The Doctor arrives on a planet where evil rulers oppress a slave population. He falls in with some rebels: he helps them stage a revolution. The nasty rulers are killed; the people are freed. The Doctor is hailed as a hero, but he doesn't stick around long enough to help the freed people to rebuild their civilisation.
That's the plot of the Sunmakers. It's almost a new paradigm, replacing "the Doctor foils an alien invasion" and "the Doctor protects scientists besieged by aliens" as the generic example of what Doctor Who does.
Four stories in, Graham Williams, has worked out what Doctor Who is going to be about from now on.
Silly. But good silly, not bad silly.
The twist is that the evil rulers are plutocrats rather than military conquerers. This is the only reason for setting the story specifically on Pluto rather than on earth or on some made-up planet. And this pun is the only reason for the story to be called The Sun Makers. The evil Company have made Pluto habitable by constructing six artificial suns. A large, symbolic sun-face is displayed prominently in the Gatherer's office; and it appears on all the baddy's uniforms, but (like the Penny Farthing in the Village) it is never alluded to. The oppressed workers who built the suns are never allowed to see the sunlight; but nothing is made of this satirical point. The plot could have involved the workers downing tools and plunging the planet into darkness: the Doctor might have switched off the sun as part of his plan to overthrow the Company. But it doesn't. The idea of people who make suns just sits in the title, not doing anything in particular.
I suppose we could say that this is very much part of the new aesthetic. Huge cosmic ideas -- artificial stars human migration and sentient slime -- are casually tossed out as part of the not-very-important background to a little character-level adventure yarn.
The Company is comedically, artificially nasty: a metaphor for nastiness rather than a satirical exaggeration of anything we could imagine really existing. They refer to the people as Work Units, and regard them only as a source of income. Cordo, the viewpoint character, has paid a large sum of money to give his father "a golden death with four mercy attendants". (Although this is not spelled out, there is a strong implication that he has had to pay for his father to be euthanised.) He then has to pay death duties; which are more than his actual income. He says that he is currently working twenty one hours a day; and the Gatherer says that he should take drugs so he can manage with less sleep. The drugs, are of course, expensive and taxed. When the Doctor arrives and offers him a jelly baby, poor Cordo is about to jump off a skyscraper. (SPOILER: The Gatherer is thrown off the same skyscraper by the liberated mob in the final episode.)
The action takes place in a Megrapolis, which may make us think of Friz Lang. There may be a touch of Judge Dredd, too. Certainly it is clear from the opening moments that we are not supposed to be taking things entirely seriously. It's dark ("congratulations, citizen; your father ceased at one ten") but it's dark comedy. The Gatherer, with his robes and his turban, looks like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan. It isn't yet a pantomime, but there is a camp, theatrical aesthetic. Almost every line has a jokey archness to it; as if everyone is speaking in quotation marks "I see the magnitude of the offence astounds you....Criminal deviants occur in every generation...."
The Gatherer's increasingly preposterous grovelling to his superior, the Collector is consistently funny. Despite the Gatherer's having run through the thesaurus in search of synonyms for "big" ("your promontory:"; "your aggrandisement"; "your grossness"; "your orotundity") the Collector is a small, bald man who sits Davros-like in a motorised wheel chair, hunched over hi-tech accountancy machines saying things like "time is money" and "business is business". Henry Woolf was, in fact, of Jewish heritage, but I don't think the Sun Makers has ever been accused of Gringotts goblins anti-semitism. The Collector isn't Shylock. His main distinguishing features are his ridiculous eyebrows.
Forty years ago, this might possibly have seemed funny. Harold Wilson was Prime Minister; and one Dennis Healey was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had quite a high public profile -- even the youngest Doctor Who fans would probably have known who he was -- because he was very frequently mimicked by impressionist Mike Yarwood. Yarwood's comedy had almost no satirical element: he just made good natured fun of celebrity mannerisms. His caricature of Healey consisted of basically two jokes: that he was fond of the phrase "silly billy" (which he wasn't) and that he had bushy eyebrows (which he did). So, rather weirdly, Robert Holmes could stick bushy eyebrows on a villain, and everyone would instantly understand that the story was about money and taxation.
