Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol
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Doctor Who: Happiness Patrol, The
On the planet Terra Alpha, bright fluorescent lights and garish candy-striped colors abound. The population constantly displays happy smiles. There's no sadness on Terra Alpha. Anyone feeling remotely glum disappears. Quickly. Having heard disturbing rumors, the Doctor and Ace arrive to topple the entire regime overnight. But they haven't reckoned upon the varied punitive measures enforced by colony leader Helen A. There are many delicious ways in which to vanish on Terra Alpha: you can be hunted down by the omnipresent Happiness Patrol or mauled by Helen A's ravenous pet Fifi. But those especially unlucky few will find themselves entertained in the sweetie factory manned by Helen A's psychotic henchman… the Kandy Man. This time, Happiness will prevail.]]>
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The basic premise is that the Doctor and his companion Ace arrive on a planet where sadness has been banned, and is punishable by death. The planet is ruled by the insane dictator Helen A, who is an obvious parody of Margaret Thatcher. (Amusingly, British journalists didn't notice the Thatcher parallel until 2010, when "The Happiness Patrol" was exhumed and re-examined by the media, and became briefly controversial.) Helen A's chief henchman is a robot, made of candy, who kills dissidents by drowning them in syrup.
Does all this sound a bit grotesque, perhaps even ridiculous? Well, it is ridiculous, of course. But for those who agree with the left-wing politics of this serial, and can enjoy its peculiar brand of dark humor, there is much to appreciate here. Indeed, I quite like the gutsy social commentary in the script, and I think it's still very relevant. Meanwhile, some of the serial's perceived weaknesses -- false-looking sets, over-the-top acting, and a general campy atmosphere -- become more acceptable, and perhaps even appropriate, when you view them through the lens of political satire.
As for the DVD itself, it's one of the best single-disc Doctor Who editions to come along in a while. It includes a making-of special that intelligently examines the serial's politics and production strengths/weaknesses, as well as an extensive collection of extended and deleted scenes (the highlight of which is a much better introduction scene for the character Susan Q). The DVD also includes a fairly long featurette on the politics of Doctor Who, which covers the show's entire decades-long history, touching upon all of the obviously political stories. This is a really interesting, substantive special feature of the sort that I particularly enjoy, since it goes beyond surface analysis of stuff like sets and special effects in order to unpack what Doctor Who is actually about. Good times.
So, in the end, I recommend both this serial and the DVD. This isn't exactly classic Doctor Who -- other serials have better writing and better production -- but still, this is an intelligent and underrated story, not a goofy camp-fest that deserves to be written off. The Kandyman alone makes this worth watching again; his costume is so demented that it must be seen to be disbelieved.
Meanwhile on the planet itself the Doctor encounters Trevor Sigma a Terrian census taker is on the colony to see the numbers of those on the planet are kept up and also to ensure that proceduers are kept up to regulation. A visting medical student who enjoys the harmonica and is trapped on Terra Alpha until he can find a way to escape and get back to Earth. Ace also meets a young happiness patrol memebr who wants nothing more then to be sad, but fears what would happen if the rest of her sqaud ever finds out the truth. Also strange beings seem to be watching from the shadows and seem to be waiting for something to happen.
Can the Doctor stop Helen A, her spies, the happiness patrols, The Candy Man and even Fifi and try to sort out the colony so no one has to keep smiling forever? Or will those that are on Terra Alpha live in the grip of fear if they show anything but happiness? So check out "The Happiness Patrol" to find out.
