Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros take a look at the timely Fourth Doctor satire on taxation...
Season fifteen of Doctor Who was well underway - Leela's eyes had inexplicably turned from brown to blue (that sounds like the cue for a song...) at the end of The Horror of Fang Rock; The Doctor and Leela had picked up K9 as a new travelling companion in The Invisible Enemy and battled the Fendahleen in Image of the Fendhal; there are many who would say that the show was still coasting on the golden era that producer Philip Hinchcliffe and writer/script editor Robert Holmes had established over the last couple of seasons, but with Hinchcliffe gone and Holmes left to work with producer Graham Williams, many would say that after Holmes' biting satire, The Sun Makers, Doctor Who would start on a downward spiral for the rest of the season and the very pessimistic would have pinpointed season fifteen as being the point when the rot started to set in...
The Doctor (Tom Baker), Leela (Louise Jameson) and K9 (voiced by John Leeson) abruptly materialise on the (former) planet of Pluto, which has been colonised by the human race - the air is now breathable and huge cities, Megropolises, have been constructed with each city having its own sun. The Company who has built the suns all of the vast Megropolises is taxing the inhabitants out of all reason, even to the point of taxing the relatives of the dead. The Doctor and Leela encounter Cordo, a lowly worker who has been saddled with an enormous tax demand accrued through the death of his late father and has taken the decision to end his life by throwing himself off a very tall building. The Doctor and Leela stop him from taking this most drastic of action and they decide to investigate the colonised planet and discover just who the mysterious Collector is.
Writer Robert Holmes could always be relied upon to draw the humour out of the grimmest of subjects and there are many who would have seen tackling the touchy issue of high taxation as being one that would have been a tricky task to pull off, but Holmes succeeds brilliantly, with so many references, both blatant and subtle, that even today, The Sun Makers stands up wonderfully.
Holmes himself had encountered issues with the Inland Revenue and The Sun Makers allowed him to vent his displeasure in a manner that is both entertaining and bitingly satirical. There are clever references peppering the script, from the more obvious, namely having characters called The Collector and The Gatherer, to one of the numerous corridors in Megropolis One being given the designation of P45. The dead are even taxed on Pluto - Cordo is visibly relieved to learn that his father was under a certain weight when he died and qualified for a lower tax band - this is vaguely reminiscent of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's planet Bethselamin, where any net imbalance between the amount you eat and excrete is surgically removed when you leave; curiously enough, the production of The Sun Makers must have been around the time when the young Mr Adams was nosing around the Beeb, looking for work.
There are a couple of aspects woven into this story that add extra subtexts to an already deeply satirical story; the Megropolises have a sweet-smelling gas pumped into the atmosphere, which is being used to keep the workers docile. Holmes seems to be using the gas as a metaphor for television, which has popularly been seen as a way of keeping the lower classes entertained; the public execution of Leela was deemed a financial failure because people weren't prepared to buy tickets to see it live, as it was being broadcast live on TV, which could also be seen as Holmes further damning television by saying that it destroys the incentive to attend live events.
As he was through much of season fifteen, Tom Baker is clearly having a ball in The Sun Makers, as he injects his customary gusto in the role, but not going over the top in the manner that seemed to plague the following season; Baker obviously latched onto the satirical aspect of the story and played it for all it's worth, but stays the right side of the line. The very fact that Robert Holmes fashioned an engaging and witty script is what helped to keep Baker's interest peaked and kept his performance on the straight and narrow, as Baker's boredom eventually led to him embarrassingly overplaying scenes, with nobody in the production having the balls to tell him to tone it down a little.
Original Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert had always envisioned The Doctor as an antiestablishment figure, and this was never more apparent in this story, in which everyone's favourite Timelord takes a stand against a corrupt (but not evil) government and sides with a bunch of terrorists who are intent on toppling the oppressive regime; The Doctor even attempts to raise money to fund the terrorists by using a crooked Consume-card (a credit card that looks suspiciously similar to a Mastercard) - this action results in The Doctor being gassed within the cash-point booth (a novel idea which we're surprised hasn't taken off in real life), captured and carted off to the Correction Centre. You can't help but wonder if Robert Holmes had Patty Hearst in mind when he was writing the script. Bob Holmes was taking a risk turning The Doctor into what was essentially a terrorist, especially during a time when unrest amongst the lower classes was paralysing British industry. Still, as our eldest brother once said to us, "one man's freedom-fighter is another man's terrorist"...
