A giant, faceless corporation profiting from all aspects of human life is the darkest truth to emerge from the field of speculative fiction. Of course this bit of prognostication isn’t entirely true yet, but one sees it in the strategic maneuvers of Facebook and Google, services that have branched out from their initial benign functions to try and become more and more essential to our lives. These services are free, but the influence is so far-reaching that advertisers and investors can’t help but see the potential dollar signs looming on the horizon.
In “The Sun Makers” the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) land on the once uninhabitable planet of Pluto, where there is no Google or Facebook. Instead the planet is ruled by the Company, an all-in-one amalgamation of government and industry and quasi-religion. Citizens work for the company, pay taxes to it and even have their deaths administered by the Company.
In the opening, Citizen Cordo (Roy Macready) is distraught after learning he can’t afford to pay the death tax on his recently deceased father. Determined to take his own life, Cordo retreats to the roof of a building where he’s prevented from jumping by the Doctor and Leela. From there the chase is on as Gatherer Hade (Richard Leech) and his lieutenant, Marn (Jonina Scott), scour the levels of Megropolis One for Cordo the tax cheat and the air space violating-TARDIS pilot from Gallifrey.
The Doctor and his friends retreat to the lowest levels of the city, where they encounter a band of rebels who avoid the Company’s taxes and steal all they need to survive. Soon the Doctor finds himself leading the citizens of Pluto in a rebellion against the Company.
With its portrayal of citizens beholden to tax-hungry bureaucrats, “The Sun Makers” might play well at tea party rallies. Signs featuring the villain of the piece, the whiny and sweaty Collector (Henry Woolf) could easily be Photoshopped to look like President Obama, and the Doctor’s coiled scarf might replace the snake on the Gadsden flag. Focusing on the anti-tax rhetoric of the story, however, ignores its overt praise of the rights of workers to protest better wages as well as allusions to The Communist Manifesto in the Doctor’s dialogue.
There’s speechmaking and posturing made in the name of personal liberty, but the story isn’t a didactic sermon supporting one ideological viewpoint or another. These elements are fused with the humor and excitement which exemplifies the best of the Baker-era to create a fully realized story rather than a collection of monologues buffeted by a series of chase scenes.
Baker is his usual charming self, offering jelly babies to anyone who’s interested in one scene and rallying the Plutonian rebels in the next. Jameson’s Leela is also quite strong, her warrior back story coming to the fore with declarations that she will kill the people of the Undercity if they harm the Doctor and that, “The people should rise up and slaughter their oppressors.”
Richard Leech’s Gatherer Hade is a sort of cartoonish Aleister Crowley in a faux-Aztec headdress and cape. His character is funny and bumbling but never reaches the level of menace found in Henry Woolf’s Collector. In looks he’s easily compared to Austin Powers’s Dr. Evil, his bald head glistening, his whiny voice a virtual shriek. He should be ridiculous, a Scooby-Doo villain revealed to be the manager of the old amusement park, but instead his every scene is marked by an increasing creepiness, the performance slowly becoming unhinged, barely contained within the realm of reason. Every moment he’s onscreen is a delirious delight, a standout in an already impressive story.
Participants in the making of featurette “Running from the Tax Man” echo this sentiment, as do Baker and Jameson in the disc’s commentary. These features offer insight into the story and are entertaining enough but are hardly essential.
Exactly what the Company is remains unclear until the story’s end, when the Collector is revealed to be an Usurian, an alien race whose people use “commercial imperialism” to further their economic power in the universe. “Grinding oppression of the masses is the only policy which pays dividends,” the Collector explains, not long before his control over the planet ends and he reverts to his true form.
The Doctor and Leela leave Pluto soon after, its citizens poised to enter a new world of personal and economic independence. Like many of its science fiction predecessors, “The Sun Makers” shows us the dark possibilities of the future, as well as the way into the light. Lost in the glare, however, is what comes next: a sight which can easily escape even the most vivid imaginations.