Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Serial 95: The Sun Makers

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companions: Leela

Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Pennant Roberts

Editor's Note: Hallo hallo! Dropping in to point out that this is Cassandra's last entry! Lordie lord we are racing towards an ending and quickly, aren't we? By golly we are. But yes. Here's Cassandra with some discussion on "The Sun Makers".

Background & Significance: So the name of this game is 'satire'.

When I watched this story for the first time, the point flew right over my head and so I ended up disliking it.  "Robert Holmes?" I thought.  "Oh, surely this shall be another heavy masterpiece."  And it's not, so, I was confused and felt a bit betrayed and let down, since this was the last Robert Holmes story we did on our initial watch-through.

But just because this is much lighter fair than what I've come to expect from Holmes, doesn't make it bad.  On the contrary, it really shows off his range as a writer, as good comedy is one of the hardest things to master.

And this is a comedy.  It's a very biting satire on Imperialism and Colonialism as well as the British equivalent of the IRS, which I think is hilarious.  Granted, there are some dark elements/moments that we'll talk about in a bit, but at its heart this is a comedy, which makes it fit in splendidly with the Williams era aesthetic.

This is also one of the last stories featuring Leela as a companion, which makes me really sad because I love Leela and I think she's really great here, which may or may not have something to do with the return of Pennant Roberts, who also directed Leela's debut story "The Face of Evil".

But enough of all that, let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1:

I would just like to sincerely apologize for this being so late.  Things have not been great in la casa de Cassandra.  Actually, they’ve been downright horrible.  But, seeing as this is my last entry for this blog, even if it is a pain in the ass, I’m going to miss it, and I want to do this one right.  Or try to, anyway.

Now, the first time I saw this, I didn’t like this story.  At all. I thought it was boring, not very good, and honestly it was really disappointing because it’s a Robert Holmes story!  And it’s one of the last ones we saw, and it was just not a good time all-around because the expectation and the bar was set so high, and it just crashed and burned spectacularly for me.

So you know what, I sat down to watch this with an air of resignation to not-liking it.  Arms crossed with a frown on my face, going “all right, impress me”.  And now I feel bad that I went in with that sort of attitude, because I was wrong.  Yeah, you heard me.  This is actually pretty good.  At least, this part is, we’ll see how the rest of this goes.

I think the most impressive thing about this story so far is the amount of world-building that Holmes manages to establish in just 24 minutes.  It really sticks with me this time around.  It’s very…  Post-modern and dystopic.  There’s the extremely ridiculous bureaucratic angle, what with the taxes for everything (including people dying!) and the paperwork.  And it’s presented in the form of the Gatherer, who is rather pompous and ridiculous himself, what with his silly clothes and manner of speaking.

And yet, it’s really fucking dark.  I mean, really.  A guy tries to commit suicide in this within the first 8 minutes.  I mean, if that doesn’t tell you anything, I don’t know what will.  And while the Gatherer is rather… whimsical, the world he inhabits and runs is decidedly not.  The juxtaposition of both of these elements reminds me a bit of “The Happiness Patrol” though not as extreme.  Here it’s much more subtle and balanced, and I like it.

And I love all the little hints and clues as to what happened here on Pluto.  Things like the common people never seeing wood before, the reveal of the multiple suns, and “praise the company”.  It’s things like these that really infuse a story with life, that really add a credible backdrop for all these antics to take place.

I also like how it takes place on Pluto; it’s far enough away that all of this is still very strange, yet close enough to home to make it… well, even stranger.  We know Pluto’s far from the sun, we know it should be this dark little rock going about its way in the solar system, and yet, here we are with plenty of sunlight and an atmosphere to boot.  How very curious.  It really adds to the mystery and is a good way of keeping us engaged.

Because there is quite a lot of exposition in this first part, since we’re still establishing everything and setting everything up and so on and so forth.  

I mean, the worker is practically an exposition machine, prattling on and on, asking the Doctor and Leela’s questions.  He doesn’t give everything away, since he doesn’t really know much other than the basics, which is why it works, I believe, and helps to strengthen this portrayal of this dystopian society.  The people know things, but only know so much, and Holmes achieves a really great balance in laying out the exposition.  He only gives us enough to keep going forward, much like the workers of Pluto, and we’re only discovering as much as he’s telling us, much like the Doctor and Leela, so we’re quickly put in their position and brought along for the ride, uncovering things as they go.  It’s fun.

