The Happiness Patrol
|Dates||Nov. 2, 1988 -
Nov. 16, 1988
With Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred.
Written by Graeme Curry. Script-edited by Andrew Cartmel.
Directed by Chris Clough. Produced by John Nathan-Turner.
|Synopsis: The Doctor and Ace land on a colony where sadness is forbidden and punishable by death.|
Priscilla, Queen of the Death Squad by Hugh Sturgess 5/2/16
This story is unrelentingly cheap-looking and silly. It frequently looks like daytime children's TV (particularly the ludicrous go-carts that travel at barely walking pace). It dares you to call its central conceit (a dictator who makes everyone wear pink and be happy) stupid; if Helen A really existed, she would not be a Thatcher analogue but a psychopath gripped by some arcane infantilism. Doctor Who fans are acutely sensitive to charges that the show is silly or childish. We've all had a moment that makes us cringe and feel like idiots for being fans. That given, it's amazing that this story has such a good reputation. Mark Irvin, circa 2001, slams it as "some silly romp aimed at small children" and Tim Roll-Pickering, circa 2003, calls it "ridiculous and tacky"; I'm surprising more people don't think the same.
Taken as a story devoid of descriptors - just the basic plot - The Happiness Patrol is about a totalitarian society in which death squads patrol the streets casually murdering anyone who fails to obey the regime's arbitrary laws. The planet's dictator has had over 400,000 of her citizens killed in the past three years and keeps videos of executions in her home to watch. She keeps a vicious animal as a pet that she enjoys setting on the planet's indigenous people for her amusement. Those not shot in the streets or sadistically executed are given to her chief torturer for experimentation. Terra Alpha is an obvious mash-up of every dictatorship in history (the Kandyman is both Josef Mengele and Nikolai Yezhov, Stalin's "poison dwarf"), though interestingly the chief flavour is South American: "routine disappearances", street-roaming death squads and war criminals who have fled their original climes. Terra Alpha is manifestly not a nice place to live.
But it's Play School's idea of a South American dictatorship. The dictator enforces happiness on pain of death; she has official joke writers; her death squads dress in pink uniforms, high-heels and fairy-floss wigs; her executions are via liquid fondant; and her torturer is a robot made from liquorice. It looks ludicrous, the central conceit (be happy or die) is ludicrous, and yet it is anything but ludicrous beneath the candy coating. The Happiness Patrol is handling mature themes not as Doctor Who usually does - by pushing the show in an adult direction generally - but by exaggerating its cheapness, silliness and childishness. This makes it part of a demented sub-genre in Who that heightens the program's roots in children's TV to tell stories that deal with deeply adult themes. Previous examples include Paradise Towers (Ballardian social satire in an ultra-campy production) and Delta and the Bannermen ('50s nostalgia and sing-alongs combined with that glorious shock of Murray and the other comedic tourists being blown to bits by Gavrok).
Making the story so invincibly unserious dangerously undermines its very serious themes, but you can't say that they weren't doing it with their eyes open. This is the most fascinating thing about this story. They could have chosen to make the story as grim, bleak and realistic as possible, but instead they made it not merely crazy but obviously unreal. The streets and halls of Terra Alpha are not even trying to look like exteriors, creating a theatrical feeling to the story. Comparisons with German expressionist cinema have been made many times before, but it bears repeating again. We are not meant to treat Terra Alpha as a real place, nor Helen A and Gilbert M (Gilbert!) as real people. The absence of surnames makes the story feel more like an allegory than a serious attempt to depict what you would see if you pointed a camera at a human colony world in the twenty-fourth century. (A contemporary example might be The Grand Budapest Hotel, with "M. Gustave H." and "Mme. D".) It is an almost hallucinatory experience. This is the most aggressively unnaturalistic story in the show's history, since comparable surrealism (or absurdism) is generally contained in prescribed "other" spaces like the Land of Fiction.
