Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Sun Makers - "Then the people should rise up and slaughter their oppressors!"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Sun Makers - Details

Season 15, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #95) | Previous - Next | Index

Leela. Classic.
Some of these classic series stories I haven't seen in ages so I  come to them with the memory of an overall impression, maybe of a specific scene or line that stuck with me, but sometimes barely even that. "The Sun Makers" I remembered chiefly for its villains: Hade's sycophancy and the diminutive Collector's speech patterns -- and, of course, his being flushed at the end, toilet humor never being lost on the young. Reading about the episode before re-watching it, I was geared up to go into full socialist labor union advocacy mode but it tricked me a bit when it turned out to be as much about the pains of paying taxes to a soulless bureaucracy. That subversion of expectations was fun in itself, however. A dyed-in-the-wool lefty myself, I thought this episode would appeal on one level, but it probably did even more so in a way that I'd find myself encamped with more conservative-minded, anti-tax viewers. Nobody likes an unfair system, after all. That's the stuff revolutions are made of -- fact that should be lost on the regressive buffoons currently running North Carolina, where the slavering over the possibility of cutting taxes for the wealthy and increasing them on the poor can be heard from outside the capital from mountains shore. (A rare opportunity to make, or force, a connection between my watching of Doctor Who and my interest in progressive politics at the local level -- I couldn't pass it up.)

It's possible to read about the misadventures of Robert Homes with the UK's Inland Revenue Service, and there are in-jokes for residents of that green and pleasant land that will sail over the heads of us Yanks, but I'm taking an onscreen, universalist approach where we note that we're going to cruise past some Easter eggs, but can leave them for the obsessives without missing the bigger picture.

I'd argue that this episode can best be understood not from a Marxist or anti-tax perspective, but from a higher level theory of justice which, of course, means the Rawlsian perspective. Clearly, if we couldn't control our original position within Pluto's oligarchy, we'd want no part of it. Just about any society looks great if you elect to be born wealthy and powerful within it, but take a chance on being born into a laboring family in this Plutocracy, or any other, and suddenly it looks like a pretty lousy set up. This is the perspective anti-tax zealots who whine about paying for things they don't get to hold in their grubbly little hands and, even worse, whine about having to pay for the things they do enjoy the benefit of, consistently fail to consider.

The Collector and the Doctor.
In "The Sun Makers," the Doctor sides with the workers and foments rebellion over their oligarchical overlords. Good for him. I wonder though if, while we can appreciate the Doctor's sympathies and efforts,  there isn't a slight want of creativity on the production side. I don't have a problem with sci-fi that clearly sides with labor against capital, but as long as we're introducing sentient fungii as the chief villains and throwing a bunch of extra suns into orbit around Pluto, maybe there's an opportunity to explore Rawls's thought experiment by giving the workers an option other than armed conflict and to illustrate dramatically how the process of taking a step back and asking what a just society should look like and how the different personalities involved would create it in the utopian condition where we could make a clean break from the past, reorganize society based reasoned ideals, and then drop everyone back into it and let it function like an experiment.

Having said all that, I should probably remind myself that Doctor Who got pretty awful late in the classic run when it got more experimental and explicitly philosophical, so it may be a lucky thing it didn't aim any higher in terms of being any deeper. So, take my criticism, as always, with a grain of salt, and we can be glad enough that the show took up the themes at all, perhaps inspiring the younger viewers to do the exploration on their own ...

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