It’s November 26th, 1977. Between now and December 17th, an airplane carrying the University of Evansville basketball team will crash, killing the entire team, another plane crash at Madeira Airport in Portugal kills a hundred and thirty-one, and sex worker Marilyn Moore is injured in an attack by the Yorkshire Ripper. Despite the relative paucity of major disasters, the world still creeps ever closer to the eschaton and The Sun Makers airs.
The usual observation about The Sun Makers is that Robert Holmes attempted to whine about his taxes and accidentally wrote a Marxist parable. Annoyingly, the usual observation is in this instance correct. The Sun Makers is, on a superficial level, about taxes—there’s a joke about a “P45 return corridor,” several cracks about needing a “wily accountant,” and the basic fact that all of the crippling payments the population of Pluto is forced to make are explicitly called taxes. And yet any attempt to interpret it as the whinging of a conservative writer grumpy that he should actually be expected to contribute to the greater society swiftly runs aground in the face of practically everything that isn’t one of these details.
The biggest problem is that Pluto is not so much a state as a work colony. And while there are countless tax jokes throughout the story, the larger focus ends up being on the labor conditions, with emphasis put on the fact that everybody works double shifts and gets precious little allotment of “sleep time.” Perhaps most importantly, the “taxes” are levied by “the company,” which is also the planet’s sole employer. This fundamentally shifts what the story is about away from taxes and towards exploitation, since what’s happening is effectively that the “taxes” are just a failure to pay wages disguised as taxation.
There are complexities here that can’t be reduced entirely—if one wants to be precise what Holmes has depicted is a grotesque form of state capitalism, which is to say that Holmes is still making an attack on the left, at least as understood by the right—Thatcher railed against state capitalism by name in the House of Commons, declaring that “where there is state capitalism there will never be political freedom” around the time this was being written. And the decision to make The Collector a visual parody of Denis Healey ultimately makes it hard to remove the idea that this story is just a flat-out endorsement of Thatcherism in the buildup to her eventual triumph in the 1979 general election.
And yet all of this has to be balanced against the fact that this is a story in which the workers stage a mass revolt to secure the means of production in the face of a system that sees them as nothing other than raw materials to exploit for profit and then abandon to die, where the ruling class is literally hurled off the roof of a building, and where all of the focus sits upon the dignity of the common worker and the horror is at the degradation he experiences.
The obvious question is how these two things can come together. Both the Thatcherite and Marxist readings of the story are tremendously well-supported, after all, to the point where it’s impossible to isolate one and proclaim it the correct reading. Even the blunt instrument of biographical criticism seems insufficient. Sure, Robert Holmes really was an ex-cop who was complaining about his taxes, and anyone imagining he didn’t vote Tory in 1979 is probably deluding themselves. But he’s also always had an eye on the lower ends of the social totem pole and a passion for con men and petty criminals that made him a strange bedfellow at best for the establishment.
None of this is mysterious—most can be explained as a special and mildly idiosyncratic iteration of the well documented tendency for conservatism to mask itself in the trappings of radicalism and rebellion. But there’s a fundamental insincerity to this—it’s only ever the trappings of rebellion. Conservatism cosplays as radicalism, but it’s not actually engaged in it. Holmes, on the other hand, clearly has genuine and authentic love for grifters and working stiffs. More to the point, he’s skilled enough to make them shine in his hands. His underclass characters sparkle with a vibrance that introduces sincere radicalism, especially when it includes characters like Vorg in Carnival of Monsters or Garron in The Ribos Operation. The Sun Makers doesn’t go quite this far—the equivalent character would be Mandrel, and while he makes good in the end he spends an awful long time being a bloodthirsty asshole. But the Doctor is close enough to the con men characters to still get the overall effect.
What, then, are we to make of this breathtakingly unstable political system? The answer does not have to be coherent—most politics aren’t in practice. If they were, they’d either openly admit to being apocalyptic death cults or actually do something about the destruction of the planet. With all mainstream political views thus eliminated, we are left with views that, like The Sun Makers, fundamentally contradict themselves. These are still interesting, however.
In Holmes’s case, the contradiction is informed on one hand by his deep skepticism of the people in charge and a genuine sense that people on the bottom have more insight than those at the top. It’s not hard to see how an ex-soldier and cop might come by this perspective. It’s far from the only way these things can go, but there certainly is a significant body of people who come out of regimented social structures such as those with an immense mistrust for the chain of command and a sense that the world consists of enormously competent people being managed by fools. To get from here to a love of con men and grifters is similarly easy—they’re lowly types who find a way to exist outside the regimented structure, fundamentally disconnected from their alleged place in the order of things.