And then there's the Kandyman. The costume is a triumph of design and execution. The detail is incredible. It's so close to Bertie Bassett that I'm amazed the BBC was able to escape a successful lawsuit; it's amazing that any defence against plagiarism succeeded. Graeme Curry wanted a man in a suit, but that's boring. If you're going to bash the story's realism out with a crowbar, at least do it with conviction. The Kandyman's character is twisted, a torturer and executioner prone to childish tantrums, who makes cringe-inducing quips like "I am a Kandyman of my word" and "They'll feel the back of my Kandy-hand" yet takes delight in sadistic executions the Doctor describes as depraved. He's something you'd expect from a comic strip, perhaps one of Steve Parkhouse's mad sixth Doctor strips from the '80s. How can you not love a show that produces images like an evil robot made from sweets describing executions to prisoners in barbershop chairs (complete with sheets!)? Even in context, I felt compelled to wonder aloud what the hell I was watching.
Cartmel abandoned this way to telling Doctor Who stories (mashing up children's television with adult themes) after The Happiness Patrol, taking Remembrance of the Daleks as the model instead. That was probably a sensible idea, but the series is immeasurably richer for these experiments. For three episodes Doctor Who becomes a kid's show made by German expressionists about life in Chile under Pinochet. The Happiness Patrol looks like agit-prop, or Brechtian drama, using an overtly unnaturalistic means of (as it were) literary production to convey an ideological agenda. I think they needed maybe three more goes at it before it really worked, but this juxtaposition was what they were aiming at.
The themes the story deals with are anything but childish. Sheila Hancock's performance obviously owes an enormous debt to Margaret Thatcher (particularly her enunciation of "for the good of the majoriteh"), but, unlike Survival or other attacks on Thatcherism, this is hardly an obvious critique of the Iron Lady. Yes, the homophobia of the Thatcher Government was vicious (despite Thatcher herself voting to decriminalise homosexuality in 1967), but the story is too coy to be a real denunciation of that. Depicting Thatcher as an unhinged dictator who can't understand the concept of sadness is extreme even by the standards of the time. Hancock's performance is superb: despite looking ludicrous, she is giving the part total conviction, without the slightest knowing wink that would have derailed the entire story. Helen A is an unhinged maniac who delights in the executions of her own citizens, collecting videos of extra-judicial murders and grinning like a schoolgirl at the flavour of the fondant surprise, but had Hancock camped it up in the slightest, assuming that is was all a big joke, and the story would have lost a lot of its bite.
Her final confrontation with the Doctor is wonderful. It's the only moment in the story that the characters acknowledge the ridiculousness of the conceit. Sylvester McCoy sounds admirably bewildered by Helen A's world. When she tells the Doctor that those who refused to be happy had to be punished, he boggles and asks simply "Why?" with a tone of complete incomprehension. The script gives the game away on the Thatcher analogy here, in a tiny way: Helen A defends herself as acting in the interests of those "who wanted to take the opportunities that I gave them". The Doctor dismisses these opportunities as "a bag of sweets, a few tawdry party games; do these things make you happy?" Cartmel's era would end with dozens of identical cat foods standing in for what he saw as the superficiality of the "opportunities" Thatcher provided at great cost, and this story compares Thatcherism to a bag of sweets. Furthermore, Helen A's vow to find a place "where people are strong... where people know how to pull themselves together!", dismissing the Doctor's assertion that such a world is devoid of compassion and love by saying that there would be control, has more than an echo of Thatcher's combination of massive social dislocation and endless hectoring for a return to Victorian values (hence Ghost Light: "Scratch the Victorian veneer...", a level of revulsion irreconcilable with the depiction of Victoriana in The Talons of Weng-Chiang or the Moffat era).