Louise Jameson has gone on record and said that The Sun Makers was her favourite story during her time on Doctor Who and it's not easy to see why - Jameson is given several times to shine, with her already strong character showing greater strength than ever as she tackles the cowardly and menacing bunch of rag-tag drop-outs, including the bloodthirsty leader, Mandrel; Jameson is absolutely magnetic during this scene, making the most of Leela's steely determination and displaying a level of intelligence that belies the character's "primitive" origins. Leela, with her skimpy outfit might be regarded by casual outsiders as something of a sexist stereotype - something to keep the dads watching in exactly the same way that Catherine Tate didn't in New-Who - but the reality was that with the right scripts, Leela was a powerful and fascinating character that would have probably had the younger female audience members rooting for someone that could be looked upon as a positive role model.
The Gatherer is played with considerable gusto by Richard Leech, bringing an almost camp sensibility to the character, with the flowing robes and Aztec-inspired clothing (complete with flowing robes) only accentuating this aspect to Gatherer Hade. The generous portion of relish that Leech heaps upon his already larger-than-life performance brings to mind the sort of thing that the late Glen Shadix always injected into his roles.
Henry Woolf makes for a suitably slimy Collector, dressed in a pinstripe suit and having eyebrows like Dennis Healy (who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time) and talking in a variation on the sort of nasally voice usually reserved for officious civil servants. Woolf was a classically-trained actor who was equally at home on the stage or on television and he brings an intensity and a consistency to his performance that is impressive to watch.
Special mention should be made of the performance by David Rowlands; as incarcerated worker Bisham, he perfectly embodies the sort of bewildered, cast-down civil servant that Orwell had as his protagonist in 1984. Rowlands seemed to specialise in this sort of role, and he will be known to many Douglas Adams fans as the hairdresser in the Hitchhiker's television series who is given two sticks and told to make fire and instead produces a pair of curling tongs.
Though there's a great script, numerous impressive performances and some interesting location work, The Sun Makers falls down somewhat when the inevitable switching between videotape and film happens; this was standard practice by the Beeb at the time, but this story seems to suffer more than most. The white passageways seen during the location footage (at Bristol's WD and HO Tobacco Factory) are replicated in the studio, but even in mid-shots, the walls are merely wallpaper-covered boards, with wrinkles in the wallpaper screamingly apparent and they have a characteristic gap between the bottom of the "walls" and the studio floor. This unfortunate trend was continued during season fifteen, with The Invasion of Time showing some of the expansive interiors of the TARDIS, which consisted of unconvincing location footage of what looks like a municipal swimming pool.
We were pretty surprised at how good The Sun Makers looked on DVD; we first watched this on UK Gold a number of years ago and the words "looked like shit" summed up our feelings on the image quality. We weren't expecting much from this, but we were more than pleasantly surprised with the presentation - the videotaped studio sequences can always be relied upon to look great on DVD, but it's the filmed location scenes that really surprised us. Though it's very obvious that the original film elements dematerialised like a Type 40 Gallifreyan time and space vehicle, the clean-up job that has been performed by the guys in the Doctor Who Restoration Team is eye-opening. The colours are surprisingly strong and image detail is pretty pleasing, far better than the way that we originally watched it.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack is pretty good, with clear dialogue and Dudley Simpson's incidental score is free from hiss or distortion.
Running From the Tax Man: This 25 minute making-of may not have the participation of Tom Baker, but this deficiency is more than made up by the involvement of Louise Jameson; Jameson is essentially the backbone of this entertaining documentary, as she seems to have razor-sharp memories of the production of The Sun Makers, providing insight into not only her role and experiences during filming, but also speaking of others, including what was supposedly the REAL reason why Robert Holmes wrote it (this was apparently because he was disgruntled with the BBC and wanted to leave the company ( "all praise to The Company!").
Much like the audio commentary, Jameson kicks things off in positively beaming fashion by stating that it is her favourite tale, which comes as a surprise when she goes on to explain that it was made at the time when she and Baker were at the height of the uneasy working relationship - splitting them up for a few episodes was just what the Timelord ordered.
