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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!

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Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (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 Sun Makers originally aired in 1977.

Why did you come here, then?

Because my new little chum here seemed unhappy about something.

Mandrell discovers all he needs to know about the Doctor

The Sun Makers was reportedly written as a result of a disagreement between writer Robert Holmes and the British Revenue and Customs. That’s the oft-cited background to the story, so well known that it’s even included on the notes included in the DVD release. With that summary, you’d expect The Sun Makers to be a condemnation of the tax system, and a protest at the government’s funnelling off of money from the individual to pay like pesky things like roads or schools or hospitals.

Instead, Holmes has crafted The Sun Makers as something altogether more compelling and instructive. Rather pointedly, while The Sun Maker is a story about excessive taxation, the episode casts a large interstellar corporation as the villain of the piece. The episode’s primary antagonist isn’t a state official, it’s a single-minded number-crunching accountant who operates a large corporation that has managed to turn light itself into a financial commodity. This isn’t the story about individuals fighting for the right not to pay tax, it’s people fighting for decent working and living conditions.

Indeed, it’s quite easy to read The Sun Makers as a rather socialist piece of Doctor Who, ending with the massive organisation of the working class to resist their greedy capitalist overlords. That’s quite a radical shift from the story you’d expect given the background. In that respect, it seems almost like a call-forward to the pointed subversive social commentary of the Cartmel and even Davies eras.

I see the future...

I see the future…

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Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos (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.

Vengeance on Varos originally aired in 1985.

It’s a question of re-imprinting their identities, of establishing again who they are.

– Colin Baker spots the problems with the Colin Baker era

Vengeance on Varos is a serious contender for the best Colin Baker Doctor Who story. Not that there’s too much competition. It’s either this or Revelation of the Daleks. I’m also reasonably fond of The Two Doctors, but I’ll accept that I’m in the minority on that one. Colin Baker’s first season is an absolute mess. It has a scattering of half-decent ideas (paired with some atrocious ones, to be fair) executed in a rather slapdash manner.

The season is obsessed with violence and politics and power and the Doctor’s strange ability to accrue large body counts while nominally remaining a pacifist. Like the last year of Peter Davison’s tenure, there’s a sense that the show doesn’t really like its protagonist. Attack of the Cybermen seems willing to trade him for a murderous sociopath. Still, there’s the nugget of an interesting idea there; it’s telling that the revived series would explore some of these ideas in a more insightful and intelligent manner.

However, Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks stand apart from the rest of the season because they explore these issues with nuance and sophistication. Vengeance on Varos is wicked social satire that still stings today, an indictment of reality television that was broadcast almost two decades before the format took over television.

It's okay, the audience seems to actually like this one...

It’s okay, the audience seems to actually like this one…

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Doctor Who: Blink (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.

Blink originally aired in 2007.

But listen, your life could depend on this. Don’t blink. Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead.

– the Doctor

Like Love and Monsters, Blink is a “Doctor-lite” episode, an effective time- and money-saving measure from the show’s production staff, built around filming an episode that requires the minimal involvement from the lead actors. Also like Love and MonstersBlink is an episode of Doctor Who that is about Doctor Who.

Granted, Steven Moffat’s script doesn’t engage with fandom as directly as Russell T. Davies did. Here, the fans trying to find their own meaning in the show are the anonymous net-izens on forums and fan sites, rather than a friendly group of eccentric individuals enriched by contact with one another.

While Love and Monsters is about how Doctor Who fandom tends to serve to unite diverse people beyond an interest in Doctor Who itself, forming bonds that become more significant and important than the interest in the show, Blink is very much a story about trying to make sense of the show itself.

Rocking the boat...

Rocking the boat…

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Doctor Who: Carnival of Monsters (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.

Carnival of Monsters originally aired in 1973.

