Thursday, May 17, 2012

Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol DVD review

Having suffered through the dregs of Sylvester McCoy for the past few years, it feels good to be in a position to finally be able to say some nice stuff about his era as we near the end of the DVD range. I gave some relatively high marks to “Dragonfire,” and now here we are at what I consider to be the jewel in the broken crown of late 80’s Doctor Who: “The Happiness Patrol,” which fiercely divided viewers long before “Love & Monsters” was a glimmer in Russell T Davies’ imagination. Maybe it does today, too. I called upon my Who buddy Paul Deuis – who lives far away in a magical land called Australia – to throw down a few words on this most divisive of stories, simply to illustrate how strongly at least one longtime fan feels about it. Here’s some of what he wrote back to me:

“Many Doctor Who stories have taken a crack at the establishment, but whereas on other occasions there was a story to hang it all on, this lacked any subtlety whatsoever. The only thing good about ‘The Happiness Patrol’ is that it's three episodes long. With 106 episodes of Doctor Who still missing, the search is still on for more, and I'd happily swap every existing copy of this story for a 2 second grab of any of the missing episodes. Yes, even the episodes that everyone seems to think are rubbish. ‘The Happiness Patrol’ is a mockery of what Doctor Who should be like, and I'd rather have my head slammed in a car door than watch it again.”

You can’t say you weren’t warned. See, I’m about to explain that “The Happiness Patrol” is a masterpiece of sorts, but unlike plenty of other stories that might be labeled similarly, this is a case where it needs to be stressed that this is merely an opinion, and there’s no guarantee you’ll feel the same. One of the story’s strengths is its ability to polarize viewers; it’s indicative of how powerful a piece it is, just like “Love & Monsters” so many years later (though that’s about the only thing the two stories have in common).

The Doctor (McCoy) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) arrive on the planet Terra Alpha, which in the grand tradition of classic Who seems to exist entirely within one small neighborhood, constructed entirely in the BBC studios. Right off the bat it’s clear, though, that “The Happiness Patrol” isn’t business as usual, as the set is videotaped with much different lighting than the series had seen in quite some time (certainly a contrast to anything recorded the previous season). The entire story takes place in one night, and so all of the “outside” shots look appropriately dark. Scenes set in interiors are still severely overlit, but the point is, they actually tried something different here, which the series would take a step further in the next season’s “Ghost Light.”

Now the trade off for this is somewhat reduced picture quality. There’s a reason the show was so overlit during this period, and that’s because the cameras used weren’t designed for shooting in low light, and inevitably when shows were moodily shot, the BBC would get complaints from old ladies who couldn’t see the picture. (What I’ll never quite understand is how the video cameras used during the late ‘70s appear to be of a higher quality than the ones used in the ‘80s…but then again, its was during the ‘80s that electronic equipment of all kinds started being manufactured so shoddily, and I suppose that includes the expensive stuff, too. Designed or planned obsolescence is a major pet peeve of mine, and a tangent that should be saved for another rant.) The good news is that I’ve never seen this serial look as clear as it does on this DVD.  

Helen A (Sheila Hancock) and Fifi
The premise of “The Happiness Patrol” is really very simple: Terra Alpha is an Earth colony where it’s a crime to be sad, as decreed by its ruthless, ice cold leader Helen A (Sheila Hancock). As you might guess, this has led to an awful lot of Terra Alphans being very depressed. These people are labeled Killjoys, and numerous grisly fates await them. Perhaps they will be executed by the Happiness Patrol, a death squad made up of women with pink hair and heels. Or they might end up in the Kandy Kitchen, experimented upon by the diabolically psychotic Kandy Man. And it’s anyone guess what Helen A’s pet Fifi is capable of…

Ace and Susan Q (Lesley Dunlop)
“The Happiness Patrol” is a sociopolitical satire, and in an alternate universe where Terry Gilliam never joined Monty Python and became a famous Hollywood director, he helmed this story for the 25th season of Doctor Who, the powers that be having decided that his brand of weirdness was a good enough fit for Graeme Curry’s audacious script. Curry and Andrew Cartmel now freely admit that Helen A was a riff on Margaret Thatcher, and that the story was intended to be an indictment of her treatment of the working class. But you don’t care about Thatcher, right? The great thing is that, to put it mildly, there will always be rulers and politicians that treat their citizens and constituents shoddily, and when you mix that fact with the simple notion that it’s against the law to cry…voila: You have the potential for a timeless piece of satirical sci-fantasy. Thankfully, the execution of this blend is nearly flawless, all things considered, and it’s really rather surprising how incredibly well it holds up through the lens of today.

