16 March 2014

TV: The Sun Makers

Preconceptions: I don't know very much at all about this story, which is quite refreshing; I've never seen it before. I know it's a Robert Holmes satire of the tax system (though how overtly, I'm not sure), I know there's a corridor called P45, and I know it's Louise Jameson's favourite story, so it must be pretty good. I'm not aware of any monsters, as such. Let's find out just how little I know...

Like the majority of Robert Holmes' scripts, The Sun Makers is a highly intelligent story. Unfortunately, I don't feel this translates to screen terribly well, thanks again to my least favourite director of the period, Pennant Roberts. While Roberts is skilled in some areas, notably casting, he's no David Maloney or George Spenton-Foster (to mention just two of his accomplished contemporaries) in terms of framing or camera direction. I'm sure he's a brilliant theatre director.

The Sun Makers' intelligence begins with its title. Whilst this is a send-up of the tax system (the guards protecting the cowardly, self-obsessed overlord are the Inner Retinue), it's also a parody of the BBC. The references to 'the Company' throughout could be interpreted as referring to either the government or the BBC, especially when you consider that in the original version of this story, the ruling body was known as the Corporation... 'The Sun Makers' is also such a clever title, because - to me at least - it talks of pomposity and delusions of grandeur. While we don't actually see any Suns being made in this story, it implies that the Company think themselves so important, so omnipotent that they can actually create Suns. I'm probably not explaining this idea very well or fully, but it makes sense to me, and aligns with my interpretation of Robert Holmes' satire.

Another subtle point that you may miss is the setting; Pluto. It may seem quite a random setting, and picked purely for its location, the lack of knowledge about it, and size, the real reason Holmes chose the dwarf planet is because of the word plutocracy. The culture depicted in this story is plutocratic - society is dominated and ruled by a small minority of the wealthiest citizens. This is another reason why I love Robert Holmes' mind; he is so imaginative and makes links like no other writer. He was truly unique, and this shines through in what he thought was to be his final story. This might explain why it's a bit of a two-fingers to the Beeb.

It's quite easy to see why Louise Jameson enjoyed this story so much. It's no secret that Tom and Louise didn't get on very well during her original time on the program, and so it must have been blissful for her to be separated from him for the majority of the story. Beyond that, though, Leela does get quite a lot to do. She has a fair bit to say and do in the undercity, through the revolution and gets to lie in 'the Steamer' (more parody?) for half an episode. The guest cast she spends most time with (Roy Macready as Cordo, David Rowlands as Bisham and William Simons as Mandrel) are quite strong, and it doesn't hurt that everyone's hamming it up a bit. This is an example of where Roberts' direction works; he sits back and lets the actors take it that bit further.

Tom Baker gets a relatively strong story too, but the majority of his enjoyable moments come in his dialogue. Two exchanges I particularly liked are those between him and Bisham in the Correction Centre, and with the Collector at the climax of the story. Other memorable scenes include that where he hypnotises a guard and (unintentionally) Leela; the arrival on top of the Megropolis; and his visit to Collector Hade's office. A favourite conversation of mine was one of those little, personal, inconsequential moments that make a character seem real:-

Goudry: "Who have we got to lose?"
The Doctor: "Only your claims."
Bisham: "Well put Doctor!"
The Doctor: "Oh, it was nothing. I have quite a gift for an apt phrase!"

This story charts the progression of Cordo as much as anything else. From the opening moments of the story, we seem him about to commit suicide as a result of him being unable to afford the higher-than-advertised fees for his father's good death. Immediately this paints the rulers in the wrong, although Richard Leech has already let us know this through his larger-than-life performance in the opening shots. As the serial progresses, Cordo gains more power, and once faced with influence over those who have thwarted him for years, he is almost eccentrically excited. When you think about the possible issues this character could have (split personality, possibly) it's quite worrying to see him being encouraged like this. Should things take even a slight turn for the worst, he may be teetering on the edge of that kilometre-high slave house again - only this time, Leela won't be there to save him. It could well be that I'm overthinking it though.

It could be argued that this is simply another revolution story with a political twist, and while the plot is admittedly more pedestrian than usual for Holmes, this is probably one of my personal favourite 'uprising' tales. This is partly because we have three factions of people, all distinctly different from each other. Where Holmes creates the interest is where they begin to overlap, and you see that the 'lowest class' are more honorable than the ruling upper class. Could this be more social commentary? Who knows, but it is good to watch (or maybe listen to, to avoid the visuals) when the lines between groups blur. Having said that, I think Mandrel turns a bit too easily, but this seems to be more in Michael Keating's portrayal than how he is written. Mind you, it would be hard to act like you were ready to kill someone one minute, and follow their every word the next - another example of bipolar? Perhaps Holmes is trying to convey just how the suffering has affected these people. It's implied that this has been the way for many, many years, since the colony was on Mars. Can you imagine what the level of suppression could do to you, mentally? Never being allowed an opinion - ever. This domain name would be free, for one thing.

