After that brief interlude of acknowledging other Doctors had less celebrated serials, I am afraid we now return to Sylvester McCoy – but not however to Season 24!
One of the greatest assets of Doctor Who is the breadth of its fanbase – it is broad enough to encompass my best friend’s dad, who thinks that it was a mistake to replace William Hartnell with Patrick Troughton, all the way to another friend who loves the seventh Doctor. There really is something for everyone!
But I must be honest … for the most part the 1980s aren’t for me! And The Happiness Patrol is an extravagant celebration of the 1980s in garish colour – even the TARDIS is painted pink because blue is deemed an unhappy colour!
The premise isn’t actually a bad one even if it is somewhat unoriginal – a planet in the iron-like grip of a dictator ruling through a police state, albeit one of women in big hair and bright pink uniforms. The number one rule is: “you must be happy” – with clear definitions of what happiness looks like. The Doctor and Ace land on the planet – as ever with McCoy’s doctor, by this stage it is impossible to tell if he’s bumbling along by accident or actually playing a long and subtle game – rather like Boris Johnson really!
And Boris Johnson links neatly to the elephant in the room – the obvious parodying of Margaret Thatcher in the villain – the dictator “Helen A.” I think it would be fair to assume that the BBC and the Tories have never been the best bedfellows – by Sylvester McCoy’s own testimony, they modeled Helen A on Mrs Thatcher because in their view “she was the greatest and scariest villain around at the time.” In mitigation to the Beeb, they were simply following in a long history of mocking politicians – witness the reference to the Miner’s Strike in the Monster of Peladon, or Harold Wilson’s questionable retirement honours in The Deadly Assassin – of course more recently the ‘sexed-up’ dossier on Iraq was mocked in the very first series of the revived Doctor Who.
In this case though – there’s more than a distinct sense of whinging by the liberal left. Having watched the Peladon stories, with the undercurrents of joining the then ECC and industrial unrest, one appreciates how the topics of the time feed into rather good stories – Doctor Who becomes a different means of understanding the present and thinking about it. By contrast, you sense the producers here were angling for “What a ghastly woman! Don’t you agree?”
Leaving my own blue bias to one side, when I got to watching the serial (which was among the last 20 I purchased) on DVD, I attempted to leave this to one side and enjoy the serial on its own merits. To be fair, there are some merits. Compared to his first season, McCoy makes the part his own and is a much more believable and Machiavellian character than the bungling clown of Season 24. The only flaw, which makes it difficult for me to enjoy his tenure, is that he’s so busy playing a grand game of chess, you’re left not really knowing what’s going on. Ace is also fantastic. Paving the way for every companion since then, Sophie Aldred captures both a brave exterior with a believable inner vulnerability – her reaction to the world around her invites the viewer to become involved, which is precisely what the companion should do.
But while the show was turning the corner, The Happiness Patrol is still a product of its time – garish, overplayed and sadly possessing a plot devoid of substance. If the serial had been based on the exceptional Vengeance on Varos then they might have gotten somewhere. Instead of which, they have a rather comical villain called the Kandy Man (who bore such a strong similarity to a Bassets product that the Beeb had to promise to never use him again) who threatens people with the most horrible death imaginable … drowning in sugary fondant …
One cannot help but wonder if Doctor Who would have stood a better chance of surviving beyond Season 26 if this serial hadn’t been produced …