I think that’s a good buzzword for this part so far.  I mean, it’s just fun.  It’s not too cerebral, but you do have to pay attention to some of the details and dialogue.  Tom Baker and Louise Jameson both are in pretty good form here, and the banter is really, really good.  And K-9 goes off on his own for a little adventure after promising to “be good” and it’s the cutest thing ever, really.  It’s just a good time.

The cliffhanger is pretty solid as well, I mean, I definitely want to know what happens next, even though it is one of your rather run-of-the-mill Doctor in peril cliffhangers.  The faces Tom Baker makes while stuck in the glass case make up for it, because I love a good old-fashioned cliffhanger face to keep me entertained.

Part 2:

Hmm, I’m wondering if the first part was a fluke?  Because I didn’t really like this part as much as I did the first.  Well, not exactly.  I enjoyed this, I suppose, but it’s kind of boring in comparison.  Not as engaging, which is a bit disheartening and I’m wondering if my initial watch of this was correct after all.

The best part about this episode is Leela, though.  I love her so much.  Holmes just gets her.  She’s no-nonsense and fiercely loyal and you know what, just plain fierce.  Like, she’s prepared to do anything to save the Doctor, even if she doesn’t quite understand the danger; I think that’s part of her charm.  She doesn’t understand fully why these people are so scared, but she doesn’t care and doesn’t have time for this bullshit.  And that scene when she’s fighting the guys who are trying to kill her with just her knife while that other guy has a whip?  So badass.  I love stuff like that. 

So apart from Leela kicking ass and the Doctor’s antics in a straight jacket, chatting up some dude (which, admittedly, also rather funny), we get the introduction of a new character, the Collector.  He’s a weird little dude with a funny voice and with his introduction to the story, we get another classic Holmes trademark: the double act.

I mean, we’ve talked about it a lot on here before, but Holmes likes to use the double-act villain in a lot of, if not all, of his stories.  It’s a trope that he uses a lot to varying degrees of success, and he uses it again here in the form of the Collector and the Gatherer.

Now, the Gatherers are agents of the Company, the ones who interact with all the lower executive staff and carry out the will of the Collector.  The Collector is somewhat “misshapen” and works from the shadows alone, interacting only with his personal guards.  The Gatherer is his avatar in the real world, his representation, as with many other Holmesian double acts.

I like his introduction here, bent over a calculator, churning out numbers, barking orders in that weird little voice of his.  I mean, he’s not very formidable by any stretch of the imagination, but the way the Gatherer genuflects in his presence tells us all we need to know.  This guy’s important, and he’s the one calling all the shots.

I like the way Holmes does so much without really telling us everything.  I mean, sure, there is a lot of exposition in this because they can’t really show us everything, but it’s stuff like this, little subtle clues that make me really happy.

I guess the thing about this story is it’s really witty.  A very dry, sharp wit.  It’s clearly making fun of all sorts of bureaucracy and mixing in that a fairly dark dystopian vision of the future, and it’s a really interesting mix.   But it’s also fairly funny, as well.  Like the whole exchange between the Doctor and Bishop in the correction center.  It’s so cordial and calm, even though they’re lying on tables in straight jackets, being prepped for torture, essentially.  It’s a curious juxtaposition.

We get more dystopic stuff too, in the form of the reveal of the PCM gas being pumped into the common work areas and living areas, an anxiety-inducing agent that quells the population and keeps them under the Company’s thumb.  I like these little details that keep cropping up and add to the rich backdrop of this world.  And like… even though the sets are really cheap, and they use that white corridor a lot I think it really adds to everything.  The stark white corridors are really surreal and add to the overall aesthetic of this story.

Though what is up with this cliffhanger, like.  I think it’s lame.  At least they follow-through for the Doctor one, like he actually gets gassed and carted off instead of escaping at the last minute, but they just end on Leela’s face as these guards are closing in and it’s supposed to be really tension-inducing and dramatic but wow no.

Part 3:

Okay I just need to point out that the guy who plays Bishop is so fucking tall, I’m laughing really hard because Tom Baker is already really tall, but just look at them.  It’s so funny.

The cliffhanger resolution in this story is really lazy.  Especially in this part.  Like, at the end of part two, it’s all dramatic and close-up on Leela’s face with the vehicle heading towards them, and I guess it’s okay, I mean, it’s nothing stellar, but then it literally just keeps going and her answer is “K-9, hide” like what the fuck is that shit.  I hate these sorts of cliffhangers the most.  It’s just…  ugh.  It’s just lazy and I’m not a fan.

