There are some Doctor Who stories that are good. There are some Doctor Who stories that are great. And there are some Doctor Who stories that are sheer works of art.
"The Happiness Patrol", in my books, falls under that "sheer work of art" category.
It is, without a doubt, the "King" of all the "oddball stories". Because of this, there is an entire side of fandomn that maligns it to no end. They get upset by the fact that the show is making its sets and costumes intentionally cheesy. Or that certain premises are silly on purpose. As opposed to most of the stories of the last twenty four years where all kinds of silly things happened both visually and in the script but we, as fans, were expected to take them seriously!
I suppose if the three episodes were nothing but sheer "campiness" than I would have to agree with the side of fandomn that maligns it. But there's lots of serious content thrown in too. And a wackload of allegory regarding Margeret Thatcher and gay rights and suchlike that re-assures me, as a fan, that this isn't just Doctor Who "taking the piss out of itself". This is Doctor Who trying, once more, to keep iteslf fresh by exploring new ways to tell a story. I know some fans will never be able to appreciate what the show was trying to do in the eighties. It seems to me that said fans really just wanted bog-standard Tom Baker stories to be told over and over week after week. But I, for one, am glad that 'ole JNT commissioned stories like this and will always applaud him for his boldness as he tried to not just keep the series alive but also give it artisitic merit. And Happiness Patrol is a gem in his "producerial crown" when it comes to artistic integrity.
We begin the story (after an introduction to the characters that comprise the title, of course) with just the vaguest of continuity references. The Doctor and Ace arrive in the TARDIS whilst discussing dinosaurs. This dialogue seems intentional in a few ways. Firstly, it's the 25th anniversary so maybe they're trying to give, at least, a vague reference to the show's past before things get underway. But it also seems to me that it's perhaps thrown in for a deeper statement. This is going to be an extremely wierd and somewhat unique Doctor Who story and perhaps the continuity is added to tell us, the viewer, that this is still Doctor Who. That, as bizarre as the story might be, it ties in with all that we've seen before. It's still all about the Doctor and his companion(s) getting into trouble.
One of the very nice "edges" to this story is that our latest TARDIS crew is getting into this trouble intentionally. Once more, the Seventh Doctor's "cosmic chess player" image is being developped as he goes to Terra Alpha on purpose. This isn't a dictator regime that he's stumbled into by accident as he has so often in the past. This time, he's arrived to very specifically clean up the social mess the planet has turned into. And the way it keeps getting emphasised that he intends to do it all "tonight" just makes the story all the more stylish. And this latest incarnation of the Doctor all the more powerful. Even a bit scary. Especially after what we've seen him do to the Daleks only a story beforehand!
The villains of Doctor Who, I've often felt, are as important as the the hero. That if they're not handled properly by the production team, then the Doctor really can't "shine" against them as he locks horns with them. Our villains in Happiness Patrol are some of the best the show has ever come up with. We have, of course, as a principal villain, the very Thatcheresque Helen A. Not so much an evil woman as she is twisted. And because of this, there's a bit of pathos going on in her. As she weeps in that gorgeous final shot of her we not only delight in her "just desserts" but we also feel a bit bad for her. Because, in the end, she was a rotten woman, yes. But it's as plain as the nose on your face that she was rotten because she was as nutty as squirrel crap. And rather than make us detached from her insanity - we're able to actually feel a bit sorry for her instead. Some very sensitive portrayal going on here in our main villain.
As a sidenote, I am always impressed by how well the McCoy era delivered its "villainesses". It showed a very upward trend in the way the series was trying to portray females. Not only did we now have a very capable female companion, but we also had a whole set of female characters that could be as deadly as the many male villains that have populated the "Whoniverse". And Helen A is easilly one of the best of all the villainesses. Morgaine would give her a nice "run for her money" next season, but Helen A still holds a nice place in my memory as the best Who villainess of both the McCoy era and the series, in general.
With all that said, the Kandyman still steals the show here. He just completely drips with stylishness and coolness. The fact that he looks so ridiculous and is built on an equally ridiculous premise just makes him all the cooler. His sadism and petulance are so well-crafted that every minute that he's on screen is just a thorough delight to watch. Even more impressive that he's used as economically as he is. He could've easilly had a half-dozen more scenes and no one, I think, would've complained. But, in the end, he's a secondary villain and is therefore kept under the appropriate reigns. This fight is really about the Doctor and Helen A and the Kandyman is just a pawn in the game. But what a fun pawn he is! I still cannot surpress my cackle every time I watch him flip a coin to decide whether he should kill the Doctor or Ace first. Particularly as he delivers his "That would be telling" line!
But the best aspect of this whole story is the Doctor himself. McCoy has mastered the role by this point. Providing a perfect balance between quirky mannerisms and raw power. He's taken those qualities that Troughton and Tom Baker distilled into the character of the Doctor "playing the fool" until the most crucial moment of the story and brought them to their ultimate fruition. Particularly in this tale. This little man with his silly outfit and brolly topples a regime in the course of one night. This is what Doctor Who is all about. The idea that no matter how weak and ineffectual something might seem, it can make as big a difference in the greater scheme of things as the people who seem like the real "power players". And no one embodies that sentiment better than McCoy's portrayal of the Doctor. He is as worthy of the role as any other actor before or after him. And it almost pains me sometimes how underappreciated he can be just because the show was in such a turbulent time.
Although every scene in this story looks absolutely gorgeous (and I mean that, as much some folks love to slag off on Chris Clough's directorial skills), there are two scenes that stand out even more prominently. The first being the "snipers in the balcony" scene where McCoy disarms his opponents with words rather than force. And the second being the final confrontation with the Doctor and Helen A. In this final confrontation, the real point of the story gets stated once and for all. That life is about balance. That, inevitably, the good must come with the bad and that neither can exist without the other. "Two sides, one coin" is delivered so well that it gives just the slightest of chills. And the fact that it's accompanied with a neat little sleight of hand truly makes this a "Seventh Doctor moment". A unique way for McCoy to put his signature on the role.
Yes, the last scene of the story is almost a bit superfluous but it is a nice little afterthought. I can remember reading that Clough wanted to end the story with Helen A crying over Fifi's corpse and that JNT requested a final scene be added. And considering we get just a bit more great dialogue like "There can be no other colours without the blues", I think it was worth throwing that in. And as the TARDIS gets its last little brush from its new paint job and the Doctor pronounces "Happiness will prevail", I find myself completely in awe of the fact that the show could deliver two amazingly good stories in a row.
This is Who at its best. As strong as anything you can dig up from the series' so-called "golden era". And though Happiness Patrol gets overshadowed by the incredibly awesome "Remembrance of the Daleks", what we've really been given is two classic tales back-to-back. And, in the case of Happiness Patrol, it didn't have to bring back an old monster to help with its impact. It did it all completely on its own merits.
How sad that some people miss the whole point of this story because they can't get over the campiness....