Friday, 11 October 2013

The Happiness Patrol written by Graeme Curry and directed by Chris Clough



This story in a nutshell: ‘Tonight’s the night…’

The Real McCoy: One of the more unstable characterisations of the seventh Doctor, a story that sees him rocket to dominance by bringing down a government in one night but also plunge into farce with some genuinely toe curling individual scenes. I want to die of embarrassment when the Doctor struggles with a fiery Ace who is trying to ‘shut up’ Priscilla P because neither McCoy nor Aldred have the acting chops to pull it off (mind you any actors would struggle with dialogue this thin). I’ve always said that the Doctor should maintain a certain level of intensity when dealing wit his foes to maintain the shows veracity but how he kept a straight face when confronted with this walking confection simply damages his (and the story’s) credibility. It is during his moments of quiet melancholy that the seventh Doctor works best in this tale, McCoy using those soulful eyes of his to drive home the sentiment that this tale is desperately striving for. It’s McCoy’s anger that I usually criticize for failing to convince and yet he manages to ace (hoho) the few scenes in The Happiness Patrol where he has to righteously stand up to Helen A. Bizarre. Episode two is when most of these scenes take place (including the incredible moment when he faces down a pair of snipers) and it looks as though this might set to be one of McCoy’s more accomplished performances. And then we get to the party sequence at the Forum. Oh my word. Words fail me at how mortifying it is to see the Doctor behaving like such a goon. There’s stilted and then there is pure pantomime and this might even be a little over the top for your average Christmas stage show. Why does he exclaim his dialogue with such ferocity: ‘Quick Haaaace! Open the oven doooorrrr!’ when she is right next to him. He does that all the time (Fenric is his worst example: ‘HAAAAAAAACEEEEEEE!’ when he runs into a room and she is less than a foot away). I’ve heard the argument recently that McCoy should be given a pass because he cared about the role to such an extent, which is a good point. But you still have to have the acting chops to pull off the part no matter how much affection you have for the show and at least half the time I would question whether McCoy does. His audio performances are equally inconsistent.

Oh Wicked: From story to story I lose track of how old Ace is supposed to be. In Dragonfire, Happiness Patrol, Silver Nemesis and Battlefield I get the sense that she is a young slip of a girl with spectacular naiveté and false street cred. And in Remembrance, Greatest Show and from Ghost Light to Survival I am convinced that she is a little older, a little wiser and very much a different person in how she expresses her maturity. I would say it differs from person to person but she seems to get much older from one of Ian Briggs’ stories to the other whereas she seems to lose about ten years (and several IQ points) if you skip Ben Aaronovitch’s debut to his sophomore scripts. It is a most peculiar experience watching her nine stories back to back in the right order. Like McCoy’s Doctor she has some great moments in this tale but also some cringeworthy ones, it pretty much sums up their time together perfectly. She walks from the TARDIS declaring ‘I love dinosaurs’ like a five year old and yet within ten minutes she’s lamenting about achingly sad love songs like the most sophisticated of adults. The two simply don’t match up. Ace clearly lacks the social graces, asking ‘can’t you afford a real gun?’ to the first heavily armed soldier they come across. ‘I’ve got badges! This one’s Cheltenham Athletic!’ she cries like an autistic child that is so proud of her hobby. It is when she is paired up with Susan Q that Ace works best in this tale, suddenly she isn’t a little girl anymore but a full fledged grown up trying to help out a friend. She spends most of the rest of the story running around the pipes tossing bombs willy-nilly. Imagine if Rose had turned out like this in a post-911 world?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’re under arrest’ ‘Phew, about time.’
‘Look me in the eye. Pull the trigger. End my life.’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘I think he got a buzz out of that’ – and people say the gags during the Williams era are juvenile.
‘I want to nail those scumbags. I want to make them very, very unhappy.’
Sweet dreams.’
‘How would you describe the Kandy Man’s confection?’
‘Earl give me an A-flat’ ‘Ay?’ ‘No, A-flat!’
‘Impolite guests get to feel the back of my Kandy Hand!’ is a pantomime line if ever I heard one.


