During the three years in which the show was produced by Philip Hinchcliffe, Robert Holmes had contributed four scripts, three of which had been written under duress after the original commissions had proven unusable. A script editor writing for their own show was a practise which was generally frowned upon by the writer’s guild; however in the wake of the Pyramids of Mars debacle -- where Holmes had been forced to totally re write Lewis Griefer’s script -- Hinchcliffe had been granted a special dispensation from Head of Drama Shaun Sutton allowing Holmes to write up to two serials per season.
When his stint as script editor came to an end in 1977, Holmes -- once more embarking upon a career in the freelance market -- took the opportunity to commission himself to write a script for Graham Williams first season. The Sunmakers had originally been conceived as a story about our colonial heritage transposed to a sci-fi setting, however an ongoing dispute with the Inland Revenue over tax contributions applied to his income as a freelance writer led to Holmes altering his script to reflect his frustration with what he saw as the tax offices convoluted and tiresome methods.
It’s not often that Doctor Who ventures into the world of satire - lets face it, it’s not really the shows raison d'être, however it’s always nice to try out new things, and if ever there was a place to test such a concept, it was the Graham Williams era. Although much of Holmes lampooning was ultimately excised from the finished script on the wishes of Williams, The Sunmakers remains a biting parody of the pecuniary organisation everybody loves to hate, while mercilessly sending up the avariciousness of the fat cat banking organisations. Although much of Holmes venom was scaled down on the instructions of Williams -- who was concerned that viewers might draw too many parallels from such an obvious skit -- I’m curious to know just how the story might have turned out, and how it might be viewed by contemporary audiences.
Despite painting a rather gloomy picture of the wretched lives led by our future colonists, the mood of The Sunmakers thankfully is lifted by some wonderfully dark humour, and it’s to this ghoulish levity that the story owes it’s success. Far from being annoyed that Cordo is unable to pay his dues, the cruel Gatherer is positively flippant when suggesting that the beleaguered worker takes drugs in order to work himself to death in the foundry, this type of characterisation being far more effective in emphasising the callousness of the company than a shouty, fist-clenching overseer. This policy of casual indifference towards the plight of the common man is echoed in the brilliant portrayal of the ruthless Collector, whose only joy in life other than extorting as much money as he possibly can from the disconsolate population, is the brutal execution of tax exiles.
As we have come to expect from his scripts, Robert Holmes garnished his story with some remarkable characters, ably brought to life by director Pennant Roberts terrific cast. Richard Leech gives a wonderful performance as the obsequious Gatherer, wallowing in absolute decadence whilst the oppressed masses work themselves to death in abject poverty. Fulfilling the second half of Holmes trademark double-act is the accomplished Henry Woolf, whose vile leering and repulsively nasal delivery established the Collector as one of the greatest villains of the Graham Williams era. Joining the cast of The Sunmakers one year before he found fame in the sci-fi series Blakes 7 was Michael Keating playing the vicious thug Goudry, a character remarkably similar to Keating’s character Villa in Terry Nation’s fledgling sci-fi show. Adrienne Burgess was cast as Veet after her character was transposed by Pennant Roberts from being male to female in order for both sexes to be better represented; the Collector’s assistant Marn was played by the curvaceous Jonina Scott, the role having also been altered to female by Roberts. Veet appeared to become something of a nemesis for Leela early on in the story, jealously coveting the warrior’s animal skins and seemingly more than willing to kill her to get them, perhaps Veet felt her position within the “others” was threatened by Leela’s presence, and it’s a pity that more wasn’t made of this rivalry, though no doubt the sight of two women biting and scratching each other -- however compelling -- probably wouldn’t have met with Mary Whitehouse’s approval.
In spite of Graeme McDonald’s edict that the levels of violence that had become a staple of the Hinchcliffe era would be toned down and therefore more suitable to the shows younger audience, The Sunmakers features a startling amount of violent themes, both real and suggested. From the moment she steps out of the TARDIS, Leela is asserting that the people’s oppressors should be “slaughtered”, offering to “cut out the Collectors heart”, and threatening to “fillet” Veet if she touches her again! Other delights on offer for the children’s enjoyment are the steam bath public execution video-nasties, and the Gatherer being hurled one thousand feet to his death from the roof of the Megropolis by a cheering mob! Given all the fuss created by the National Viewers and Listeners Association over The Deadly Assasin, you have to ask yourself how on Earth these sequences made it past the censors.
Characteristic of the type of problems facing Doctor Who during the latter half of the seventies, the stories only real downfall is in its production values, with much of the dreary scenery being set against black drapes or shot in long depressing stark white corridors, yet despite the productions obvious budgetary shortcomings, The Sunmakers is a thoroughly absorbing story which strongly emphasises the Doctor’s moral crusade against tyranny and successfully captures the true essence of Doctor Who.