Doctor Who: The Sun Makers

It has been too long since my last post about the classic Doctor Who series. I finished my rewatch a while back and so just need to finish off blogging the Fourth Doctor era, having completed the first three as well as from the Fifth Doctor onwards, due to my having started my rewatch on two parallel tracks, with the First Doctor and some lost episodes in the form of audiobooks, but also watching the Peter Davison era, since that was my first encounter with the show.

It is great to turn my attention to the episode “The Sun Makers” in a context in which people are discussing capitalism and socialism more seriously and directly than has often been the case in the United States. The episode is economic satire, using science fiction to make a point about the present through a futuristic imaginary setting.

In the episode, the Doctor and Leela arrive on Pluto, where humans live under a very strict economic regime that pays them little, works them hard, and taxes them exorbitantly. The high taxes are justified with reference to the provision of artificial suns to make it possible to live on Pluto. But of course, the whole system is designed with the aim of making profit for those in charge. That makes the decades-old episode perfectly timely, since capitalism as a form of exploitation that directly mirrors feudalism is not a problem that has gone away in the intervening years.

Upper classes can claim to provide things that their employees or slaves need, ranging from protection to land to stability. If you change what is offered, so that it is an investment that produces artificial suns that allow one to live and work on Pluto, does that justify the kinds of hardships that the workers experience as depicted in the episode?

These are precisely the questions that many have begun asking in our time, even in the United States which has a long tradition of labeling anything other than enthusiastic support for unbridled capitalism as subversive and unpatriotic.

As the people living on Pluto discover, the function of the system depends on them, on their labor. Without it, the profits that the ruling class so desires would never materialize. And so what is needed is a revolution. And in doubly-symbolic fashion, the exploitative alien who serves as the Collector at the pinnacle of the system, cannot cope with the loss of his profits, and so reverts to his natural form as a kind of fungus, and disappears down the center of his seat as though being flushed down a toilet.

This is poignant stuff. I wonder how many readers of this blog have seen the episode, and more generally, what you think of the treatment of economic and political matters on the show. That is definitely a feature that runs all the way through from classic Doctor Who to the present day series.

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  • histrogeek

    The best line of that story was the Doctor saying, “You have nothing to lose but your claims.” It’s kind of hard to catch because he’s walking away at the time, but it’s still awesome.

  • Malachite

    One of the 1st episodes I saw, and still one of the best. A bit of trivia: many of the numbers mentioned in dialog or shown on doors, etc., are those of British tax forms at that time.