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15x4. The Sunmakers
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Pennant Roberts
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Graham Williams

Synopsis: The TARDIS materializes on Pluto, where a dictatorial corporation (known only as "The Company") has kept a human population in near slave-labor conditions while using an elaborate system of taxes to monopolize wealth for themselves. After making contact with a mostly demoralized gang of criminals, the Doctor and Leela become involved and help to jumpstart a popular revolution.

Review: "The Sunmakers" is an odd balance between gritty realism and light satire, though it mostly works. On one hand, the villains of the piece -- the Collector and Gatherer Hade -- are both supremely over-the-top characters. The Collector is utterly self-serving and an unabashed sadist whose diminutive stature and nasal voice would not leave him out of place on a Saturday morning cartoon, and Hade is a pompous motormouth who manages to take both self-satisfied grandstanding and pathetic sniveling to new heights. (At one point, he screams in distress that the Collector wants to pay reward money for the Doctor's capture out of his personal account, then protests that he was only exclaiming his happiness at the proposition.) The script also manages to avoid a simplistic "taxes are BAD" message by having the regime be a company rather than a traditional government.

Meanwhile, some of the criminals-turned-revolutionaries could almost have come out of Blake's 7 (interestingly, Michael Keating, best known as the timid thief Vila Restal, plays one of them). Not all of them are very honorable or sympathetic, and their agenda is mostly one of self-preservation at first. Mandrell, their leader, holds Leela as a hostage at first and eventually even orders her executed, an order not carried out at least partly because most of them are afraid of her. Others who later join the revolution do so at gunpoint, and the Doctor arguably engages in a bit of propagandizing himself by broadcasting a false report that the revolution's progress is further along than it actually is. The revolution also takes a dark turn towards the end when Hade is murdered, despite the Doctor's urgings that the leaders of the Company simply be arrested.

Robert Holmes, who scripted the serial, fleshes out this society with some interesting details. The Company is spoken of with an almost religious reverence at times, and the frequent use of the word "gratified" similarly suggests some sort of organized indoctrination. We also learn that the population is kept subservient partly through the clandestine dissemination of a drug called PCM that induces anxiety, and that Bisham was arrested for "curiosity" after he took some pills intended for executives (presumably some sort of antidote to PCM). I also picked up a few faint echoes of 1984 (though maybe just because I read it recently): Bisham states that he'd rather die than endure the fate of a prisoner (calling to mind Room 101), and the way that the outlaws and discontented citizens have been kept frightened, limited in their vision, and unaware of their collective strength recalls Winston Smith's belief that "if there is hope, it lies in the proles." And, of course, Bisham's arrest for curiosity would be an almost textbook case of "thoughtcrime."

The Doctor and Leela are their usual entertaining selves, and Holmes' script also helps to give K-9 something of a personality (he had been kept off-screen for most of "Image of the Fendahl," largely because his addition to the cast had not been established in time). Tom Baker, as you might expect, gets plenty of humorous moments in a script with significant comedic elements, but he manages to pull it off without giving the impression that the Doctor sees the entire situation as a joke. There are a couple of ways in which the mix of satire and realism  doesn't quite work, however. First of all, the demoralized, self-serving criminals make the transition to confident revolutionaries a little too easily -- okay, so the Doctor can be pretty convincing, but it's as if they've all had a personal philosophy transplant. And second, on a related note, we never quite know what the Doctor thinks about some of the bloodier aspects of the revolution that eventually emerges -- one presumes that he disapproves of some of the gunpoint conversions and the murder of the Gatherer, but the script doesn't really give him an opportunity to react.

Still, "The Sunmakers" is an effective outing, and it succeeds as the first attempt to tell a story in a decidedly different style from what we had become used to during the Philip Hinchcliffe era.

Rating: *** (out of four)