The drones' march is utterly bleak - the Happiness Patrollers gloat shamelessly that they will be pinned down and slaughtered. "FACTORY CONDITIONS ARE A JOKE", reads one banner. Yeah, not very subtle, but this is supposed to be a silly and childish romp aimed at little kids, not leftist agit-prop about how the British Government was screwing the working class and propping up dictators abroad while hiding behind a mask of opportunity and freedom. The Pipe People are a straightforward condemnation of colonialism, the planet's indigenes who have been driven to literally live in sewers by the displacing colonists. I don't know anything about Cartmel's political beliefs deeper than despising Thatcher and Thatcherism, but this proliferation of themes creates an almost Marxist trinity between exploitative capitalism, imperialism and repression. If you think that the Marxist view of imperialism is overblown, this invocation of multiple forms of oppression is fascinating nevertheless.
The unnaturalism is problematised by the implications of the agenda. Other reviewers have discussed gay subtexts to this story, the most persuasive evidence being the similarities between Silas P's stings and police gay entrapment busts. This was produced at the time of Section 28, the world's first don't-say-gay law, and the AIDS epidemic, to which the Thatcher Government responded with the sensitivity you'd expect of people who provided land mines to Pol Pot and covered up a paedophile ring inside Westminster. Rob Matthews and Joe Ford above discuss this in more detail and much more movingly than I could, but I think there is an interesting complication to such a reading. This story embraces campness to an overwhelming degree (and has Dennis Thatcher run off with a man). What makes this strange is that camp is about adopting an exaggerated character, an impersonation that is funny because it is intentionally flawed. But in this story, the people who put on displays of exaggerated, fake emotion are the bad guys. Joe Ford archly suggests replacing the word "happy" with "gay" - but the Gayness Patrol are the bad guys.
This adds a wonderful tension to the story. There is an obvious reading of the story as an denunciation of the suppression of homosexuality, and it consciously adopts a camp sensibility, a form indelibly associated with homosexuality, and yet it is the villains who are camp and the heroes who angrily demand that people stop pretending to be having a good time and be miserable. The TARDIS is painted pink in part one and the Doctor's victory is symbolised by painting it blue again. You can read this however you like, but you've got to love the sheer gall of it. At a time of shocking government-sanctioned-and-executed anti-gay bigotry, the show is presenting unalloyed camp on a massive scale, but inverted, so it is everyone other than the oppressed who are camp. The entire society has gone camp. The populace has woken up to find the statues of their forefathers wearing dresses. This story feels like a victory for camp, despite displaying some serious hostility towards it. It's absolutely fucking nuts, an act of demented genius.
Perhaps this is what you do when no one is watching your show anymore.
The Happiness Patrol is frequently awkward, silly and unnatural, but criticising it for that seems almost to be missing the point. It is trying to be a story that evokes colonialism, Thatcherism, foreign dictatorships and gay rights, told as an episode of Play School with a monster made from sweets and a cute puppet dog. In my review of Survival, I wrote that it felt like Doctor Who was approaching the point at which it would have to choose between remaining "children's TV" and becoming something new. The Happiness Patrol is the last of a strange sub-genre that offers a way out: tackle increasingly mature subjects while ostentatiously amping up the kiddification. Whether it truly works or not I'm not so sure, but I give it ten out of ten for guts.
Satire, Commentary & The Kandy Man by Matthew Kresal 25/4/16
The Sylvester McCoy era, both past and present as well as - one can safely assume - in future as well, has received a pretty bad rap from some fans. There are stories that have been criticized from production values, scripts, performances and other elements. Even as someone who is a proud fan of the Seventh Doctor and his era, I admit that some of that criticism is valid. There are stories from the era though that aren't quite as deserving of that rap though and The Happiness Patrol is a perfect example of this.
There's the script for example. Graeme Curry's script takes the Doctor Who cliche 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 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 are elements drawn from tyrannical governments from around the world including references to an entire village being razed 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 makes 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 how the need for real emotions (be they either positive or negative) is 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, there are the pipe people and 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 are 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 with a series of slanted 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 facade. 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 disparate 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 are 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 you look beyond the surface of its production values and a couple of questionable choices, has much to offer. There's Graeme Curry's script mixing 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 it looks, is it?