Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Happiness Patrol

23/11/13 “The Happiness Patrol”

So, that's it, the last McCoy story I hadn't seen before. “The Happiness Patrol” tends to polarize people, but then all Doctor Who stories go in and out of fashion. I think I liked this story less than I did “Paradise Towers,” which was similar in many ways, but then again, it took me awhile to appreciate “Paradise Towers.” Like “Paradise Towers,” “The Happiness Patrol” has an obsession with studio sets and go-karts. Although the city on Terra Alpha is supposed to be artificial, the studio sets and the bright lights—always the bane of the '80s—make it quite unconvincing. The “teaser”--the scene with Daphne S being arrested—strikes one as an immediate candidate for the successful application of the film noir techniques the director wanted to use. However, I don't know if the whole thing would have succeeded in this way without drastic changes to the costumes, which would make no sense in black and white.

These things are, let's face it, largely superficial to the story (though many fans didn't see it that way). And as a story, I think this proves that McCoy era Doctor Who does unfortunately suffer from condensing together of what can be confusing or at the very least challenging material. It's not often you say that a story from Classic Who needs another episode, but “Happiness Patrol” and “Ghost Light” are desperately in need of same. Although its problems are not nearly as bad as in boring, repetitive, interminable “Terminus,”' there are some very imaginative ideas that just don't gel in execution. The Pipe People actually look quite cool, I thought, but I couldn't understand a word they were saying, and there wasn't enough background on them to make them particularly sympathetic. McCoy era Doctor Who seems to have a monopoly in “cool” American characters who for me are far more glaring in their falseness than Peri not really being American. Earl, for example, screams disaffected Cartmel Masterplan to me, and the fact that the actor is not particularly good robs the idea of any permanence. Even Pex seemed more believable. And the parallels were also rampant with “Dragonfire,” with the rather grating philosophers being transferred to a discussion on consenting to violence:

The Doctor : "Of course he will. That's what guns are for. Pull a trigger. End a life. Simple, isn't it?'"
Sniper 1 : Yes.
The Doctor : "Makes sense, doesn't it?"
Sniper 1 : "Yes."
The Doctor : "A life, killing life."
Sniper 2 : "Who are you?"
The Doctor : "Shut up. Why don't you do it then? Look me in the eye. Pull the trigger. End my life."
Sniper 1 : "No."
The Doctor : "Why not?"
Sniper 1 : "I can't."
The Doctor : "Why not?"
Sniper 1 : "I don't know."
The Doctor : "You don't, do you?”

These characters and their drop-ins via Beckett are okay singly, but crop up so frequently as to be annoying. I prefer these guys to the Alvaro and Tulloch ones.

The Kandy Man is a mixed bag. Not being familiar with Bertie Bassett, I can't comment on that level of design, but it is a very bold design and, as mentioned by the writer, Graeme Curry, it has a sheen of fairy-tale-like quality to it that wouldn't be out of character with Moffat-era Doctor Who. Kandy Man's voice is freaky in the extreme, but the fact that the costume hinders his movement so visibly, and the fact that he's disabled so easily and repeatedly by the Doctor using fizzy lemonade—it really detracts from any real menace. That said, the candy kitchen set is amazing, and the Kandy Man's underexplored relationship with his creator, Gilbert M, is thrillingly sinister. The fondant surprise mode of death is actually disappointing for being such a favorite of Helen A's.

Obviously Doctor Who at this stage could not depict the kind of uprising from the factories that was implicit in the script (it could barely depict a town square and a forum). Its ideas are a bit too big for its frame. The factory drones (killjoys) who remove their black top hats and diaphanous coverings seemed to be referencing the Batcave a bit too late!

Surprisingly, this is not a great story for Ace. She threatens a lot but doesn't do much. She gets to be incredibly outraged, but due to the shortness of the story, she does a lot of escaping and then getting drafted back into the Happiness Patrol, which diminishes her effectiveness—why even bother with her character if that's all she's going to contribute?--and also lessens how much you might fear that the Happiness Patrol mean business. They were disappointing overall. Despite the fact they carried guns, their mobile prison idea didn't quite work as there never seemed to be real consequences. And there was obviously some kind of scene missing when Ace met Susan Q. The costumes are a car crash that I feel I can't look away from. How interesting would this story be if it was made for Eleven and Clara? What would the costumes look like then? Would it be a dose of “The Beast Below?”
I had mixed feelings about the Doctor in this story, too. His power in this story was quite frightening in a way. He brought down a regime in 24 hours, but he did so (at least as far as we know) based only on a few hours' observation. Of course, as he told Ace, he had heard rumors about Terra Alpha, so perhaps his mind had already been made up. The Doctor's attempt at “As Time Goes By” and his encouraging laughter at the Happiness Patrol rang dispiritedly false. It was one of the few times I've felt close to cringing when watching Sylvester McCoy act.

Despite the acknowledged critique of the Thatcherite government, I didn't see it as being all that obvious. Perhaps it's historical or geographical distance, but I didn't feel bombarded with that interpretation. On the other hand, the culture created here is very intriguing because, like most tyrants, Helen A believes she's doing the right thing. The opening scene and its fascist overtones linked up very nicely for me with The Master and Margarita, and that Bakhtin-esque tone suffused “HP” in its best moments. Harold P's betrayal of Helen A is up there with Krau Timmen's betrayal of Morgus in “Caves of Androzani.” I did not see that coming.

I felt a lot of sympathy for Fifi, actually, for surely she (he?) is only fulfilling her nature when she is sent down the pipes to chase and attack people? I was actually quite sad when Fifi died, though of course it was the ironic end that justified the entire story. Helen A only got a bit miffed and perhaps fearful when Harold P left her; her love for Fifi proved she was human after all.

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