Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Sun Makers written by Robert Holmes and directed by Pennant Roberts

This story in a nutshell: Robert Holmes was stung by the tax man...and so he fought back.

Teeth and Curls: This is the ideal situation for the Doctor to stand up for the little people (I'm sorry but you cannot help but think of the work force on Pluto as victims). Nobody has actually died (although if Cordo is anything to go by some may have taken their own lives) but a whole race of people is being exploited and driven to despair. How could the Doctor do anything but interfere and put a stop to it. His moral centre is engaged and his sense of duty kicks in. He might be swanning through this adventure with a huge smile on his face as though he isn't taking anything seriously but that just makes the moments when he goes stony face and viciously confronts the Collector all the more impressive. He takes on a corrupt government, bullies and an exploitative financial system - he's every inch the hero of the people. The Doctor moos like a cow when he sits up in his straight jacket - you could be forgiven for thinking you have wandered into an asylum with the patients in charge. When he realises he is too late to have saved Leela he slumps backwards, defeated. In the same breath she's doing everything she can to extradite herself from Mandrel and rescue him. They may not show it all the time but they care for each other deeply. This is the sort of Doctor who will make cheap hairdressing gags ('Don't leave it in too long, it goes frizzy') as he is about to be brainwashed, he's that confident that he can overpower the technology. There is a scene in the DS9 episode Call to Arms where the representatives of two opposing sides on the brink of war (Sisko and Weyoun) meet to negotiate some terms. They are all smiles, concern and amiability. It is an attempt to lull each other into a false sense of security because they both know that war is inevitable and everything they are talking about is moot. There's an identical feel to the scene that charts the first meeting between the Doctor and the Gatherer, the protagonist who is going to crush this system of exploitation and the man who is propagating it. And yet to watch them you would imagine they are sparkling acquaintances having afternoon tea together. It is quite delightful subterfuge on both their parts and Baker and Leech play it to the hilt. I don't think we have quite left the casual sexism behind though, Baker clearly checks out Marn's behind when leaving the Gatherer's office but poses it as a chivalrous bow. He's facetious to a fault with Mandrel until the thug shoves a red hot poker in his face. Is Holmes making a comment on the least endearing Doctor Who cliché when the Doctor's plan to bring down the Company involves a duplicitous bit of corridor wandering? 'Why don't you girls listen to me' is his response to Leela's recklessness.

Noble Savage: 'Before I die I'll see this rat hole ankle deep in blood...that is a promised thing.' Things might have been tense between Tom Baker and Louise Jameson but it doesn't affect their chemistry one jot, at least not in this story. They are bantering playfully in the opening scene as they argue over why she didn't mention earlier that the column had stopped moving and she has a twinkle in her eye at the thought of their next destination. Don't you just love the way that Leela dashes off at the sounding of the Gatherer's horn despite having no clue what it means? The Doctor literally has his own personal assassin for company these days, Louise Jameson might be saying the line with a knowing wink but Leela is perfectly prepared to cut out Mandrel's heart when he threatens the Doctor. When his restraining influence is absent, she has real trouble holding herself back in some excellently scripted scenes. This isn't a blow for female emancipation, Leela isn't a poster child for the sexual revolution, in the hands of Louise Jameson Leela is simply a strong female character that the show should be proud of. One of a handful to have accompanied the Doctor in the 70s. I just love watching her in episode two, standing alone, proud and crushing Mandrel's nuts with her cutting remarks ('You? You have nothing Mandrel. No pride, no courage, no manhood...even animals protect their own! You say to me you want to live? Well I'll say this to you, if you lie skulking in this black pit while the Doctor dies then you shall live but without honour!') I wanted to cheer with delight that a companion should be given material this powerful and commanding. Elevating Cordo to a hero because he is the only one willing to try is just the icing on the cake. Leela tickles K.9 behind the ear when he takes out some guards and later asks him if he wants a biscuit as a reward for taking out another. What a cute couple they are. As soon as gets the chance to get her hands on the mobile tanks the guards drive she's all for storming the barrier and causing some carnage. Unfortunately she cannot drive in a straight line. As much as I love the scene where she emasculates Mandrel so eloquently I think I like her first meeting with the Collector even more. Jameson is in full on panto mode, Leela screaming her head off and practically tearing free of her straightjacket to spit in the face of the devious little toad. She's more frightening than any monster we have encountered with her. When titled a 'gangster terrorist' it is hard to disagree with the description.

