The Sun Makers

Posted in Episode by - January 03, 2017
The Sun Makers

Aired 26 November – 17 December 1977

There is an oft-cited vignette that ‘The Sun Makers’ came to fruition after a disagreement between writer Robert Holmes and British Revenue and Customs. While that background brings with it suppositions of the story being about an unfair tax system stacked against the average individual, Holmes avoids going down that expected road and- keeping excessive taxation in mind- instead crafts a story about individuals fighting for decent living conditions under a regime headed by a single-minded accountant where light itself is a prime commodity.

Indeed, ‘The Sun Makers’ offers a rather pointed social commentary about the working class’s conditions and sentiments, an uncommon approach in the Fourth Doctor era but a welcome shift nonetheless. However, what makes the story work without feeling overbearing is the sentimentality of the Doctor, here a man who is willing to topple an entire regime for the sake of one person as a representative of the population as a whole. This somewhat romantic notion of the Doctor is only occasionally touched upon, but it expands the character immensely and rounds out what could have easily become an overly cynical piece of satire. It’s quiet profound that the humans of this era don’t even realize that they’ve been exploited and subjugated as this vague corporation makes it impossible for them to make ends meet. They have no idea who or what the corporation is and, by extension, who or what they are officially rebelling against, a frightening prospect for anyone worked to the point of death with no escape. At a time when life’s essentials were increasingly becoming commercialized commodities, the corporation’s hoarding and selling of artificial suns and light itself is a particularly cutting suggestion of what is to come in Earth’s future.

What makes ‘The Sun Makers’ so successful is that it doesn’t rely on technobabble or deus ex machina to resolve the problem. The Doctor is very much an everyman here who encourages the workers to think about how things really are and to stand up for themselves. With unsurprisingly little effort, he is able to create a massive swelling of support to begin the process of breaking down the stifling barriers that engulf the general populace, creating a changed world simply by creating the belief in changing the world. Indeed, this sort of higher-brow science fiction peppered with comedy is an indication of the change in tone the franchise somewhat unevenly undergoes with Graham Williams as producer, and ‘The Sun Makers’ proves how successful that tone can be given the proper material.

The location shooting and generally strong set designs help buoy this story at a time when an over-reliance on special effects became more of the norm. Although it remains somewhat of an underrated tale given the many genuine classics of the Tom Baker era, ‘The Sun Makers’ showcases what Doctor Who is able to achieve when social commentary and wit rather than horror and tension are the driving forces behind the narrative. It may not be perfect, but the underlying sense of optimism once uncovered by a genuinely sympathetic and empathetic Doctor is incredibly engaging and shows just how the franchise and the character can relate to the plights of ordinary people even in more fantastic circumstances.

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