Doctor Who was a contradiction in 1977. On the surface, it appeared to all and sundry that the show was in rude health. Viewing figures were at an all-time high, Tom Baker had done the impossible and replaced the hugely popular Jon Pertwee in the public’s affections, while the programme itself seemed to have an unassailable slot right at the heart of the BBC’s Saturday night schedule.
Scratch the surface, however, and the reality was far less rosy.
Thanks to the campaigning antics of Mary Whitehouse, the new Doctor Who production team was under orders to curb the violent excesses of the previous few years and replace it with a more whimsical and comedic fantasy tone.
To this end, the BBC shuffled the behind-the-scenes team around, replacing producer Philip Hinchcliffe with Graham Williams. A less forceful and controversial character than his predecessor, Williams was soon to learn the full enormity of the problems he’d inherited.
Aside from the issues surrounding content, the show was also starting to be beset by severe budgetary issues. In the main, this was a result of soaring inflation in the wider economy, but part of the problem also stemmed from the significant overspends that Hinchcliffe had run up on lavish stories such as The Talons Of Weng-Chiang during his final year in charge.
Yet, where he may have been fiscally irresponsible, the reputation of Hinchcliffe’s time in charge among fans of the show still remains incredibly high, while Williams’ tenure is generally treated with no small amount of derision.
Is that assessment fair? Probably not, but as with all received wisdom, there’s more than a kernel of truth contained within it.
Certainly, while his predecessor’s shows were typified by a sharp and tonally certain formula, by contrast, Williams’ version of the show has the feeling of something straining to be overly ambitious, while at the same time lacking absolute faith in the underlying material.
Dating from the mid-point of Williams’ first season in charge, The Sun Makers finds the show caught between these two conflicting approaches.
Written by former script editor Robert Holmes, allegedly out of his own rage at both the super-tax levying Inland Revenue and the overly bureaucratic BBC, it’s a story that seems to have a very precise meaning on the page, but is rather shoddily realized on camera.
A case in point is the realization of the setting of the story; the densely populated, over bureaucratized and massively stratified far future version of the planet Pluto.
All episodes of Doctor Who, both old and new, face the same problem of practically evoking an alien environment with limited, television resources. Some efforts, like Roger Murray-Leach’s amazing jungle set built for Planet Of Evil, work perfectly, and remain examples of effective production design years later.
Unfortunately, The Sun Makers doesn’t fit into that category, and its evocation of the surface and interior of Pluto is risible. Amounting to little more than a factory roof in Bristol on a cloudy day, some over-lit studio corridors and a set that resembles a cast off from 80s children’s TV show Chock-A-Block, it immediately means that the audience doesn’t believe that the world this story takes place in is any shape or form real.
Not helping matters is the fact that behind the camera is director Pennant Roberts. While a director of some skill in terms of casting and performance, Roberts was not the most kinetic or visual of directors. While by no means a disaster, his direction is plodding in places, and his execution of certain action sequences has the curious effect of lowering the adrenaline levels of the audience, rather than raising it.
However, despite these failings, it’s Roberts’ skill at working with actors allied to Holmes’ quality as a writer that elevates The Sun Makers above its obvious superficial flaws.
As ever with Holmes’ scripts, the dialogue sparkles and the side-characters are all suitably distinctive, which means that the scenes where Tom Baker’s Doctor is absent from events rarely feel labored or padded. This aids the story hugely.
It’s also helpful that Tom Baker, at this point during his time as the Doctor, was still at the top of his game. Too often, as the years went by, Baker would dominate the story to such a detrimental extent that the only way to make an impression would be for the supporting cast to overact hideously.
However, at this point, Baker was at least still paying lip service to the company ethos, and he gives a strong and measured performance that reminds you of what an effortlessly superb Doctor he was at his peak.
Equally good is Louise Jameson as Savateem warrior, Leela. Jameson’s long said that The Sun Makers is her favourite story, and it’s easy to see why, as Leela not only spends a large part of the story separated from the Doctor, but also engaged in some quite meaty dramatic moments with the undercity rebels led by Mandrel (William Simons), Veet (Adrienne Burgess) and Goudry (Michael Keating).
The villains of the piece, while having a certain air of pantomime about them, are also both very well played. Henry Woolf as the seemingly wheelchair bound Collector brings flamboyance and relish to the role, as does Richard Leech as the slimy middle-man Gatherer Hade.
While very much a product of late 70s discontent both in terms of its rather dyspeptic world-view and the production/budget issues that hampered it, The Sun Makers is nonetheless a decent Doctor Who story, hobbled by some poor production decisions, yet saved by a decent script and a very well handled cast.
Aside from the usual outtakes, trailers and photo galleries, the extras for this standard issue release are generally pretty decent.
The episode commentary, featuring Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Michael Keating and the late Pennant Roberts is a low-key but enjoyable affair, with Baker and Jameson ably backed up by their co-star and director respectively.
The stand out extra, Running From The Tax Man, is one of the better recent 2/Entertain behind-the-scenes-documentaries. Anchored around the reminiscences of star Jameson, director Roberts and co-star Keating, it’s augmented by some pertinent and interesting comments from historian Dominic Sandbrook, placing the story within the cultural context of late 70s British society.
Less interesting, but still entertaining is The Doctor’s Composer: Part Two, the second half of a piece highlighting classic series composer Dudley Simpson’s work on the show. This second installment follows his contributions throughout the 1970s up until his departure from the show in 1980. It’s a hugely enjoyable and warm-hearted overview, which shines a long overdue light onto one of the unsung heroes of classic Doctor Who.
You can rent or buy Doctor Who: The Sun Makers at Blockbuster.co.uk.