Robert Holmes was angry. He was working in two capacities, as a staff writer for the BBC and as a freelance. That meant he ended up being taxed twice on the same money, due to an odd quirk of the income tax system at the time. Being Robert Holmes, he decided to vent his frustration about this by writing a Doctor Who story, with a villain who has big bushy eyebrows, just like the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, Denis Healey. As an added insult, the Collector’s natural form is a fungus. Oh, and he is from a race of aliens called the Usurians.
Usury (noun): the activity of lending someone money with the agreement that they will pay back a very much larger amount of money later. (Cambridge Dictionary).
The word is clearly pejorative, with implications of unfairness. Sadly, most of our understanding of usury comes from anti-Jewish works such as The Merchant of Venice. Historically, Jewish immigrants found it very difficult to gain employment in Britain. Money lending was one area open to them, as it was considered anti-Christian, leaving a gap in the market, so Jews gained a reputation for the practice. As a result they suffered considerable persecution, one of the worst examples being the massacres of Jews in 1189 and 1190. So this is a tricky area to get into for a writer, because it has a whiff of anti-Semitism, simply due to the historical implications. Holmes manages to dodge that bullet by basing the Collector on the contemporary figure of Healey rather than making him an obvious Shylock parallel. Instead he does something that isn’t a whole lot better: makes him an evil disabled person. Doctor Who does rather a lot of that, unfortunately. We’re still focussing on difference as evil. It’s just a different difference.
To drive his point home about the supposed evils of the British tax system at the time, Holmes throws in a few references to taxation jargon. The funniest example is probably this:
CORDO: If we’re caught in this corridor, we’ll have no chance, Leela.
LEELA: What do you suggest?
CORDO: We must be daring. If we take the P45 return route they’ll never expect to find us there.
P45 is of course the tax code given to an employee when they lose their job, so it is a perfect name for the most dangerous route on Pluto. A story about tax makes for a thin plot, so Holmes fits it within a wider exploration of exploitation. A clue to this is the choice of planet, which is not just a random selection.
Plutocracy (noun): a system of government in which the richest people in a country rule or have power. (Cambridge Dictionary)
The planet is under the control of a company, evoking our Imperial past when the East India Company commanded a huge army. Holmes takes exploitation of the poor to enrich the privileged classes to its logical extremes. People are just commodities, who are taxed to the point of suicide. It’s pretty bleak, even putting a nastier spin on the drugging by gas plot from The Macra Terror, and in his typical anarchist style there is only one thing for the Doctor to do about this: start a revolution.
It’s unflinching stuff. The Doctor is inspired to get involved by a stunningly nasty situation. A man is being taxed to the point of unrepayable debt due to the death of his father, and is about to take his own life. The Doctor helps the oppressed masses to rise up, paraphrasing the Communist Manifesto in the process, and they kill Hade in an act of shockingly human violence. This is not a man being gunned down by a space weapon shooting a ray of light or something. It is a man being thrown from a roof.
Hade is of course deliberately written as an irredeemable character, so the story has nothing to say about his violent death other than to observe. In a glorious double pun, Pluto is not just chosen for its similarity to the term “plutocracy”, but also because the planet was named after the god of the underworld, Pluto, in Classical mythology. A later name for Pluto is Hades, so Hade is clearly a character who is being written as inherently evil. Being a Holmes story, evil doesn’t have to mean humourless. Hade’s method of addressing the Collector becomes increasingly insulting as the situation declines, ending up with expressions like “your Grossness”, and this:
Your Orotundity, my MegroGuards are outnumbered by the rabble.
Orotund (adjective): marked by fullness, strength and clarity of sound, sonorous, pompous, bombastic. (Merriam-Webster, because it’s apparently too erudite a word for Cambridge online)
It’s a word with strong classist overtones. Orotundity, pomposity, bombast. Historically, these are traits chiefly to be found amongst the upper echelons of society. But what is the function of a parable about class? Those can work brilliantly, highlighting issues of imbalance, but you can’t crack that nut with a sledgehammer. Holmes is so angry that he takes everything to extremes. The villains are irredeemable, the level of state control and oppression is at its worst extremes possible, people are being drugged into submission, taxation is basically taking everything from the workers, the ruling class has absolute power and is using it not just to be orotund, but to be pure, moustache-twirling evil. And when a story gets to a point where a man gets physically thrown off the roof and that seems like a logical and unproblematical solution, then we have a lack of subtlety that fails in its approach because it doesn’t really make us think about anything. Show us some shades of grey, and we might find our worldview challenged. Show us a society of pure evil and total oppression overthrown, and the message is lost.
