist too, I guess. Sandbrook notes how the The Sun Makers’ revolt against tax burdens anticipated the rise of Reagan and Thatcher – a right-leaning stance, essentially – but that it is also simultaneously left leaning in celebrating revolution and taking aim at commercial exploitation and imperialism. Louise Jameson would have you believe it wasn’t even about tax at all, claiming she had it first-hand that it’s actually “about the BBC”. Which fits in some interesting ways.
Leela: These taxes, they’re like sacrifices to tribal gods?
The Doctor: Well, roughly speaking. But paying taxes is more painful.
In The Complete Fourth Doctor Volume 1, Daniel O’Mahoney suggested that, even though Tom is the first revolutionary Doctor, The Sun Makers is not particularly political: “Holmes is grinding axes against everything he finds soul-destroying about 1977 – Barclaycards and P45s, tax returns and BMWs…” You could say his heart wasn’t in revolution – it’s not as if he was Malcolm Hulke, for goodness sake – but it’s closer to the truth that he’s deeply suspicious and cynical of everything, so he couldn’t write a straight-arrow tale if he tried (and when he did try, it felt like he didn’t, very much: The Power of Kroll).
The Collector: They’re not a good workforce in any case. Many of the other operations produce a much higher return with less labour.
There’s a classically cynical/conspiratorial view that you’ll find the money men behind any revolution or movement, setting insurrections up for their own long-game ends. This requires someone else to put the hapless proles up to it, rather than rebellion arising organically.
Here the Doctor fulfils that role, only without the ulterior motive; instead, job done, he simply leaves them to it. We’ve seen where that sort of thing leads before (The Ark, The Face of Evil), so it cannot be coincidental that he leaves the victory hanging fecklessly. Would you really want Mandrel (William Simons, who slightly resembles the burnt-out title character in the final Blake’s 7 episode), Veet (Adrienne Burgess) and Goudry (Michael Keating) leading your 600 million to a new life on Earth? And as About Time and Running from the Tax Man observe, there are five other Megropolises as yet still shackled.
About Time has it that Holmes, off the back of Whose Doctor Who, is “starting to believe his reputation, thinking he can get away with all of this without anybody asking awkward questions”. Which is only partly fair. He’s definitely taking the opportunity to tell any tale he wants, no questions asked. But then, no prior Holmes story is so anaemically translated to the screen, even (or weirdly, especially) the Barry Letts directed ones (Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’ attempt to give Roberts some credit is largely mistaken, visually anyway). It goes back to the Harper comment. What might Caves of Androzani’s reputation have been with a standard Who director at the helm? Can we divorce the writer from how well his vision is envisioned?
The Doctor: What is the company? …I mean, who runs it? What’s it for? …But who gets the profit? Where does it go? …Wouldn’t it be interesting to find the answer?
At one point, the Doctor seems to be setting up some kind of web of intrigue, but the reality is as prosaic as it seems on the surface: it is all about profit, a means unto itself. There’s nothing profound here in that regard, which is why “Probably too many economists in the government”, “Inner Retinue” and “Usurians” are as glib as they sound. But I rather see that as meaning The Sun Makers is less failing as a honed satire than allowing Holmes to lay an assault on whatever he feels deserves it.
The Doctor: Don’t you think commercial imperialism is as bad as military conquest?
The Collector: We have tried war, but the use of economic power is more effective.
In some ways, The Sun Makers is the flip side of the glittering, hopeful paean to indomitable humans in The Ark in Space (“Tell me, how did you get control of humanity?”) There, corruption comes from within, destroying the bodies of the select few. Here, humanity lives under a not dissimilarly artificial system, but an entirely disenchanting one. Nature is a wistful memory. Holmes’ futurism harkens after real things, especially wood (see The Two Doctors). It is also one steeped in crudely euphemistic references to culling and entertaining in the likes of Golden Deaths and public steamings (it’s a surprise there aren’t any Futurama suicide booths). Pluto has honed the twin cash cows of Big Euthanasia (a seventeen-percent rise in death taxes) and Big Pharma (a high medical tax on Q Capsules).
