The Sun Makers ★★★★★

Robert Holmes's ingenious, witty spoof of bureaucracy and the tax system – set on Pluto

158

Season 15 – Story 95

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“Grinding oppression of the masses is the only policy that pays dividends” – the Collector

Storyline
Landing on Pluto in the distant future, the Doctor, Leela and K•9 find a habitable world and a working population taxed by “the Company” on everything under the six suns. Its human representative, Gatherer Hade, answers to the mysterious Collector, one of a race of Usurians who suppress civilisations by economic means. The travellers foment an underground rebellion in a bid to overthrow the Company…

First transmissions
Part 1 – Saturday 26 November 1977
Part 2 – Saturday 3 December 1977
Part 3 – Saturday 10 December 1977
Part 4 – Saturday 17 December 1977

Production
Location filming: June 1977 at WD & HO Tobacco Factory, Hartcliffe, Bristol; and Camden Town deep tube shelters, London
Studio recording: July 1977 in TC3 and TC6

Cast
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Leela – Louise Jameson
Voice of K•9 – John Leeson
Gatherer Hade – Richard Leech
The Collector – Henry Woolf
Bisham – David Rowlands
Marn – Jonina Scott
Cordo – Roy Macready
Mandrel – William Simons
Goudry – Michael Keating
Veet – Adrienne Burgess
Synge – Derek Crewe
Nurse – Carole Hopkin
Commander – Colin McCormack
Guard – Tom Kelly

Crew
Writer – Robert Holmes
Incidental music – Dudley Simpson
Designer – Tony Snoaden
Script editor – Robert Holmes
Producer – Graham Williams
Director – Pennant Roberts

RT Review by Mark Braxton
If anger can be said to have a good side, it is this: occasionally it is muzzled, shaped and channelled into a work of art. Robert Holmes was clearly angry when he wrote The Sun Makers. A sour experience with the British taxation system spurred him to savage its bureaucracy, arbitrariness and dismissiveness. That he does so with such delicacy, even beauty, says much for his control and his imperious way with words.

Everything about the production is playful, witty, ingenious. The story is easily one of the most successful in the canon – not necessarily with the public, but in terms of the writer’s objectives.

There’s so much meat and richness to the scripts that the viewer almost needs a strong antacid afterwards. One can only imagine the delight with which director Pennant Roberts first leafed through the pages; his feel for and understanding of Holmes’s tar-black humour and excoriating satire translate beautifully.

Holmes’s little jokes – corridor P45, the Inner Retinue, Usurians – were lost on me as a teenager, but I still enjoyed its action (a full-scale uprising, underground brawls and laser guns that actually fire from where they’re meant to). The multi-level approach in drama is a singular skill, and Holmes was a master.

The Sun Makers is imaginatively cast across the board, but driven by a brace of formidable performances. As the pompous, fawning, hilariously erudite Gatherer Hade, Richard Leech gives one of the towering guest performances. It’s an immaculately written part and Leech seizes the opportunity with gusto.

His string of ridiculous, endlessly varied superlatives (“Your amplification”; “Your globosity”); the swagger with which he tosses out scraps of knowledge (“…of a kind called MA-HO-GA-NAY”); and the bloated satisfaction with which he basks in his exalted position all add strata of humour to his ludicrous popinjay of a character. Villainous, certainly, but far too amusing to be truly detestable, Hade is an illustrious creation and his death at the hands of the rebellion is truly shocking.

Almost his equal is Henry Woolf as the Collector. Poring over fiscal tickertape and obsessing over profitability, the snivelling statistician seems to exist only in a financial sense. With his steamed eyebrows and neckless pinstripe, this “fish-blooded sadist” reduces all conversation to the subject of material gain – a metaphor for our times way more deserving of a comeback than Gordon Gekko – and delivers it in a maniacal nasal monotone.

But let’s not forget Roy Macready’s downtrodden foundry worker Cordo (the story’s Holmes figure) and William Simons’ sneering but cowardly Mandrel. The Sun Makers is Louise Jameson’s favourite story, and that’s no surprise. Leela is first and foremost a fighter and Holmes never forgets it.

Facing execution at the hands of Mandrell and his Undercity skivvies, for example, she squares her shoulders and unleashes this little beauty: “Before I die, I’ll see this rat hole ankle deep in blood. That is a promised thing.” She would never return to these feisty heights again.

Designer Tony Snoaden is on top form, too: the Aztec-inspired centrepiece, the entrance to the Gatherer’s office via what looks like the ribcage of a dead dinosaur, the Metropolis-style control room, the magnified circuitry panels and the impressively thick door to the Collector’s safe. They’re matched by Paddy Kingsland’s canny sound design: especially the wittering electronica of the Collector’s hub and the swirling flush of his demise. Even the mournful little “wooo” that K•9 makes is rather sweet.

There are also lovely flourishes from composer Dudley Simpson. He even gives Marn a slinky little leitmotif, although whether her rather dull character really deserves one is another matter.

On the subject of faults, it’s extraordinary that the Plutonians have never questioned the status quo – it takes the Doctor to ask what The Company is for, and who gets the profit. The “false” ending to part two is very naughty – see how it affects the start of part three. And the rooftop view of the Megropolis is nothing more than a photograph, and a poor one at that.

But in a season that’s as uneven as the Grampians, The Sun Makers is a snow-capped pinnacle. As outgoing script editor, Holmes was determined to leave an impression. He did so with a lasting legacy. It’s as relevant as it ever was, it’s the best “humorous Who” by light years, and it’s an exquisite flight of the imagination. Galileo would indeed have been impressed.

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Radio Times archive

Sun Makers billings 1
Sun Makers billings 2-4
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[Available on BBC DVD]