|It’s Marlon Brando playing Professor X!|
It’s November 26, 1977. ABBA remain at number one with “Name of the Game,” but are overtaken by Wings with “Mull of Kintyre,” a Paul McCartney-penned ode to Scotland that will manage a nine week run at #1 that will keep it in place through Christmas and, indeed, through the next story. Queen, the Bee Gees, and the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band also chart.
In real news, British Airways establishes regular Concorde service between New York and London. The International Fund for Agricultural Development is established at the UN. The President of the Central African Republic declares himself emperor, and in the US the cable channel Nickelodeon launches, albeit under its original name of Pinwheel, which would last about eighteen months before the channel relaunched as Nickelodeon.
While on television we have Robert Holmes, frequent genius and occasional cynical dick, penning his departure script. This was actually filmed prior to Image of the Fendahl, which was the script Holmes actually departed during, with Anthony Read picking up midway through. But in running order it serves to continue the spurious tradition Dicks cited of the outgoing script editor getting a script on or around his departure date. (Actually, as I noted at the time Dicks pulled the trick on Holmes, the tradition was kind of real. In practice, Dicks was the seventh regular script editor of Doctor Who, and four of his six predecessors got a writing credit in the story after they left.)
The Sun Makers is a bit of an odd duck. Much like The Horror of Fang Rock, it is a story that it is currently very much trendy to enjoy. But whereas Fang Rock is very much a rediscovered classic that everyone now appreciates, The Sun Makers serves as more of a shibboleth – a story used to determine whether someone is a trendy Doctor Who fan or simply a traditionalist spouting received wisdom. Real fans love this story as an overlooked classic.
Except, of course, the problem with trendy classics is that there quickly becomes the countertrend. Now that everyone knows to revere The Sun Makers as an inadvertent triumph for Robert Holmes, the trendy thing to do is to complain about it. The easiest way to do this is to be political about it, which is easy enough if you’re a leftist nut job like me. Because this story is overtly a political satire about the horrors of taxes. And if you, say, happen to live in a country where one of the two political parties is stringently opposed to any tax increases whatsoever even though the tax rates are at a near historic low and even though this is one of the two major reasons for a massive budget deficit… well, it’s just kind of hard to get excited about a story that rails against the evils of taxation.
This is not quite fair, though. First of all, a blanket position that taxes are always good is as ludicrous as the belief that cutting taxes is always a good idea. The relationship between taxation and the economy is very complex and does not reduce well into a position that they should always go up or always go down. This, of course, bodes poorly in a two party system in which one gets to vote for, essentially, a lever to push them up or down instead of for an actually coherent plan. In reality, of course, there is such a thing as excessive taxation, just like there’s such a thing as insufficient taxation. To claim that it is impossible for taxes to be an unjust is simply absurd. I have no idea whether the tax situation Robert Holmes was pissed about – an issue having to do with the government treating him as having two jobs when he was simultaneously script-editing and writing Doctor Who in Season Fourteen – was, in fact, excessive and unfair. But it’s certainly possible that it was. Injustices of this sort happen, including in the criminally under-taxed US. (Ours is called the Alternative Minimum Tax – a measure put into place to snag the very rich who were using deductions to reduce their tax burden to nothing that slowly crept/was pushed by the Reagan administration to arbitrarily whacking middle class families.)
But even if it wasn’t, the topical snarking about taxes is just a specific occasion for a more fundamental sort of moral critique. Holmes may be a misanthropic, petty cynic, but even he wouldn’t write a story that’s just about his tax problems. And so there has to be a broader issue in this story, and it’s one that gives it an altogether more sympathetic viewpoint. Some time ago, in comments, I made the assertion that Robert Holmes was a liberal’s conservative. This, more than just about any other Holmes script, demonstrates the point; this isn’t really a story about taxation. It’s a story about exploitative labor conditions that borders on the overtly Marxist. Taxes may be what the company’s exploitation of the population is called, but let’s pause for a moment and look at exactly how Pluto works. This is a story about a private company that runs the city and is seeking to make a profit by recklessly overcharging citizens for everything.
