CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: The Sun Makers / DVD Review

The Sun Makers
November – December 1977

‘Praise The Company’ ‘Stuff The Company!’

Bob Holmes’ satire on the British taxation system. Or is that too simple a description? The Sun Makers may well have started life inspired by Holmes's run-in with the Inland Revenue or as a bit of a broadside at the BBC's treatment of the writers it employed, if the commentary and the documentary that supplement this disc are to be believed, but it also reflects the times in which it was made.

Holmes seems to have caught the way the wind was blowing as the Labour government reeled under pressure from the unions and hurtled towards the ‘Winter Of Discontent’ in 1978-79. He examines the birth and the nature of revolutions, the exploration of who are the oppressed and the oppressors and the binary between left and right political viewpoints  in the story recalling a number of themes in the equally satirical Carnival Of Monsters and the scathing attack on privilege that formed the undercurrent of The Deadly Assassin.

His swipes at the tax system is a classic form of rebellious satire where, as Andrew O'Day illustrates in Towards a Definition of Satire in Doctor Who, Holmes reveals "mechanisms such as the police, armies, and courts, the State [as] a ‘machine’ of repression which enables the ruling classes… to ensure their domination over the working class" where "in The Sun Makers those who rebel against the ruling class by not paying excessive taxes are indeed sent to the Correction Centre." As a former policeman who left the force to become a court reporter and journalist, he would have had a familiarity with the mechanisms of the state and might well have sensed that as the country, and by extension the BBC itself, struggled with hyper inflation under the auspices of Denis Healy (his own appearance reflected in the Collector's bushy eyebrows) it wouldn’t be too long before a totalitarian greengrocer’s daughter came in and sorted it all out whilst keeping those Bolshie working class people under her thumb.
... a plutocracy made tele-visual
The sharp swerve to the right that British politics took at the end of the 1970s and its worshiping at the altar of the market is echoed potently in the market-speak of the Collector when, as those in the Undercity begin to rebel, he observes, "An ongoing insurrectionary situation would not be acceptable to my management." And of course, Thatcher’s dominance over the unions was, like the revolution on Pluto, more or less a plutocracy made tele-visual. Let's not forget how Thatcher used the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi to market her policies (the Collector has already acknowledged that the Time Lords are grade 3 in his "latest market survey") and the way the Conservatives used television to its fullest potential. Effective propaganda seen not only in the forms of the political party broadcast but also infiltrated into news coverage.

The Sun Makers does boast a wonderfully literate and witty script, littered with references and in-jokes on everything from the Inner Retinue standing in for the Inland Revenue, the corridors named after civil service form numbers (with the P45 corridor as a particularly obvious example), and the Doctor misquoting The Communist Manifesto (He is asked, "What have we got to lose?" "Only your claims!" he replies).  Monetarism and marketing naturally find their acutest representation in the oversized Barclaycard that the rebels in the Undercity have forged and give to the Doctor to swindle a cash machine out of its talmars and the mention of the Collector's planet of origin, Usurius, is surely an allusion to usury as the excessive and illegal interest rates applied to loans and upon which the whole economic infrastructure of Pluto is built upon in the story.

Indeed, a contentious area that hasn't been paid much attention to in The Sun Makers is the conflation between actor Henry Woolf's own Jewish origins, the image of the Collector as an evil usurer and the persistence of such stereotypes first established within Christian theology and where, as Alex Bein notes in The Jewish Question, "under the constant influence of Christian dogma, this image developed into the conviction that the Jew was a usurer not because of the force of circumstances but because his whole Satanic inclination and disposition impelled him to take advantage of other people's plight." However, the Collector as an image of racial stereotyping isn't as embarrassing as the woeful Shylock and Fagin representations that crop up in The Creature From the Pit for example.
... state control and media manipulation, loss of individuality and dehumanisation
The PCM gas added to the air supply and that keeps the retrograde classes subservient is also a nod to Huxley's narcotic soma in Brave New World and the use of surveillance as a major theme borrowed from Orwell's 1984, with its television production of 1954 allegedly reproduced in that opening scene with Cordo as he attempts to visit Gatherer Hade to discuss his tax bill, is prevalent throughout the story. Indeed, the Doctor uses it to his advantage to fool the Gatherer and Marn into believing he is somewhere where he isn't. Surveillance is also rigged up so that the Collector can take pleasure in Leela's death throes as she is steamed to death in a public execution but is then subverted to prompt revolutionary action. The dominant theme of rebelling against an oppressive status quo could also be found in such recent cinematic science fiction as THX 1138 (1971), Soylent Green (1973), Rollerball (1975) and Logan's Run (1976) and their collective concerns about state control and media manipulation, loss of individuality and dehumanisation.

Here is also where the series's own move away from Gothic horror and the 'monster of the week' formula truly begins. Producer Graham Williams's view of the series and the role of the central hero is one where the Doctor isn’t facing up to evil, revolting monsters week in and week out but rather is facing up to the ‘concepts’ of evil, the symbols of suppression and oppression. Not only does the Doctor square up to the symbol of the Company made flesh in Henry Woolf’s wonderful Collector, a totalitarian slug using the power of economics to keep the rabble in place and make vast profit, but he also literally slices through the Company’s red tape and uses the power of economics (here exemplified as hyperinflation) to topple the regime where, as Andrew O'Day comments, "at the end of the narrative [it] causes the Collector to revert to his natural form - literally and symbolically going into liquidation." It's also highly ironic that Holmes's comedy about corporate bureaucracy and a war of oppression conducted through economics is being made within the the confines of the hyper inflation of the Labour government and the resulting miniscule BBC budgets of the time.

