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25 January 2014 @ 07:48 pm
The Randomizer: The Sunmakers  
Even when attempting somewhat heavy-handed satire, the Tom Baker era is remarkably watchable.

I assume that The Sunmakers is particularly intent on taking pot-shots at Callaghan's Labour government and, in particular, its high tax policies. In fact, I believe, writer and script-editor, Robert Holmes, had just had a run in with the Inland Revenue. Thus we are presented with a future in which humanity has been transported to Pluto where they are taxed into submission until, late on in episode four, the workers go on a widespread and disruptive strike. So it is surprising, in some ways, that much of the critique still seems relevant to day. Not so much in the high taxes, but in the bureaucracy's indifference to the genuine suffering of the population and the presentation of a poverty trap in which it is impossible for a low-grade worker to earn sufficient money to pay their debts. Similarly the reveal, that the high taxation is a deliberate ploy intended to keep the population cowed and submissive is easily mirrored in the widespread belief on both sides of the political spectrum that the policies of the opposite party are a deliberate carrot/stick circus aimed at keeping the population under control. And, of course, the reveal is that the ultimate purpose of the exploitation is to generate profit for a private corporation. Plus ça change.

Of course, it is the mark of a good writer, that even something intended at the time of writing as a very pointed protest against a particular policy and moment, can continue to have relevance forty years later, and Robert Holmes is one of the better writers Doctor Who has had. He has a well-deserved reputation for dialogue and character and The Sunmakers is distinguished by presenting a range of antagonists. We have the simplistically villainous, and non-human collector who is basically the face of the evil corporation. But we also get Richard Leech's, ambitious, self-serving, but ultimately rather naive, Gatherer Hade. He is presented as the worst combination of oblivious, foolish and vain and yet I was still shocked by his ultimate fate when the striking workers throw him off a tower block roof. We also get the pragmatic, Marne, a classic case of someone who follows orders irrespective of her own opinions (largely, you get the impression, of their idiocy) and who ultimately throws in her lot with the rebels and effectively gets away with it. Mandrel, the head of the rebellion, is an equally unsavoury character, at least in the initial episodes, clearly more than willing to kill and/or exploit the Doctor and Leela. This gives the story a fair amount of complexity (at least for a Doctor Who story) as the different people and factions pursue their own agendas around the presence of the Doctor and Leela.

It also has Michael Keating, better known as Vila in Blakes' 7, as one of the rebels though he felt sadly underused given how instantly recognisable he was to us. But then, at the time, the production team probably didn't think of him as the big name guest star.

The staging was very interesting and I found it very reminiscent of the theatre. Several of the sets had no background scenery and were represented as gantries, platforms and staircases against a black backdrop. This meant that action was often taking place on several levels, with people leaning on balconies, or seated on steps above and below each other. This looked a lot more like an ambitious stage set, than it did like the more realistic style normally adopted in television. I was less sure about Gather Hade's exaggerated pin-stripe, turban and robes - an awkward mishmash of styles which probably only avoids been offensively racist because it doesn't really work at evoking either the faceless bureaucrat or the money-grubbing arabian tycoon.

This is another strong Tom Baker story. It was made after the Philip Hinchcliffe era and is therefore one of the early examples of the show's enforced step away from gothic horror under Graham Williams. For a story which, insofar as it is trying to be anything, is trying to be a) not a monster story and b) a topical commentary, it has stood the test of time remarkably well. At heart it is still a simple rebels versus dictatorship tale, but it is dressed up in an inventive fashion so that it feels neither hackneyed nor unimaginative.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/109575.html.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on January 26th, 2014 03:35 pm (UTC)
The Sun Makers is an odd story, attacking socialist tax policies, but also attacking monopoly capitalism, with the setting on Pluto apparently being there to justify a bad pun on plutocracy that never quite gets made. In other words, you can see what Holmes hates, but not what he wants to replace it with (fan readings of Holmes as conventionally left-wing miss the point, I think: he was essentially a cynic, not trusting any party or group).

Overall I like it, but find it a little underwhelming - the comedy is very broad while the characterization lacks depth and the plot doesn't interest me much.

Re: Michael Keating, I think this was the last story to be broadcast before the start of Blake's 7.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on January 26th, 2014 04:58 pm (UTC)
We enjoyed it a lot, but possibly we didn't go in with particularly high expectations.