The Pipe People
Sure there are a few problems: The indigenous Terra Alphans – “the Pipe People” – don’t work at all. They’re these short, troll-like figures who live in the pipes beneath the city. Ace befriends them, but it’s never satisfyingly explained how their planet was taken from them. Further complicating matters, their speech is near indecipherable, so it’s tough to care too much about them as characters. Trevor Sigma (John Normington, who previously guest-starred as Morgus in “The Caves of Androzani”), the galactic census taker, is stunningly thick (“thick as a whale omelette,” as Prince George might say), although he does have one beautiful moment involving the word melancholy. Then there’s Fifi, which on one hand you look at and declare, “What a cool puppet!,” but on the other hand derisively moan, “That’s a puppet!” The pathetically slow go-carts used in a couple scenes dictate suspension of all disbelief. These are fairly minor complaints, though, because most everything else about “The Happiness Patrol” is just sooooo wrong that it’s so very right.

The Kandy Man and Bertie Bassett
At the top of the heap is one of the most insanely bizarre creations ever invented for this series, the Kandy Man. He’s some kind of demented, killer robot made out of candy, and looks suspiciously like advertising mascot Bertie Bassett’s mad cousin Norman. (Bassett’s did in fact get their collective panties in a wad, although it seems the worst that came of it was that the BBC had to agree to never use the character again…my, how times have changed: A wrist slap!!) But as villains go, the Kandy Man is all sugar and little substance. The real villain of the piece is Helen A, and Hancock submits to the character entirely. As unique as the Kandy Man is, Helen A is just as much of a standout in the hall of great Doctor Who villains, and her final scene is one of the most strangely moving and emotional moments in all of Doctor Who; there may not be a scene quite like it anywhere else in the franchise.

Earl Sigma and the Doctor in the Kandy Kitchen
The design is infused with imagination. Pretty much everything here evokes a mood, but the Kandy Kitchen in particular is a standout, what with the intense attention paid to detail and all. The tubes and the pipes and the oven and the chairs and the way the walls are painted with random monochromatic shapes; spend some time really studying that set as it’s something truly special. Indeed, this is a rare occasion in the McCoy era where the production team made the show’s minuses work in its favor. Even the costuming decisions and makeup choices help define and explore characters.

Since Keff McCulloch’s scores ruined or at least came close to ruining a half dozen McCoy stories (that would be half of the McCoy era for those keeping score), it’s easy to forget to give due credit to the other two composers working on the show at this time, Mark Ayres and Dominic Glynn. Amongst Glynn’s numerous Who credits is the arrangement of the theme tune for “The Trial of a Time Lord” season and “The Happiness Patrol.” His work on this show was pretty marvelous across the board (given that it was the late 80’s, anyway) and never more so than in “The Happiness Patrol,” particularly the many harmonica flourishes from the blues-playing Earl Sigma (Richard D. Sharp). 

What is likely the most shockingly great aspect of “The Happiness Patrol” is Sylvester McCoy’s performance. He’d previously been acceptable in both “Delta and the Bannerman” and “Dragonfire,” though neither story gave him much to do. He was pretty good in “Remembrance of the Daleks,” right up until his big confrontation with Davros, in which he lost a great deal of credibility. But here, he gets it just right. The script calls for his antics to exist somewhere in the middle; a place where McCoy manages to find his, well, his center. In only one scene does he flip out into clownishness, and that’s the scene in the town square in the third episode – but that’s also the whole point of that scene, so it totally works. Elsewhere there’s the great moment with the two snipers, that aforementioned final scene with Helen A that belongs as much to McCoy as it does Hancock, and perhaps his finest moment, which is just one line that he utters early on. When Ace threatens to make the Happiness Patrol “very, very unhappy”, with anger bubbling away beneath the surface, he replies, “Don’t worry, Ace. We will…” If only someone had said to him “That moment, right there! Keep doing that!,” we McCoy detractors might have a considerably different view of the Seventh Doctor today.

DVD Extras: As is often the case with stories that I adore, I found myself slightly let down by the extras, because I have in my head an idea of how I believe the story should be represented. So while the commentary track featuring Aldred, Graeme Curry, script editor Andrew Cartmel, Dominic Glynn and director Chris Clough is pretty damn good, the proceedings demanded that Sheila Hancock be here. Her presence is so important to this story that it’s a huge shame her participation wasn’t secured; nor does she turn up on the Making Of entitled “Happiness Will Prevail,” which features most of the folks from the commentary track, as well as David John Pope, who played the Kandy Man. (Not a single actress from The Happiness Patrol gang itself is anywhere to be seen on here!) Quite possibly the highlight of this disc is a 45-minute documentary called “When Worlds Collide,” which traces the relationship of politics to the series and its characters over the years; an utterly absorbing piece of work this is, loaded with clips from all eras of the series. The springboard for the topic is, I believe, the moment a couple years ago when “The Happiness Patrol” found itself in the news over 20 years after its initial broadcast. There’s also a lengthy (23 minutes) selection of deleted and extended scenes, a photo gallery, the production notes subtitle option, an isolated score, Radio Times listings in PDF form, and, as with “Dragonfire,” a coming soon trailer for “Death to the Daleks,” which will be out in July.