Praise the company!
For all the humor, both intentional and otherwise, found in Doctor Who through the years, seldom does the series edge so deliberately towards comedy as in Robert Holmes’ “The Sun Makers” (Story Production Code 4W). Especially when juxtaposed with the rest of Season Fifteen’s dark, fear-tinged stories, this far future romp through an overblown capitalist dystopia comes across as tonally jarring—while also serving as a bit of a palate cleanser. It doesn’t always have to be moody horror and intergalactic conquest, after all; sometimes the Doctor and Leela just want to stir up a revolution of space cockneys and milquetoast bureaucrats.
With the Fourth Doctor seemingly as incapable of piloting the TARDIS as William Hartnell’s First Doctor, our time travellers arrive unexpectedly on the ninth planet in the Solar System, which has not just a breathable atmosphere but also six separate mini-suns. Holmes makes no attempt to situate this story in Doctor Who‘s tortured canon of future Earth, whose fate has a more convoluted history than that of the Daleks. The Doctor seems utterly surprised by the state of Pluto, no less the engineering marvels than the dismal condition the humans there endure.
As an exercise in world building, “The Sun Makers” allows departing script editor Holmes to show off his prodigious narrative skills; through a few solid details, he creates a setting as rich and layered as in his other recent stories, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” and “The Deadly Assassin.” Here, the human inhabitants of Pluto in the distant future toil under oppressive taxation on the necessities of life, with an extra levy on the overtime needed to pay for it all, just because. The nameless Company rules all, with profit the sole aim.
Director Pennant Roberts, last at the helm of another atmospheric story, “The Face of Evil,” takes great advantage of location shooting in an industrial complex; the long, harshly lit concrete corridors, often framed in extreme long shot, give life to the Megropolis, the underground city where the last survivors of Earth toil in a warren of incessantly bright hallways. One can almost hear the infernal buzzing of the fluorescent lights. By contrast, the studio-shot scenes have a claustrophobic darkness to them that serves the story well, with executives being given the privilege of shade and shadow denied the working class.
Given the striking direction, Holmes’ story could easily—and powerfully—have been told straight, with the usual smattering of Tom Baker’s bon mots and pulled faces leavening the serious commentary on capitalism’s grinding treadmill, but Holmes and Roberts dive fully into camp, particularly as seen in the interactions between the human Gatherer Hade (Richard Leech) and the Collector (Henry Woolf), the avaricious ruler of Pluto who hails from the planet Usurius, a moniker worthy of inclusion in the Terry Nation Name Hall of Shame…
In particular, Hade, in his red and black satin cape and headdress, addresses the Collector with a variety of honorifics, each more bizarrely obsequious than the last: Your Corpulence, Your Supernal Eminence, Monstrosity, and so forth. Leech plays Hade to the hilt, sweeping his cape to and fro at the slightest of provocations, utterly gleeful at each new scheme to wring more money out of the workers.
The Collector, meanwhile, forever taps on a calculator, obsessed with numbers and percentages, focused only on money as befits a Usurian. There’s no dimensionality to this character, only avarice. Doctor Who has rarely been accused of subtlety, but this over-the-top shift into satire comes as a real departure for the series. There have been broad pastiches, most notably in “The Chase,” and stories that wore their “serious” nature but lightly, yet Holmes and Roberts here do not let a single opportunity for a joke pass by untaken. Satirizing capitalism seems the point, rather than serving some more nuanced point. There’s even a hint of the Python-esque at play when Hade is bodily lifted up by revolutionaries and hurled off a kilometers-high roof to his doom, to the accompaniment of riotous laughter.
The humor works, insofar as it bolsters a fairly thin story. After the Doctor and Leela prevent Cordo (Roy Macready), a worker hopelessly indebted after the expensive euthanasia of his father (shades of Soylent Green), from killing himself, the three of them hide in the Undercity, home to the Others who have rejected the Company’s ruthless exploitation. By hiding in the tunnels beneath the mega city, they remove themselves from the high concentration of the gas that the Company circulates to sap the willpower from its workers; executives take a special substance that renders them immune. Apparently, hiding in the tunnels also gives all of the Others wide cockney accents, somewhat incongruous given the thousands of years beyond the nineteenth century that humanity has progressed.
Motivated solely by self-preservation, the Others force the Doctor to travel back to the Megropolis to withdraw money from a cash machine, holding Leela as a hostage. This enforced separation of the Doctor and his companion drives the majority of the story, as the Doctor and Leela are in turn captured by the Company and then variously escape. Along the way they also rescue an executive who knows about the will-sapping gas, allowing the Doctor to come up with a plan to stop it from being circulated. With the gas gone, the Doctor and the Others rally the no-longer-quiescent workers and the Company’s long reign over humanity comes to an abrupt end. The Controller, faced with an inescapable loss of profit margin, simply shrinks into a hole in his wheelchair, the true Usurian form being an amorphous blob.
