Monday, 10 August 2009

Doctor Who: The Sun Makers

Part One

“Probably too many economists in the government…”

Right from the start it’s very clear indeed that we can’t expect anything at all from the sets and costumes, which are quite as awful as they were in The Invisible Enemy. Fortunately, it’s also clear from the start that the scripts and performances are going to be first class. And we get bombarded with some great concepts- dull modernist tower block this may be, but it’s on a mysteriously oxygenated and moderately temperatured Pluto where wood is a distant fable.

It’s also a world where people are drones working for a mysterious company, worked and taxed until their pips squeak and finally put to death on an appointed “deathday”- perhaps the most fully evoked dystopia yet seen in Doctor Who. Cordo and Gatherer Hade are both well written and well acted characters, perfectly shaped to be interesting whilst given us a load of necessary exposition at the start.

Cordo’s recently euthanized father worked hard as a sweeper of walkways for forty years, but he and his son between them can only just afford a painless death for him (Cordo wasn’t present at the death- no doubt he couldn’t afford that), and now Hade reveals that taxes have recently risen to a level Cordo cannot afford, and it is of course the citizen’s responsibility to be familiar with the tax rates. Cordo, already working double shifts, will now have to work during his remaining three hours’ sleep time to work towards his debt, which with compound interest at 50% he will never repay. This is very dark stuff, and that’s precisely why the humour is so important to sweeten the pill.

With K9 poised to beat the Doctor at chess, the TARDISeers materialise on Pluto, once said to be the outermost body in the Solar system until “Cassius” was discovered. This has all become very dated over the last few years!

K9 stays in the TARDIS for now (“Pluto’s no place for a…”) while the Doctor and Leela immediately prevent Cordo from throwing himself off the building, receiving some exposition in return.

Richard Leech is brilliant as the collector, the style of his performance being perfect for the character. Some of his lines would be just too dark if delivered too seriously- the line about how surviving for three years in the “correction centre” is almost unheard of makes it clear just how horrifyingly totalitarian this regime is.

Interestingly for a story where tax collectors are the bad guys (“Perhaps everyone runs from the taxman”) this doesn’t necessarily come across as a right wing satire- in fact it’s rather typical of Holmes in that, although deeply political, it doesn’t tell us a lot about what his politics were, although at least we’re left in no doubt that he’s no authoritarian. Besides, tax rates in the UK in 1977 were really rather high…

More good stuff- six suns, “the Inner Retinue”, a load of rebels includingVila- an excellent start.

Part Two

“I have the honour to remain, sir, your obedient servant. Etc. Etc.”

I love the friendliness of the Doctor’s cellmate, whose crime was curiosity, casually chatting about the horrors in store for the Doctor and himself- the sort of scene that only Holmes could write. PCM is another 1984-esque idea- an ingredient in the air to spread anxiety and keep the population docile. In fact, for all the surface focus on tax and economics- and there’ll be a lot more of that kind of thing- this is really Doctor Who Does 1984, more concerned with the nature of extreme tyranny than taxation per se. Cordo is quite clearly a Winston Smith figure and the Company is very Big Brother- there are loads of cameras everywhere for a start.

There’s a great scene between the Doctor and Gatherer Hyde, a P45 corridor (!) and we get to see Henry Woolf’s splendidly slimy Collector. Another great episode.

Part Three

“His Excellency has invoiced your execution.”

Another quietly shocking moment, as the Collector notes with incredulity that the captured Leela hasn’t been “numbered” as all “work units” are at birth. But this is where things turn around- I love the scene where the Doctor quickly manoeuvres himself from imminent torture victim to leader of a revolution, and it’s wonderful to see the glee with which everyone responds once persuaded that resistance is not useless after all. For the first time the company is questioned- what’s it for? Who gets all the profit?

I love the collector’s summary of the Doctor, from the company files, as having “a long history of violence and economic subversion.” But it’s not all wit and satire- there’s a real feeling of danger this episode as Leela faces execution by steaming, and this cliffhanger is one of the very best.

Part Four

“The work units are absolutely forbidden to see the light of the sun- it’s far too good for them!”

This whole episode is a joy, aside from a moment of disquiet towards the end. The Collector’s increasingly severe threats to the populace (“Grinding oppression of the masses is the only policy that pays dividends!”), the rebels’ increasing confidence and giddy happiness as they experience life without TCM, Marn joining the revolution to save her skin- very realistic, that!- the Gatherer being thrown off the building. This is Holmes’s swansong as a perm anent fixture of the series, and he really goes out on a high. A magnificent script. And, naturally, the Doctor buggers off immediately as soon as the fun bit finishes!

There’s one disquieting bit, though- I suspect nothing was meant by it, but it probably would have been a good idea not to make the villain a “Usurian”- ie a moneylender- of a different ethnic group to everyone else, as that could be interpreted in unfortunate ways!

Aside from that last point, a brilliant script, and fantastic performances all round. I very nearly gave it a 5/5 but the sets are so appalling I’m going to have to take away a point. 4/5, but a very high one.

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