Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol DVD Review: Don't Worry, Be Happy or Else

A story made better when the context is known.
  |   Comments

Has anyone ever stopped to consider what the politics of The Doctor might be? I must admit that before watching The Happiness Patrol, it is a question I had never even thought of. More to the point, it is a question that had never seemed relevant. The Doctor seems to exist on a plane where such mundane concerns as liberals versus conservatives is practically absurd.

One of the greatest attractions of science fiction has been to use it as a pretext to discuss serious social issues. The first Star Trek series was famous for this. That program even aired the first kiss between a white man (Kirk) and a black woman (Uhura), during the height of the Civil Rights movement no less. But Doctor Who always seemed to follow a very basic "good vs. evil" scenario, no matter what outrageous situation he found himself in.

Happiness PatrolThe Happiness Patrol (Story #153) first aired November 2 - 16, 1988, as a three-part serial. The Doctor was portrayed by Sylvester McCoy. While those in England who watched the initial transmission may have immediately gotten the point, it took me a little longer. The set-up is pretty straightforward. The Doctor, and his female companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) land on Planet Terra. As The Doctor tells Ace, Planet Terra is an Earth colony settled some centuries in her future.

We are then introduced to an older, frighteningly made-up woman named Helen A. (Sheila Hancock). She is giving a man named Silas P. (Jonathan Burn) his first badge, "In honor of 45 Killjoys to your credit," as she puts it. Helen A. is the leader of Planet Terra, where it is illegal to be unhappy. In fact, unhappiness is punished by death. The offenders are called Killjoys, and the Happiness Patrol exist to take them out on sight.

The Doctor's mission is simple, Helen A. must be stopped. The Doctor and Ace are quickly deemed a threat, and are (as usual) in jeopardy. The Happiness Patrol features one of the great Doctor Who villains in the Kandyman (David John Pope), a robot made of candy. He is Helen A.'s most trusted associate, who revels in eliminating Killjoys. When The Doctor first meets him, The Kandyman says, "Welcome to my kitchen, I like my volunteers to die with smiles on their faces."

Helen A.'s mantra is "Happiness will prevail," said in such a menacing tone as to make one's skin crawl. The official music is literally called Muzak, and the Happiness Patrol are deadly earnest. In retrospect, maybe it is a little heavy-handed, but the dictatorship of Helen A. and her Patrol is as brutal as any in the real world.

An inspired addition to the story is another visitor to the planet, a bluesman who plays harmonica, named Earl Sigma (Richard D. Sharp). He becomes a vital ally in the mission. And when you think about it, the mission here is a strange one. The Doctor must legalize unhappiness. One of the key points of The Happiness Patrol is that people need to be free to express themselves in every way. To be a robot is to not be human, as the Kandyman later discovers.

One of the most touching elements comes when The Doctor sits down on a bench with someone who says that they are melancholy. It is a "bittersweet melancholy," and feels good - something he has been denied for a very long time. In this moment we are vividly reminded that life is a complex mix of emotions, and to deny oneself of the bitter, and of the sweet - is to deny life itself.

Sheila Hancock plays Helen A. as The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. Upon first viewing, I thought this was an interesting and perfectly reasonable choice. It was not until I watched the outstanding extra features until I realized just how deeply The Happiness Patrol cut.

The 24-minute "Happiness Will Prevail" reveals the full intent of the serial. In the interviews with former Doctor Who script editor Andrew Cartmel, and writer Graeme Curry, they explain that any resemblance to the latter period of Thatcher's reign were purely intentional. Those days happened to coincide with the end of the Reagan-era as well, and it is an eye-opening realization of just how topical this particular serial was.

Not only was it explicitly critical of the whole (to paraphrase Ronald Reagan) "Morning in Britain" mentality, but dangerous to the Doctor Who franchise itself. Certainly a great deal of change had occurred in society between the program's debut in 1963, and the world of 1988 - but at heart, Doctor Who was always a family show.

Allow me to preface the following with the admission that I am something of a Doctor Who neophyte, and more knowledgeable fans may groan at this attempt to state the obvious. With that caveat in place, I must say that the 45-minute supplement "When Worlds Collide" is the finest Doctor Who DVD extra I have ever seen. This was my jumping-off point a few hundred words ago, with the question of the political leanings of The Doctor, and of what he really stands for.

"When Worlds Collide" is a marvelous look at the evolution of the Doctor Who program as it reflected British society over the years. I had certainly never considered it as a week by week (however obliquely) comment on society, but this piece does exactly that. It is a fascinating journey through the various incarnations of The Doctor and of those behind the camera, juxtaposed with what was going on in the real world at the time. Andrew Cartmel is the main talking head here, and his insights are remarkable. He was the script editor for Doctor Who from 1987-1989, but his real agenda was not revealed until the publication of his book Script Doctor - The Inside Story of Doctor Who 1986-89, in 2005. In it he claimed that during his interview for the job, he stated his goal to be, "To overthrow the government."

This scandalous revelation remained under the radar until 2010 however, when one day it exploded and became headline news. The footage of the national news story about it is hilarious. But what an irresistible tale it must have been. Imagine the horror of staid Brits discovering that an anarchist was quietly weaving his subversive ideas into one of the nation's most beloved television institutions. This leads into a discussion of the way Doctor Who has commented on, and in ways participated in British life over the years. There are also parallels drawn to other science fiction landmarks such as Metropolis (1927) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967).

In the end, Cartmel questions the very core of the series. He compares The Doctor to the Lone Ranger. He rides into town, solves the problem, then leaves. The question is, what happens afterwards? We never find out. For all we know, the entire civilization could have collapsed due to The Doctor's actions. 

The newly released 2 Entertain DVD of The Happiness Patrol also contains extras of deleted and extended scenes, a photo gallery, and some PDF materials. But nothing can touch "When Worlds Collide." I recommend this bonus feature almost more than The Happiness Patrol serial itself. Thankfully, everything is contained on a single DVD.

Doctor banner.jpg

Follow Us