What tension the story delivers comes from the essential mystery of just what the Company is—what is driving it, how did it come to power, why does it exist? “The Sun Makers” stands as the rare four episode story that might have benefitted from being longer. No sooner does the Doctor discover that the Usurians made a business deal with the inhabitants of a dying Earth to house them, at great expense, on Mars and then on Pluto, than the story ends. The Time Lords and the Usurians know of each other, the former seen as poor business partners and the latter as, well, usurious exploiters who conquer via financial rather than martial means. In a story about profit, it’s ironic that there’s no narrative payoff.
For all the joking, little cleverness is on display in “The Sun Makers.” The exploited workers throw off their shackles only after the gas is gone, while the Others require a series of honor-based tongue lashings from Leela and the Doctor before they agree to join the revolution. In a Jon Pertwee or Patrick Troughton story, the conversion of the oppressed into the victors would serve as the core of the story; here, it’s just a narrative necessity that stands between Holmes and his next punch line. One might say this story represents Holmes at his most timid; there’s a valid—and interesting—critique of the capitalist exploitation of labor to be made via the story, and yet Holmes channels the Marx Brothers rather than Karl Marx.
It all coheres, however, as should be expected from a writer so closely identified with the Fourth Doctor as Robert Holmes. In particular, Tom Baker seems to greatly enjoy his scenes, from his stoic confrontations with the head of the Others, Mandrel (William Simon) to his upbeat banter with Gatherer Hade. No script to date has truly played to all of Baker’s strengths—or at least preferences—as “The Sun Makers.”
As for the Fourth Doctor’s character, he continues to slide into a relativistic pacifism. While still hesitant to take direct physical action against a foe, and constantly keeping Leela from dispatching enemies, he still sets traps that lead to serious injury if not death. He warns his opponents, of course, telling them precisely what not to do, but every trap goes off as planned. Here, he escapes from the Correction Center after switching two components in a machine that will lead to his own death but instead incapacitates his captor when turned on. A nifty trick, but a fair distance from the strict non-violence of the early years.
Louise Jameson takes several star turns as Leela, carrying a good bit of the action and narrative herself while separated from the Doctor. Holmes understands the character’s strengths, and while Leela does fall prey to the Doctor’s new-found sleep-inducing hypnotism, she also remains true to her origins as an honor-bound warrior with a good deal of tactical ingenuity. Significantly, while other characters suffer under the effects of the will-sapping gas, Leela manages to fight against it and retain her fire and drive.
The term “companion” makes a welcome return, its first appearance in a script since Holmes’ “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” If contemporary fandom was using the phrase in the late-70s, the writers, Holmes excepted, seem not to have noticed. As is often the case, though, this term for those who travel with the Doctor gets used in a most menacing fashion:
Collector: Also, bulletin information that the Doctor’s companion is to be publicly executed for her crimes against the Company.
Being a companion is nice work if you can get it, perhaps, but the benefits leave something to be desired…
Lest anyone forget the tin interloper introduced in “The Invisible Enemy,” K-9 actually plays a role in “The Sun Makers,” zapping Company guards with a full power pack through four episodes. The fight scenes involve large numbers of foes, for the most part, so K-9’s bolsters the revolutionaries’ firepower but does not turn the tide; K-9 is not a canis ex machina, as it were. Leela, at least, stops to ask K-9 if it has charged batteries before sending it into battle, and stairs continue to befuddle it like many a Dalek before it. Indeed, deftly weaving K-9 into the plot without cheapening either the fight scenes might well serve as Holmes’ greatest achievement with this script.
There’s a place for humor in Doctor Who. Overtly satirical pieces such as “The Sun Makers,” however, feel at odds with the series’ essentially serious underpinnings. We’ve had interstellar bumpkins before (“The Space Pirates,” “Carnival of Monsters“) and inadvertently campy thought-pieces (“The Celestial Toymaker,” “The Mind Robber“), but never before a story that essentially stripped the story of any tension by making the antagonists into buffoons. Given the doom-and-gloom intensity of the rest of Season Fifteen, the levity comes across as a nice change of pace, perhaps, but in isolation, “The Sun Makers” just feels wrong, despite the keen direction and efforts at world building. One should laugh with both the Doctor and Doctor Who, not at them.
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