Shows - Review
Review by: Michael Hickerson
One of the standard cliché plotlines in Doctor Who is that the Doctor and company will arrive on a planet that is in the grips of a dictatorial regime based on fear and intimidation of the average citizen with a small group of resistance with whom the Doctor will ally himself to overthrow the current government and restore freedom. We see this time and again in such classic stories as the Sunmakers or the Mysterious Planet. But the story selected for the good Doctor's 25th anniversary season to pay homage to this classic plotline, The Happiness Patrol, takes this plotline and gives it the usual Cartmel twist. Instead of fighting against oppressive taxes, the Doctor and Ace arrive at an Earth colony that lives in fear of one thing--being caught being unhappy. The ruthless Helen A rules with an iron-fist and is determined to make sure she has the happiest colony in the known universe--even if that means undertaking such radical population control measures as killing anyone who dares to frown or like the feel of rain on their face.
The Happiness Patrol, like a lot of the McCoy years, is one of those stories that tends to divide Who fans into two camps--those who love it and those who loath it. I will have to come down squarely as one of those fans who enjoys the story for what it's trying to do, but doesn't think that it's a perfect Doctor Who story. For me, it's really a middle of the road McCoy years story--not nearly as bad as a lot of fans would have you believe but not as great as others would have you believe. It's not as bad as Time and the Rani and it's certainly not the worst story that season 25 has to offer--that honor would go to Silver Nemesis. But back to the Happiness Patrol.
Graeme Curry's script offers a lot of rather memorable characters to the story and coupled with the unique vision of director Chris Clough, the Happiness Patrol does a lot to rise above its roots as a studio-bound story. The sets are a visual delight and the choices of light and darkness by Clough work well. Having the Candy Man's brightly lit kitchen in which all types of evil horrors occur contrasted by the dark streets of the colony, where everyone is supposed to be happy all the time is uniquely done. Add to it that Clough makes good use of what could have been some rather dull sets in the pipes under the city and you can see that he does a good job based on the limited Who budget. No matter what else you can say, the Happiness Patrol is a visual feast and it certainly shows that time and again throughout the course of the story.
Even the costumes and make-up highlight the mood--from the orange and electric pink hair of the members of the Happiness Patrol members to the smiling drama faces that are made-up on each Happiness Patrol member.
And I would be extremely remiss if I didn't point out that visually, the Candy Man works rather well. The idea of a sadistic robot whose goal in life is to dream up new ways to kill people through sweets is a rather unique concept. And the creation of the Candy Man from bits and pieces of familiar candy works rather well visually. And, yes, there are some moments when his voice is a bit much and the lemonade trick works one time too many on him, but overall I don't think he's as bad as a lot of fans would want you to believe. His screen-time is limited enough so that he's unique and interesting, and it is rather nice to see him hoisted by his own petard in episode three.
Performance wise, the story does boast some good performances. McCoy and Aldred are in fine form as the Doctor and Ace, though I will admit that McCoy's singing in episode three is a bit much for my liking. Another standout is Priscilla P, who enjoys her job a bit too much and delivers the rather sarcastic, "Have a nice day" as she exterminates one Killjoy after another. But the real stand-out of the episode is Helen A who delivers just the right performance of over the top megalomania. Her motives are good--she wants her people to be happy--but it's just her way of enforcing her will that gets to be a bit much.
All of that said, I can't out and out say that The Happiness Patrol is one of the best McCoy stories out there. Despite all that's good about it, there are some things that just don't quite work in it.
For one thing, there are just some rather dull performances in there. A lot of the male supporting cast members--including Helen A's husband and the blues man are rather forgettable. Also, there's a lot of jumping around by the plot and the overall sense of timing is off. Also, the Doctor's initial decision to go down into the Candy Kitchen comes a bit out of nowhere and doesn't make a whole lot of sense--other than to set up the cliffhanger to episode one. (I have a natural irritation with cliffhangers that are forced into a plot rather than coming up naturally based on the story unfolding). And while a lot of the rest of the story looks great visually, Fifi is a bit embarrassing. (Also, going back to the internal continuity issue--Fifi is injured in one scene and miraculously healed in another. It just doesn't make much sense. At least Full Circle attempted to explain Adric's magic ability to heal quickly).
Finally, while it's fun to get some nice jabs in at the beauracracy that is Helen A's government, they don't feel as natural as Robert Holmes' the Sunmakers. Curry seems to want to take jabs at several different branches of the government--the Doctor's argument with the guy at the theater is one such example--instead of doing what Holmes did with the Sunmakers and out and out satirizing the tax structure and how taxes are collected. I think the Happiness Patrol begins to lose focus when it tries too hard to show how all the aspects of Helen A's regime are a giant beauracracy rather than picking one or two specific targets and really running with it.
So, overall, the Happiness Patrol is good Who, but not great Who. It's got a lot to recommend about it, but it's also got some rather sizable flaws. Again it's neither as great as some fans will tell you, nor is it as bad as others would tell you. It's fairly middle of the road McCoy years. And since we've seen how good the McCoy years can be in the previous story, middle of the road just isn't quite good enough anymore.
Last Updated: 10/25/2006
Other Reviews by Michael Hickerson
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