You can never be entirely sure that a great Doctor Who story will get the novelisation – and therefore the audiobook – it deserves. Stories that sang on screen can sometimes suffer from pedestrian novelisations. For instance in 2018, fan favourite The Robots of Death was released as an audiobook, and suffered both from a slightness in terms of the world that was built in the novelisation by Terrance Dicks, and a somewhat disappointing reading from the normally-reliable Louise Jameson. Meanwhile, stories that looked on-screen like they were the product of one cocktail too many in the BBC bar – The Twin Dilemma and The Gunfighters, I’m looking at you – can sometimes be utterly redeemed by the inspired reworking of their worlds at the novelisation stage.
The Sun Makers is a story that was practically perfect on TV – so…no pressure there then. Again novelised by Dicks and read by Jameson, the audiobook is new on the market. The question is, with such a promising TV version to live up to, can it stand up to the pressure of its history and deliver an audio version that makes you want to play it?
Why yes, thank you for asking.
Yes, it can.
First of all, the script for the TV version was written by showrunner Robert Holmes, whose contribution to the mythos of Doctor Who is frankly embarrassingly huge. It was also written by Holmes…in a bit of a mood.
Never…but never…annoy a really good writer, because it’s true what they say – you’ll end up in their work, looking like a numpty. In the case of The Sun Makers, Holmes had been annoyed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – the tax man, in short – and The Sun Makers is a blistering satire on what happens when taxation becomes a burden on the backs of ordinary people, while the rich live in sumptuous luxury. The fundamental notion at the heart of the story is that enormous taxation is necessary to power six artificial suns which keep life on Pluto viable, essentially a tax on sunlight – but stemming from that initial premise is a society where every single thing is taxed – medication, death, burial, food, you name it, there’s a tax on it, forcing society into a pyramid shape, with the poor at the bottom crushed under the weight of taxation, while those at the top – the Gatherers – live at ease, and at the pinnacle sits the shrivelled, blinkered Collector, a creature so divorced from human considerations as to be eventually revealed as an evil alien fungus, for whom both taxation and the suffering of the poor are ends in themselves.
Bear in mind, this was televised in 1977. And people somehow have the nerve to argue the 2019 series was too agenda-driven(!)
So – you have a cracking political satire from which to draw.
Then you get Terrance Dicks on a good day. Terrance Dicks on a good day will give you a novelisation that both faithfully translates everything that was on screen, and paints you a broader picture of the world in which the adventure takes place, and when he wrote the novelisation of The Sun Makers, Uncle Terrance was presumably having a Particularly Good Day – he retains all the wickedly satirical Holmes humour, but rounds the whole thing out with just a handful of brushstrokes, making you utterly believe in this Plutonian colony with its revolting peasant-grade workers, its chemically pacified population, its ruling class that blends pomposity, self-regard, cunning and idiocy together into a way of life, while turning the enslavement of the poor into a normality they can rationalise as the fault of the poor. It’s as satirical today as ever it was, and the combination of Holmes’ original idea and Dicks’ presentation of a broader, more harshly real and believable dystopia around a comic satirical premise make the novelisation of The Sun Makers a delight any day you care to try it.
Give that to Louise Jameson, and the strata of this world come vividly to life and colour, as she vocally demarcates the layers by particular techniques – depressed D-Grades are delivered in wider, looser voices, would-be revolutionaries are sharp as dagger-thrusts, her Gatherer Hade, the nominal day-to-day villain of the piece, seems to reach up and over the listener, and her Collector vocally channels the wizened kidney-bean of a creature made so vivid on screen (and on the cover of the novel) by Henry Woolf, using a higher, tighter nasal delivery to underline his alien, avaricious nature. Add to that her big Tom Baker, and the naturalistic, innocent honesty of Leela, even when promising to kill people, and you’ve got a reading that sings with light, with colour and with a certain seriousness that allows you to feel sorry for the people of Pluto, even while acknowledging that the idea itself is based in comedy.
The comedy science-fiction genius of Robert Holmes, broadened out into a believable, multi-level world by Terrance Dicks, then given richness, colour and heart by Louise Jameson, with, in this case, added robotic verisimilitude from John Leeson giving us his K9. What’s gonna be wrong with that?
Not a damn thing, as it turns out. Buy it now – before the audiobook tax goes up. Tony Fyler