There's the script for example. Graeme Curry's script takes the Doctor Who cliché of citizens vs. an evil government and turns it into something more. This story famously was the subject of a tempest in a teacup scandal back in 2010 for the fact that it was a satire of Thatcher's Britain with Shelia Hancock's Helen A being based on her. That element is present without a doubt and it's easy to detect for anyone familiar with Thatcher and her politics from Helen A's slogans to the drones being told to down tools (a reference to the infamous miner's strike of 1984-85) but there's more to the story than that. There's elements drawn from tyrannical governments from around the world including references to an entire village being raised to the ground and mass disappearances similar to events in Chile and Argentina. The titular Happiness Patrol, once you move beyond the colorful outfits, calls to mind elements of Soviet secret police and intelligence organizations from members turning on each other (including an informant being pinned with a medal only to be executed). All of this mixing and matching of elements forms only a part of the script though.
For into this, set on a colony world centuries in the future, Curry also throws in a larger moral message. It was this moral message that became the starting point for the story: a planet where the state of happiness is required to be a permanent one and that the penalty for being anything but is death. The choice of happiness as what's being enforced is an interesting one. It's an abstract one and by choosing it over a more obvious choice of ideology (be it communism, capitalism or whatever) it also gives the story an originality it might not have otherwise. It also also for interesting discussions such as the scene between Ace and Susan Q or the final confrontation with Helen A in part three. As much as it is a political satire and commentary, The Happiness Patrol is about the need for real emotions (be they either positive or negative) are far more important than trying to maintain or force upon anyone the appearance of happiness or normality. It's a mix of commentary, satire and morality play that Doctor Who especially seems good at.
Yet for a story that tries to point out the importance of looking beneath the surface at what lies beneath, that seems to be what most people focus on. It isn't hard to blame them. Being the three part, studio bound story of Season 25, the story feels exactly that way. Old Who had been accused by some of looking cheap and, for all the pluses of this story, this could be a case where that was true. The studio bound feel shows the limitations of the story with cramped streets representing the city where much of the city takes place. Despite decent blasts accompanying them, the guns carried by the Happiness Patrol looks anything but impressive. Beyond the human characters in the story, the pipe people to the Kandy Man, neither of which are exactly impressive pieces of design (in fact the Kandy Man couldn't be farther from what Curry originally had in mind in his script). There's also some iffy performances including an over the top performance from Helen A that rather undermines the attempt to make her a villain. Yet look a bit further beneath the surface will you?
Beyond some of the cosmetic issues, The Happiness Patrol has more to offer. Some of Chris Clough's direction is excellent, especially scenes in the street scenes with a series of canted camera angles, which help to give the story a sense of menace and tension alongside the humor and satire. While Helen A is an over the top villain, her various minions (including the title ones) are actually highly effective such as Rachel Bell's Priscilla P. There's also a strong supporting cast including Richard D. Sharp as Earl Sigma, Lesley Dunlop as Susan Q and John Normington as Trevor Sigma. As cheap as the sets might look, they and the costume add to the atmosphere of the story by showing Helen A's world for what it is: a fake fascade. It's quite meta in a way but one that works quite well if one gives it the chance to. Then there's the moody and evocative score from Dominic Glynn with its blues influence as well that, like the story itself, mixes a dispearate amount to present an intriguing result.
Ultimately though, the star of this story is its Doctor. Sylvester McCoy, more comfortable in the role after a shaky first season, gets moment after moment to flex his acting muscles and show his not inconsiderable range as an actor. There's opportunities for McCoy to show off his comedic skills which, unlike in the previous season, get more of a chance to sit alongside his dramatic skills. It's those skills and McCoy's ability to play the serious and authoritativeness of the Doctor that gives the story some of its best and most powerful moments such as his speech to the rooftop snipers in part two and the aforementioned final confrontation with Helen A in part three.
For all of its reputation as a low point of Doctor Who's first television incarnation, there's more to this story than is apparent on first glance. It's a story that, once looks beyond the surface of its production values and a couple of questionable choices, has much else to offer. There's Graeme Curry's script mixes together political satire and commentary with a serious message. There's the better part of the production as well from the direction to its score and performances.
Or to put it another way: It's not quite as silly as its looks would make you think, is it?
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Special features Include;
~Happiness will Prevail
~Deleted and Extended...Read more