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The Happiness Patrol

Reviewed by Brad Schmidt

Doctor Who thrives on diversity, and when viewed from a broad perspective, aspects of the show such as The Happiness Patrol are acceptable. They're tolerable. From the familiar schoolyards of 1963 to the drab colony on Terra Alpha, the Seventh Doctor's era begins its irreversible evolution into stories with a darker twist; intelligent stories that are either simply loved or loathed. The Happiness Patrol is probably one of the best examples of such a story. It was never well received - in contemporaneous Doctor Who Magazine surveys it barely scraped in a ranking. The mere utterance of its name sends a blanket of negativity over fandom, though exactly why this should be eludes me.

“What are you watching dear?”
“It's a video, dear...”

The Happiness Patrol is not just a Doctor Who story. It's an amalgamation of satire and sci-fi: a richly layered political allegory; and in that respect, it succeeds. However, the inclusion of the popular Doctor and Ace duo strangely destroys any chance of it being a successful Doctor Who story. So familiar are we with seeing the Doctor and Ace in realistic situations that their arrival in such a false environment as this makes it difficult to take the scenario seriously. When watched as a political parody, alluding to contemporary (or past) society, it works. But when watched for the Doctor and Ace in a serious tale of fascist domination, the overwhelming implausibility of the situation denies any chance of this, with Barbie-esque warrior women finding victims for a psychotic robot apparently made entirely of candy.

“Trying to pretend I'm something I'm not - trying to pretend I'm happy.”

Strong messages filter through, one in particular rallying with the obvious Thatcheristic-subtext: that of human emotion. As the Doctor states, “... real happiness is nothing if doesn't exist side-by-side with sadness”, and watching Helen A weeping over the body of her dying pet Stigorax, Fifi, confirms what we expected. He's right. The fact that we share any sympathy at all with Helen A exhibits the effectiveness with which the story brings that message across.

“You have been sentenced to the severest penalty ... Fondant Supreme!”

When taken at face value, The Happiness Patrol is a frankly pathetic story, full of clashing characters and events. Because of this, it is unfortunate that Sylvester McCoy gives one of his finest performances, exhibiting an almost post-New Adventure Doctor, inexplicably knowledgeable. Quite how he knows “something very nasty is happening” is left unresolved; we are obviously meant to take it for granted that the Doctor simply knows. He's accompanied by an adolescent Ace, whose cries of “I love dinosaurs!” and “Pimple-head!” contrast oddly with the fierce, adult determination fueling her revenge on the injustices of the Patrol's power.

“I think you should watch this, dear.”

The story begins well, introducing us to the camp villainy of the Happiness Patrol and the wonderful harmonica-wielding Earl Sigma, a streak of hip normality in a canvas packed with imagery. With worrying ease, I can easily picture Mel herself electing to become a member of the Patrol, had she still been travelling with the Doctor. This isn't due to their garish attire (although that could also be applicable) but to their nauseating, seemingly forced happiness. It's after the scene with the Kandyman and Gilbert M in the kitchen (with “What time do you call this?!” giving this moment a surreal domesticity) that one's personal judgment of the story irrevocably begins. I pondered grimly over how Helen A would be allowed to govern in such a harsh, totalitarian manner. Every planet having Terra as its prefix suggests an Earth-governing Empire - and the revelation that the Government actually condones such a dictatorship's existence hints at a frightening future, one which has roots in twentieth-century times. Indeed, The Happiness Patrol's whole point is that it is a play on Britain during the Thatcher-dominated Government; a point easily made through the talent of Sheila Hancock playing Helen A.

This does, though, jeopardise the video release's success. The political message is still obvious, but for a new younger generation of casual fans, there is a fair chance the Thatcher-analogy will go straight over their heads. I was hard-pressed to remember much of the political situation in either Britain or New Zealand during this time, being too young to possess any detailed awareness of the channels of power. It's only through absorbing interviews in various publications, and extra research, that I have a clearer understanding of its relevance to this story. However, I imagine The Happiness Patrol is still rewarding, through its quality - especially with Sheila Hancock's gripping portrayal of Helen A.

“They'll suffer for this! And only when they're screaming to go back under the pipe will I oblige!”

