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Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol

(BBC; US DVD: 8 May 2012)

There’s something sinister about being happy. It’s a feeling which demands to be shared, which forces itself upon others with its volume and its light. Watch someone in traffic, on the train, or on the bus—they’re not happy. Everyone is sad faced, lonely. It’s the smilers you have to watch out for. A smile on the face of a solitary person betrays some secret knowledge, some hidden deed—or just someone who’s looney.


What if the reverse were true? What if the sad weren’t just ordinary, but strange and criminal? In “The Happiness Patrol”, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) land on Terra Alpha, a human colony in which sadness is outlawed and mopers labeled “killjoys” are executed by government thugs.


The story’s opening centers on an anonymous woman walking the streets alone, her head hung, her feet shuffling. She’s approached by a man acting equally as sad, and he tells her there’s a secret place they can go where they won’t have to hide who their feelings. When he hands her his business card she realizes what he is: an undercover agent for the Happiness Patrol! Within seconds she’s set upon by punk rock soldiers wearing bright clothes with purple hairdos.


The scene is part of classic Doctor Who at its best: the wobbly sets fall away and we’re sucked into this strange world. There’s a mournful harmonica playing in the background, a noticeable departure from the usual electronic warbles and bleeps. This sound becomes the story’s refrain as it’s played by Earl Sigma (Richard D. Sharp), a psychology student with a deep knowledge of the blues who joins the Doctor and Ace as they try to overthrow the oppressive government of Helen A (Sheila Hancock).


Helen A’s “happiness will prevail” slogan, repeated at the end of every public broadcast or military order, is as much a threat as it is a motto, and she uses executions and “disappearances” to make good on it. The Kandy Man (David John Pope), Helen’s enforcer, is perhaps one of the strangest villains ever to appear on Doctor Who. He speaks with high-pitched voice similar to a Dalek’s, and his body is composed entirely of giant pastel-colored pieces of candy. He’s a literal candy man, and he kills people with sweets.


When Helen A calls the Kandy Kitchen to check on the latest batch of executions, the Kandy Man answers the phone with a terse, “Kandy Man” as if it were the most normal thing in the world. It’s strange, disturbing, and absolutely hilarious.


Even to someone whose knowledge of Margaret Thatcher mostly comes from Elvis Costello songs, Helen A is clearly a satire of the former prime minister. Writer Graeme Curry and script editor Andrew Cartmel cop to the political themes in the story, including references to Thatcher, but also the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, as well as totalitarian governments in general. Sheila Hancock’s character shifts between a dragon lady and a lovable grandma, and in the disc’s making-of feature, Cartmel confirms that Thatcher was indeed her inspiration for the role.


Sylvester McCoy gives an absolutely unhinged performance, with the Doctor meddling, pushing, and pestering his way in and out of situations. He’s hilarious in his rambling interactions with the Kandy Man, and deadly serious when he commands a sniper charged with killing protesters to kill him, instead. It’s as if McCoy internalized every adjective ever used to describe the Doctor and let them spill out of him all at once throughout the story’s duration.


The story only loses its footing when focused on a dull subplot featuring underground dwellers called Pipe People being chased beneath the city by Helen A’s obviously-a-puppet pet Fifi. Thankfully, this stumble is mercifully brief.


The disc’s bonus features are anchored by a lengthy documentary on political themes throughout the show’s history. Actors, directors, producers, script editors, and writers weigh in on the Doctor’s frequent circumvention of the BBC’s strict impartiality rules. The Doctor is at times seen as both a representative of the establishment, the anti-establishment, capitalism, socialism, justice, and vigilantism. Longtime script editor Terrance Dicks says this flip-flopping, to use the modern American parlance, is a result of what he saw as the show’s guiding principle: messages give weight to the story, but shouldn’t get in the way. That didn’t always work, but in the case of “The Happiness Patrol”, it did.


This is the kind of Doctor Who one should revisit from time to time to watch as a comedy, a political satire, an adventure, or a weird horror story. These disparate parts combine to make something strangely special. It’s like when the Doctor asks the Kandy Man, “What is your heart made of?” The Kandy Man replies, “Caramel, sherbet, toffee, marzipan. It’s all there.”

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Jeremy Estes lives in Nashville, Tennessee.


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