Also interviewed are director Pennant Roberts and astronomer Marek Kukula, both of whom chip in their keen observations from their respective fields, with Roberts coming out with the most interesting stuff, as he was directly (no pun intended) involved with the production of the story. Astronomer Kukula delivers some relatively dry facts about the (former) planet Pluto and it's relation to the other planets within our solar system, all of which helps to put one of the main aspects of The Sun Makers into perspective to those in the audience who aren't that clued up about the reality of extraterrestrial environments. Keating is wearing well and mentions that he and Baker used to go drinking every evening during the production of this story.
Writer and historian Dominic Sandbrook is on hand to put the fiscal satire of the show into context, at how Britain was in the worst recession since the thirties, and ingeniously speculating that even though there are obvious swipes at the machinations of money and the system itself, the hyperinflation occurred by the left-wing parties in power at that time gave rise to the twin terrors of Thatcher and Reagan, so The Sun Makers can also be read as a right-wing story!
A surprisingly enthusiastic Michael Keating speaks very fondly of Baker, and the star's way of literally throwing the script to the ground and rewriting it as he went, only to revert back to the original text later on! Drinking with Baker, listening to his fantastic tales of just how the army has a tough time dealing with emotion, and Keating's invitation to the show ( “the money is just awful”) are all up for discussion, with a refreshing lack of bitterness on his part.
Audio Commentary: With the inevitability of a bill from the Inland Revenue comes another commentary track for the show, this time with Louise Jameson, Michael Keating and director Pennant Roberts. Oh, and did we also mention that you might notice the mousy, inconspicuous presence of noted actor Tom Baker?
Baker is a great reactor, which probably explains his absence from this documentary when he appears on the commentary. However, when recording a track, it comes as no surprise that he dominates the proceedings, even when he does nothing more than utter an “Ah…” when listening to others. Things start off amusingly, with Baker almost gasping in disbelief as utters the name Robert Holmes when it appears on screen. Right after, Jameson reiterates that this is her favourite story, largely for the high calibre of supporting cast. These omens are right in alluding to another fun escorted tour through the world of Doctor Who.
Baker is on terrific form, rattling off blank statements with the conviction of a Tomahawk missile in the Middle-East. The discussion of how Henry Woolf’s career was held back due to his physical stature sees Baker slip the chain of sanity once more: “He was reduced to grotesques because he was just so tiny. Well, I wouldn’t say tiny, not so tiny… Ian Holm is not a big man… [Baker is informed he was under five-feet tall]… oh, was he? So on all fours, he was very average.”
Inadvertently touching off the old rivalry between the BBC’s two science fiction series from the seventies, with one veteran pointing out that the voice of K9, Mr John Leeson, appeared in a couple of episodes of Blakes 7, refreshing Baker's memory by describing it as: “…that series you’ve never seen.” Baker counters with: “Ah, right. What was it called again?” Keating and Roberts note that the schedule on Doctor Who seemed luxurious when compared to the punishing turnaround on Terry Nation’s series. Baker clearly feels left out when such talk takes place.
Given there being three actors of a certain age involved, there is a lot of talk devoted to other thespians, including such topics as why some thespians’ careers failed, how you can end up going nowhere if you play a chicken in a string of commercials and just who was involved with Harold Pinter. Directors are also mulled over, with Baker relating that one: “…used to talk to me whilst sucking a boiled sweet… and it broke our relationship. It’s very difficult to talk to someone when there’s a rattle coming out of his mouth, you know, like he’s actually sucking on a fragment of cobblestone.”
Keating and Roberts are game contributors to the discussion, and deliver a lot of pertinent information, but the problem comes in the form of Baker’s looming shadow. Even Jameson feels as though she is having to compete, but she shines on her own, probably fuelled by her favouring this particular tale. When the subject of being made to wear straitjackets in the story comes up between Baker and Jameson, the two actors have polarising opinions about them. Naturally, it’s Baker who loved the experience, going on to reveal that he still has the very same one he wore during the production, whilst Jameson really disliked being restricted in such a way. Oh, come on, we’ve all thought about Leela and such things…
Baker likes to be morbid on more than the odd occasion, and he chooses to point out that many of the people he’s worked with over the years are now dead before noting that Jameson and Keating “…are the only survivors, as far as I know.” This is another commentary to treasure, and with the previous requiem, just be thankful that Baker is still here to baffle the mind with non-sequiturs and blank statements so bold, some have probably built religions around them. Excellent stuff.