I wonder how often this kind of thing is true of older, less well documented fiction in ways we don't see, and can't find out?
Healey was a Labour cabinet minister. Labour certainly had high rates of taxation. In 1977, before the Winter of Discontent and the collapse of the post-war consensus, income above £20,000 (about £100k in todays money) was taxed at 83%. The one-for-you-ninenteen-for-me rate that the Beatles had moaned about, with peace and love, had been abolished in 1972. But this was part of a socialist agenda to take money from the rich and use it to pay for trains and roads and schools and nuclear missiles. Taxing the poor never makes much sense, despite what the Sheriff of Nottingham may believe.
A story which equates taxation with evil could be seen as regressive and anti-liberal. All those Two Ronnies gags about officious ticket inspectors and mouldy meat pies; and endless Carry On tittering about hospital matrons were at some level political jokes about unions and nationalised industries and the welfare state. Leela asks if tax is like a sacrifice to a tribal god; and the Doctor says taxation is more painful. There is a very silly scene where Cordo tells the Doctor and Leela to run from the Gatherer, and they run away, despite having no idea who he is. "Everyone runs from the tax-man" says Leela.
But the story wants to have it both ways. The Company that makes people work long hours with no breaks and gives them nothing in return is a socialist caricature of capitalism. The Tax Gatherer and Tax Collector who use small print and unfair rules to take your hard-earned money away from you is a conservative caricature of socialism. This could have been a punchline: we might have learned in episode four that the company which pays you and the government that taxes you are in cahoots. That might even have amounted to satire. But everyone in the story takes it for granted that the Company give with one hand and take with the other. Yes, at one point everyone runs down corridor number P45 (which is the number of the tax form you get when you quit a job); and yes, tax is calculated PCM (per complete month) which is also the name of the drug which keeps the population of Pluto docile. And yes, when the Gatherer divides his forces to attack the rebels from two directions, he calls it Morton's Fork, which refers to one of Henry VII's tax officials. (Morton allegedly claimed that if people lived opulently, it proved they must have lots of cash and could therefore afford to pay tax; but if they lived frugally, they must be putting money aside and therefore could afford to pay their tax.) The Doctor even quotes Karl Marx at one point. But what it adds up to is not so much a satire on the British system of taxation as a bog-standard rebellion story with some fiscal window dressing.
Jokes about tax men are pretty much on a level with jokes about lawyers and mothers-in-law. We dony quite know why we laugh at them. They are funny because they are.
The production achieves new levels of cheapness. The kilometre high skyscraper that Cordo wants to throw himself off looks exactly like a disused cigarette factor in Bristol. The underground road that Leela is chased along in episode 2 is obviously part of a 20th century subway; the guards seem to be driving a golf cart or possibly a milk-float. Interiors are represented by the most generic BBC studio sets imaginable; white walls, generic science equipment. The asteroid base in Invisible Enemy was decorated, for some reason, with Greek columns; Pluto seems to go in for terracotta nipples.
But if anything, this make-do-and-mend aesthetic works in the story's favour. It's hard to ignore a genuinely bad special effect. The very primitive blue screen graphics used for the Doctor's brain in Invisible Enemy (and the cave sequence we will see in Underworld) might have looked cutting edge at the time, but they are risible now. But it's relatively easy to treat Sunmakers as you would a theatrical performance on a bare stage. When we do speak of a vast mega city on the planet Pluto lit by six synthetic suns, think that you see them, as the Bard might have put it.
Because the main thing to say about Sunmakers is that it just works. The Collector and the Gatherer are funny enough that we enjoy watching them; but evil enough that we can boo and hiss and be pleased when they come to a sticky end. The rebels are believably nasty and believably idealistic. Leader Mandrell is very nasty indeed, but most of the good lines go to Michael Keating, who is basically playing a joke free version of Vila. (Since Blakes 7 didn't start for another three weeks, hardly anyone noticed.)
