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Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Happiness Patrol originally aired in 1988.

Think I’ll hang out here for a while, Doc. See if I can teach this planet the blues again.

Yes, thank you for giving them back to us, Doctor.

– Earl and Susan shouldn’t be so surprised that the Doctor is fond of blue

The Happiness Patrol is an absolutely fascinating piece of Doctor Who. On the surface, it’s another example of the series’ rapidly falling budget and the production values point towards the show’s impending cancellation. While nowhere near as dodgy as Warriors of the Deep, The Happiness Patrol looks like a very cheap piece of television, struggling to realise a futuristic colony on a tiny budget. On a purely superficial level, The Happiness Patrol is really the kind of show that Michael Grade could point to and argue that Doctor Who was a show that desperately needed to be put out of its misery.

However, if the viewer is willing to pull back the layers a bit, and to peer beneath the somewhat rough trappings of The Happiness Patrol, the adventure is really everything that eighties Doctor Who could ever want to be. There is a reason that the serial has, somewhat improbably, endured. In 2010, The Happiness Patrol became headline news in Great Britain, with national newspapers astounded by the audacity of Andrew Cartmel’s vision for the show. The following year, the Archbishop of Canterbury casually name-dropped it in an Easter Sermon.

These references aren’t derogatory. These are proof that The Happiness Patrol, despite its dodgy special effects and the limitations of its production design, is one of the most important Doctor Who adventures of the eighties.

He's perfectly sweet!

He’s perfectly sweet!

It’s hard to overstate the influence of script editor Andrew Cartmel on eighties Doctor Who. While other producers tended contribute heavily to the vision of their script-editors, with the influence of a single producer obvious across the tenure of multiple script editors, the John Nathan Turner era doesn’t really have a single linking thread. More than the iterations produced by Hinchcliffe or Letts or Williams, Nathan Turner’s version of Doctor Who was shaped almost entirely by its script editor.

That’s why the show feels so radically different at various points across Nathan Turner’s tenure. Tom Baker’s final season feels markedly distinct from the period of the show overseen by script editor Eric Saward. When the show fell apart during the Colin Baker era, Nathan Turner found himself recruiting young Andrew Cartmel to take the show’s reins. Sylvester McCoy’s first season of Doctor Who is a ropey collection of stories.

I see a blue door and I want it painted pink...

I see a blue door and I want it painted pink…

Almost written on the fly after the BBC decided to renew the show (with a new lead), Cartmel seemed to be flying by the seat of his pants. After all, the script editor didn’t have a lot of experience coming into the role. However, what Cartmel had in abundance was ambition and vision. He had a very clear idea of the show that he wanted to produce. He didn’t want to do a science-fiction pantomime. He wanted to tell stories that engaged with the big issues of the day.

In that hastily-constructed first season, there’s only really one story that offers a solid indication of where Cartmel wanted to take the show. Paradise Towers is easily the strongest story of the first season. While it’s a very flawed production, and runs at least an episode too long, it does provide some indication of where Cartmel wanted to take the show. In his second year, Cartmel got a bit more confident. There are definite political undertones to the two stories book-ending the season, Remembrance of the Daleks and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

The Doctor's tickled pink about this...

The Doctor’s tickled pink about this…

However, The Happiness Patrol is the real spiritual successor to Paradise Towers and the real example of where Cartmel wanted to take the series. It’s a beautifully ambitious piece of allegory, that works on quite a few levels, and quite brilliantly at that. This isn’t the only time that the Cartmel era would deal with villains designed to evoke Thatcher, but it’s probably the most obvious. As much as it might be a criticism of Conservative Party policy, The Happiness Patrol evokes Thatcher quite directly. It’s hard to look at Sheila Hancock’s performance as Helen A. without thinking of Thatcher.

Of course, the episode’s subtext is also hard to miss. The colony has an oppressed underclass of workers – depicted here as a different species. Naturally, they turn out to be miners. And they are victims of Helen A.’s regime. “Well, they may not look like it,” the Doctor tells Ace, “but they’re on the edge of starvation. No sugar in the pipes.” When Earl wonders why these workers can’t live in regular society, the Doctor explains, “They used to, but they were driven down here by human settlers.” This way, they remain an oppressed underclass.

