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…