This is not a story about taxation. It’s a story about the greed of the powerful, and specifically the greed of businesses. The scene at the start about death taxes (with its wickedly funny moment in which Cordo’s father’s life savings are not worth as much as the value of his corpse) feels much more like the moment when Bank of America refused to reverse some overdraft charges that happened because my mother forgot to transfer money from another Bank of America account until two hours after the nightly deadline because my father had had a massive stroke the night before than it does like any interaction I’ve had with the government or an accountant.
But more broadly, the real moral hook of this story is the fact that the population of Megropolis One is forced to work themselves to death. It’s the fact that the people are seen as nothing more than disposable labor sources with no value beyond their material production. It’s not a story about unfair tax surprises that screw people over, it’s a story about a world where no amount of work will ever make ends meet because the rich and powerful want more. And this is why Holmes is a liberal’s conservative. One of the fundamental tenets of contemporary liberalism is Carol Hanisch’s famous observation that “the personal is political.” (In this regard, all of contemporary liberalism is essentially just a subset of feminism.) And that is at the heart of this story. The nature of the oppression isn’t the focus. Holmes is writing a story about the way in which an oppressive economic system ruins individual lives. Hence the amazing opening scene in which Cordo is put into debt slavery over his father’s death taxes. The sadism of this scene transcends the fact that it’s about an evil tax collector. It’s about the way in which the system bullies and destroys people for its own benefit. And it culminates in the most emotionally charged moment Holmes has ever written in the scene in which Cordo, despairing at his inability to ever pay off his debts, attempts suicide.
The sheer power of this hook to draw the Doctor into the plot – a man beaten down by the system to the point where he tries to kill himself – gives this story a screaming moral charge. The entire moral foundation of this story comes not out of a philosophical argument about the appropriate level of taxation, nor out of a cranky writer who got screwed by Inland Revenue, but out of a single man’s humiliation and shame at being unable to make it in the world. And the story builds from that to a media savvy revolution in the grand workers rebellion sense. The Doctor shows up and overthrows the government because it’s a bunch of bullying profiteers using bureaucracy to justify torture. And because they drove a man to suicide. This is the most Occupy movement friendly story to date in Doctor Who. It is an anarchist screed. And it goes to incredibly dark, furious places – the story ends with the Gatherer who drives Condo to suicide being thrown off the roof by an angry mob. It’s an unrepentantly populist scream of rage at a method of oppression.
How the hell did the show get away with it at this point in its history?
Miles and Wood begin their review of the story by noting that the story is generally considered “rushed, padded, often cheap-looking and stocked with tedious minor supporting characters, but also written by Robert Holmes so ultimately quite good anyway.” Which captures most of the key adjectives, but manages to get them in completely the wrong order. Yes, this is another cheap-looking story – most of them will be for quite a while now. But it’s also the point in which Doctor Who really starts to figure out how to be cheap and silly without being trivial.
See, there are some advantages to cheapness. Simply put, it lowers the stakes. It makes the show look harmless. If Doctor Who was going to be publicly ordered to be less serious then it may as well look cheap. Poof. Problem solved. It is now not serious. This is, in many ways, its ultimate budget saving trick. When confronted with crushingly bad budgetary restrictions, just give up on looking like a serious or responsible show. You don’t even try to take yourself seriously. And then once you’ve done that you can just pick up the marginalized subcultures handbook and turn to the section on “camp.” Then flip to “black humor.” It’s a very standard technique – one of the classics of the avant garde. You pitch your most subversive stuff in the most innocuous container. To some extent this is what Hinchcliffe did, slipping horror into children’s television where nobody was looking. But here we have it in a bigger form – cheap and silly children’s television that doubles as anarchist agitprop. With a dopy robot dog, just to make sure nobody accidentally takes it seriously without getting the joke.