Trivia Track: Once again, everything you ever wanted to know about Doctor Who, but were too cool to ask is provided another achingly definitive info track. Regardless of changes made between various drafts, on-the-fly alterations or post-production tampering, it ’s all dutifully listed for your reading pleasure.
Not only facts, it also delves into the opinions of those involved, the store being set out early on when it confirms not only Louise Jameson’s choice of The Sun Makers as her favourite, but goes on to state that this owes a lot to Robert Holmes, who “built drama out of characters’ interactions and personalities”. You could probably knock up a shortlist as to whom this comment might have been a swipe at…
That K9 had no chance of being able to negotiate his way over the very small step from the TARDIS is thoroughly grassed-up by the track, almost taking pains to point out when the effects is cheated to have him exit the ship. It’s funny, but with the correct alignment of visual effects, he can take out a Polyphase Avatron, but a little bump becomes and insurmountable task.
Some of the admittedly few inconsistencies in the script at pointed out, with the most notable being that of why the altogether toothless Others take Leela hostage when they already have seen her kick some serious arse?
There are some watching whom won’t really get a number of the satirical references in the script, purely for them not being around at the time, but - and you know where this is going - this wonderful track picks up on every piece of satire and allegory written into the script. The Collector’s robes are a perfect example, where his costume is a fusion of banker’s pinstripe suit and the garments worn by a Sheik. The early/mid 70s were the time of the energy crisis and when OPEC was a global headache, and Middle-Eastern attire became associated with obscene wealth, so tying it in with The Collectors’ garbs was a very clever piece of sly humour.
The customary sense of humour is very much in evidence, and there is nothing better than a chuckle to ease the digestion of facts. One sequence notes the approach of two technical clangers within the space of a few seconds. The microphone boom drops into shot, the track noting how one of the extras “helpfully” looks at it to make it easier to see! The second goof comes as a camera accidentally crashes into the set, causing a noticeable knock to the image. In terrific fashion, the track primes us for the oncoming collision with: “…any second now, any second now… there it is!”
We even get to read the results of when The Sun Makers was used as part of the BBC’s periodic Audience Research Reports, where it fared rather well, with most finding it “compelling” and “up to the usual high standard” of the show. There was at least one voice of against it, but we hope that that particular panellist was put into a burlap sack and kicked around the room for a few hours. Comments from the report are peppered throughout on particular episode, and are a very cool addition.
In fact, “a very cool addition” is the best way to describe this venerable backstage pass to The Sun Makers, a story which is held in high regard by the faithful. Whilst Joe Public can get their jollies out of any number of average Dalek stories, the rest of us can stick on yet another superlative info track and learn more whilst kicking back and having an entertaining time. Need we say more?
The Doctor’s Composer - Part Two: Picking up from where it left off, this covers Dudley Simpson’s time of the show during the seventies, also known as the decade of change for Doctor Who. With new technologies taking hold, it represented a golden opportunity to explore new musical avenues - and for Barry Letts to save a fistful of cash.
Well, that’s how Simpson sees it, and is quite frank in how he read his indoctrination into the Radiophonic workshop as a way of removing costly musicians out of the equation, with merely one man and modern technology to do the work of several people. This led to the era where many found some music in the Pertwee era to sound as though Tiddles was walking up and down the keys of a synthesiser, when in actual fact, the audio was more for atmosphere than anything with rhythm or structure.
Out of such freeform styling, came one definite triumph, that of the piece used for The Master. Coming in the form of a “sting“, it jolted audiences and reinforced to them that this was someone to be feared, right from the outset. Simpson rightly received recognition for this particular motif, which he is quick to note that it was among the few of that period he did get any recognition for.
He muses that it was rather difficult to come up with a theme for the Daleks, which he ended up creating a form of march to herald their arrival. According to Simpson, the real problem came was born of the Deadly Dustbins being too clipped in their movements to get a substantial piece of music, as “…you don’t get much of an opportunity. They come around the corner and stop, and then you’ve had it. Once the music gets started, then you have to stop again”.
