“Grinding oppression of the masses is the only policy that pays dividends.” – The Controller
This is not a favorite story of mine though many people seem to consider it a good one especially given Robert Holmes’ excellence at dialogue. It’s definitely affected by the shift of the show in this era to less scary stories and more humor. This story takes that mandate and steers it towards heavy parody—a farcical premise of a society drowning in taxation under a secret race of alien bankers—with lots of punny lines and such. A lot of the silliness turns me off—from the outré performance of Gatherer Hade to gags like Leela driving the cart and K9’s tail wagging—but some of the more subtle humor is quite good. (Like how the honorific names that the Gatherer has for the Controller get more and more ridiculous as the story goes on, for example, or the exchanges with the Doctor trying to explain the financial world to Leela: “These taxes, they are like sacrifices to tribal gods?” “Well, roughly speaking, but paying tax is more painful.”) The story underneath does manage to stay consistent and engaging. Indeed, there is a still small undercurrent of hard edge in the storyline with the Collector and the oppression he brings. (I’m also very surprised they got away with the scene of throwing the Gatherer off the roof! I guess because they made it so obviously silly they could do it.) Still, the overall tone of the story is rather strongly comical which is not something I enjoy.
One good thing is that they salvage Leela’s character from the slide towards being foolish to giving her back her dignity as a fierce and courageous warrior with tons of heart. Her challenge of the ‘tough guys’ is a great scene. (“Before I die, I’ll see this rat hole ankle deep in blood.”) After sitting on the sideline last story, K9 also gets his debut as a companion of the Doctor though much more like a pet at this point. Despite him becoming a bit too broad in his eccentricity, it’s good to see that the Doctor is still always one step ahead and in control. (As he’s hopping around in his straightjacket picking at the machine, for example, we have no idea that he’s actually setting up the machine to fail knowing what it is and what they will try to do to him.) It doesn’t make sense that he wouldn’t know about the construction of suns around Pluto at this era in earth history and yet they Controller would have information all about him and the other Time Lords in his system, but it’s nice that we get reinforcement of the Doctor’s character. (“The Doctor must be behind it. I sense the vicious doctrine of egalitarianism.”). I’m also glad all the sympathetic characters like Cordo and Bisham make it to the end. In previous seasons they would have been killed off just to make us feel bad!
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
Despite the light tone to the story, there is definitely a darkness to some of the ideas. This comes through clearly as we hear the Controller’s description of the delight he expects from hearing the sounds of the planned prisoner steaming (“The deeper notes of despair; the final dying cadences.”)
I think if the Gatherer hadn’t been quite so flamboyant in voice and dress this story would strike me less negatively from the start. Also the rather cool scifi notiong of Pluto being turned into a habitable planet by having six engineered suns is rather sidelined in the plot despite being the title of the story. A little more focus on that would have been more satisfying.