A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine. From 2011.
Here’s a contradiction. For a story that’s considered one of the breezier diversions for the Fourth Doctor – a step out into the light from the gloomy gothic of his early years – when we join our hero in the TARDIS at the top of The Sun Makers, he looks likes someone’s spat in his jelly babies.
Fiction and reality are blurring for the Doctor and his companion. Tom Baker loathed the character of Leela, believing her – and rightly, I think – too violent for his series. Baker’s contempt bleeds through into the Doctor (if, that is, the two can ever seriously be considered as separate personalities). This is why, throughout her time in the TARDIS, Leela always feels more passenger than friend. We only have to remember the easy companionship the Doctor shared with Sarah – how her bright little smile could detonate his atomic grin – to see how much has changed. In The Sun Makers, Baker can barely bring himself to look at Louise Jameson when he’s talking to her. He makes eye contact with K9 more often. (Although, the Doctor’s hardly encouraging to his new dog either. “Leela – tell your tin pet to shut up!” he barks, having ordered Leela herself to shut up mere moments before.) But while we understand the backstage tensions, how might we explain away this sour atmosphere within the fiction? Perhaps a long time has passed between adventures, and the Doctor’s nerves become frayed when he’s stuck in the TARDIS for too long. They’ve resorted to playing board games, as one does when a holiday is rained off. Before the chess came out, maybe they completed all the Doctor’s jigsaws of old Gallifrey. “Ah! I’ve found a piece of the Untempered Schism.” “Areas of burnt orange suggest sky, Master.” “Shut up, K9.”
The TARDIS lands on Pluto, which brings us to another contradiction. For a story that’s frequently been dismissed as “cheap”, The Sun Makers delivers a wider range of interesting locations and eye-catching sets than many a modern Doctor Who adventure. Certainly, the ‘cheap’ tag can be applied to an opening shot that sees Citizen Cordo arrive at an appointment with a beige, papery wall that’s been misguidedly enlivened with a clumsy cross of red insulation tape. But that’s a small misstep. The rest of the production goes to great lengths to transport us to an alien world; crossing England to find Pluto’s vast rooftops, endless corridors and dingy underground vaults. To help us mentally join these disparate locations together, the designer cannily invests in several tins of orange paint (‘Coral Canyon’, if you’re looking to match it from the current Dulux range), which he splashes liberally about. This allows the bulk of his budget to be spent on half-a-dozen sets, which range in quality from the perfectly serviceable – the rebels’ base, which seems better suited to a student production of Rent – to the rather fine. The best is the office of deputy chief plutocrat Gatherer Hade, which draws the eye back and up across various levels. However, quite what the Gatherer’s non-speaking staff are up to on their background platforms is anyone’s guess. One man leans raffishly on a railing, watching another randomly poke the air with a spider rest liberated from a snooker table. It seems that in the distant future, rich men will still be free to indulge even their most surreal fetishes.
But all this is mere sideshow. Pluto is not really built for us with sets and props. Truly, it is conjured from the air with words alone. No Doctor Who writer has ever spun alien worlds with the wit, precision and poetry of Robert Holmes. Over the past year, these DVD reviews have proudly taken to task Doctor Who stories that open to a screed of egregious exposition passed off as casual conversation – step forward Meglos, Frontios – and that’s because stories like The Sun Makers hold the rest to a better standard, by proving how cleverly and subtly it can be done. And from page one, line one, the bar is set high.
“Congratulations, Citizen. Your father ceased at 1:10” is surely Doctor Who’s drollest opening line. The brilliant black humour, as that cheery “congratulations” shunts into news of the death of a loved one, takes the breath away. And the conversation which follows – between Cordo and Hade as the former attempts to pay his death taxes – is nothing less than a work of art.
“Not on the desk!” bellows Hade, as Cordo tries put his purse down. “It might scar.” Cordo gives a little gasp of recognition. “It is wood, your honour?” “Of a kind called ‘ma-hog-ay-nee’” mispronounces Hade proudly, adding: “I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen wood before, have you citizen?” “Never,” replies awestruck Cordo. “We learned about it at the preparation centre,” he explains, before giving his own modest boast: “There was even a picture of a tree.” What’s so wonderful is that every line of this seemingly trivial exchange takes us a small step deeper into this world, with the punchline hanging on the most humble of words: ‘even’. In what kind of place might as mundane a thing as a picture of a tree command an ‘even’? With one word, Holmes summons an entire dystopia. And from here, the values of the society on Pluto – the impossible taxes, the high price of ordinary human compassion, the insignificance of the individual – are laid out for us at the same time as we mentally map a bleak world of foundries, walkways and correction centres.