Tony  Snoaden (he of The Sea Devils and Vengeance on Varos) designed this story - although I use the word loosely. I'm not really sure how much design there is to be done when drawing a light beige rectangle. Oddly, he somehow manages to make the future look even worse than in The Invisible Enemy. I understand that he was trying to make the studio sessions match the location shoots (could they have picked a blander, more generic 'white corridor interior'?), but has he never heard of set dressing? The closest we get to that are these weird hemispheres with circular holes and those unbelievably clunky and primitive cameras. Honestly, this is one of the worst-designed serials for ages. I would have to say this was the weakest of Leela's tenure so far. On the upside, I do like his use of black space to get rid of the limits in the offices and the Collector's desk is pretty decent. But what are those things just randomly hanging around the place (no, not the extras, the other ones!)? I think the success of these is mainly down to Derek Slee (who also helped Pennant Roberts during The Face of Evil)'s studio lighting, but Snoaden still deserves some credit for being imaginative and creative with limited resources. For example, the main control room would be OK if it wasn't that gross shade of orange. I understand that when you get glorious-looking stories such as Image of the Fendahl and Horror of Fang Rock, something will have to give elsewhere to make up the shortfall, but surely not the other eighteen episodes of the series? How can it be that some days, you can get the Panopticon, or any of the beautiful interiors from Robots or Talons and other days, you get this trash? It's bizarre to think these were made in the same time period.

Even Dudley Simpson doesn't seem particularly enthusiastic about anything, providing a bog-standard, run-of-the-mill plinkety-plonkety score that fits with the direction - bland. I really think this sudden drop in quality must be due to Pennant Roberts. It happened during Series 14 as well. If you look at any of the other three stories I've reviewed from that run (at time of writing), they are all so much better - and there's a Chris Boucher script at the heart of that one! I can't pin it down to any other common factor. It's a shame Graham Williams chose to hire him, but I can see the reasoning behind it. To worsen matters, he was recontracted four times following this serial. Is it just me that doesn't appreciate his camerawork?

The story ends with the workers (or the people, as Leela encourages beautifully) overthrowing Gatherer Hade and the Doctor defeating the Collector - who it turns out was a Usurian. Crushed at the thought of a perpetual loss, he shrinks back to his natural form - a malformed slither of seaweed, according to the Doctor. I'm just glad they didn't try and realise that. Henry Woolf gives a performance that is totally in line with Holmes' script and he's the one character who can get away with overdoing it. I felt that sometimes, Roberts should have restrained his company and let Woolf do as he wanted, which was obviously so successful. He is the face of the Company in this story, and he's a snide, snivelling sniveller with a weird voice. And an expensive suit. I can see what Robert Holmes was aiming for, and I just about think Woolf managed to do it justice.

In summary, this is a massive step down from every other serial in Series 15. A Big Finish adaptation of this would probably be near-enough perfect, especially with the likes of Dorney or Morris at the helm, as it is a really cracking script that suffers enormously for its visuals - in both the camera and design departments. Many of the jokes fall flat because the direction and delivery, but there's still a lot to enjoy. I think the most precise emotion I came away from The Sun Makers with was the feeling of being underwhelmed, and a little frustrated. I think this story had an awful lot of potential, and it's a shame that it goes to waste. Just imagine what we could have had from someone like Michael Hayes or Rodney Bennett. Oh well, we got what we got.

I'm glad Louise Jameson had such a great time making - I wish I'd had the same experience while watching. I don't mean to sound overly negative, but most of the joy comes from the script and the performers. Unusually, there's not really one big stand-out moment, but it feels like there should be quite a few. The action sequences (again, loose term) such as the milk float that the guards can't be arsed to pace after in Part Three actually slow everything down, and disengage the viewer when they're supposed to have the opposite effect. It's another frustrating waste of a cracking script thanks to Pennant Roberts, and though the blame doesn't lie solely with him (having done some pretty good stuff in other areas here), he did assemble the team that let down the script. Perhaps Holmes decided to do more to ensure that he didn't go out on this damp squib. Lots of brilliant, creative ideas are severely let down.

Praise be to the Company, indeed.

In a Nutshell: Potentially one of the most enjoyable adventures of the era is reduced to a bland, melodramatic runaround.

You can buy The Sun Makers here, and Joe from Doc Oho hasn't reviewed it yet.

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