Doctor Who #683: The Happiness Patrol Part 1

"There's a place, a secret place, where some of us go to indulge our depressions, to share our miseries, with other killjoys like you and me."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Nov.2 1988.

IN THIS ONE... Pink Kangs are best on a planet where being unhappy is illegal.

REVIEW: The opening chapter of The Happiness Patrol really feels like the proactive Doctor of Remembrance has just walked into an episode from his more clownish, previous season. Specifically, a sister story to Paradise Towers. Here again we have an absurd dystopia patrolled by women in brightly-colored wigs, with a panto monster at the heart of it all, though the story is episode is stronger by virtue of a more solid Doctor and a better companion. The satire is clearer too. Paradise Towers was all over the place - fascism? modern architecture? movie hero clichés? schoolyard politics? young vs. old? - but the joke in The Happiness Patrol is sharper and better focused. Terra Alpha's greatest crime is unhappiness, and unhappiness ironically triggered and fueled by the very fascism that tries to impose happiness norms on its people. It's Orwell taken to silly extremes, with undercover agents trying to make you admit you're blue, the authorities painting the TARDIS a bright shade of pinkish red, and rounding up people who play sad music, wear dark clothes or write poetry (except limericks). It's ridiculous, but as I've said before, that kind of satirical hyper-society is a trope still with us in the new series, and amusing even when it's not an exactly credible genre of futurism.

Exploring this culture is where one gets enjoyment from the program - convicts forced to either audition for the Patrol (the Doctor lends Ace his spoons) or play video slot machines where you can win bad jokes, executions via strawberry syrup, naming conventions that denote rank (my last name starts with A, so I'd be at the very top, obviously), everyone seems very good at dishing out the death puns (the 6th Doctor would have been at home), and musak playing all the time - but it's important for the main characters to get well involved to make things interesting. The Doctor and Ace trying to figure out how to escape a prison that isn't a prison is a reasonable puzzle, but does lead to a series of captures and escapes which is padded Doctor Who's bane. I do like how Ace meets a Patrolwoman that's on the cusp of becoming a killjoy and who lets her escape, vicariously doing so herself through Ace, but that means we're twice told Ace will go through auditions and never does. At least Earl Sigma seems a cool character with which to pair the Doctor up while Ace is off doing her thing (or not doing her thing).

The tone of the story is a bit messy, however. We've got western music, and meetings in the night right out of film noir, and then we get a robot made of candy (he is NOT a sweetie as advertised). The Kandy Man is either a wonderful piece of whimsy or Doctor Who's worst monster ever. I haven't decided yet. But you can almost take this reality seriously until he shows up. Perhaps I'd be more willing to embrace him if his design was clean. Because I'm also of two minds regarding the art direction in the story. On the one hand, it feels too dark and grimy to really sell the over-happiness Helen A is enforcing. On the other, that's probably just what it should be, a world in decay that makes the happiness even more forced, an Eastern Bloc building with pink balloons added. But then, why paint the TARDIS in a bright color when all your streets are dark and dirty? And the Kandy Man is the same. It's like the candies he's made from should be bright, smooth and shiny, but the lighting's dark in the his candy factory and the costume is full of gray pieces. He looks under-saturated. For once, brightness is indicated, but Doctor Who's finally moved back to moodier lighting. Sometimes, you can't win.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - An interesting, if absurd, society, but not sure I can stomach the Kandy Man.


snell said...

I think the Kandy Man might be the primal example of the Cartmel era's dedication to the tone of British comic strips without the production being able to quite pull it off in televised form. If you picture Kandy Man as a black & white drawing in an issue of 2000 AD, you can see it working. Live action, in bright colors? Not so much.

Ditto the whole society--I think it would work better as an enclave Dredd encounters, as his more extreme personality makes for a greater contrast & perhaps therefore sharper satire. The Seventh Doctor just might be too nice to be the proper antagonist in a satire of this type...

Siskoid said...

Just like Paradise Towers, the world deserves a Dredd or Marshall Law to walk in and mow everybody down.

Craig Oxbrow said...

It's also the best Paranoia crossover game ever filmed.

Siskoid said...

That's something else it has in common with Paradise Towers.

But c'mon Terra Alpha? Alpha Complex? Coincidence?!


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