Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol

Rating: 2¼

Written by Graeme Curry

Directed by Chris Clough

Starring Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Sheila Hancock (Helen A), Ronald Fraser (Joseph C), Harold Innocent (Gilbert M), Lesley Dunlop (Susan Q), Georgina Hale (Daisy K), Rachel Bell (Priscilla P), Jonathan Burn (Silas P), Tim Baker (Harold V), Richard D Sharp (Earl Sigma), John Normington (Trevor Sigma), Tim Scott (Forum Doorman) and David John Pope (Kandy Man)

The TARDIS materialises on the planet Terra Alpha. The Doctor has heard rumours of unrest amongst the human colony there and tells his companion Ace that they have a busy night ahead of them. They soon discover that unhappiness has been outlawed and large numbers of the population, those designated as “killjoys”, have disappeared. They also hear tales of a grotesque and frightening executioner known as the Kandy Man.

This is a very interesting one. At the time of first broadcast, Margaret Thatcher had been the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for nine and a half years, with a another two years in office still remaining. For many of us living in Britain at that time it was a very dark period. Moving forward two decades, the new coalition government, led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, talks meaningless nonsense about the “Big Society”, but Thatcher said “there is no such thing as society” and set about proving her contention by destroying it, a goal she more than succeeded in achieving. That quote, from an interview she gave in 1987, two years before coming to power, is rather taken out of context, but Thatcher was a malignant and destructive force, whose terrible impact is still being felt today, some twenty years after her own party prised her out of Downing Street.

The purpose of this rant? Although somewhat watered down by the time production was complete, ‘The Happiness Patrol’ was a less-than-complementary commentary about Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government of the time. It is not hard to interpret the intended meaning behind a storyline in which freedom of expression is forcibly suppressed and demonstrations are crushed.

‘The Happiness Patrol’ was told across three 25-minutes episodes between 2 and 16 November 1988, during the second season to feature Sylvester McCoy in the role of the Doctor. This was the twenty-fifth season, all told, and McCoy was the seventh actor to play the lead role. The first thing one notices is how threadbare it looks. All three episodes are studio-bound and much of the action takes place on an obviously tiny and very fake set. It looks more like the set of an amateur play than a prime-time television series. The story itself is quite peculiar and although there are some very good actors here the whole thing is so odd and inexplicable that they are faced with overwhelming obstacles to overcome.

The next thing that most immediately stands out in these episodes is the Kandy Man, a sadistic psychotic killer robot that looks like a liquorice allsort and is thwarted by the Doctor not once but twice using lemonade. Bassett’s, the makers of liquorice allsorts, lodged an official complaint with the BBC, claiming, not unreasonably, that the Kandy Man was nothing more than a copy of “Bertie Bassett”, the company’s mascot. The BBC agreed not to use the Kandy Man again, which is actually a pity. The first instinct might be to laugh, but he is certainly memorable.

It did strike me how plodding and careless the direction seemed to be. It needed to make a virtue of the limitations, but failed to do so, although oddly the very fact that it was so derisory seems somehow appropriate. Perhaps that was the intention. Chris Clough directed six Doctor Who serials in total and has had a long career on British television as a director and producer.

This was the dog-end of the original series, as it wound down towards its inevitable cancellation, but strangely it was also a genuinely creative period. These final three seasons were not always successful, but they always strived to be inventive. ‘The Happiness Patrol’, which, apart from its commentary on Margaret Thatcher, also contains a very obvious gay subtext, runs out of steam before the end of the third episode, but for all of its very obvious faults it does remain quite fascinating as an allegorical tale of the time.

Review posted 3 June 2010

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