Candy coated...

Candy coated…

Helen A.’s regime is overtly fascist. People tend to disappear. When Helen A. boasts that she has “adopted the Bureau’s recommendations on population control”, the Doctor wonders what she means. She explains, “To control it. We have controlled the population down by seventeen percent.” She boasts, “Over crowding has been quite eliminated.” Asking whether she followed the protocols outlined by the Bureau, she responds, “Not quite. I found my own programme to be more effective.” Helen A.’s administration is fond of euphemisms, like describing purging as simply “controlling.”

Still, those looking for a twisted mirror to Britain in the late eighties will find it here. Helen A. hasn’t just forced the working class into submission, she has also tried to break the unions. Watching workers march for better conditions from her oppressive regime, Helen A. moans, “Look at them, Fifi. Dreary clothes, turgid music and terrible deportment. Oh, they really are so depressing.” There’s a definite sense that anybody suffering from a problem has only themselves to blame.

It doesn't make any census...

It doesn’t make any census…

It quite consciously evokes the sort of remarks that Thatcher would make about “moaning minnies” and the need of people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. There’s no sympathy to found in Helen A.’s regime. There’s only a sense of mild irritation at having to hear all those working-class people complain about how tough their lives are. If only they would smile more. Then the world would be a better place.

Even after her government has been toppled, Helen A. is quick to apportion blame. “You can keep your coin, Doctor, and your sadness,” she instructs him as she prepares to leave. “I’ll go somewhere else. I’ll find somewhere where there is no sadness. A place where people know how to enjoy themselves.” She continues, “A place where people are strong, where they hold back the tears. A place where people pull themselves together.” The Doctor elaborates, “A place where there is no love?” Helen A. responds, “I always thought love was overrated.”

Music to his ears...

Music to his ears…

More than anything else in the episode, this seems to cut to the heart of Cartmel’s vision of Doctor Who. The show seems to genuinely believe that a universe without love and compassion isn’t worth thinking about. It’s something that is broached time and again, and frequently cited in opposition to the default Social Darwinism positions adopted by so many late-eighties Doctor Who villains. Contrary to what people like Helen A. might think, the survival of the fittest is not an ideal to aspire towards. You can judge a society by the way it treats its weakest members.

“She was never any good,” Priscella remarks of Susan. “She never had the right attitude. She never joined in. She wasn’t part of the team.” That’s a terrifying thought, that somebody could just disappear from a community simply because they don’t fit in. Daring to be an individual, or to have your own opinion, is the worst crime imaginable. Anybody daring to rock the boat should be considered a threat to public safety and the moral fabric of the community.

Looks like the Kandyman doesn't have a chewy centre...

Looks like the Kandyman doesn’t have a chewy centre…

It’s telling, then, that the victims of Helen A.’s regime are inevitably those who don’t fit in. “All visitors are called sigma,” a visiting student informs the Doctor; the character is played by a black actor to underscore the point. The other species inhabiting the planet have been forced underground. The refusal to acknowledge anything but happiness is an obvious way of further ostracising anybody with depression or any number of other psychological problems. And anybody who refuses to conform to Helen A.’s world view is also on the chopping block. The ideal is a world with “no more queues at the Post Office.”

In this context, the serial’s gay subtext fits quite comfortably. After all, in the context of the late eighties, the gay community were victims of widespread persecution and oppression by officials. More than that, though, it seemed like society itself was willing to look the other direction as AIDS ran rampant among the community. Various preconceptions about the virus remained part of public consciousness well into the nineties, long after straight people became victims.

An A-class opponent?

An A-class opponent?

After all, this was an era where James Anderton, the Chief Constable of the Manchester Police, could get away with stating that the gay community was “swirling in a cesspool of their own making.” Thatcher herself came out with similarly bigoted remarks. “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay,” she stated. “All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life—yes, cheated.”