And this fucking story is so cheap, like you can just tell.  I mean, it lends a certain charm, as it does with most Classic Who, but at the same time, I can’t help but laugh as they drive by fairly slowly down that white corridor all victorious-like.  I mean, it’s not supposed to be funny, but goddammit I laughed.  And then Leela gets shot down, which is… meh.  To be fair, the Doctor got captured already, so I guess now it’s Leela’s turn.  It’s kind of a staple of Doctor Who stories, anyway.  Otherwise it’d be too easy to just incite this revolution and then make a run for it.  Gotta have some complications and conflict to muck up the works so the end feels relatively earned.

Also I know K-9 is basically a talking glorified laser gun but I think he’s really funny in this.  All the beats with him making some comment or trying to get some kind of approval and then the silly music cue and he lowers his tail in sadness or something make me giggle.  K-9 isn’t really a strong character to begin with, he’s just around for fun, and I feel Holmes really taps into that well here.  And he is pretty helpful throughout, what with stunning all the guards and finally getting to prove his usefulness and get some approval when he goes into the vent to bust the valve in order to get Leela out of the steamer towards the end, which is cool.

I think one of my favorite things about this story is how it balances out the laughs and poking fun at everything with the dark stuff intertwined in, like this scene with threatening to torture the Doctor with this red hot iron, like what the fuck.  Also the steamer.  In fact, just the whole idea that someone would publicly execute someone using pressurized steam is fucked up.  Like, really really fucked up.

But then you have all this stuff with the revolution and how fucking easy it is for these people to go from “we’re not helping you” to “YEAH LET’S BURN THIS MOTHAFUCKA DOWN” and it’s just so funny and on-the-nose about everything, which I’m seeing now the more I look.  It’s kind of everywhere.  And it’s great, I love it.  Like how they determine that the PCM is the source of the company’s power and how they keep the people at bay, so they figure out where it is and just shut it down in five minutes.  Someone throw an easy button in there so the Doctor can push it while looking at the screen all smug and self-satisfied the way he does best.  Granted, there’s the complication with Leela getting captured and about to get steamed alive like a clam that makes it almost work, but it’s just so funny.  Everything’s just really funny in this episode.  Or maybe I’m just finally acclimatized to the sense of humor it’s going for.

I mean, there’s definitely some stuff I don’t like in this, but there’s also a lot of greatness.  Tom Baker’s actually quite great in this, and I like Pennant Roberts’ direction in this quite a bit.  Louise Jameson’s really great too.  You can tell she’s excited that there’s actually a bit for her to do in this, because when she’s onscreen I just love it.  I love her sassing the Collector and the guard when she’s all up in the straightjacket, it’s perfect.

And like a lot of part threes, not a lot really happens in this, it’s just a lot of running around and a few more details to set everything into motion.  And I don’t really mind that, because what we get here is pretty good, but I’m still sad this story seems to be going downhill from the coolness that was the first part.  

Part 4:

So the more I think about it, the more I’m coming to realize that this is just a really great characterization of a standard Doctor Who episode, which is all quite meta.

I mean, you have the Collector, who I haven’t really talked about much in this yet, but he’s so single-minded about his objective, which is to make a profit.  Which is the most boring/silly objective ever, especially if you’re not into economics or business, but because he is focused so whole-heartedly on it, he makes it work. 

And he’s really fucked up.  I mean, at the beginning of this you have him giggling about how Leela’s about to be steamed and whining about how he can’t hear her screams and how disappointing that is.  That’s so twisted.  And then you have this conversation with the Doctor in which he spills the beans about The Company, and he blatantly says several times that he doesn’t really give two shits about what happens to the humans on this planet.  They’re just a swarm, a workforce; they’re numbers on a piece of paper, a small portion of a branch belonging to this great Company.  And from the beginning you’ve had the Doctor—or, at least, Tom Baker’s Doctor—championing human beings and marveling at what they’re capable of, and what they have the potential to be.  And really, now that I think about it, Robert Holmes wrote that story too, so you can really tell that this is tapping into his vision of who the Doctor is as a character, even if it is really far-removed from the general aesthetic he was going for as script editor.