So what point is Holmes actually getting across to the viewers here? Ultimate, oppressive power is bad. Yes, we already know that. It might as well be a Dalek story. But for all its overcooking of the moral message, The Sun Makers still manages to entertain us on a budget that had been reduced to a pittance by spiralling inflation at the time, which is a lot more than can be said about most of Season 15. Ambition is scaled back, and instead the tightly contained story idea does the heavy lifting. We are about to see where the opposite approach will lead… RP
The view from across the pond:
I got involved with Doctor Who when I was 8, so it should come as no surprise that The Sunmakers didn’t appeal to me on my early viewing. In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense because as a kid, we don’t pay taxes; we have no understanding of the evil that awaits our adult selves. But as an adult… well, that’s a different kettle of fish. Suddenly everything is taxed. And in the case of nouns, I can appreciate that. In other words, we get taxed for a thing, like say that Doctor Who DVD you just bought. I can appreciate that taxation; in some form or another the government gets a cut for helping make that product available for us. It had to be moved across borders, there are all kinds of things that happen that make the taxation of that thing acceptable in my mind. What I don’t understand is how we can be taxed for a verb, as in the work we perform. It’s not like when I’m sick a government worker steps in to do my job for the day. We’re taxed literally for our own hard work, which seems to be the logic of poisonous fungi like the Usarians. So when Robert Holmes decided to do one of his typical commentaries, this makes for better material than some of his anti-industry, or Buddhism-gone-wrong messages. Let’s face it: if you’re secretly relaying a message, you need to do something that impacts everyone and taxes are a universal constant!
As an adult, so much of The Sunmakers resonates with me. Even the Usarian name is a take on the word usurious, which has to do with financial rates. Look up synonyms and you’ll see “extorting”, “miserly”, “penny-pinching”. Sound like The Collector? It should! The story is chock full of humorous jibes about taxes. In fact, early on we see this is going to be very different from other science fiction stories, and yet somehow relatable.
Doctor: Somehow I have the impression you’re thinking of killing yourself.
Cordo: It’s the taxes.
Cordo: It’s the taxes. I can’t pay the taxes.
Doctor: Oh, the taxes. My dear old thing, all you need is a wiley accountant. Would you care for a jelly baby?
Leave it to Tom Baker to make light of a situation like this, on the side of a 1000 storey building as a man considers throwing himself to his death. And it is the humor that really makes the episode too. As fantastic as it is to see a show brilliantly poking holes in the tax structure, it’s the absurdity of it that makes it a great story. And Tom is the master of the absurd. For instance, after trying to speak to a guard who steadfastly ignores him, he asks his fellow prisoner if the guard is deaf. When he’s told no, the guard then goes to put a piece of high-tech torture on the Doctor’s head. He has this to say: “Ah. Right. I’m glad he isn’t deaf. …I would have felt guilty. Don’t leave it in too long, it goes frizzy.” He’s treating the device as if it’s a hair dryer! Absolutely fantastic.
The entire moral of the story can come down to one question the Doctor asks when speaking to that “bloodsucking leech”, the Collector. He asks “don’t you think commercial imperialism is as bad as military conquest?” The idea is driven home by the absolute absurdity of taxes and literally being taxed to death. Perhaps it is as bad as military conquest… perhaps it’s worse. Let’s face it, with one, you know what’s happening. The other is insidious, invasive. Perhaps the question should have been “don’t you think it’s worse?” And then one can’t help but wonder if the Usarians were behind the behavior in Peter Capaldi’s episode Oxygen.
The comedy of the episode keeps it fresh and moving even with some very weak sets. Nothing stands out as anything more than basic during this story. The Collector’s defeat is fun to watch thought. From his hand being crushed in a door to the button popping out of his controls, it’s an enjoyable defeat. Imagine being able to flush taxes down a toilet the way the Doctor does to the Collector? How great would that be!
Once again, Doctor Who shows us that we can tell an entertaining, thought-provoking story even when fighting against things as commonplace as taxes! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Underworld