Obviously we’re spinning a sow’s ear into a purse to a kind of ridiculous extent with this theory. There is a whiff of the implausible here in excess even of my alchemical interpretations of Whitaker, if only because there’s an air of desperation to this theory. It’s in many ways a frantic effort to find a way out of the mire the show seems to be sinking into over its last two stories (and to some extent, as good as Fang Rock is, its last three). I mean, who’s going to actually decide to take the facts that the show has been offensively defanged and that its budget has evaporated entirely and throw them back in the world’s face while bellowing a subversive scream about anti-capitalist revolution? Who would be cynical and bitter enough to do that?
Ah. Right. Robert Holmes.
He is, for all that I’ve said about him, one of the greats. He’s already invented two eras of Doctor Who and helped close out another. He was the creative vision of the show for its three best years thus far. And now, in his closing act as script editor, he finds a way forward for the show and reinvents it for a third time. And we’re not even close to done with his story. He still has another one of the key stories in the Williams era to do (and The Power of Kroll too), and then there’s a whole second act to his story.
But he is out as script editor here. His story continues, but this is the end of the part of it where his story and Doctor Who’s story coincided more or less completely. He’s supporting cast from now on. So this is a fine and proper place to do our account of him and his wizardry.
And he is one of the genuine wizards of Doctor Who – one who stands shoulder to shoulder with Whitaker and Troughton in terms of his contributions to the show’s alchemy. The most earthly and mundane of the wizards, yes, but anyone who has spent any time with the logic of mysticism knows, there is a peculiar sacredness to the mundane and the earthly. As Holmes himself showed us, the true secret of alchemy is material social progress. There are more elaborately esoteric metaphors for those who want them – this is catnip for anyone familiar with the Hermetic interpretations of the Tarot – but the point stands. There is much to be said for a mundane wizard.
For all that Holmes gets praise for his mundane and small-scale pieces – things like this and Carnival of Monsters – he’s equally adept at the epic, having done The Deadly Assassin and Pyramids of Mars. To treat him purely as a chronicler of the small scale is fundamentally untrue. What is true, however, is that he has no investment in the idea that the human scale and the epic scale are in some sense opposite. His epics are generally still based on the machinations and failings of mundane characters. The Ark in Space is perhaps the grandest example of this – a sweeping epic about the survival of humanity done as a claustrophobic character piece. And, of course, this is also the man who reinvented the Time Lords as squabblers bound by history. In many ways the heart of his genius is his ability to craft a small-scale epic – to craft an alchemy of the mundane.
Most accounts of Holmes pay considerable attention to his pre-television career, which included being Britain’s youngest commissioned officer in World War II (where he was stationed in Burma, giving context to the Matrix sequence of The Deadly Assassin), a stint as a police officer, and a stint as a journalist. The usual explanation is that this gave him a sense of the world – as if, say, Terrance Dicks’s time in the National Service and the advertising industry or Barry Letts’s time in the navy and life in the world of theater left them oblivious somehow. No, the easiest explanation for Holmes’s sense of characterization and humanity is not his pre-writing career but the fact that he’s a keen observer of human behavior. Or, to put it another way, he’s a good writer.
But there is something to be gleaned from his career history. It’s just not the thing that anyone talks about. Even I’ve been pretty harsh on Holmes for excessive cynicism. But look at the jobs he’s held. Even if we ignore the military stint on the grounds that anyone his age at that time would have fought in the war, his police career is clearly a form of public service. His journalism career, though not strictly speaking public service, is still a job with a clear commitment to the public good – a desire to improve the world and do good things. And while television writing is not quite so obviously such a career, even a cursory glance at Holmes’s self-depricating descriptions of himself will show that he is not seeking glory. He has a piece in Peter Haining’s The Doctor Who File in which he is relentlessly (and hilariously) dismissive of the idea that his writing is anything special.
Why, then, be a writer? Complete nihilism is difficult at best for a writer. Writing is such a solitary and extended process as to be nearly impossible without some belief that the result is going to have some impact. There’s something fundamentally utopian about the naive and fruitless belief that banging away at the keys can possibly be worthwhile. Holmes may have been a black-hearted cynic, but there is, in his writing, a nagging sense the he does actually care about making the world a better place.