The Sun Makers not only recycles the tropes of 1984 and Brave New World but it also returns to the themes of workers rising up against their betters, of rejecting a machine run city that formed the central storyline of Lang's Metropolis. Indeed, Tony Snoaden's set designs are visually an homage to many of the Metropolis designs by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht. Snoaden mixes a playful homage to their work into The Sun Makers with an abandoned Aztec influence, seen in costumes and sets where Snoaden and costume designer Christine Rawlins attempted to base their work on Mexican propagandist art until director Pennant Roberts vetoed the notion.

The sun god motif clearly alludes to the ideas in the script that Pluto is now warmed by a series of artificial suns all controlled by the mysterious Company and its alien Collector. What emerges is artistically experimental for a television production, with minimal sets suggesting the larger world in which they exist in an avant-garde theatrical manner, but also as a side-effect of a production that is also clearly strapped for cash. The Sun Makers aesthetic also closely resembles Blake's 7, another science fiction series that found itself fiscally and creatively challenged when it started filming in September 1977 and one which director Pennant Roberts would work on soon after. With the casting of Michael Keating as Goudry, whom Roberts would later recommend for the role of Vila in Blake's 7, the convergence of both series, its sharing of writers, directors, actors, costumes and props, is initiated here. 

Despite the paucity of the budget, you can see the series really turning in another direction and Williams’s vision really starts to come through here. It's debatable if indeed he had such a well-defined plan and was merely reacting to the edict from his own bosses to tone down the violence but his aversion to naturalism and a love of absurdity and surrealism does leave us with a series bursting with ideas and characters but conversely without the necessary production values to back it up. There is certainly a distance between what is seen on the screen and the ideas and the characters that inhabit it and he's also under some pressure as, in the same year this went into production, Star Wars hit the UK and the resurgence in good-looking, slick space adventures began.
... a parodic, Swiftian take on the hero
As for our regular actors, Jameson is still maintaining a high standard as Leela and keeps the character interesting for now. Woolf and Leech, as the Collector and Hade respectively, manage to just about control themselves and turn in fruity, colourful performances that dangerously veer towards pantomime. Tom Baker is clearly relishing the turn the series is taking and understands the way the Doctor is being transformed into a more nonchalant hero who uses wit and exaggeration as part of his armory. The intensity of his earlier performances during the Hinchcliffe seasons is transformed into a parodic, Swiftian take on the hero, often relying on non-naturalistic ad-libs and looking directly to camera. It's symptomatic of the actor's 'knowingness' that begins to permeate the era and that ultimately could be seen to lead to its undoing as the parodic nature of narratives in the programme become the dominant dramatic form of Doctor Who by 1979.

The Sun Makers is the series on a cusp and Williams’s ideas for Doctor Who are coming into their own. He is however blessed with one of Holmes's cheekiest scripts (how did he get away with the revolutionaries jovially throwing Gatherer Hade to his death off the top of Megropolis One?). However, from here on in it all moves forward in such a variable fashion and the inspired cleverness and wittiness of the Williams era is often buried by an appalling under-appreciation of dramatic scale and tension, the use and mis-use of design and a leading actor and supporting players who are too often let off the leash and fail to be restrained when necessary.

Special Features
Commentary - with actors Tom Baker, Louise Jameson and Michael Keating, director
Pennant Roberts. An informative and amusing track and good to hear from the late Pennant Roberts. Baker, as ever, spends much of the time fixating on living and dead supporting actors and recalls Richard Leech and Henry Woolf with much affection. His innuendo driven, often unrelated surreal reflections (listen out for the bit about actor Ian Holm) on the episodes make for a highly entertaining listen.
Running from the Tax Man - a retrospective look at the making of the story and the science behind it. With actors Louise Jameson and Michael Keating, director Pennant Roberts, writer and historian Dominic Sandbrook and astronomer Marek Kukula. Sandbrook naturally focuses on the script's social, cultural and political ideas (the story's right wing leanings reflecting a left wing created crisis) whilst Kukula offers a brief introduction to former planet Pluto (it's now classed as a dwarf planet) and its place within the solar system. Keating recalls his nights out boozing with Baker after recording and Jameson insists it was Holmes's spat with the BBC that actually provided the catalyst for the story.
The Doctor's Composer - Part Two - the concluding part of the series looking at the career of prolific composer Dudley Simpson, covering his work on the show in the seventies. A brief overview of Simpson's work on the series, covering some of his more memorable motifs as heard in Pyramids of Mars and City of Death, and his eventual removal from the show. I defy you not to have a lump in your throat when at the conclusion he recalls, upon receiving the news from John Nathan-Turner in 1980, "I’ll miss it like mad. It’s been my baby for a long time."
Outtakes - the infamous 'revolutionary's gun failing to go off' material is in this collection.
Trailer - the original BBC1 trailer for the story.
Photo Gallery - production, design and publicity photos from the story. Very little seems to exist of this material and it seems to consist of images of Snoaden's set designs more than anything else.
Coming Soon - a trailer for the forthcoming Day of the Daleks special edition DVD release.
Radio Times Listings - in Adobe PDF format.
Programme subtitles & Subtitle Production Notes

The Sun Makers
BBC 1977
2 | entertain / Released 1 August 2011 / BBCDVD2955 / Duration: 100 mins approx / Cert:U

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