And these were just the official statements. The media was quite fond of sparking the occasional moral panic on the topic. This was the background against which the Conservative Party was able to gain support for the infamous Section 28. Section 28 was a homophobic piece of legislation which made it illegal to teach about homosexuality in an informative manner. (Or, in the terminology that the Conservative Party used in the act, to “promote” homosexuality.) It’s shameful that the act was only finally repealed in 2003.

Is the writing on the wall?

Is the writing on the wall?

In the context of late eighties Doctor Who, though, Section 28 seems worthy of discussion. Section 28 came into law while The Happiness Patrol was being produced, and it seems reasonable to make the connection between the passing of that homophobic law and the decidedly camp aesthetic of the serial. This is, after all, an episode of Doctor Who where the Dennis Thatcher stand-in runs off into the sunset with another man at the end. This is a delightfully subversive contrast. At its core, The Happiness Patrol is about cloaking Thatcher-ism in the iconography of gay subculture.

This is something of a double-edged sword. It cleverly points out the ironic similarities between Thatcher’s attitude of “cheer up and go” in response to tragedy or economic hardship and the camp veneer that eighties gay subculture used in the face of suffering and oppression. However, it could also be read as a criticism of camp itself; as a call to arms for gay subculture to perhaps move towards a more active mode of engaging with the political issues of the day. In that respect then, it could be seen as a spiritual companion to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, a show condemning hippies who sold out.

A hole load of trouble...

A hole load of trouble…

The McCoy era is decidedly angry television. It’s television that is clearly frustrated with what as happening in the world around it, and which wasn’t afraid to engage with those larger issues. The Happiness Patrol seems particularly upset with those individuals who refuse to speak out against the larger problems, who happily go with the flow. Happiness and satisfaction lack any sense of meaning meaningless if you can’t feel sad.

There’s also a greater sense of Andrew Cartmel’s vision of the Doctor himself here. Like Remembrance of the Daleks, it’s quite clear that the Doctor isn’t just travelling aimlessly any longer. He’s moving with purpose. As much as he might like to appear like a random force of nature, he knows exactly where he is going. Rather than treating the Doctor as a bumbling travel, Cartmel instead suggests that the character is beginning to tidy up loose ends.

The Doctor was never one for showboating, was he?

The Doctor was never one for showboating, was he?

“Yes, I’ve been hearing disturbing rumours about Terra Alpha, so I decided to look in some time,” he tells Ace at the start of the show. “So tonight’s the night?” Ace asks. “Tonight’s the night,” the Doctor responds. “Rumours of something evil, and we’re going to get to the bottom of it.” The Doctor is moving with purpose. He’s settling old accounts. He’s proactively taking the fight to the evil scatter across the cosmos. The monster sunder the bed don’t have a chance.

It’s interesting how profoundly Helen A.’s philosophy seems to offend the Doctor. It isn’t the mass murder or the oppression that seems to get to him. It’s the attempt to enforce a law that forces people to be happy all the time – the point where the State dares to presume that it can’t just regulate people’s lives, but their moods as well. Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor seems genuinely aggravated and discomforted by Helen A.’s regime, to the point where it’s not enough for him to vanquish her or liberate the colony. He has to prove her wrong.

True to form...

True to form…

The Happiness Patrol might be about the Doctor overthrowing a corrupt government, but it’s also about the Doctor winning an argument. His visit to the colony is only complete once he’s shown Helen A. that even she must be sad sometimes. Only after the Doctor has undermined her own belief in her warped ideals can the Doctor continue on his journey and engage in further adventures in time and space.

This is properly political Doctor Who, a show that is no longer afraid to engage with the big issues of the day – even when it might be voicing views uncomfortable to the mainstream. It’s a testament to the flexibility of the show that such raw energy and enthusiasm was still possible at this late stage of the game. Indeed, The Happiness Patrol manages to provide a handy answer to the challenge posed in the final story of the season, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

Something to chew over...

Something to chew over…

Contemplating the virtues of “selling out” in order to keep a franchise alive a few years longer, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy condemns the cowardice of trying to pander to the comfortable middle-class. As such, The Happiness Patrol feels like a worthy response. It’s a decidedly provocative piece of tea-time telly. It demonstrates that the show still had something meaningful to say – even if very few people were still listening.

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