Villains: It's rare to find one villain as grotesque and as amusing as the Gatherer in a Doctor Who story but with the Collector involved too you have two to feast upon. Dealing with them in the order that they are introduced means the Gatherer gets the spotlight first and what a monstrous and hilarious chap he turns out to be. He is the ultimate capitalist, bleeding the life and money out of his workforce, inventing more and more ridiculous reasons to extort them of everything they have. He does it with a smile on his face too, whilst telling the people they should be grateful for the opportunity. He's a leech in the worst possible way because he thinks he is utterly justified in his approach of sapping people of everything that is worth living for whilst all the time feasting on luxury goods, working in deluxe surroundings and cashing in on his dividends. You might think that given the majority of the audience are likely to be working class (I certainly am) that it would be easy to despise a character that we I see as someone who encapsulates everything that is wrong with society (and particularly in the employment) but you haven't factored in one thing. He is being played by Richard Leech on absolute form, half Frank Spencer campness and half Kenneth Williams naughtiness. He's a devious little troll with a twinkle in the eye and Holmes gives him all the best lines. Despite my natural inclination towards the underdog, I simply cannot find it in my heart to hate somebody this funny. Wonderfully he has a bloated sense of his own importance and of everybody else incompetence so with every duff decision he makes he manages to spread the blame away from himself. He toadies up to the boss in the most sickening of ways, calling upon a myriad of butt licking compliments at his disposal to smooth the Collector's brow. Speaking of the Collector...what a bravura performance from Henry Woolf, who manages to somehow both underplay (he's a lot quieter) against Leech and overplay (the Collector is far more grotesque than the Gatherer could ever hope to be) against him too. Talk about having the rug pulled from underneath you. What an instantly vivid character; hunched over his console of numbers, requisitions and percentages like he's a biological component of the financial system, hands gnarled because all they have been used for is number crunching, sallow palour, sweaty brow and a voice like fingernails down a blackboard. Whoever was involved in the realisation of this twisted, shrivelled midget sitting at the heart of this exploitative Empire was a genius. Or quite mad. The Collector is curious enough about Leela while she might have some financial benefit and considers her little more than meat to boiled alive when that clearly isn't the case. He's such a twisted little degenerate, he is visibly excited by the shared experience of a live execution. He's very like Sil in that respect, practically dribbling with exhilaration and orgasming with delight at the though of somebody dying in horrible agony just within arms reach. In fact thinking about it he is a proto-Sil in most respects. Are you sure Philip Martin never caught this story in the late 70s?

Sparkling Dialogue: Few Doctor Who stories sport dialogue as quotable and as rich as this one. Robert Holmes was often on form but in his last handful for adventures (Talons, The Sun Makers, The Two Doctors) he's perfected dialogue to fine art.
'Oh the taxes, my dear fellow all you need is a wily accountant!'
'Can't make ends meet. Probably to many economists in the government' 'These taxes are like sacrifices to tribal Gods?' 'Roughly speaking, but paying tax is much more painful' - this dialogue is absolute gold.
'Perhaps everyone runs from the tax man..'
'Prove you have a heart as big as your mouth.'
'To err is computer.'
'What have we got to lose?' 'Only your claims.'
'005, Time Lords. Oligarchic rulers of the planet Gallifrey. The planet was classified Grade Three in the last market survey, it's potential for commercial development being correspondingly low.'
'You hugeness infamy!' 'I can explain your amplification!' 'In what way your voluminousness?' 'No you omnipresence!' - Hade's compliments get more hilarious as the story goes on.
'This is a moment when I get a real feeling of job satisfaction!'
'The account will be swiftly settled!' 'With interest, Commander! They must be made to pay!'
'Outrageous! Sacrilege! The work units are absolutely forbidden to see the light of the sun - it's far too good for them!'
'Don't you think commercial imperialism is as bad as military conquest?' 'We have tried war but the use of economic power is much more effective.'

