Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Serial 152: The Happiness Patrol

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor)
Companion: Ace

Written by: Graeme Curry
Directed by: Chris Clough

Background & Significance: This one's the one that's totally not about Margaret Thatcher. At all.

The 1980s was a bit of a different and controversial time for Doctor Who. I mean, most of this you can chalk up to Producer-through-the-whole-1980s Jonathan Nathan-Turner and the him-mentality he brought to to the show. Much has been said on him. Much will be said in the future.

But for now let's talk about this.

"The Happiness Patrol" is the second serial in McCoy's second season, which puts us smack dab in the middle of his tenure as The Doctor. It's only the second serial that aired with regards to "The Cartmel Masterplan" and it's... a bit different. For one thing, it puts The Doctor in a dystopian futuristic setting (and we all know how that turned out the last time that happened), so instantly it's a little off putting, at least for me. For another the regime as it's led by Helen A. is a definite oh-mah-gosh allegory for then-Prime-Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Honestly, it's a bit of a welcome thing.

Classic Who definitely has a predilection to lend itself to the occasional political/social commentary when the time was right (see "The Sunmakers" among others) and it only makes sense that they actually tackle Margaret Thatcher (almost literally) in this story. Not only that, but having sworn off dystopias in Doctor Who, I find it interesting that they do one here and it works (more or less), but mostly because of the oeuvre they're trying to capture or what have you. Also they paint The TARDIS pink. I don't know what that is.

It's also a three part story and filmed on sets in studio. So... that's good at least. Well... I think that's a fine thing, anyways.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

So I was honestly surprised to see that right off the bat they were doing a dystopia story. I mean, I know it's in my mind because I somehow read somewhere that it was, but I digress.

I find the middle McCoy year to be something of a weird little thing. We're still coming off the wacky camp of McCoy's first season, but at the same time dealing with this new Cartmel Masterplan that's getting implemented show wide and around the clock or what have you. Ace is still a relatively new companion. McCoy's dialing into this new mysterious thing... it's all... there.

It's therefore strange to jump right to something that is so... how do I say this? Deep, I think.

Right off the bat, we're dealing with The Doctor forced to topple a government. While The Doctor's certainly done that in the past, this is the first time we get to see McCoy really take down an entire bureaucratic regime or what have you, and it's interesting in retrospect to look back and reflect (knowing what we know about the direction they were planning on and did end up taking with The Doctor) on how much all those pieces are setup here, from McCoy's every single move to what he's doing with Ace to everything.

More than anything, this is where the story excels for me.

The opening bits, really most of this episode, is The Doctor and Ace running around, figuring out things, getting into mischief, getting put in the waiting room, stealing a golf cart (oh god yes; seriously; I wanna go hang out with The Doctor and steal a golf cart. I mean, we'd do other things, but that's just an absolute must and for some reason Ace gets to do all the cool things and it's so totally not fair) and getting arrested by the Happiness Patrol... It's all very... good in its execution.

Also strong, I think, is the production design of everything itself.

I know I'm sure I'm in the minority here, but I actually really like the production design of everything in this story. Even right off the top, I really do like these sets. They are a bit bland, yes, but they're also great at conveying a claustrophobic space, with partitions all tight and open space and a little bit of vertical levels but not perfect or anything. But it does look good, at least the main courtyard areas and the Kandyman's workshop. When you reach the offices they tend to look a little bland, but c'est la. I can deal with that.

But beyond sets there's the way this all just pieces together.

I mean, I'll be the first to admit that the Harpies in charge (the titular Happiness Patrol) look totally horribly awful and fake and not good because they're so totally ensconced in the 80s mentality that the 80s seem to always have. But there's something so gaudy and fake that it works for me. Much like their mantra to go out and exterminate all the not-so-happy people, this world where you're not allowed to be unhappy... it just works. This society is very over the top and gaudy and flashy in all the best of ways.

And I do like that, because it really does serve a definite purpose. Also, I don't really hate the Kandyman. Yet, anyway.

There is one other thing I'd like to point out, and that's the strawberry surprise with all the candy coating or what have you that comes down the pipe and drowns the dude. It's a scene of fantasy violence (candy coating deliciousness), but for me it's a scene that gets really close to the violence of "Vengeance on Varos" in my eyes which is far, far over the line. GRANTED, this level of violence only appears one time in this episode, so it's more anachronistic than anything. But it's still kind of a horrifying image.

More than anything, that's my problem with the Nathan-Turner Doctor Who. He goes to the dark place because it's in vogue or whatever, but that really doesn't quite ever fit in with Doctor Who, does it? It just sticks out like a sore thumb. I think it works better with Doctors who aren't Colin Baker because The 6th Doctor was a grumpy alien grumpily dealing with a-holes and being terribly flippant about it. Davison worked because he seemed genuinely remorseful about how things were turning out. And McCoy... well... McCoy is still fighting the good fight isn't he?

Honestly, it's a good opening part and it puts a lot of pieces and intrigue into place, and when it comes to these stories that's all this part really has to do. We're also left on this cliffhanger which is... well it's rather standard, but I'm okay with that...