The Good:
  • All of Dominic Glynn’s soundtracks are accomplished in one way or another (even his cod-electronic excitement in The Mysterious Planet) but his melancholic score for The Happiness Patrol is in a league of its own. The harmonica is such an emotive instrument and when it is allowed to soulfully drawl in this fashion it speaks of something lost that feels as though it can never be recaptured.
  • One of the major strengths of this story is the assembled cast, most of whom are struggling to bring life to some pretty awkwardly written characters (even on the stage characters rarely try and sum up their entire personality in concisely written speeches as they do here). Most of the actors might be pretending as though they are on stage and giving the performance of their life but that is a necessity to inject some realism into a story that is reaching for the stratosphere for inspiration. Georgina Hale and Rachel Bell make a memorable pair of Happiness Patrol nasties, the former speaking every line with a drunken drawl that suggests she was slightly tipsy whilst recording and he latter camping it up to the nines, especially when she is attempting to be nasty. Lesley Dunlop is the only actress that escapes this story with her dignity completely intact and instantly convinces in her role. She has a naturalism about her performance that everybody else lacks.
  • When actors state that they are sick of being reminded of a single part they have played in a show like Doctor Who at every stage door they ever walk out of I don’t necessarily think they are being ungrateful. For an actress with a distinguished career like Sheila Hancock it must be galling to be constantly prompted that she was once dolled up like a drag queen and hammed her way through three dodgy episodes of a television show that was succumbing to illness and about to drop dead. I don’t hold it against her at all. Her turn as Helen A is memorable but not memorable enough to get the attention it receives. She’s a purely pantomime character but Hancock brings a great deal of gravity and sensitivity to the part as you would imagine any great actress would. As written she’s nothing special, as performed she just about breaks out of the mould of the standard dictator in fiction and becomes somebody you can believe in. She’s so convincing at the climax that she (almost) manages to make Fifi a persuasive puppet.
  • I don’t pretend to have been old enough during the eighties to remember Thatcher’s persecution of gay rights but I have done a spot of reading and there are enough nods to her wrongdoing in this story to suggest a thickly veiled message. A pink triangle is one, men heading out to entrap members of the population who are indulging is another. Of course if you find such political communiqués distasteful then you can filter out the general campness of the production (enjoy trying that) and expose a general message of oppression crushing free will, which is a far more generalised, less personal and recognisable menace.
  • Death by Fondant Surprise. A thick sticky red goo that slurps dramatically down a pipe and smothers you with sugary goodness until you can’t take anymore. It’s a blackly comic murder for a blackly comic tale but perfectly fits in with the theme of smothering somebody in sugar until they relent (or die).
  • Astonishing moments amongst the dreck: Susan Q’s admission that she isn’t happy, the Doctor confronting the snipers and the Doctor’s final confrontation with Helen A (which is blissfully performed by both actors).

The Bad:

  • I once went to a fantastic restaurant in Scotland where the entire theme of the eatery was that the inside of the pub resembled the outside world. Waterfalls, forestry, Georgian houses, teepees, a castle…it was an incredible piece of design and an unforgettable evening. My point is that this pub managed to pull off with far more conviction what the designers at the BBC completely failed achieve in The Happiness Patrol, a convincing exterior location built inside. Immediately we are confronted with polished studio floors, unconvincing lighting and buildings and props that are clearly made out of cardboard. To plunge from the expensive looking Remembrance of the Daleks to this is quite a come down. I’ve heard that it was a deliberate aesthetic, with influences of German expressionism, which all sounds very convincing…but doesn’t change the fact that this world looks and feels fake from the off. The premise of the Doctor trying to bring down the government of a world that is clearly manufactured in a BBC studio gets things off on the wrong foot. At least Ace gets to comment that Terra Alpha is ‘too phoney’ although she seems to be basing that judgement entirely on the musical wallpaper. And whilst the Kandy Kitchen is supposed to by a meretricious set, it confirms your worst suspicions that the show might actually be being filmed in the studio of a Saturday morning kids magazine show ala Number 73 & Wacaday. When they clearly know the value of atmosphere through under lighting (the pipes), why are the sets above ground (specifically the Kandy Kitchen and Helen A’s palace) so floodlit? They make everything look that bit more cheap and tawdry. That might be the idea within the story but (I know I keep saying this) given the show is in over its head at this stage it perhaps wasn’t the wisest approach to produce a story as artificial as this. It all looks so bargain basement.
  • The Happiness Patrol are a quirky idea in theory and one which might have been made to work had the designers calmed down a little instead of making a bunch of very attractive women look like a cross between dodgy drag artists and painted clowns. I cannot fathom why they went for such a look but I do know one thing, when they turn up with their oversized guns designed in childish primary colours I wouldn’t be at all surprised if channel surfers turned straight over to Coronation Street thinking that the rumours were right and Doctor Who had gone to the dogs.
  • John Normington is a fine character actor and it breaks my heart to see him wasted on a periphery role such as Trevor Sigma. You never get the sense that this character exists outside of the confines of this particular story because we learn so little about him except that he carries out census’ on various worlds. He’s a blank slate throughout, the dialogue deliberately pumping for ambiguity and obscuring any personality that might shine through. It is a most perplexing approach to writing characters. Harold V is another bizarre character, this time one that has to introduce his entire backstory in one great gulp of exposition because he doesn’t last beyond the end of his single scene. Try hard as I might but I have never met anybody who has drivelled on quite this much about their circumstances and previous history in such a concise and plot friendly manner before, informing the Doctor and Ace of everything they need to know about Helen A’s regime. It smacks of fabrication. This isn’t a character, he is merely a plot device and not a very convincing one at that. Early Sigma exists simply to…actually I don’t have a clue why Earl Sigma exists. He’s just wandering about, nonplussed by everything and playing his harmonica. In a story overpopulated by vacuous characters, he claims the top spot.
  • I’m not sure what is more humiliating so perhaps you can help me to decide. Fifi the glove puppet with retractable spines in his head (did they learn nothing from the Bandril Ambassador?). The Doctor and Ace’s furious getaway in a go kart chugging along at 5mph. The Doctor’s pantomime conceit that the oven is open behind the Kandy Man and it is going to melt his sugary behind. The Kandy Man being so useless that he is glued to the floor by lemonade twice. The Pipe People who lack even basic conviction from their design to their backstory and habitat. Fifi’s death at the hands of polystyrene boulders and dust that barely touch him. The red hot poker that is just a cardboard tube with the end painted pink. The late night party at the Forum.
  • Why on Earth would The Happiness Patrol murder Silas P? How does that make any sense? More to the point wouldn’t the receptionist at the Forum be shot in the face for going about his duties in such a grump?
The Kandyman: ‘I can feel one of my moods coming on…’ Turned up in a ‘50 most shameful TV moments’ compilation show. For once I am so on the fence about an element of a story that I have to give him his own section. From a purely design point of view, the Kandyman is an absolute triumph but how can you take such a creation seriously? I will never forget when my friend Hazel first clapped eyes on this creation, she laughed so hard a little bit of wee came out. His dialogue is comical and sinister, like all the best villains but coming from the lips of a walking sweetie they lose all of their impact. I’m not the sort of person who usually says such things but it is silly and at a time when the show was in dire straits with the populace at large it might have been a step too far into idiosyncrasy. Back in the shows heyday they had the chutzpah to pull off a robotic Pirate Captain and oil rig eating giant squids and skip over them with some confidence but these days the show is living on borrowed time and needed to rein it in a little. Like The Happiness Patrol themselves, a casual watcher might take one look at this implausible creation and reach for the remote. He fits in with the production of this story perfectly but not the tone, which is the problem all the way through. Perhaps Graeme Curry’s original idea of a decrepit man in a suit would have worked more effectively, something akin to the Child Catcher with a chalky white face and squeezed into a funeral suit, pulling at levers and indulging in fondant themed murder. How creepy would that be? All this said and spongy feet aside, it is a marvellous piece of design work. He literally looks as though he is made out of sweeties (I especially like the liquorice allsorts fingers). And the mouth brace is a nasty little touch.

