Doctor Who complete reviews: The Happiness Patrol
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Yes, it's the Doctor Who story with Bertie Bassett. Yes, it is better than you remember...
I've just been scribbling a proposed story idea for the next season of Doctor Who. It goes like this: Doctor, Amy and Whassisface land on the Planet of The Top Hats And Tuxes – a doomy old planet full of misery run by the evil regime of Camos and Osbos, two perma-grinning posho androids who trundle around in top hats, bow ties and tuxedos. Anybody without a tux is mercilessly cut to shreds by Camos and Osbos. The Doctor stages a rebellion among the planet's inhabitants, and eventually they overthrow the nasty rulers by cutting off their life supplies – or draining their bank accounts dry. Doctor saves the day. Amy shouts something sarcastic at the top of her voice. Whassisface dies and then comes back to life for a celebratory happy ending.
Well, you never know, it might work, although since there's a hang-gliding pig breezing past my window, the omens aren't good. But Doctor Who has always delved deep into the dingy waters of politics. In the Pertwee years, politicians were pompous, bureaucratic lackbrains who were only there to look foolish as The Doctor took the moral high ground. And stories such as The Sun Makers and especially The Happiness Patrol deal with oppressive government sorts who keep their miserable subjects in check through bully boy rules and regulations.
The Happiness Patrol is probably the most obvious example of this, with a thinly veiled take on the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. At the time, it seemed like you couldn't get away from Mrs T. She was on the news. She was being lambasted by TV comics (most notably Lenny Henry, who pitted his Doctor against the dreaded Thatchos – a Cyberman in a bouffant wig). And she even turned up on Saturday Superstore, as old mullet head Mike Read put deep 'n' meaningful questions to her – apparently, she likes chilling on down to a bit of Aida, in case you were wondering. So, not wishing to be left out in the cold, Doctor Who produced The Happiness Patrol, which concerns a Thatcher-esque leader called Helen A, whose overbearing rule is causing dissent among the natives of the planet Terra Alpha.
No wonder the planet's inhabitants aren't happy – which is tricky, when it's literally a crime to be unhappy. Any sour-faced grump or blubbing wreck is deemed a killjoy and is then hunted down and slaughtered by the Happiness Patrol (a band of fright-wigged she-devils, reminiscent of the patrols in The Two Ronnies' Worm That Turned). And in order to spread a little happiness, Terra Alpha is a vista of tacky, upbeat colours and cheesy muzak. Now that's really terrifying.
"If you want a story that sums up the quiet anarchy of the 7th Doctor, The Happiness Patrol is the right choice"
All this superficial glitter is probably the most hard-hitting commentary on the excess of the 1980s. I've mentioned that stories such as Snakedance portray societies which prize appearance, material goods and status, but The Happiness Patrol rips right in to the heart of the matter. Helen A's leadership runs along purely superficial lines – the tacky colours dominate to the point where even the TARDIS is painted pink, to make everything blend into one vapid, tacky whole. There's an over-reliance on bland, PR-style communication with buzzwords such as “initiative” and “enterprise” - words that are meant to sound grand and important, but which actually have no real meaning. Then there's the way in which people are compartmentalised rather than having their own identity – characters don't really have proper names, instead relying on bland, forgettable monikers like Helen A, Suzie Q or Joseph C. With that in mind, the treatment of the Pipe People echoes the treatment of the minority groups in the 1980s, who were also treated as the outsiders and 'underground dwellers' of society by the government.
This is a society that's calling out for The Doctor to intervene. If you want a story that sums up the quiet anarchy of the 7th Doctor, The Happiness Patrol is the right choice. In just the space of three episodes, the apparently unstoppable regime of Helen A comes toppling down, as a result of The Doctor's intervention. What's great about this is the way in which The Doctor uses his now-customary manipulation to solve the problem. The most infamous example is when The Doctor literally talks a sniper into throwing away his gun. This scene sums up the way in which The Doctor operates – he doesn't use violence or threats, he uses his brain rather than brawn to solve the problem. And so here, he uses psychology on the snipers (“You like guns, don't you?”) and then challenges them to look him in the eye and pull the trigger. End result – the snipers surrender their guns.