The Good:

* The ultimate dystopian future, life on Pluto in the future is a grim and productive environment where there is no time or money for anything beautiful or silly or comforting. I've heard some people complain about the aesthetic of this story, suggesting that it is dull and ugly. Isn't that rather the point? These workers toil without reward and aren't even afforded the luxury of the sun or any kind of natural beauty. The cold, artificial world of the under city is fortunate enough to be shot on location with gives it a sense of grim reality. Pluto really isn't the sort of world you want to chose for your next vacation, in case Concrete 101 is your idea of a good read.
* The tax system is a trap and one which as soon as you are caught up in its workings you are unable to escape until it has helped itself of everything shred of humanity you have left. It's a bit like IKEA in that respect. The Company will exploit your efforts to do your best by your family too, even something as simple as paying for a funeral could lead you to bankruptcy. The debts rake up and up in the most exploitative of ways and if you can't pay them back then Company charges compound interest on unpaid taxes. You cannot extradite yourself from this web of financial abuse. Whether this is a comment on the parasitical taxes of the time, the claustrophobia a low paid worker must feel in order to keep his head above water or the mockery of how the rich seem determined to exploit the poor I'm not entirely sure...but I am sure that many in the audience can sympathise (and thus be amused by) the stifling financial situation that Cordo and his fellow workers suffer in this story. 
* The ultimate Doctor Who victim, Cordo is working a double shift (with only three hours of sleep, which the Company expects him to do without until his inflated debts are paid) to make ends meet and is at his wits end. There is no way out of the red tape he is caught, no way to pay back what the Company tells him he owes. In a daring move on Robert Holmes' part he allows Cordo the terrifying decision of attempting to commit suicide rather than continue to be exploited in an endless cycle. It's played for real too with Cordo appearing in the background of the Doctor and Leela exploring the setting for this weeks adventure and threatening to jump off a vertiginous building.
* You know something has happened to the tone of the series when Dudley Simpson introduces the Doctor and Leela with a comedy theme. The musician is aware that we aren't in horror pastiche territory anymore and adjusts his style appropriately, proving how versatile he is.
* You've got a decent sized mystery in the bizarre mistreatment of Pluto and it's Earth-like atmosphere. What possible reason could somebody have to alter the natural environment of the smallest planet in the solar system (or at least it was still considered a planet when this was made). Like most Robert Holmes stories he manages to generate a history around the setting using only words, tales of Kandor attempting to defraud the Company in the past and Morton an Executive who was particularly adept at dealing with insubordinate rabble suggests that they have been around long enough to generate their own myths and legends. There is even a correction centre to deal with any possible rumblings of dissent. Holmes has built a very robust and detailed setting on Pluto, such was his skill at doing so. It's there too when the Collector lays out the utter depravity of the Usurians scheme, having figured out the perfect way to redecorate a solar system, to invade worlds, to enforce slave labour and make a profit. The history of the Company's expansion that he recounts is epic in its scale without having to show us a thing. Impressive.
* To this day I cannot put a cash card into a hole in the wall without fearing I am about to be gassed to death by putrid green gas.

