Profit, loss and The Sun Makers (1977)

sun makers

So the story goes that writer Robert Holmes got in a huff about paying his tax bill and, seeking revenge, wrote The Sun Makers as a barely disguised rant at the tax system. If true, this was a terrible idea and would surely have only ended up driving Holmes, a well-known hater of bureaucracy, spare. Because it must have lead to a particularly maddening type of recursion where writing a television show about how angry you are about your tax bill, results in you earning more money, on which you’ll need to pay more tax. It’s kind of like trying to get even at your hangover by having another drink.

Some Doctor Who reference book (forgive my vagueness on this, I’ve read so many over the years and have now all but given them up) once said that this story makes the mistake of confusing government taxation with the profit making of a company, which it argued, are completely different things. I think this utterly misses the point of The Sun Makers, in which Holmes imagines a world in which government has taken on the trappings of capitalism so completely, as for the two to become intertwined. Given the state of governments around the world in 2018, this is surely not so unbelievable.

It doesn’t seem much more of a leap to imagine that a company selling the very basics of life – sunlight, oxygen, water – would come to the conclusion that a far more efficient way of selling universal services, is to simply take the cost directly from each worker’s pay packet. As a way of making money, taxation is not a bad business model.

But it doesn’t matter anyway, because for Holmes, the Company and its staff of blowhards, incompetents and sadistic creeps isn’t just a stand in for capitalism or government or even the BBC (complete with a revolving globe of Pluto and its six suns). It’s an amalgam of everything he hates; pointless bureaucracy, compassionless authority and unsanctioned environmental meddling. Wrapped up in one of his most fervent concerns: what are we going to do when the Earth can no longer sustain us? His answer, as always, is make all the same mistakes again. But with new scenery.

***

The Sun Makers sits quietly in Season 15, not drawing attention to itself – but it’s a pivotal story. It marks a subtle change in the series where the creepy thrillers of Holmes’ era as script editor, give way to stories which are lighter in tone, but more narratively ambitious. For the first time in years – probably since Holmes’ own Carnival of Monsters – we have a story where naturalism is abandoned, real life is satirized and characters are exaggerated caricatures. It’s a Sylvester McCoy story ten years too early. This doesn’t feel like a story Holmes would have commissioned for one of his own seasons, but one that refreshes him, now he’s finally free from the pressure of having to make a whole series of the damn thing.

What this liberation means in practice is that Holmes gets to write some of his wittiest dialogue and the cast eat it up. Tom Baker is still playing it quite seriously, but he’ll shortly change his approach to being more outlandishly comic. I think The Sun Makers plays a role in that. Douglas Adams is on record as saying that the problem with writing something funny, is that some actors feel they have the license to send up the material and add comic embellishments of their own (I wonder who he could have been speaking about?). It’s surely the change in tone in this story which Tom picks up on, and takes as a signal to start injecting more of his own humour into the show. Whether anyone asks him to or not.

It’s not just that there’s more humour in the show than before, nor that it’s pointed towards uncommon targets. It’s more that The Sun Makers is showing a way to tell Doctor Who stories which had, up to that point been occasional, but which was about to become the norm. You can see its influence in the next two seasons where villains become larger than life, situations become more absurd and jokes start to set the rhythm of each episode. And like those subsequent seasons, there’s always a grim sentiment behind the jovial approach.

In this episode, the flamboyant pooh-bah of the Company, Gatherer Hade (Richard Leech) is thrown off a building by the company’s revolting workers (even to the end, he’s in wide-eyed amazement at the insolence of this action). And the mole-like Collector (Henry Woolf), a pasty little sadist who likes listening to people being steamed alive, might come with a bag of one-liners, but is also only just prevented from poisoning the entire population with gas, like someone fumigating a house.

Luckily, the Doctor is on hand to feed in a particularly tricky sum into his computer to trigger a lightning-fast global financial crisis. In panic, the Collector does what all companies do in their death throes and liquidates. That’s Holmes’ whole approach – the approach to this new way of doing Doctor Who – right there in that one villain’s demise. It’s gross, funny, highly stylised and self-referential all at the same time.

***

The irony is that there’s another financial crisis impacting on The Sun Makers; the story’s budget restrictions are shockingly apparent. Corridors are made from shabby old flats. Prop guns are cardboardy. A number of sets, such as the Others’ lair, the Gatherer’s office and the steaming chamber, can’t afford walls, giving the show the air of being performed in a theatrical black box. It’s at this point in the series’ history when inflation is galloping (as it does in the story itself) and the lack of money really starts to show on screen. The next story, Underworld, has to be almost completely greenscreened.  The story after, The Invasion of Time, makes villains out of aluminum foil.

Faced with similar restrictions, other Doctor Who makers have limited the show’s scope to fit. Derrick Sherwin exiled the series to Earth. Andrew Cartmel set more stories in history. But just as the show’s new lighter tone doesn’t really stop it from being gruesome, the Graham Williams era’s budget restrictions don’t limit its ambitions. If anything, the show’s scope broadens – more space faring, more alien planets, the biggest monster ever out on screen. The show never looked cheaper, but it flatly refused to cut its suit to fit its increasingly expensive cloth. But when watching Tom Baker concoct a cliffhanger from within a wobbly shower cubicle, or tinker with a couple of pieces of plumbing junctions glued together in an approximation of a security camera, the theme of the story seems to intrude into its production: everything, it seems, comes back to money.

***

Holmes might have enjoyed getting his own back at internal revenue, but I think the taxman would have had the last laugh. Every royalty cheque from every overseas screening must have brought with it the sharp reminder that some of that £2.39 he got from El Doctor Misterio – los Fabricantes de Sol screening in Nicaragua must go to the tax man. I bet the irony wasn’t lost on Holmes, as he filled out his tax return each year. “Praise the Company,” I like to think he muttered under his breath.

LINK TO The King’s Demons: oddly enough, they both start with someone getting in trouble for not handing money over to the ruling class.

NEXT TIME… It’s insane and it’s about to get even more insanerer. We’re off to meet The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People.

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