It may not be subtle, but since The Doctor stands for everything that Helen A despises – truth, tolerance and fair treatment for all – it's unsurprising that he brings this government to its knees. It's one of the best stories for the 7th Doctor, giving him plenty to do, and Sylvester McCoy is evidently making the most of this, turning in a performance full of gusto and subtle flourishes. Sophie Aldred too does well, even with the limitations of her so-called street dialogue (“I want to make them very unhappy” just sounds a tad clunky), and already we're seeing signs of one of the great Doctor/Companion working teams.
Does The Happiness Patrol work though? Since its broadcast in 1988, it's polarised opinion among the fans, half of whom regard it as an intelligent parable, while the other half regard it as a silly kids show and one of the final nails in the coffin for Doctor Who. Visually, it's – um, interesting. It's definitely a brave experiment in that it's treated very much as a stage play – you could see this sort of thing at the theatre, and it's filmed very much in that Play For Today style. The downside is that maybe it's just a bit TOO stagy and gaudy, to the point where you think you've just seen the pilot for tacky kids' show Fun House.
"Nowadays, I can see where the writer's coming from, but the Kandyman is just a bit too gaudy and silly to truly work"
The nadir of this is probably the Kandyman, a bizarre Bertie Bassett type thing, which blunders around like an overgrown kid who's had one too many ciders at an advert-themed fancy dress party. In some ways, you can understand why the Kandyman's there – he sums up the over-sweet, tacky, superficial society of Terra Alpha – but he's just a bit too much to take with his silly, squealing voice and OTT mannerisms. And I remember turning off the TV when it first went out with a snort of disgust. 14-year-olds just wanted fast-paced, action-packed drama, I guess. Nowadays, I can see where the writer's coming from, but the Kandyman is just a bit too gaudy and silly to truly work – especially when his victims fall dead in a sea of bright paint. It's like Doctor Who's just been hijacked by The Krankies.
Interestingly, despite the Crackerjack visuals (you half expect the Kandyman to take his head off to reveal Stu Francis musing “Ooh, I could crush a grape!”), the guest cast largely play it straight. The persona of Helen A could have been played for laughs, but Sheila Hancock impresses with a performance that's a well-observed study, which never lapses into Janet Brown-style parody. The character of Helen A feels chillingly real, a woman who's forgotten how to feel any human emotion. Terra Alpha is very much run on her own philosophy, to the point where she blusters to The Doctor at the end that all her actions were for “the best”. She admits to The Doctor that she feels that love is over-rated, and instead offers her devoted subjects useless substitutes such as bland soulless music, tawdry party games and bags full of sweets. And despite this, it's hard not to feel sorry for Helen A when she finds her beloved dog Fifi dead in the gutter – for the first time, Helen A feels emotion, as she dissolves into floods of tears. It's a clever trick to make you feel sorry for the Baddie Of The Week, and that's a tribute to both Graeme Curry's writing and Sheila Hancock's acting.
"Fortunately the strong acting means that despite the tackiness, The Happiness Patrol is still credible drama"
The other actors work well too, in parts that also neatly parody the rise of Thatcherism in the 1980s. We have the hen-pecked husband, Joseph C, who's very well played by Ronald Fraser (a neat nod to Dennis Thatcher), the pompous bureaucrat of Trevor Sigma (who else does pompous bureaucracy so well, but John Normington – AKA Morgus in The Caves Of Androzani) and the rather more sinister extremist tendencies of the abrasive Daisy K (Good performance from T-Bag actress Georgina Hale). Fortunately the strong acting means that despite the tackiness, The Happiness Patrol is still credible drama.
The good points of The Happiness Patrol luckily outweigh the bad. Political comment is always welcome in Doctor Who, and Graeme Curry's script has lots of interesting things to say about Britain in the late 1980s. And like any good story, The Happiness Patrol is curiously timeless. You could show this on TV, and despite the Kandyman and the tacky sets, you could still relate to the themes and concepts, which come through loud and clear – especially in a Britain that doesn't really feel that different from the one in 1988. Doctor Who has always managed to comment on political situations with great alacrity and intelligence, and The Happiness Patrol is no exception – a story that looks at the grim reality of some of the more unwelcome government policies, but one that sends out a message of hope and optimism at the same time.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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