Does he have a favourite of his scores? Yep - Pyramids of Mars, which allowed him to stretch his musical muscles a bit, and is one of the stories where he feels his music contributed towards the drama of final product - something we happen to agree with, a tale which manages that tricky balance of appreciating the music without it dominating events. The modest director chuckles away at his cameo in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, where he found his enthusiasm for the chance to conduct an orchestra in the theatre dampened somewhat by the fact that the musicians in question didn’t know one end of an instrument from another.
He spins the rather amusing tale of Jon Pertwee’s competitive streak and the former Doctor’s love of vehicles. Both Simpson and Pertwee owned 1.5 Lancias, and the musician had to drive through Pertwee‘s neck of the woods. Naturally, laying in wait, was Pertwee, revving his engine and racing out to beat him to the local car-park.
Simpson was happy in his work on the show, and thought that he “…was going to go on writing it forever”, but during a very irregular lunch with John Nathan-Turner, the veteran composer was told that JN-T was “wiping the slate clean” and this meant terminating Simpson’s work on the show. Whilst he still had Blakes’ 7 to keep him busy, he felt Doctor Who was his “baby”, through working on it for so long. Another triumph for the man who poisoned Britain’s longest running sci-fi show.
Simpson is a very likeable guy, and is eminently entertaining to listen to. His contribution to the show as a whole have been invaluable, in spite of many not being that find of his Pertwee-era stuff. If ever someone merited a documentary of this calibre, it is certainly Dudley Simpson.
Outtakes: You might think that these are deleted scenes, but they aren’t. Instead, we get to watch the amusing sight of one particular thespian struggling to get his gun to fire in celebration of the struggle being over. Not once, not twice, but again and again. Reaction from everyone else ranges from laughter to frustration at having to retake. It’s not often that these things are included, so enjoy them whilst you can. Though fans have had access to these outtakes via underground sources for decades, it's a pretty safe bet that they haven't looked as great as they do here.
Trailer: Consisting mainly of the opening scene where the Doctor and Leela encounter a certain suicidal character, this is really warm, nostalgic stuff, and you can bet your bippy it would have had us tuning in. Small, but perfectly formed.
Photo Gallery: Set to the wonderful music of Dudley Simpson (and the special sounds of Dick Mills), this isn’t the best gallery from 2Entertain, but are some really good pictures in here, including one of Baker which might easily be labelled “iconic”. The most interesting comes in form of images taken during rehearsals, where Baker is in full costume, and everything looks normal - apart from Henry Woolf, who doesn’t have the bald-cap on! It’s really weird to see him looking exactly like his Steptoe and Son Frankie Barrow character! A few rather nice back and white still generate atmosphere in a way colour still struggles to match. The bulk of them consist of copious set-photos, which we assume to have been for reference during the production. If you have ever wanted a really good look at the Undercity and its more respectable spires, then this will answer your prayers.
PDF Radio Times Listings: Can this ever fail to provide a mighty charge of purest nostalgia? Remember when flipping though the pages of the Radio Times for the Doctor Who listings actually meant something? You will when you explore this in your drive. The usual brief plot descriptions are preceded by a lovely, moody shot of Baker, further enhanced by the grainy, black and white nature of the image. It’s exactly as we said about monochrome photography above…
Coming Soon: This is the release that many Doctor Who fans have been waiting for since it was first officially announced - the special edition of Jon Pertwee's Day of the Daleks! Enhanced with CGI to broaden the scope of the story, along with new and improved Dalek voices by Nicholas Briggs, this looks like it could very well be the Doctor Who DVD release of the year.
The Sun Makers is a wonderfully witty story and one that is timeless, with the current economic climate making it more pertinent than ever. Tom Baker is visibly enjoying himself and Louise Jameson delivers her strongest performance, and the leads are surrounded by a uniformly excellent supporting cast. This is a most impressive DVD release - the AV presentation of this Doctor Who story managed to impress us and the extras are very entertaining, so 2Entertain should be praised for their efforts...
"All praise to the Company!"
Review by Wilson Bros
Suitable for all
Release Date: 1st August 2011
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Running From the Tax Man, The Doctor's Composer Part 2, Audio Commentary, Outtakes, Trailer, Production Subtitles, Coming Soon Trailer, PDF Materials
Easter Egg: No
Director: Pennant Roberts
Cast: Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Henry Woolf, Michael Keating
Length: 100 minutes