Part 2:

For me, this is where this story starts to fray a little around the edges, but I'll get to that in a minute.

This part mostly concerns itself with expanding the world and providing more toys and complications to play with. Coming after the first part and in terms of traditional story structure this really only makes sense. The world gets more complicated, the situation gets all escalatey... And that's all well and good, I think, especially because it teaches us about what's going on and expands how we see everything else at the same time. But because the second act is thrown into one episode (instead of the typical two) I find it's a little scattershot and looser than the first part.

The Doctor alone is a little looser here than he was just one part ago. He's definitely doing even more planning and scheming than he was in the first part as he prepares to take down the regime of Helen A.

And oh boy there are many, many moments to love.

That's one of the things I love about McCoy. He is so completely dialed into the performance of this more mysterious, scheming, planning Doctor that every motion, every line, every action is laced with mystery and a constant sense of scheming. His Doctor just FEELS smart while being incredibly silly. You can tell he's done a turn for the darker and his Doctor has really... grown into this role he's starting to develop for himself and is testing the limits of his powers. This only makes sense, of course, because this scheming just did the biggest of plans in "Remembrance of the Daleks" and now he's almost pulling it back to see what else he could do.

And yet, because he's running around trying to be so... schemey and figuring out what needs to happen, it definitely becomes problematic in this part as he's running around seemingly aimlessly and unevenly. I mean, he faces the Kandyman, he escapes through the sugar pipe, he meets that one guy, he meets Helen A., he plays the spoons with the Blues guy, and while this is all good I find it difficult to keep up with all the things that are going on. I understand the things that he's doing, but the jumps are very random and fast, including that random jump with the spoons and then to the serious place. Honestly, it just feels like filler as we lead up to the next and final part where The Doctor needs to rush to save Ace or what have you...

So... there's that.

Ace is faced with a similar problem. Ace is going to join a Happiness Patrol, Ace is running away with some hungry native, she's chased by Helen A's dog, she's sliding down a food pipe, and then she's caught again and then she's going to audition for a Happiness Patrol.... It's just strange, really. It lacks a whole manner of focus and excitement and doesn't really contribute to the Ace component of the Masterplan, at least as far as I can see. So it... I don't know, it just makes the episode and the story feel like it's lacking focus or what have you. At least for now.

And then there's The Kandyman.

Oh The Kandyman, probably the most derided part of this story and the thing that everyone seems to always remember and/or can't let go of. But me? I rather like The Kandyman. He totally fits in with the tone and feel of the world and the demonic sugar/chocolatier is really interesting and funny to me. I really like the design of the costume, which feels like something out of a dark fairy tale or fable and because this story is that really works. And then his voice is unsettling and all that. But if there's a problem with *him* it's that he doesn't even get to really work or be evil or what have you. He spends most of this episode getting turned into toffee and/or stuck to the floor.

This bothers me. It's always sad when Doctor Who doesn't fully execute a great idea or aspect or whatever. To me, The Kandyman is something that's interesting because he's... well... I said it above. But he's both scary and funny, demonic, but grounded and that just works for me. It's only sad, therefore, that they never really use him to his full potential or power. He's just the maggots in this story, but even the maggots got a giant ass creepy bug version. The Kandyman? He just gets stuck to the floor and yells for other people to come out and help him, which is not too terribly effective.

And then there's the end of this episode. Which is interesting but kind of a weak cliffhanger. Honesty, I'd talk more about it but I find I don't care so much.

Part 3:

The farther I go into "The Happiness Patrol" the more I have to suspend my disbelief.

If part two felt like an abbreviated, cliff notes version of the proceedings, what with everything with The Doctor and Ace happening so very quickly and so very whirlwindy (Remember that thing with the sniper? Not so much. What was that? It happened and it ended. Same with The Doctor's appearance in front of Helen A., which happens and ends fairly quickly, which is most disappointing. Also Ace is working with the Happiness Patrol and will be put in training and then not so much, it's all very jumbly), the final part is even more so.

Did The Doctor really topple this society?

One of the sacrifices this story made in the scripting stages was a cut from your standard four episodes to three and from what I understand this story was originally supposed to take place over the course of several weeks as The Doctor topples this regime. That, to me, is an interesting story, but I question its feasibility over the course of four different episodes. I've seen The Doctor topple entire regimes in a story that takes place over an indeterminate amount of time and I've also seen a Classic style story that takes place over the course of several weeks and months.

Both of these use modern conventions and such (within the past ten years) to tell the story they're telling, conveying information quickly and effectively, building them around characters and loading them with fast details so that you capture snapshots rather than whole picture and while "The Happiness Patrol" is in an era that is the most modern of all Classic eras and it definitely does implement or toy with such conventions in places, they weren't exactly ready to do such a complicated, sprawling story about The Doctor collapsing Helen A. and her Kandyman, much less to do it with an episode less than the typical average story would have gotten.

It's because of this that they decided to change the concept for the story, show Helen A. on the eve of the collapse of her regime which is something much easier to convey and explore within the constrains of just three episodes, but I question its effectiveness.