* Corridor P45, the Inner Retinue, the hole in the wall that bites back ('Ten's please'), 'You run a purely fiscal operation', ' shy scum in the Under city', a two hour holiday (without pay), the Company benevolent fund, - so many glorious stabs at the system that made me chuckle.
* When you already have Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Henry Woolf and Richard Leech fronting your story then you are a director who has won the jackpot. It means that Pennant Roberts (a director who has understandably come in for a lot of flack for his work in the 80s but I maintain was one of the best directors when it comes to casting in the 70s) has the luxury of trying his luck on some unusual faces with the rest of the cast. He strikes gold again in that respect. There's Michael Keating pre-Vila playing Goudry dirtied up and sarcastic (I would have liked to have seen Vila played more like this, with a few more shades darker to his character), Roy Macredey who is the cutest thing on two legs going on a journey from beaten victim to confident revolutionary throughout the course of the story as Cordo, bringing in Jonina Scott in was an unusual move to cast a male character with an actress but it pays off in spades because Marn is a much more interesting prospect as a result, physically repulsed by the Gatherer's advances whilst having to suck up to him and one of the most natural performances in Doctor Who during the 70s from William Simons as Mandrel, a man so sure of himself that he can barely be arsed to get up and contribute towards the rebellion. He's so laid back at times I want to high five him for simply turning up. It's a peerless cast assembled by Roberts and they work real magic with Holmes script.

* The Doctor's plan to bring down the Company takes on several forms and shows what a Machiavellian plotter he can be when he tries. False scanner readings, clearing the drugs from the air, sending out a fake message that the rebellion has been successful, spreading mutiny amongst the workers in the walkways...and of course dealing with the spider at the heart of the web, confronting the Collector himself in the Palace and sending apoplectic by convincing him that he has gone bankrupt. Topping it all off is how the Gatherer is finally dispatched, taken to the top of the tallest building and thrown off. The Doctor doesn't even admonish them for that, the old devil. The only one who comes out unscathed is Marn, who elects to join the revolution as soon as she sees which way the wind is blowing.
* It is an odd situation at the climax, despite being packaged as a triumph. The Doctor is leaving a bunch of exploited workers to their own devices, people who have been repressed and turned into violent bullies as a result. Not only that but the guards who have been committing the most appalling of acts are left there too. They are all waving the Doctor and Leela off. How are this bunch of misfits going to become an effective community? Is anybody going to want to get on with this hard work that the Doctor talks of? Will they ever get back to Earth or all turn on each other and wipe each other out? I rather like the ambiguity of it all. And the lingering question of whether some of these people deserved saving. It's Holmes most fascinating scripts in that regard, where there is no black or white answers.

The Bad: A barer than bare corridor, a head popping awkwardly from the wall, an awkward sound dub...looks like we are in for an ugly, cheap adventure. Much like Carnival of Monsters before it, The Sun Makers opens on an unfortunately economic and undramatic handful of shots that gives you completely the wrong idea about the story. The awesome engineering achievement that the Doctor speaks of is a discordant lego mish mash of coloured blocks - not the architectural feat it was clearly supposed to be. Holmes is clearly quite keen to exploit the fun of the newest addition to the TARDIS team but I don't think anybody could have been quite prepared for how noisy and cumbersome the first incarnation of K.9 was. He clunks and clatters and whirrs and wobbles. He's the least dynamic robot on television at this point. Next season they would perfect his design and his cement his position on the show. Notice how aggressive and resistant Tom Baker is to the tin dog this season, a box of tricks upstaging the main man. At some point between The Invasion of Time and The Ribos Operation Tom Baker realised how popular K.9 was and his attitude completely changes between seasons. During the Key to Time onwards they are the best of friends. When Leela sends him off to hide he is so loud I'm not sure how the guards find his shock attack a surprise! Some of the action sequences can't really be described as such...Leela doesn't bravely storm the barrier as chug amiably past it letting off wet fart fireworks. That bizarre moment when everybody is calling for K.9 and the director forgot to say cut and reshoot.

The Shallow Bit: So many close ups on Louise Jameson and why not? She's beautiful to look at with her extraordinary blue eyes and brown hair. Marn is quite a draw too. On the surface Cordo is nothing to look at but I just can't help but fall a little bit in love with a man who finds his confidence and runs with it.

