The Happiness PatrolBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 2 March 2005 - Reviewed by John Anderson

More so than any other serial from the final two years of the programme, The Happiness Patrol can be held up as evidence by those who would either champion or deride Cartmel era Who.

On the prosecution bench we have Justin Richards and Verity Lambert who will tell you that The Happiness Patrol is so devoid of merit that fans are forced to assign political meaning to it as justification; it is evidence of Doctor Who straying too far into the realm of camp.

On the opposing bench are Cornell, Topping and Day who proclaim this to be a Doctor Who serial for and of its own generation; a joyful anarchistic satire that we should all take to our hearts.

Who's right? Well they both are really, as I'll try to illustrate.

In the case of the prosecution let me say this first and foremost, the design on this serial is a shambles. It is possible to say that the artificial sets, gaudy costumes and theatrical makeup are there to reinforce the serial's underlying message about the paucity of Helen A's ideology, but really... it's bollocks, isn't it? As a Doctor Who fan you get used to ignoring the programme's budgetary limitations, but here there's no reason for it. The Kandyman looks amazing - a pat on the back is due to Dorka Nieradzik - but for God's sake, if she can produce that costume within the design budget then why does everyone else fail so spectacularly.

Stand up John Asbridge. Doctor Who is NOT art house cinema, a genre even less popular with the general public than science fiction. There are not going to be a load of pipe smoking critics commenting on how 'Fritz Lang' the whole thing looks, or how the design ethic is sympathetic to the underlying message. Doctor Who is a piece of populist entertainment watched by a mostly passive television audience that is not going to take too kindly to a set design that wouldn't look out of place in the theatre, no matter how well intentioned it might be. I can believe that there were a LOT of people who switched on only to last as long as it took for Georgina Hale's mad be-wigged harridan to cock her red and yellow stripey gun.

Take a bow Richard Croft and poor Dorka. Before the dowdy painted backdrops of Terra Alpha stand the gaudy colours of the Happiness Patrol themselves. It's like lurching from one extreme to the other between each celluloid scene. Instead of complimenting the design they simply undermine it further, looking as they do extremely silly.

And last but not least a round of applause for Chris Clough. There's another one of those - probably - apocryphal tales about poor old Chris. Apparently he wanted to shoot it in black and white at weird angles but was vetoed by JNT. In all honesty, does anyone believe that this man has the ability to do any more than point and shoot in a by the numbers fashion? More likely, this approach would have made the final product even less watchable than what we do have.

When Verity Lambert, a woman who can justifiably speak with a lot of authority about television, stuck the knife into the McCoy era on 'The Story of Doctor Who' last Christmas, it was accompanied by a clip from The Happiness Patrol and my heart sank. It felt like an attack on Sylv and Sophie and theirs is a corner I will fight to my dying day. For the reasons outlined above, The Happiness is a very easy target - it looks silly; the people in it are dressed silly; oh look, there's Bertie Bassett, isn't he silly?

But if that's all you've got, then bring it on. Because Doctor Who fans know that deep down, 95% of the programme looks silly.

And so to the defence, or as Justin Richards might say, to read meaning into sh*te in the search for justification.

I'll leave the deep and meaningful discourse on cottaging and gay rights to far more informed commentators than myself. I'm sorry, chaps, but I was still a slip of a boy in 1988 and I have every reason to believe that any such allegory will have gone well over my head. Having read other reviews and insights I think that anything I have to add will seem trite at best so I'll concentrate on the frippery instead.

I am happy to argue that Happiness Patrol is more evidence of Doctor Who spreading its wings in a narrative sense and looking to tell more complex and involving stories, a move that is more successful the following season after this imperative filters down to the writers proper, but can be seen here, Remembrance and Greatest Show. Proof, if any were needed that the upward curve (despite a couple of blips) from the tail end of season 24 is continuing.

I call Sylvester McCoy to the stand. This was the last serial of season 25 to be recorded and it shows. 99% of the time he's on screen, he's excellent; seeking out trouble, wanting to speak to Helen A and the Kandyman almost as soon as he's identified them. It seems odd that the Doctor makes straight for the bad guys at the outset, having spent the 24 previous years seeking out the oppressed and giving them a leg up. It's more evidence of the seventh Doctor's increasingly proactive nature; next year his plan will have been set in motion before he leaves the TARDIS rather than the vague "rumours" and knockabout planning here.

And then there's the scene on the balcony with the snipers. It's the antithesis of the café scene in Remembrance; there it was the Doctor's decision to be made, here it's the snipers. Interestingly of course, we don't know the decision that the Doctor is agonising over in Remembrance - the destruction of Skaro - but he does go through with it, bringing the moral dilemma that troubled Tom Baker in Genesis to an end by wiping out his nemeses. But here he turns the tables; we have always seen the Doctor face down injustice and cruelty before, but never has he done it with such cold detachment. Sylvester is clearly furious here, and his anger proves to the snipers that they are better human beings than they thought they were. Of course, this Doctor did look Davros in the eye and end his life (or so he thought) but that's just part of this incarnation's moral ambiguity, and you know what - I like it.

As a side note, it's interesting to note that as Cartmel was realigning the Doctor's position on the psychological scale by asking what drives this character to seek out monsters and destroy them, Tim Burton was doing the same to Batman, but that's a discussion for another day.

I call Sophie Aldred. "I want to make them very, very unhappy!" Constrained by the pre watershed nature of the programme, Ace the character is incapable of expressing herself with the colourful Saxon metaphors that she needs to carry the necessary weight, but all credit to her - like Sylvester, I think this is her best performance of the season.

David John Pope, next to the stand, please. I've already covered the Kandyman from a design perspective so I'll avoid retreading the same argument here by singling out the actor behind the liquorice. The Kandyman wouldn't be half as much fun without Pope playing him like a cross between surly mass-murdering psychopath and surly teenager. Pope keeps it dead straight and is matched for every line by Harold Innocent as Gilbert M, their bickering hinting at a shared history that remains frustratingly unexplored on screen.

And finally, I call Sheila Hancock. Regardless of her thoughts on the role today, she puts in a great performance here. As much a victim of her ideology as her citizens, she's caught in an unfulfilling and loveless relationship with Harold C to the extent that the only creature she has feelings for is her pet, Fifi. The camera pan as she cries over Fifi's body is majestic and had the programme ended here it would be proof positive that the newfound maturity and confidence of season 25 were here to stay. That Doctor Who could end on an emotional climax rather than a narrative one would have realigned what the programme was capable of, but instead we get a typically trite coda. Oh, well. At least we can take heart that twelve months later, shorn of Clough's less than dynamic direction, Curse of Fenric can pull off what Happiness Patrol cannot.

So, in summing up, Happiness Patrol is a rather schizophrenic serial where the truly awful sits alongside the triumphant. Derided for being camp and tacky, what Happiness Patrol really demonstrates is that although the BBC design teams are still stuck in a inescapable nosedive, Cartmel is championing a script and narrative ethic that if not 100% successful, is still full of promise.

The learning curve continues.