Helen A is a frightful harpy, played with total realism by Hancock, who bases much of her characterisation on Margaret Thatcher (as much as Joseph C is equally Dennis Thatcher, her weak and ineffectual husband). One of the more memorable characters of the later Doctor Who era, she's even more disturbing because there is a piece of Helen A in all of us. We know what she is saying when she voices her yearning for perfection; we know the betrayal she is faced with at the climax; and we want to cry along with her when the only thing she truly loves in this confusing life is dying in her arms. This is Doctor Who at its finest - not the special effects, the storyline or continuity, but raw emotion. This moving denouement is extremely well made, giving the pointless aspects of the production a fairly worthy justification. The video is worthy buying for this small scene alone.

This scene could possibly have been somewhat run-of-the-mill (a traditional “villain-gets-their-comeuppance” moment) if it weren't for Dominic Glynn's moving musical score. It's the music that reminds us what is missing from the gaudy lives of the Happiness Patrol: the blues. The wailing notes of Earl's harmonica not only set free the Pipe People from death at the claws of Fifi (by creating an avalanche of delicate sugar on the Stigorax) but also set free the soul - repressed by enforced happiness.

“Not Ace. Gordon!”

The Pipe People, the original inhabitants of Terra Alpha before human colonization forced them underground, are fairly well realized - but not often shown. Their guttural cries of “Gordon Bennett!” are at first difficult to understand, but - with eventual realisation - amusing. Interestingly, they form a bond with Ace (albeit mainly off-screen), trusting her immediately while being wary of the Doctor and Earl. This does wonders for her characterisation - as it helps illustrate that underneath the violent bluster there is a trustworthy and dependable person.

“He makes sweets...”

The primary icon that springs to mind when The Happiness Patrol is mentioned is the Kandyman. He is the snake in paradise, he is attractive and compelling, he is made of sweets - but is anything but. While appearing to be the worst creation since Colin Baker's costume, the Kandyman actually manages to be oddly terrifying, frightening the content inner child. His voice, resonating on multiple octaves, is at first amusing - until its grate starts to strike an ominous note in the viewer. The only reason I can imagine the production team designing the Kandyman in such an absurd way is to symbolise a being trapped in infinite happiness by being constructed from candy, and the curse this could entail. It shows that there is a darker side to life, regardless of any utopian appearance it may project.

Doctor Who Magazine has cited a scene from this story as being one of the entire series' finest moments. It's easy to see why - not only is it deeply philosophical, it also stands as a summary of the Doctor's character and morality:

The Doctor: “Look me in the eye. Pull the trigger. End my life.”
Sniper: “No.”
The Doctor: “Why not?”
Sniper: “I can't!”
The Doctor: “Why not?”
Sniper: “I don't know!”
The Doctor: “You don't, do you? Throw away your gun.”

This is a defining moment for the Seventh Doctor - another glimpse at his dark, manipulative persona. It's frightening to see such a powerful figure, and we can only be thankful he is using this power for good. This speech also highlights the very reason he is our hero, re-stating his attitude towards guns, violence, mindless obedience and oppression. The Doctor is out to end Helen A's fascist regime, and he does so not with guns and violence, but with words and ideas.

“I'm beginning to enjoy this!”

The story romps along confidently until the last episode, where it starts struggling to maintain any interest for the viewer or any conviction in itself. Upon re-evaluation, the acting isn't brilliant; but having not noticed anything overly terrible in such a bizarre story, I applaud the cast for such a convincing performance. The dramatic quality far outshines much of the early McCoy ‘oddball’ era. There are still the trademark moments where you cringe violently, though; such as the Doctor repairing the go-kart balanced upside down over the steering wheel for no apparent reason, or his “getaway” in the self-same vehicle from the Happiness Patrol. At the speed he is travelling, it should be impossible for the Patrol to miss him with their weapons. But they do anyway. Then again, as this story often defies logic throughout its three episodes, it's excusable.

Not only does the story defy logic - quite why the production team itself is so continuity-conscious in its reference to the Doctor's nickname is beyond me. It's an esoteric reference; the general public would undoubtedly be ignorant that the Doctor's college alias, as established ten years previously in The Armageddon Factor, was Theta Sigma.

“Happiness will prevail...”

The Happiness Patrol's reputation is worse than it really deserves. As a Doctor Who story, it is a risqué experiment, and if you are watching it solely for an exciting Doctor Who adventure, then be warned. If one looks deeper, there are interesting themes to be found. Realistically implausible, but intellectually rewarding - but that could quite easily sum up Doctor Who in general.

This item appeared in TSV 55 (October 1998).

Index nodes: The Happiness Patrol