Gatherer Hade: Outrageous! The work units are absolutely forbidden to see the light of the Sun. It’s far too good for them.
Wood, Gather Hade (Richard Leech) informs Cordo (Roy Macready), is “Simply a primitive way of producing oxygen. Thank the company we have no need of trees on Pluto”. Likewise, the outlook is so much better when we have bought into a grand new future replete with lab-produced meat and GM veg. Like all good (bad) officials, Hade lies prodigiously. Which is why he gives thanks for the Company’s pervading artifice but savours a box of Raspberry leaves (“They contain natural chlorophyll. Very healthy”). Clearly, Hade says one thing to the proles and thinks another. His response on learning units have “gone to the roof to have a look at the Sun” is especially amusing. Plutonians spend their lives on prescription meds, ingesting fake food, weakened by artificial air and have their functions impaired by chemicals in the atmosphere. All the while caught in a perpetual trap of debt and tax. Such an existence would be a nightmare, wouldn’t it?
Bisham: I felt completely different, as if I’d never really been alive until then.
Indeed, the PCM production provides a double function. It’s an anxiety-inducing agent, aiding the enslavement of the population. It also services the lie of that which afflicts them (PCM isn’t so very far from PCR):
Bisham: No, no. It eliminates airborne infections.
The Doctor: That’s what they keep telling you. It also eliminates freedom.
But Holmes isn’t especially obsessed with this method of control either. Nor is he with the pervasive surveillance on Pluto, replete with tracking devices and Oculoid electronic monitors. About Time notes of The Sun Makers that “it’s set in a world where the revolution will be televised” and is “one of the very few Doctor Who stories that acknowledges the existence/importance of propaganda”. The idea that reality is dictated to us, rather than existing independently, is key to the success of the revolution. To wit:
The Doctor: If the public video system announces there’s been a successful rebellion, think of the effect, hmm?
Leela: Everyone will believe it.
If the BBC announces there’s a deadly virus on the loose, run rampant, think of the effect, hmm? What’s different here is that The Sun Makers revolves around economics, whereas – even though some would like to characterise the motivation of the Great Reset in such terms – what’s going on right now is really about control.
As far as the show in general is concerned, The Sun Makers exposes the strengths and weaknesses of the main line up under Graham Williams at this juncture. Tom is on great form when confronted by those he can bounce off; this is a story in which the villains truly give it vital oomph, so enjoyable are the performances of Leech and Henry Woolf (as the Collector). Don’t you love Woolf playing with the Doctor’s curl? He resembles Dudley Moore as Kraut in Superthunderstringcar – with added bald cap – and is an absolute blast. I still haven’t worked out how he comes to cameo in The Last Jedi, though. Hade’s florid verbiage and flattery makes him something of a heartless Henry Gordon Jago (“Your orotundity”; “Your corpulence”). Until his demise (“Don’t you dare! I’m an official of the Company”).
Leela: Before I die, I’ll see this rat hole ankle deep I blood. That is a promise.
Leela, meanwhile, is at her feistiest since The Talons of Weng-Chiang (this is Jameson’s favourite of her stories), but I tend to see her as somewhat lost in the slack production standards of Season 15. The character is formulated on an essential narrative tension, so in more relaxed, jokier surroundings, she’s rather adrift (“I’ll split you!”) Still, credit to creative imprisonment by hanging her off a wall. And the deductive computer analysis of her origins (“degenerate Tellurian colony”). This is also where K9 starts to come into his own, furnished with a much wittier personality (“I’ll be good”) and provoking petulance in his master (the chess match).
The Collector: Grinding oppression of the masses is the only policy that pays dividends.
The Sun Makers is a story that retains a recognisable charge through the prospect of discontent and revolt at the status quo, no matter how many resets or recreations of our environment we endure. I may well revert to my “not quite there” appraisal on next revisit, but just now, with its unapologetically cathartic appeal, The Sun Makers does the trick. Let’s see if old rubber-guts bounces, shall we? And then, if we really must, feel a little disgusted with ourselves afterwards.