on 6 March 2003
Watching 'The Happiness Patrol' now, almost 15 years after it was originally broadcast, what stands out is the cleverness of it all. The evidence indicates that a lot of work, on several levels, went into constructing a story often accused of being poorly made and tacky. It may have had a low budget, but it doesn't suffer from it; and any 'tackiness' is clearly ironic, working within the context of the narrative. There are occasional moments when a detail of the production makes you wonder if they couldn't have thought things through a bit more, and occasionally the editing is over-zealous, cutting a scene a little too short, and lessening the effect of a punchline or a dramatic speech. But these are minor problems, and they do little to spoil the enjoyment of a thoroughly ambitious and engaging Doctor Who serial.
Sylvester McCoy is on top form, and the Doctor has too many good lines to list; one glorious moment sees him turning the questions back on the questioner, Trevor Sigma, while another is his confronation with two guards (a classic Who moment). There are two lapses: the first, at the end of episode one, where McCoy really doesn't manage pull off a plausible reaction to the Kandy Man's threat; and the second, a moment where he tries to sing the blues, and just looks silly. The latter, however, is saved by the context of the scene, where atmospheric and subtle support is given by Richard D. Sharp, playing Earl Sigma, a wandering medical student, who happens to be an ace player of the blues harmonica.
The score of 'The Happiness Patrol' is, of course, one its very best traits. Layered on top of the usual incidental music is a carefully judged combination of blues guitar and harmonica playing. In tune with the score is the set design, mixing together (with no lack of irony) the hard-edged industrial paintings of Fernand Leger, imagery from Lang's 'Metropolis', and the colour pallete of a children's sweet packet. Of course, as we know, good set design in 1980s Doctor Who stories was often ruined by boring, flat lighting. Pleasingly, that is not the case here. Moody and atmospheric film-noir (albeit full-colour-film-noir) lighting of the street and pipe scenes makes for one of the best looking Doctor Who stories ever made. One of the scenes to benefit vastly is the cliff-hanger to episode two. From a shot of a member of the Happiness Patrol (a band of pink haired ladies, cracking down on those not happy) painting 'RIP' (in pink) onto an execution poster, the camera slowly pans to focus on the Doctor, eyes in shadow, looking part-anxious, part-highly-dangerous toppler of evil regimes; the shot is held for a second or two, and then the music surges in. A cliff-hanger to beat all cliff-hangers.
It is not only McCoy who is well served by the production team. The Kandy Man is one of the most sinister evil scientists to ever grace Doctor Who, and "I am a Kandy Man of my word" is one of the silliest, coolest lines to ever have been uttered (in Doctor Who, and in television drama more widely). And the success of 'The Happiness Patrol' is embodied in this villain: the combination of silly farce and frightening evil; the willingness to wildly juggle audience emotions, making the viewer question their responses to characters. Few Doctor Who stories can claim a scene with as much pathos as that where Helen A. falls down and weeps at the sight of her dead pet, having stated only that love was "over-rated". The same Helen A. who is sublimly ridiculous in appearance, and who habitually utters such lines as "I'm happy you're glad", with a straight face. It is a rare script that is able to pull the tricks that Graeme Curry's script is able to pull here.
An important scene, worth noting, sees Joseph C. and Gilbert M. discussing the loss of the Kandy Man. It is funny and sad and perfectly timed (Fraser and Innocent are excellent throughout), and it has a peculiarly British feel to it. However, it is important because part of the exchange addresses the notion of 'the self', stating that although Gilbert M. made the Kandy Man's body, "his mind was very much his own". This notion is picked up again when the Doctor speaks to Helen A. in the finale of episode 3. "You can't get away, Helen A." says the Doctor to the escaping Dictator, because to escape Helen A. must escape from herself. The problem with nasty people, we are told, is that they are too concerned with other people to see the tragic flaws inherent in themselves; they are too concerned with "control" to consider "compassion"; their sense of the individual, of the self, is lost as they concern themselves more and more with the ebb and flow of the masses. The encounter is a simple and elegant end to a beautiful story.