Day 237 — August 25th 2021

The Sun Makers Parts One and Two

The Sun Makers — Part One

The Sun Makers is a perfect example of a Doctor Who story which I know I’ve seen before — I watched it for my last marathon and will have reached this one around the summer of 2014 — but can remember almost nothing about it. Indeed this is a good example because the only thing I can remember is something I said last time around, but which I have zero context for. I can recall saying last time that the set design for the story was all wrong, and that it would work better if it were full of rusting machinery. I’m fairly sure I even cited the barn from the farm I grew up on as a reference for how it should be styled. I don’t have much about the design in this first episode to complain about, so I can only assume that I’ve still got that to come, and I look forward to seeing if I can work out what made me think of that before…!

Indeed, there’s not a great deal of design work on display in this episode, which is largely shot out on location in Bristol. It looks pretty spectacular in a grim sort of way, and it’s not the kind of location that the series has ever given us before, which only serves to make it all the more interesting visually. The best location is undeniably the rooftop on which the TARDIS lands, and there’s some fantastic long shots which really sell the scale of the place. There’s a moment in particular where Doctor Who and Leela peer over the edge and you get to see some of the sheer drop below them.

When they introduced the new TARDIS exterior at the start of last season I didn’t have much nice to say about it, and that opinion hasn’t really been swayed as the episodes have rolled by. Here, though, framed beautifully in the centre of the screen with so much open space around it, I can almost think it looks quite good.

It’s a shame when they cut to a model shot of the city our heroes are looking out over, because it’s an increasingly rare example of the show misfiring. The model is a bit flat and lifeless, and I can’t really see what I’m supposed to be looking at. I can’t help thinking that they’d have been better off going for miniature versions of the actual building they filmed on — tens of them stretching off into the distance like a grey sea. I wonder if that could be arranged for the Blu ray edition?

We get some great locations to represent the inside of the Megropolis too, including a brilliant circular tunnel which feels like it goes on for an age and looks so much more interesting than most of the corridors we get in the show. I suppose it’s not often the go on location for a simple corridor shot, so it likely stands out anyway as a result. There’s a handful of other locations scattered across the episode and they’re mostly gorgeously industrial, so I can perhaps see the beginnings of where I want the studio design to go later on.

All the film material is shot beautifully, and it’s no surprise to see that Pennant Roberts is back on directing duties with this story — his work on The Face of Evil was similarly exciting during the film sequences. There’s some shots of Leela in particular here which work incredibly well — the perfect combination of framing and lighting and performance which all come together to make me realise that I might actually have a bit of a crush on Leela. I’m not sure I’ve ever really had that with a Doctor Whocompanion before.

As for Tom Baker, though… I sense we’re reaching the point in which his performance as Doctor Who is beginning to change. We’re about half way through his era (by my reckoning the half way point falls in this story) and in both Image of the Fendahl and this one I’m starting to notice an element of him not taking things quite so seriously. He’s always been very funny and extravagant in the part, but the TARDIS scene in this episode is mostly him just messing about and being a bit silly for the sake of it. He certainly feels like a different character here than he does in the location material, and I wonder what happened between the two? It’s something I’m looking forward to keeping an eye on, because he’s been so incredible up to now, and I hope I’m going to keep thinking that as we move into the latter half of his tenure.

I complained yesterday about Doctor Who fetching a gun so a member of the guest cast could commit suicide, and it feels like this episode is going out of its way to apologise for that scene, because the very first thing Doctor Who and Leela do here is stop a man from jumping to his death. There’s something wonderful about the way they work in tandem to save his life — Doctor Who distracting him with small talk and Jelly Babies (although it’s actual a Liquorice Allsort he proffers) while Leela sneaks around to grab him. It’s fantastic, and automatically bumps this episode up a bit in my mind.

There’s plenty of other things I could talk about with this one, but I’m going to bring myself to a halt here so that I’ve things to talk about as the story unfolds. I’m just going to quote my favourite exchange of dialogue from the episode, and then leave you with a 9/10.

Leela: ‘These taxes… they are like sacrifices to tribal gods?’
Doctor Who: ‘Well, roughly speaking, but paying tax is more painful.’