Robert Holmes knows how to construct a narrative. The correct amount happens in each episode: it never feels rushed, but it never feels boring. The Doctor meets Cordo; Cordo leads the Doctor to the Rebels; the Rebels send the Doctor on a mission, keeping Leela as a hostage. The Doctor is captured and put in the Correction centre; Leela and Cordo try to rescue the Doctor. The Gatherer frees the Doctor (in oder to track him back to the Rebel Base) so when Leela arrives, he is already gone. Leela is captured and sent to be executed. The Doctor helps the rebels stage a proper revolution, during which Leela is freed. Each scene leads sensibly to the next scene. Most scenes give us an additional bit of information or backstory, without us feeling we're being info-dumped. Characters are brought together in different combinations and different situations; creating different kinds of scenes and different kinds of dialogue. The Gatherer is callous to Cordo but obsequious to the Collector. When he frees the Doctor from the correction center he is all smiles and fake affability. The Doctor pretends to be taken in; complimenting him on the strawberry leaf he is offered as a delicacy, and offering him candy in return.
No, not a jelly baby: Tom Baker offers it with the single word "Humbug?"
This is not high drama. But it is too very good actors having a lot of fun with a very good script.
Almost the best thing about the story is that Leela comes into her own, treated as a character rather than light relief or a comic foil. When the cowardly rebels won't help her rescue the Doctor, she goes into full William Wallace mode. "You have nothing, Mandrell. No pride, no courage, no manhood. Even animals protect their own. You say to me you want to live. Well I'll say this to you. If you lie skulking in this black pit while the Doctor dies, then you will live, but without honour!". Naturally, the only one who will help her is timid Cordo, who she calls "the bravest man here." It really is Louise Jameson's finest hour.
K-9 finally emerges from the TARDIS and gets some lines: but he's already an embarrassment and an encumbrance. He was introduced as a super-computer; but his main purpose in the story is to act as a portable stun gun. This time, the Doctor regards him primarily as Leela's friend (despite the closing line of the last story being "He's my dog".) When K9 puts himself at risk to rescue Leela, the Doctor tries to thank him, and he replies "Please do not embarrass me" even though it was a plot point in Invisible Enemy that he didn't have emotion circuits.
a: the Doctor added such circuits when K-9 was off-line in Image of the Fendahl or
b: No-one cares.
The final twist is that the people have a revolution by actually having a revolution. The Doctor removes the gas from the atmosphere which is keeping the people docile; they put out fake propaganda that the revolution has already happened. The Gatherer, who has been a comic bad guy all the way through is unceremoniously thrown off a skyscraper by the mob. The Doctor confronts the Collector, and, as is rapidly becoming part of the formula, they have a jolly good sneer at each other. It turns out that The Company are, indeed, aliens: subtly called Usurians, presumably from the planet Usury. The Doctor does a Thing, and the Collector reverts to his true, alien form. Again, we could read a political message here: capitalism and socialism are not the result of human greed or systematic injustice, they are an Evil Force that have invaded from Outside which we could theoretically Cast Them Out. But I think Robert Holmes just likes the joke about tax inspectors literally being pond-scum. When the Collector thinks the company is losing money he starts exclaiming "Inflationary spiral! Negative growth! This branch is no longer viable!" and shrinks into a pool of green slime. The impression, possibly intentional, is of something unpleasant being flushed down a lavatory.
I enjoyed the Sunmakers. I enjoyed it so much that I don't have very much to say about it. Let other people see Doctor Who as a mirror for its times and a political commentary, if they will. For me, it was always about aliens, robots, weirdness, baddies, rebels, getting captured and escaping.
A tough lady with a dagger and a robot dog being chased down a subway tunnel by stormtroopers on a milk float? Bring it on.