Roll up and see the monster show! A carnival of monsters, all living in their natural habitat, wild in this little box of mine. A miracle of intragalactic technology! Roll up! Roll up! Roll–

– Vorg welcomes us to the new world

There’s a valid argument to be made that Carnival of Monsters is the heart of the show’s tenth anniversary celebrations. Sure, it lacks the bombast of recruiting William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton to guest star in The Three Doctors, but it’s very much an affectionate love letter to the show and a bold statement of purpose going forward. With the Time Lord’s ending the Doctor’s exile in The Three Doctors, the whole universe is at his doorstep.

Carnival of Monsters, then, is really the point at which a specific era of Doctor Who can be said to begin. While the First and Second Doctors had journeyed to other worlds and times, they had done so in black-and-white. The whole point of exiling the Doctor to Earth way back in Spearhead from Space was so that the shift to colour wouldn’t destroy the suspension of disbelief. The hope was that grounding the series might make it possible to maintain suspension of disbelief in bright colour.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

While the Third Doctor has ventured to other worlds before (Colony in Space, Curse of Peladon, The Mutants), this is the point in the show where Doctor Who becomes the full-colour adventures of a man traveling through space and time in a blue box. This is the point at which cardboard sets and dodgy alien design become more than just occasional quirks – they become an expected part of the formula.

In a way, Carnival of Monsters is just as much a bold statement of purpose as Spearhead from Space was.

In the palm of his hands...

In the palm of his hands…

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Doctor Who: Journey’s End (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.

Journey’s End originally aired in 2008.

Stand witness, humans. Your strategies have failed, your weapons are useless, and… oh, the end of the universe has come.

– Davros, master of understatement

Journey’s End covers a lot of ground incredibly quickly. Even running one-and-a-half times the length of a regular episode, Journey’s End feels like it’s ready to burst at any given moment. Those who don’t like Davies’ finalés will find a lot to complain about here. The stakes are raised so high as to become almost abstract. The plot is written into a corner where it takes nothing short of a convenient deus ex machina to resolve it all. The Tenth Doctor and Rose are as annoying together as they have ever been, despite both being quite awesome apart.

However, if you’re looking at The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End as a story, you’re missing the point. The real news is that this was a crowning accomplishment for the series. Not only did The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End both pull a record high Appreciation Index of 91, Journey’s End edged out East Enders and Coronation Street to become the most-watched show on British television that week. This was the first time that Doctor Who had accomplished this since it came back.

The Daleks' master plan...

The Daleks’ master plan…

The only comparable accomplishment in the history of the show is City of Death scoring the show’s highest ever ratings. And that only happened because an ITV strike made it quite difficult for anybody to watch anything else at the time. So, no matter how you cut it, Journey’s End is a phenomenal piece of event television, one that really solidifies the importance of the resurrected Doctor Who in British popular consciousness.

In a very real way, the title feels somewhat apt. The long journey of Doctor Who from a failed science-fiction show in the wilderness to a crown jewel in British television was finally over.

It's been a hell of a ride...

It’s been a hell of a ride…

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Doctor Who: The Stolen Earth (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 Stolen Earth originally aired in 2008.

Someone tried to move the Earth once before. Long time ago. Can’t be.

– the Doctor reminds us that just because the Daleks are threatening doesn’t mean they aren’t completely insane

The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End are not, by any stretch of imagination, tightly-constructed episodes. They don’t represent the pinnacle of the Davies era from any technical or production standpoint. The story logic is questionable at best, and Davies’ primary concern seems to be keeping the script moving fast enough that the plot holes and illogical narrative loose ends never overwhelm the production. It is basically the most bombastic and large-scale season finalé of the Davies era. And given that it’s measured against The Parting of the WaysDoomsday and The Last of the Time Lords, that’s really saying something.

And yet, despite that, I have a strange affection for this season finalé. It’s an excuse for Davies to really bask in the success of the revitalised Doctor Who, creating a plot that draws together all manner of disparate elements into one gigantic tribute to the past four years of Doctor Who. It’s hard to hate, on those grounds alone.

An explosive finalé...

An explosive finalé…

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