Doctor Who: The Sun Makers Review
The Doctor and Leela land on Pluto. But this isn't the later-classified dwarf planet and lifeless rock we know, but there are six suns in the sky and a breathable atmosphere. The human inhabitants work for the all-powerful Company, which exploits the workers and taxes them on anything imaginable. And who is the Collector (Henry Woolf)?
The Sun Makers, written by outgoing script editor Robert Holmes, is the fourth story in Graham Williams’s first season as producer. At the time, and again now when rewatching it, this was a season of decent stories but nothing really top flight. The Sun Makers stood out then and does so now, but it’s like Carnival of Monsters, say, another Holmes script, a polished and enjoyable diversion with a welcome sense of humour but not one of the all-time best.
Holmes’s inspiration came from a visit from the tax man, and his script contains several digs at the UK tax system which would be more appreciated by the adults watching than the children. This was at the time of James Callaghan’s Labour government which, under its Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey (probably referenced in certain characters’ notably bushy eyebrows). But as Dominic Sandbrook in the making-of featurette points out, The Sun Makers is hard to pin down politically. Is it right-wing in that it excoriates the tax system? Or is it left-wing in that it is on the side of the people who rebel against the all-powerful and authoritarian Company? And how much was The Company inspired by the BBC? It's probably for the best that you can read it either way, given the number of people who turn up with pitchforks at dawn at the slightest whiff of political bias at the Beeb.
This was Louise Jameson's favourite of her nine stories as Leela, and you can see why: separated from the Doctor for much of the story, she gets to drive the plot rather more than usual – and Holmes also makes her central to two of the three cliffhangers. Her Sevateem leather tribal dress has its last outing, no doubt to the disappointment of the watching straight males. Having said that, Baker is on good form, halfway through his fourth year as the Doctor, and he has some good climactic verbal sparring with Henry Woolf (a character actor of long standing, and a schoolfriend and later associate of Harold Pinter). Even K9 is less of an annoyance than he could be. Elsewhere in the cast, Richard Leech (as the oleaginous Gatherer Hade, to whom Holmes gives a thesaurus vocabulary when he addresses The Collector) and Jonina Scott (Marn) make a good, if not quite top-flight Holmesian double act. Incidentally, both Marn and rebel Veet (Adrienne Burgess, a longtime friend of Louise Jameson's) were men in the earlier versions of the script, which would have made this story an all-male affair apart from Leela. Also in the cast is Michael Keating, before he went on to a starring role in Blake's 7.
On the technical side, Pennant Roberts does a good directing job. There are some well-chosen locations: the roof of a Bristol tobacco factory and the deep shelters in Camden Town underground station. Tony Snoaden's design incorporates Aztec influences, and it's a pity that they had to be curtailed due to cost, as the result means a few too many rather plain corridors.
I don't deny that I carry a torch for the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era of Who, and in 1977 I watched the first Graham Williams season with a growing sense of disappointment. Watching the stories again, over thirty years later, it still strikes me as a bland set of six stories, with this one and Horror of Fang Rock (written by the other major writing voice of Seventies Who, Terrance Dicks) standing out as well-crafted and entertaining stories that someone just miss that vital spark that would make them great. Much the same could be said of most of the following season, the six stories linked in the Doctor and Romana the First's search for The Key to Time. Certainly worse was to come: a lead actor increasingly out of control and a descent into silliness. Much as I like The Sun Makers, this then thirteen-year-old fan, who had been watching for six years at this point, felt that the show I loved was working at a level lower than its best, and in two more years it lost me as a regular viewer.
2Entertain's release of The Sun Makers comprises a single dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.
The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 4:3, not anamorphically enhanced. The Sun Makers was shot on two-inch PAL video for ths studio footage and 16mm for the locations and is remastered from the original broadcast tapes. It does look very good, with strong colours. Shadow detail is a bit murky in the darker-lit scenes but that's no doubt down to the originals. Given the inevitable limitations of the SD original materials, this is as good as it is likely to look.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well-balanced. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available for the episodes and all the extras except the commentary.
That commentary features Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Pennant Roberts and Michael Keating. Baker features on all four episodes while Keating sits out Parts One and Four, Roberts Part Two and Jameson Part Three. As ever you sense that with Baker the boring truth shouldn't get in the way of a good story, and there are some things you have to take with a pinch of salt (such as his never having heard of Blake's 7) but he does have some good anecdotes. There is also his usual flirting with the woman in the room. Roberts and Keating get to say their piece. A good if not outstanding commentary.
“Running from the Tax Man” (24:51) is the making-of documentary. Louise Jameson and Pennant Roberts and Michael Keating turn up here too. Writer/historian Dominic Sandbrook is on hand to unpick the serial's ambiguous politics and to give some 70s context, while astronomer Marek Kukula talks about Pluto. It's a solid runthrough, with absent and/or deceased persons being discussed along the way.
“The Doctor's Composer Part 2” (18:06) is the second part (part one is on the DVD of The War Games of an interview with the show's most prolific composer, Dudley Simpson, whose name can be found on the credits of sixty serials, or sixty-one if you include the uncompleted Shada. In a prolific career, he also composed the themes for The Tomorrow People, Moonbase 3 and Blake's 7. Now 89 and retired back to his native Australia, he is interviewed at his home in Sydney. Part One dealt with his work on Sixties Who; here he discusses the Seventies, his use of electronic instruments in collaboration with the Radiophonic Workshop, his use of non-synthetic instruments (such as that organ in Pyramids of Mars) and his eventual laying-off from the show by John Nathan-Turner. His enthusiasm is clearly undimmed.
Other extras are the ever-invaluable information subtitles (provided this time by Jim Smith – why don't DVDs of other shows include these?), a BBC trailer for The Sun Makers (0:43), a self-mavigating stills gallery (4:06), a Coming Soon trailer for September's DVD release of Day of the Daleks (1:23), and some outtakes (0:34) involving a firearm that doesn't fire. There are no Easter Eggs this time.
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