Saturday, 28 November 2009

Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol

Part One

“Can’t you afford a real gun?”

Everything in this story is very obviously studio-based, with the studio floor prominent even in the early scenes set in a “street”. But this is only a problem if you’re expecting things to be “realistic”, and this story isn’t supposed to be. This is abstract theatre with a camera pointed at it, with sets and costumes to match. And it’s great.

The style of the streets, with a very “Big Brother” visible face on the wall, seems very reminiscent of Kneale and Cartier’s 1954 TV version of 1984. The planet of Terra Alpha is exactly this kind of totalitarian state, and the state persecution of those who refuse to conform by being “happy” works well as a metaphor for all sorts of things. I remember a lot of talk in mid-‘90s fanzines of this story being about Section 28; I don’t think there’s anything to indicate that was particularly intended, but it’s one of many valid interpretations.

As soon as the Doctor and Ace arrive they immediately start plotting regime change, and this story charts how the Doctor acts as a catalyst for the overthrow of Helen A’s regime over the course of a single evening. Helen A herself, played superbly by Sheila Hancock, is of course in no way based on Thatcher.

Visually and stylistically, this feels very similar to Vengeance on Varos, not only with the corridors and the go-karts but in the general aesthetic. What’s different is that instead of violence and sadism we see a less graphic but more insidious type of tyranny, much more psychological in how its people are mistreated. Activities such as walking alone in the rain, wearing dark clothing and reading poetry (except poetry) are banned as unconducive to happiness, the result of which is that Terra Alpha is an utterly joyless place. In fact, it resembles 1984 in more ways than one, with the general drabness of this society echoing the late ‘40s Britain of rationing and gloom which partly inspired Orwell’s novel in the first place.

The sight of the Kandyman is a shock, though- how on Earth did the BBC avoid getting sued?

Part Two

“He makes sweets that kill people.”

The “drones” who work in the factories are demonstrating against the regime, while the indigenous people of the planet have been driven underground. The conditions for revolution are in place. But first the Doctor and Earl Sigma (whose white t-shirt and suit looks so 1988) must escape the Kandyman, who seems to have a lot of personality for an artificial being. It’s a great scene, with the Doctor using his wits and some lemonade to affect their escape.

As Susan Q is taken away to be executed, Priscilla P delivers the most horrifying line of the story to Ace, showing just what a conformist nightmare being in the Happiness Patrol must be: “She was never any good. She never had the right attitude. She never joined in. She wasn’t part of the team.” Stifling conformity and forced jollity; is there anything in the world as terrifying as that?

The Doctor gets another great moment, turning the tables on Trevor Sigma by sheer force of personality in a scene that manages to get away with being completely implausible by means of its extreme coolness. And mere minutes later he gets an even better one as he confronts the two snipers on the roof. This is a great story for the Doctor, and Sylvester McCoy plays these scenes brilliantly. I really like this new Doctor, with the contrasts between the cleverness and manipulative side on the one hand and the spoon playing and physical comedy on the other.

I love the bloke at the box office at the cliffhanger- such a typical example of British customer service.

Part Three

“I can hear the sound of empires toppling.”

“Everything’s beginning to fall into place,” says the Doctor. Revolution is imminent. Fifi is lured to her death, the factories are in open revolt, and Helen A is soon attempting to flee the planet. But there’s still time for a bit of comic relief as the Kandyman answers a retro looking telephone.

Helen A is unable to escape, as her shuttlecraft has been commandeered By Gilbert M and her partner Joseph P, who seem to be eloping together! Her final speech to the Doctor before she collapses into tears upon hearing about Fifi’s death is very strongly reminiscent of Thatcher.

This is a brilliant and very clever script superbly realised by a production style that quite correctly avoided realism in favour of the abstract. It would be easy to criticise this for this lack of realism, and especially for the use of a small cast in a story concerning the fate of an entire world, but that would be to miss the point. There are a couple of worries, however. The direction is a bit flat, but then again the fact that this is deliberately presented as televised theatre that would seem to be required. And I’m not sure taking such a boldly avant garde direction was an altogether wise move for a show which desperately needed to appeal more to a mainstream audience. In spite of its superficially childlike trappings, this is a very adult focused story, too; I’m not sure the story would appeal much to kids, many of whom would have probably seen it, ironically, as childish. I certainly did in 1988. But, all this aside, it still kicks arse. 5/5.

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