With 'Horror of Fang Rock' and 'Image of the Fendahl' feeling like children of the Hinchcliffe era and 'The Invisible Enemy' feeling like a particularly bad case of gastrointestinitis, 'The Sun Makers' is for me the first successful attempt by Graham Williams to make his mark on Doctor Who. This being the case, it is perhaps ironic that outgoing script editor Robert Holmes scripts it, but this isn't a bad idea as he is not my favourite Doctor Who writer for nothing. Casting off the gothic horror of the previous seasons, Holmes delivers a blistering attack on taxation and pens a unique story for the program.
'The Sun Makers' is not a subtle satire on taxation; it is a blatant parody that takes pot shots at the subject. This isn't a criticism however, as the approach works very well, delivering a witty and engaging story that is highly distinctive. From the line "perhaps everybody runs from the taxman" in Episode One, the stage is set, as the Doctor, Leela and K9 face an enemy obsessed not with military conquest but with bureaucracy, as the Collector and his cronies hold sway over an oppressed people taxed virtually to death and totally enslaved by the company via financial exploitation. The means by which the Doctor defeats the Collector is both novel and entirely appropriate to the story; whereas in previous stories his enemies have been power-crazed megalomaniacs or ancient and powerful entities, the Collector is motivated entirely by profit, and his literal liquidation after the Doctor introduces a two percent growth tax to the system is both witty and relevant. The story is also notable for the way in which the Doctor becomes involved. In prior adventures he has been confronted with an imminent and deadly threat to the world, or to humanity, or even to the entire universe. In 'The Sun Makers', he discovers a corrupt but well-established government and having been drawn into events he decides to topple it. During the last two episodes, having chosen to become involved, he quickly devises a means of fermenting rebellion, and this is quickly and efficiently implemented. Indeed, the only real obstacle in his way is Leela's impending execution, and this is dealt with relatively easily after first providing a handy cliffhanger to Episode Three. Fans of 'The Happiness Patrol' take note - that is not the only story in which the Doctor instigates large-scale societal changes in the space of less than two days.
The script of 'The Sun Makers' is crucial to its success and is very witty. The Doctor gets some great lines, from his deadpan "I can see we're going to get along famously" remark to Mandrel as he holds a knife to the Doctor's throat, to his scene with the Collector in Episode Four. However, it is Richard Leech's pompous Gatherer Hade who gets all the best lines, from silly but topical oaths such as "By my ledger!", to his various forms of obsequious address for the Collector, including "Your enormity" and "Your sagacity". His colossal self-importance is also lampooned as he shows off his knowledge of old Earth but repeatedly gets it wrong, happily munching on raspberry leaves rather than actual raspberries and proclaiming that "There's one rotten acorn in every barrel" is an old Earth saying. The Collector is also well scripted, combining sadism with red tape; the only time he shows interest in anything other than profit is when he is gleefully anticipating Leela's steaming, with the line "This is the moment when I get a feeling of real job satisfaction". Despite the copious wit, the script also addresses the real horror of the society created and maintained by the company; mind-control through PCM, the euphemistically titled "Correction centres" (Hade tells Marn of an executive grade who survived for three years in such a centre, explaining to his astonished assistant that "He was very strong"), and public executions are disturbing concepts in themselves, and they sit side by side with the consequences of the Company's need for profit on the law-abiding citizens as represented by Cordo. Unable to pay his father's death taxes, he is driven to the point of suicide until the arrival of the Doctor changes things on Pluto. 'The Sun Makers' is occasionally criticized for its cheap sets, but these suit the mood of the story. Treating the population as a commodity, the Company minimizes expenditure on aesthetics, with even Hade's supposedly luxurious office suite looking cheap and nasty save for his mahogany desk. The Collector's abode, which is referred to as a palace, is a spartan affair, furnished solely with the computer banks that he needs to monitor his profits and set taxation levels. The drab concrete locations fit in perfectly with these barren sets.
As usual for a story penned by Robert Holmes, 'The Sun Makers' boasts excellent characterisation and the guest cast generally rises to the challenge. As noted, Richard Leech's Gatherer Hade virtually steals the show (and his ludicrous costumes works well to show him as a pompous buffoon keen to show off his wealth and status but lacking any real taste or intelligence), but Henry Woolf's gleefully sadistic Collector is also worthy of note. His diminutive stature and slightly pallid make-up make him a visually distinctive villain, and his money-orientated pattern of speech adds to this effect. His assessment of the Doctor and the Time Lords is nicely done, the Doctor described as having a history of economic subversion. Mandrel also works well; initially thoroughly unlikable, his belligerence and hard-bitten attitude are turned around half way through the story. Mandrel is clearly a product of an oppressive regime, worn down and embittered by the toll of working for the company. His initial dislike and distrust of the Doctor gives way to respect as he finally sees an opportunity to actually do something about his grievances rather than simply hiding in an old cellar. By Episode Three, he's almost likeable, fiercely insisting on giving the Doctor his full two minutes to rescue Leela, and William Simons portrays the character's rough edges very well. Blake's 7 stalwart Michael Keating gets little to do as Goudry, but Vila fans will of course know that he can play shifty characters in his sleep. Cordo is a great character; nicely played by Roy Macready, he represents the honest, law-abiding citizen finally pushed too far by the system, and his gradual transformation into revolutionary as the Doctor and Leela inspire him is an effective indicator of the changes wrought by the Doctor on Pluto. On the other hand, Adrienne Burgess puts in a cringe-worthy performance as Veet, and David Rowlands' Bisham is utterly wooden.
The regulars are well handled by Holmes. Tom Baker seems to be enjoying himself with the script, and his increasingly comic performance comes to the fore here, hinting at things to come. I love the scene in which he fiddles with the lock on the Collector's safe before admitting that he has no idea how to crack the safe and resorts to his sonic screwdriver. It's quietly amusing without being over the top and is an example of why 'The Sun Makers' moves along at a cracking pace. Leela, a warrior from a tribal background faces perhaps her most alien situation to date in the programme, confronted not with robots, homicidal midgets, or alien viruses, but with the creaking weight of bureaucratic oppression. A natural fighter, she approaches the situation in her usual way and impresses both Mandrel and Cordo with her willingness to fight those who wrong her. Her stoic silence in the steamer is testament to the character's usually bravery, but perhaps her finest moment in the story is her realization that she is afraid for no apparent reason; once K9 explains the PCM to her, she realises that she has nothing to fear except fear itself and pragmatically ignores the sensation. Jameson also acts convincingly confused by the Collector's defeat, as the concept of a being who is defeated by loss of profit must be rather baffling for the survival-motivated Leela. Finally, there is K9. Having been sidelined for 'Image of the Fendahl', K9 finally gets a great story here, and Holmes' treatment of him as a character rather than a machine benefits the little fellow enormously. His plaintive "I'll be good" pleading with the Doctor when he wants to go for a walk is, ultimately, utterly silly, but its also so endearing that it never fails to make me smile. From this point on, K9 shines, drooping his tail antennae when chided, wagging it when he gets his own way, offering suggestions to the Doctor, and generally acting as a useful member of the TARDIS crew. John Leeson's enthusiasm helps to make the character work, and K9's frequent smugness nicely balances out the Doctor's increasing egocentricity from this point in the series.
Overall, 'The Sun Makers' is woefully underrated and a real gem. As an example of what Graham Williams could do with the series' format, it is excellent and promises much for the future. Unfortunately, the potential shown here quickly drains away with the following story and fails to return fully until the following season...