Standout Scene: The moment when the Doctor and the Collector finally come face to face. It is exquisitely performed by Baker and Woolf and delectably scripted by Holmes. I think it is one of the highlights of the Tom Baker era. The Collector is not above playing the unarmed card and playfully tugs at the Doctor's curls whilst spilling about his exploitation of Pluto and its shipped in inhabitants and in a moment of high drama the Doctor turns very cold declares him a bloodsucking leech. He might have been casually witty throughout The Sun Makers but this is the point where we realise how much he cares and how much human suffering means to him. When Douglas Adams was talking about inherently absurd situations suddenly becoming very serious, one exacerbating the other, this is exactly what he meant. One of the best Doctor/villain confrontations that is made all the more unique when the bad guy dissolves away down the toilet into a pool of snot when he realises that he has gone bankrupt.

Result: Any comedy that was written by Robert Holmes was going to make you laugh and hurt you as it does so and The Sun Makers has a real sting to it. Not only is this story not dressed as a comedy (except perhaps the Gatherer who looks as though he has wandered in on the wrong story in his swishing velvet cloak), looking for all the world as bleak and as featureless as every other Blake's 7 episode it also features a near suicide, one of the most excruciating method of murders the show ever presented the audience, a sadistic toad of a villain who enjoys exploiting and hurting his victims, a government that drugs its populace into complying with slavery and exploitation, a heroine who threatens to skin people alive and guest heroes who live in squalor by choice and enjoy throwing their weight around, threatening to violently abuse women and slit the Time Lord's throat or burn his face with a poker. The exploited population are violent, rude and obnoxious - you have to question whether they are worth saving! If it wasn't for the cutting subject matter of cutting through the red tape of paying taxes (and even in that there is an element of attack) and the wealth of outrageously funny lines I would question whether this is actually a comedy at all. Even the villains like Hade are malformed parodies of professions we should respect (there's an element of sexual perversion in his wandering hands with Marn). I like this dark tone, it gives the story an unusual feel of a hybrid of something we should be laughing at and something we really shouldn't. It's the sort of uncomfortable humour that Rob Shearman has made a career out of, making you question whether you should be amused by something that is making you belly laugh. In the right light (and there isn't a lot of that in The Sun Makers so it's hard to decide) this could be spun as the ultimate drama, albeit as a feel good one, as the people overthrow the oppressive government. Despite all this muckiness, The Sun Makers is screamingly funny in places, Holmes going to town and back in his ruthless criticism of the tax system and taking absolute delight at crushing it from within. It is something we can all get behind and cheer. This is a man who is famous for his colourful and characterful dialogue and these four scripts are amongst his best in that respect. I could probably quote them all ad verbatim but that would be a fruitless exercise since you may as well watch the story. There you will also be greeted with charismatic performances, a fine Dudley Simpson score (easily his most playful), some fascinating lens work from a director who isn't shooting this in the way you might expect him to (its all about giving the actors maximum exposure, not the action) and a Doctor and companion at the height of their powers, commanding the audience and providing a thrilling ride. There is so much to love about this story but what always impresses me the most is the superb work that is done by the actors. It's a formidable guest cast and they acquit themselves beautifully, providing countless memorable dramatic and funny scenes. It's a story that favours the quirks of performance and writing over effects and thus it holds up very well for those reasons. The Williams era might have taken a knock at the time but it has been re-appraised since as pushing the series in new directions after three years of (admittedly excellent) horror pastiches. Whilst I question whether the show was as visually competent during Williams' time, it was certainly a more varied and imaginative field for the show to furrow. The Sun Makers is the first major leap in that direction, following on from three possession stories that could have sprung from the previous era with relatively little tinkering. It's bold and refreshingly different, bolstered by razor sharp wit (watch out, it might slice you open), genuine drama and great characters. It's the beginning of the revolution (insofar as recognising the format is limitless) for the show and is as unique and wonderful as the era it spawned: 9/10

1 comment:

David Pirtle said...

Is this a screed against overbearing governments and their taxes or unfettered, amoral capitalism? Or both? Any way you slice it, it's great fun. Definitely a highlight of the Williams era.