Where the conservatism comes in is in the fact that Holmes is fundamentally disinterested in imagining any sort of alternative to this. He is at the end of the day a cynic, more interested in depicting the world’s failings than in their correction. This is clear in the run of previously discussed gothic stories, in which he pastiches genres without ever really challenging their structures, sending them up whilst remaining fundamentally faithful to them, including many of their worst and most racist aspects. Indeed, this observation helps make sense of what is otherwise a curious, if rarely remarked upon aspect of Holmes’s larger Doctor Who career—the fact that the period in which he’s helping run the show is the one in which he turns out a bunch of genre pastiches in which con men and a perspective that starts at the bottom of society are prevalent. He contributes these heavily to the Pertwee era—Terror of the Autons and Carnival of Monsters fit the bill—and as soon as he’s no longer running things he turns out The Sun Makers and The Ribos Operation, but in the period where he’s in charge there’s relatively little of it save for occasional glimpses in stories that are mostly focused on other things such as doing unreconstructed Fu Manchu riffs or accidentally endorsing fascism. Once one recognizes the precise nature of Holmes’s ribbings of society, however, these genre pastiches begin to fall into something resembling context.
But The Sun Makers still vexes this. After all, it does propose a solution: a workers’ revolution. It’s entirely clear-headed about this. And yet there’s a strange contentlessness to the revolution. Doctor Who is never very interested in sticking around to clean up and establish a new status quo, but events are rarely so completely presented as a class revolt as they are here. Nor are the transformations of the status quo usually quite so free of content. The form is all there—working class rebellion and, in a very “current for 1977” way, a specific focus on how the media is central to a revolt. But there’s still no sense of ideology on the part of the rebels—a jarring omission.
All of which leads towards the most striking thing about this revolution: what needs to be done in order to accomplish it. It’s gradually established over the first two episodes that the Company maintains control by constantly pumping an anxiety-inducing chemical into the air, which the Doctor describes as “eliminating freedom.” Successfully destroying this system finally allows the population the courage to rebel.
As Macguffins go it’s fine enough, but in a story in which so much has aged well it’s a surprisingly duff note. Looking at The Sun Makers now, the conceit that a murderous dictatorship needs to illicitly dose the people with mind control drugs in order to ensure their compliance feels almost cruel in its ludicrous optimism. The reality—entirely omitted from The Sun Makers despite its inclusion of a media dimension to revolution—is that a light patina of propaganda can get an alarming chunk of te populace to cheer for their own demise. One can simply look at the protests going on across the United States, for instance, to see that it’s entirely possible to get people to show up to a protest and angrily demand the right to go back to work in the middle of a pandemic. Easier, in fact, than it is to get a substantial social movement together to give frontline medical workers adequate equipment and wages even remotely commensurate with their importance.
Indeed, one of the great horrors of the world is the sheer degree of inertia against revolution. One need only look at the last few years of American history to get a vivid and sickening sense of just how unlikely a revolution is. Wildly unchecked corruption, concentration camps for infants, catastrophic lacks of basic competence, multiple sexual assaults, and now the aggressive mismanagement of a pandemic that is killing tens of thousands of people have so far led to no significant populist uprising or indeed pressure for one. The left’s most plausible plan was “what if we meekly endure four years of this and then vote for a socialist whose socialism is so dilluted as to be homeopathic,” and when this failed to pan out their sole revision was “Ok, well how about the same candidate we ran last time only as an old white guy?” Indeed, the most plausible populist uprising in America right now is probably a full-on fascist one to install Donald Trump as a dictator for life.
It’s ironic, in other words, that The Sun Makers should seem to so thoroughly reject the vision of The Deadly Assassin in favor of suggesting that history and change can happen, and happen on a grassroots level at that. Because the vision it provides is, ultimately, one that is so utterly implausible as to suggest that stasis really is the only way of things.
But this is, in the end, how revolution works. It is an alluring fantasy, precisely because it seems as thought it can solve most problems. The world is, after all, cruel, exploitative, and fundamentally fucked on a deep and troubling level. Dramatic change to it seems like the option. And yet there is precious little reason to think that this is actually an option. The reality is that populist revolution, while obviously desirable, is an absent god that will not come no matter how much we plead. The apocalypse will not be averted by changing this world for a better one, no matter how much we dream.