For one thing, this story is rushed. Plain and simple. Even just watching her regime collapse takes a bit of suspension of disbelief on my part. I mean... why does it topple exactly? What is it The Doctor does? He rallies the people? But the people looked like they were rallying anyway (unless I missed something), and... fine, let's assume that's the case.

That still leaves the fact that Helen A.'s reign of terror was on the verge of collapse and, sure, fine, I'll give you the idea that The Doctor was the final straw or perhaps the catalyst.

But isn't that a disservice to Cartmel's Masterplan? Seriously. You're trying to show how good The Doctor is at manipulating events. Isn't it more effective if he does most of the heavy lifting (albeit in the background) to create a network of cracks in the system and then comes over and flicks it at the end so the whole foundation crumbles? Isn't that more effective? I think it is. And more compelling. And mysterious.

But what we get instead is something that's... a little castrated, that's not as compelling to me, that just... doesn't work as good.

I can't even say McCoy sells it that well. At least show me that he's playing a large role instead of just having him go on stage and laughing maniacally, which, granted, doesn't sell it for me. I got in a discussion with a friend once and he said (and I agree) that McCoy requires a very strong director to pull the most out of his performance, and while I do think McCoy was exceptionally good almost across the board in this story, I question the scene where he laughs maniacally. I think he could have pulled it back a bit or the beat could have played different in the script or... something. I don't know. It just doesn't sit super right with me.

As a final point, I guess we should talk about Thatch- I mean Helen A.

Helen A.... I have a problem with? I like her in theory. I think she's an interesting enough character, one who's rather sociopathic and a bit insane what with her demands that people be happy constantly. I do like that she loses Fifi the Dog and that causes her great sadness (and yada yada McCoy has toppled the Happiness Patrol congrats), but I'm less than... I dunno. It's like the thing I said earlier about the lack of effectiveness in the construction of the story. I want to see that descent into madness, or at least, her when she's at least at a point of extreme power as The Doctor falls her for good. The big fall is much more compelling I find.

And then they paint the TARDIS blue. Killjoys.

Final Thoughts?: So this story is... fine.

I don't have any super major problems with it, persay. I find that it just... happens. Very little pulls me into the story after the initial part as it sorta degenerates into a waste of strong ideas and cool little bits.

Mostly, it's a wasted opportunity, I think. I really do like stories in which The Doctor drops out of the sky and tears down an unjust civilization, but I think they could have done this better or stronger were it in the hands of... I dunno... Someone else or they refined it a bit or what have you. I feel like I'm watching a really strong draft of the first episode but the later episodes just kinda fall apart in terms of coherency and compellingness.

There's certain great things, like tone and little mythological quirks about the society that have me interested. I do like the Blues guy, who I didn't get to talk about, and the incorporation of music and culture, but at the same time, I feel like these are shunted to the side in favor of time, which is unfortunate.

That which they do focus on is compelling enough. The fall of Helen A., The Kandyman (who totally isn't in this enough if you ask me), but for each of those things, there's something like the talent show or the rioters or the underground species who are indigenous natives and don't really have any sort of effective or neat role that they play in this. And for me, I wonder why they don't just... you know... Get rid of these elements? They're not helping your story and they're already spread real thin as it is.

I do like it, but I want to like it more. I guess that's what I'm saying.

But it's always a treat (always) to see McCoy and Ace. I really do love the pair of them, and McCoy's as good here as he is anywhere else (except for that one point, but I already talked about that) and it's really nice to see first-season Ace, who still feels young and impressionable and she totally hasn't grown into the aggravated-by-Doctor person she is later. Honestly, she feels a little standard, which I like for some reason. We can see her as special and unique but she's also just another companion, as though The Doctor hasn't quite decided to do what he plans to do with her yet and this is one of those testing the waters stories (as the other stories in this season are, perhaps).

But alas, I am rambling. And I have spoken enough. Now go get happy. Or else.

Next Time!: 3rd Doctor! Sarah Jane! Brigadier! Oh no Mike Yates! Nyder- I mean that other guy- no wait he's someone else! The fantastic Martin Jarvis! Space Hippies! And that's right: God damn mother frakkin DINOSAURS! "Invasion of the Dinosaurs!" Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. I was worried you would hate this one. It's one of my favorites.

    The collapse of Helen A's government is remarkably reminiscent of how all the Communist governments inn Eastern Europe seemed to just collapse overnight. I know that is a simplification, but that was how it felt back then. One day the Communists had it all under their thumb, then suddenly it was all over and people were doing what they wanted.

  2. See, I get that. But just because it emulates real life doesn't necessary make it compelling or dramaful. I'm more interested in the story of WHY they fell overnight rather than just seeing that which happened. And The Doctor is there to help it fall? But does he really play a role? If he doesn't, why bother with him there in the first place (much like Revelation of the Daleks or something akin to that), especially because we KNOW The Doctor in this incarnation is mysterious and manipulative and what have you.

    It's a good story and I have fun with it, but at the end of the day I'm mostly left thinking it's something of a missed opportunity.