What’s fascinating about Holmes, though, is that for him this doesn’t manifest as an investment in broad master narratives or structures of power that can do good. His view of social progress is miles from Malcolm Hulke’s belief that if only the science vicars took over we’d all be fine, or Terrance Dicks’s belief that good traditional British values will always triumph. He has a belief in the public good that is tempered with a worldly experience of its pettiness and its banal evils. His view is one of righteous anger. He may never display anything that even faintly resembles a commitment to justice, but he displays the best eye for injustice of anyone writing for the series in its first twenty years.
His eye is still imperfect, yes, leading to the frustrating bigotry of The Talons of Weng-Chiang and, to a lesser extent, The Time Warrior. And he has other frustrating blind spots. This story is yet another example of his fascination with disfigured or misshapen villains – a common enough trope in which villainy is externally represented, but one that ends up creating an uncomfortable equivalence between disability and malfeasance. It’s a small point, but it’s the sort of one that never occurs to Holmes, who has almost no interest in or understanding of cultural difference beyond class. (Which is, in the end, the biggest problem with Holmes – he only understands class politics.) But this story is also a bracing reminder of how good he is when he does get his teeth into something that outrages him. And when it comes to outrage, as they say, Robert Holmes is very well-balanced: he’s got a chip on both shoulders.
There are not a lot of ways in which Holmes and Whitaker are similar writers. But in this regard they’re deeply compatible. Whitaker made the Doctor into a mercurial alchemical figure. Mercury, alchemically speaking, has several traits: communication, speed, cleverness, traveling, etc. And the Doctor is compatible with basically all of them. But the biggest one is that mercury is changing. Mercury is eternally in flux. Mercury is anarchic.
And this captures Robert Holmes to a tee. As has been pointed out by many, this is a writer whose first story was about the Doctor mixing up acid to overthrow a repressive educational regime. He has always favored stories in which the old order is torn down. Mercury is a good element for the revolutionary spirit in this regard. Change is always a destructive process. And Holmes’s furious anger at the degradations of the world, which has always animated his best work, fuels a brilliant desire to just burn it all down. Once again Doctor Who shifts in step with the more anarchic subcultures, moving in beautiful sync with punk, which just had its mainstream validation four months previously as The Sex Pistols made their one and only Top of the Pops appearance.
Because this is fundamentally allied with the aesthetic and affective principles of punk. A raging and working class anger channeled through the avant garde aesthetics and philosophies of the Situationists. A righteous fury dressed too ridiculously to take seriously, but tossing a molotov cocktail all the same. Here is the counterpart to Patrick Troughton’s psychedelic anarchist – Tom Baker’s punk anarchist. Mere months after punk hits it big, Doctor Who steps in to be the first post-punk movement. (Which, to be fair, happened in the punk movement too – around the same time as this Siouxsie and the Banshees were referred to as post-punk in Sounds.)
So would Robert Holmes have come up with the idea to use the shoddiness of the show to disguise the sheer anarchic nature of its content? Yes. I believe he absolutely would have, and I believe he did. I believe this to be a conscious decision every bit as much as David Whitaker’s alchemical themes were conscious and Patrick Troughton’s acting style was conscious. This is Robert Holmes, punk sympathizer, dressing up Doctor Who in innocent clothing with full faith that the audience will catch the joke. And to his credit, plenty did, whether explicitly or implicitly.
Is it ideal? No. It’s tough to argue seriously that it wouldn’t have been nicer to stay in the many styles of subversive postmodernism that involve high production values. The sort of open and unapologetic shoddiness of this approach – this refusal to take itself seriously at all – is problematic. This is the program battling valiantly from the opposition when a year ago it had been imperious. But then, things have started darkening. The show’s values are going to be in the opposition for a long and ugly stretch soon. We can’t be mad at the show for making the best out of a very bad hand.
And for all of that, this is the starting gun on the parts of the Graham Williams era that people truly love, and rightly so. It’s the flowers in the dustbin. It’s the poison in the machine. There’s a future after all. Once more, when England’s dreaming, she’s dreaming of the Doctor.