Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. But recently I decided to spend some of my 50th birthday spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.
The Happiness Patrol
Starring Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.
Companion: Sophie Aldred as Ace
Written by Graeme Curry. Directed by Chris Clough.
Format: 3 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: November 1988. (Episodes 5-7 of Season 25)
The Happiness Patrol is a story I acquired in the same way that I did Time and the Rani–as part of a package that I bought because it gave me Remembrance of the Daleks. It’s a story with a lot of odd qualities, but also is kind of representative of the last two seasons of the original series.
The Happiness Patrol is an adventure that I more find interesting then really like. The story is set in a full-on dystopian nightmare world of Terra Alpha, which is created with a reasonable amount of detail, although of course it’s still hampered by Doctor Who‘s relatively small production budget. On Terra Alpha, any negative emotion is outlawed, with gangs of violent police roaming the streets looking for violators, and those they catch being tortured and executed by an android literally made of sweets. All of this is orchestrated by a woman known as Helen A, who is desperate that her world conform to her precise standards of what she feels is good for the people. As such, she’s a bit different to a lot of Who villains, in that she’s motivated by a distorted sort of love rather than a simple thirst for conquest.
The story is highly political, with Helen A representing then-current British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Personal freedoms, worker rights and labor strikes all figure into the story, and the production certainly is not ambiguous about its perspective.
However, at the same time, all of this commentary remains firmly in the world of allegory, and nobody at any time draws any real-world comparisons. In this way, it is still a more subtle and effectively delivered moral than what we had in the most recent season of the modern series.’
The episode is a bit frantically paced and sloppily structured, which doesn’t necessarily work in its favor. There are lots of elements being introduced, lots of ideas being shared, and a lot of running back and forth for our leads, with them being capture and escaping a fair bit. The story lazily has the Doctor trap the Kandy Man by pouring lemonade on his feet, and then later setting him free, and then later trapping him with lemonade again. There are numerous guest characters who weren’t developed as they could be–I would have liked to have seen more of Silas P, the informant, for example, rather than having him perfunctorily killed off in the first episode. The most obvious concept that could have been explored further is the Kandy Man himself–more of his backstory would have been welcome, as well as a more fulfilling conclusion.
Still, the story does work overall, thanks to the clarity of its main story and the centrality of its themes. Typical of the era, there is some excessively gaudy design, but unlike Time and the Rani, the design all feels like its in service to something–a story with clear ideas and a real point its trying to make.
I also like the episode is the way it highlights what was still a newish approach for the Doctor, and became one of the 7th Doctor’s defining characteristics. Specifically, this is his proactive approach to dealing with things, seen both here and in the previous story, Remembrance of the Daleks. For the first time, we’re seeing the Doctor not just happening to wander into dangerous situations, or being sent into them by the Time Lords, but rather just going places of his own volition to deal with problems. He has always been a force for good, but now that is not just accidentally, but the result of deliberate and even scheming design.