The Sun Makers — Part Two

Regular readers will know that I’m a sucker for an Orwell-esque dystopian future, and I think the one presented here in The Sun Makers is one of the best that Doctor Who has ever given us. Holmes has been getting better and better at developing believable worlds during his time on the programme, and this feels like the culmination of everything he’s learned during his time as Script Editor.

Key to all that is that none of it feels shoehorned in. We get told lots and lots about this world — mostly via Cordo — and I just go along with it all. Everything here is so normal to him that it feels only natural that he should want to explain it. It feels like believable speech, where we’re a million miles away from the Sensorites asking each other where a human’s heart is.

Even some of the characters here wouldn’t feel massively out of place in my other favourite dystopian Doctor WhoThe Macra Terror. When the Gatherer bows and scrapes to the Collector in this episode there’s something wonderfully over the top about the performance which reminds me a lot of the Pilot from that earlier tale.

Part One is the really good episode for world-building, but there’s plenty of it on show here, too. The big one is the idea that the air in the Megropolis has been laced with a drug to keep the citizens in line. It’s probably not a massively original idea, but to someone like me who’s not massively clued up about science fiction it came as a brilliant revelation, and it’s delivered brilliantly by Tom Baker who seems to be engaging more with the script in this episode than he did in the last;

Bisham: ‘You know something about chemistry?’
Doctor Who: ‘Enough to recognise an anxiety inducing agent when I smell one.’
Bisham: ‘No, no, it eliminates airborne infections.’
Doctor Who: ‘That’s what they tell you. It also eliminates freedom.’

Perhaps even better than that is the moment later on when Leela feels the effects of the drug and is terrified of the fact that she’s feeling scared. She’s so used to being the powerful hunter who remains cool and collected, and I think it’s far more effectively done here than in Image of the Fendahl where she’s paralysed by fear simply because the plot requires it. In this episode her concern feels natural and earned, so I go along with it too. It also gives K9 his first chance to actually do something since being brought aboard the TARDIS, as he’s able to analyse the air.

Leela gets a very strong episode on the whole here. She starts off a prisoner of the underground rebels but ends up breaking free, and giving them a hell of a telling off in the process, in what might just be her most powerful scene ever;

Mandrell: ‘And that’s why we won’t raid it. Because it’s guarded by him Inner Retinue and they’ve got things called guns. And what have we got?’
Leela: ‘You? You have nothing, Mandrell. No pride, no courage, no manhood. Even animals protect their own. You say to me you want to live. Well I’ll say this
to you. If you lie skulking in this black pit while the Doctor dies, then you will live, but without honour!’
Mandrell: ‘Someone silence the termagin. She’s crazy.’
Leela: ‘I want six of you to come with me. Now, who amongst you is a true man?’

I’ve said it before but it really does bear repeating; Louise Jameson is brilliant in this role, and I think we’re genuinely lucky to have gotten her in Doctor Who right at the height of her powers. I’ve not seen her in anything much outside of the show, but they’ve recently added Tenko to BritBox, and I hear nothing but good reviews for the series, and I think I’ll be following Jameson there before too long.

If there’s anywhere that this episode becomes a bit of a let down, then it’s in the disparity between the sets and the location work. I’ve already praised the latter today, but the former would be pretty rubbish even if they weren’t in direct comparison. Take the underground hideout of the rebels, for example. There’s something so theatrical about the black drapes and occasional bits of scenery that it honestly looks like you’re watching the recording of a stage show. The performances from some of the guest cast in those scenes doesn’t help, either.

The poor set is shown up even more by the fact that when Leela and Cordo emerge from the sewers and onto a real location it looks so much better. I mean so much better. Compare these two shots;

This is one of those times where I’m going to bang on about wishing the whole show could have been recorded on location using film because it makes the whole thing look so much more real and beautiful. The same is true of the regular corridors in this story. We see the studio versions a lot across the episode. Plain white flats shoved into the corner of a studio at Television Centre. They look rubbish — like the most half-arsed set design they’ve ever done on the show. It’s only in the final minute that you see the location corridors and realise what it is they’re trying to replicate;

As ever, the use of film makes the location look far more impressive (and expensive) anyway, but one shot looks like it’s from a dystopian feature film while the other is very much a kids show made by the BBC. It’s a long time since I’ve lamented having to go into the studio as much as I do with this story.

8/10

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