This brings us to another contradiction. For a story that’s known as one of Doctor Who’s comedic outings, The Sun Makers certainly serves up some dark and disturbing ideas. That opening Hade/Cordo scene – in addition to everything else it achieves – even finds time to hide away Doctor Who’s blackest joke. Hade explains to Cordo that only two small cash credits will help offset the 132 Talmar price of his father’s “Golden Death”. The first is his father’s “personal contribution” of seven Talmars; his total savings from 40 years work as a municipal servant, cleaning corridors. “Then,” Hade adds, “there’s a recycling allowance, based on a death weight of 84 kilos, of eight Talmars”. Seven Talmars. Eight Talmars. Robert Holmes has chosen those numbers with care. He’s telling us – and you can almost hear him chuckling wickedly in the background as he refills his pipe – that the decaying meat of this man’s corpse has a greater value than his entire life’s work; that Cordo’s father is worth more to him dead than he ever was alive. It’s a bleak view, to put it mildly. And, while we think about that, what might “recycling” of a body mean on a world without trees, where all food must be artificial? This is twisted, sinister stuff, exquisitely woven into Hade’s breezy enumeration of an invoice.
Again and again, it’s the words that prove The Sun Makers greatest joy. There’s a wonderful little scene with the Gatherer and the Doctor, where they each think they are getting one over on the other. “While you’re here, you must get about a bit,” suggests Hade, as if there might be an open-topped bus tour departing any minute. There’s more fun with the ‘noises off’ of Pluto, with mention of such intriguing ne’er-do-wells as “Wurgs and Keeks”, and the “arrogant Ajacks”. Later, the Gatherer and his boss, the Collector, dismiss the downtrodden masses with alliteration and assonance: they are “factory fodder” and “cellar dwellers”. The Collector is a goblin creature who runs the whole cruel business of Pluto; a snivelling Rumpelstiltskin jealously hoarding his gold. The Gatherer’s habit of buttering-up his tiny boss by using synonyms for ‘large’ is such good fun – there’s “Your Colossus!”, “Your Hugeness!”, “Your Amplification!” and many more – but what’s even better is when things begin to go wrong on Pluto and the flattery becomes more slowly more inappropriate and insulting. “Your Monstrosity!”, “Your Corpulence!”. What a joy it is.
Unfortunately, Robert Holmes rather lets his love of the macabre and the gruesome get the better of him when we meet Pluto’s rebel faction, down in the basement. “Show courtesy to my rank,” spits leader Mandrel, “or I’ll cut your skin off inch by inch.” And the threat of slice-and-dice continues, mostly thanks to Leela. “Before I die, I’ll see this rathole ankle-deep in blood!” she vows. And most wince-inducing of all, she promises Mandrel: “I’ll split you!” It’s vivid stuff, to say the least. Doctor Who couldn’t get away with anything close to this charnel house language today, and that’s no bad thing. It does, however, give us what must stand as the most typical Robert Holmes line of all time: “Mouth those mindless pieties down here, Citizen Cordo, and you’ll get yer throat slit!” It’s just another passing threat, but in it we find all Holmes’ favourite tricks in play at once.
Happily, The Sun Makers has a superb cast to deliver its brilliant script. What’s most striking is how relaxed and well-rehearsed they all are. Tom Baker warms up as soon as he’s away from Leela and working with the guest actors, and he’s clearly having a ball when the Doctor confronts the Collector at the end of the story. He and actor Henry Woolf have made the most of rehearsals and worked out so many little bits of business. The bald Collector’s wistful fondling of the Doctor’s curls is particularly cute, and the moment when he slams his fist down on a vital control, only for it to spring up and be caught in mid-air by the Doctor, is a genuine laugh-out-loud moment of slapstick. When you watch these scenes, try to ignore Baker and focus only on Woolf. You’ll rarely see an actor working so hard. Emotions flutter across his face like colours on a squid; pride then bitterness then glee then confusion then panic. It’s one of the wittiest and most entertaining guest performances ever given in Doctor Who.
“So what’s Contingency Plan B?” jokes the Doctor as he unravels the economy on Pluto and the Collector liquidates himself. The Sun Makers is the first of a particular subset of Doctor Who stories where our hero stumbles across a sick society that is a twisted version of our own world – with one shortcoming of modern life extrapolated to become its defining characteristic – and blasts through it like antibiotics. We’ll see this again in Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol, Gridlock and The Beast Below, but The Sun Makers remains the most enjoyable, due in part to the fact that the Doctor’s fourth incarnation lacks the pious streak that can make his successors seem so insufferably smug and superior at times. When he leaves Pluto in the hands of those murderous rebels, with not a single word of caution or advice, there something deliciously reckless about it. It’s refreshing not to be obliged to ponder what we’ve learned this day, or to stop to mourn the terrible sacrifices that have been made in the name of liberty. There’s no call to hail-the-unalive-Pex, to weep for the rubbery mush of the Face of Boe, or salute that brave and noble space whale. Sod ’em. We’re outta here.
Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor explains to Leela how he defeated the Collector. “I fed a two per cent growth tax into the computers, index-linked,” he says. “It blew the economy.” It’s a joke, but it’s not so far from the jargon we now hear on the news every day, in this new era of recession: the quantitative easing, the short-selling, the subprime toxic debt that brought down banks and poisoned economies around the world. And suddenly we see that The Sun Makers packs even more of a satirical punch today than it did on transmission. In 1977, Robert Holmes was stinging from a tax bill, and used Doctor Who to vent his anger. In a decade of spiralling inflation and punishing taxation, older viewers could enjoy the joke of Hade’s list of bizarre taxes, and taxes on taxes. In the Collector, Holmes was clearly mocking the government. But today, we see politicians as almost powerless in the face of the machinations of big business, and watching The Sun Makers, we see Cordo is tyrannised not by a government, but by a corporation – which controls him through his debts, and through his fear of debt. The most chilling detail of all is how the Company keeps its workforce pacified. The PCM gas it pumps into the cities doesn’t simply dope the citizens. Instead, it raises anxiety levels by a tiny degree, so that everyone is so consumed by their own everyday fears and self-doubt, and can never muster the will to rebel. It’s a horrific idea.
Before becoming a writer, Robert Holmes was an army officer on active service, then a policeman and later a crime reporter for a newspaper. One could easy believe that these experiences left him with a jaded view of human nature, but instead it seems to have sharpened the sense of humour he must have needed to survive the jungles of Burma and the mean streets of London. But that special mix of cynicism and optimism ultimately gave us some of the richest, cleverest Doctor Who stories that will ever be written. And The Sun Makers is among that number.
Principal production documentary Running From the Tax Man is a smart piece of work with a good range of interviewees, and includes some insightful commentary from historian Dominic Sandbrook. The programme guides us through The Sun Makers’ political backstory, and detours for a discussion about Pluto’s demotion from the solar system. However, given that the most significant aspect of The Sun Makers is that it’s very, very funny, this documentary sadly fails to get to grips with the humour of the piece. In 1985, in a rare interview, Robert Holmes made it clear that he knew he was pushing his luck with The Sun Makers: “working at the anarchic boundaries for Doctor Who,” he called it. It’s this anarchy that makes The Sun Makers special, and the documentary doesn’t quite connect with it.
The commentary – which features Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, guest actor Michael Keating and late director Pennant Roberts – is a lot of fun, and shines a light on the relationship between this Doctor and assistant. There’s no doubt that Jameson is among the most talented actresses ever to stand at the Doctor’s side. Leela is an absurd, fantastical character – this pedantic, childlike savage in a leather swimsuit – and the most high-concept companion there’s ever been, but there’s never a single moment when we don’t believe in her. That’s all down to the skill of Jameson, and her totally immersive and deadly earnest acting style.
But there are all kinds of actors; and when, on the commentary, Jameson is quick to praise the “honest” performance of Cordo actor Roy Macready, Baker laughs. “We didn’t bandy around words like ‘honest’ back then,” he says. Jameson also speaks of “honouring the text”, and we remember that Baker generally liked to ‘honour’ a Doctor Who script by christening it “whippet shit” and frisbee-ing it out the window onto Acton High Street. And the two actors’ differing senses of humour mean that Jameson never seems to know when she’s having her leg pulled. Time and again she takes some bit of Baker whimsy at face value, and we can hazard a guess as to how quickly Baker might have become bored with his jokes not being ‘got’, back in the day. This was never – I think – a meeting of minds, and one can imagine how that might also have been a source of friction on set, above and beyond Baker’s distaste for the character of Leela.
Tom Baker has mellowed over the years, and he and Jameson are now on good terms. For many years, Baker put a great deal of space between himself and Doctor Who, but recently he has returned, and seems eager to – for want of a better way of putting it – give something back to the fans. He’s now “coming soon from Big Finish Productions”; something that would have been thought impossible just a few years ago. Big Finish has always worked hard to recapture the particular atmosphere of Doctor Who’s various eras, but here’s one case where this listener hopes that they fail – in the nicest possible way. Life doesn’t offer many second chances. And so, as Baker and Jameson reassume their roles, it would be lovely to find that, on TV, we only saw the rainy days in the TARDIS. Soon, I trust – and only 33 years too late – we’ll hear the Doctor and Leela laughing together, and finally find them to be the very best of friends.