So the Collector makes a nice antithesis against which the Doctor can work.  It is very silly all the same, but then again, this era of Doctor Who is about the humor, and Tom Baker really makes it work here, I think.  Especially when the Doctor and Leela make it to the Collector’s palace and start poking about, and trying to puzzle through everything and help stir things up a little more.  The Doctor’s really in his element here, and even though Tom Baker is, perhaps, a bit more actiony than other Doctors (though nobody tops Pertwee in that department, let’s be real) and really tries to play up the physical comedy aspects, the Doctor’s main superpower is his intelligence and sharp wit, and you really see him putting that to use here in this final showdown of sorts.

Like, the opening bits when the Doctor is rescuing Leela?  That’s all well and good, and it’s supposed to be exciting, but it really feels like there’s no sense of urgency to the resolution of that moment.  And perhaps the scene is just edited together or directed poorly, but I don’t know what it is.  The scene when the Doctor and the Collector are talking is far more engaging to me than the opening several minutes or so of this episode are, and we’re rescuing Leela out of a steamer for god’s sake.  And that guy totally blows their cover by using the radio when the Doctor said not too, it’s clearly a raising the stakes moment but like… nothing happens?  And they just get out of there while they freak out about it and do nothing.

Perhaps that’s the point, though?  I don’t even know anymore.

There are some really great lines and exchanges in here though.  And not just in this episode, either, like that’s been a motif throughout this whole story, and it’s great.  Little subtle reminders that, yes, this is written by a really great writer, and here’s why.  ALSO that set-up with the guard that the Doctor hypnotizes instead of letting Leela kill him?  Probably my favorite thing in this entire story.  Because the Doctor eventually triggers him out of his sleep by talking to the Collector, and he’s going to kill the Doctor, and then Leela ends up throwing a knife at him and killing him anyway, it’s literally perfect.

I suppose I could go on, but I’d just be talking myself in circles, and you get the idea by now, I’m fairly sure.

Also they totally tossed the Gatherer off the same roof Cordo was going to jump from at the beginning, which just illustrates yet again how hilariously dark this is.  It's fantastic.

I just love it.

Final Thoughts?: Am I allowed to get a little weepy and nostalgic here, since this is my last blog post?  I mean, you know what I thought about this story already, right?

Okay, okay, I'll do that bit first and then get all high school graduation on you guys afterwards.

I'm actually really glad that I ended up liking this story as much as I do now.  It took me a while to warm to it, but once I "got" it, everything just fell into place and sort of clicked.  I was able to pick up the humor better, see and understand everything this story was going for, it was a most magnificent moment indeed.

And I know the Williams era gets a lot of shit (well, we give it a lot of shit on here, anyway) but it's not without its gems, and I think "The Sun Makers" qualifies as one of them.  It's a fun little poke at British Colonialism with some glorious bureaucracy jokes and moments, and it's just a good time, overall.  I think both Tom Baker and Louise Jameson both do a great job with what they're given to work with here, and that makes it all the better, really.

It's fairly well-directed, the guest cast is a tad more than tolerable at the very least (some of them are quite good, really), and it's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is quite an enjoyable outing.

And now comes the part where I get all sentimental.

Again, I'm really, really, really, REALLY sorry this was so late.  A lot of really shitty life events decided to converge on me all at once the weekend before this was set to go out, and it's taken me this long to kinda deal with it enough to get this thing written.

But it's also the fact that part of me was putting this off because I didn't want to finish it.  Because to finish it means no more blog posts written by me on this wonderful little blog, and that's really sad.  I've been editing and contributing to this blog since the very beginning in March 2010.  I mean, I know Matt's done a lot of the heavy lifting on this, writing way more of the posts than I have, figuring out the line up, etc etc.  But this blog is a big deal and a fairly big part of my life by this point.  Hell, if it weren't for this blog, I wouldn't be an official published author (as of next week, ahhh crazy).

And you guys have been great, every single person who has ever read anything on this blog, even if you didn't agree.  That's fine, we all have our own opinions.  But thank you for supporting in your own way, it means a whole lot.

I'm just gonna end here with another 'thank you' before I make myself cry.

And I suppose... if it's my last chance to say it... Rose Tyler, I--

Next Time!: First Doctor! Barbara and Ian and Susan! A two-parter! Really trippy stuff that happens! And the whole story takes place inside the TARDIS (which is really awesome)! Matt returns once again for his look at "The Edge of Destruction!"

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