Result: ‘Time to get really depressed!’  What an odd story. A story where the production and the script feel as though they are fighting each other at almost every stage. It is a story about a fascistic woman who is willing to massacre a chunk of the population to bring the rest of them into line with her vision for a better world. A dramatically strong idea, with free will ultimately defeating oppression. So why then does it translate on screen like a day trip to a children’s Saturday morning entertainment show complete with garish costumes and sets, insane monsters and farcical deaths at the hands of gunk and outrageously sized ray guns? The performances are generally very serious and yet the tone of the piece descends into juvenilia – I feel as if I am being dragged in two opposable directions when I watch this, much like I did when I watched Paradise Towers. Dominic Glynn’s moody score adds a whole new dimension to the story, one of a handful of times when the music is essential to an adventures (partial) success. Without it (imagine this being wallpapered with Keff McCulloch’s stylings?) I fear that it would have plunged over a precipice into something quite unwatchable. The truth of the matter is that when literary scholar Kim Newman described the show during this period as a ‘fairly shoddy pantomime of its former self’ he could be pointing directly at this serial. In it’s early years the show managed to tell the sort of drama that this story is trying to be but without any of the gaudiness and cheap tricks. My biggest problem is that Terra Alpha never feels like a real place, it is an unconvincingly realised planet built around an feeble premise populated by unpersuasive characters. As a whole this is an economical pantomime populated by caricatures that is buoyed by some startling moments of high drama and committed performances. The Happiness Patrol is an odd experience for sure and one where I can see a worthy message screaming out at me but is almost entirely obscured by the confection that the story sets out to lambaste. Watch it and love it. Watch it and loathe it. It’s one of those stories where both are entirely possible, usually within the same scene. Ultimately I don’t think The Happiness Patrol can lay claim to being a success. It was a brave attempt at something different but it only half heatedly embraces its approach and the net result is a story that frustrates more than it excites: 4/10

11 comments:

Peakius Baragonius said...

First off: the “Buzz” joke was supposed to be bad…that was the whole point…

So what if Ace likes dinosaurs? I like dinosaurs, and I also find myself able to appreciate the fine arts! Does that make me “inconsistently written”? I find my ability to switch from the mindset of a child to that of a young adult one of my most pleasing features, in fact, not to mention it’s something that the Doctor does on a regular basis! And to comment on one of your other reviews featuring Ace – if I saw an alien creature that I wasn’t in immediate danger from, I (think I) would be pretty amazed before I became frightened, if at all! And it’s not like the other companions weren’t also inconsistently written from episode to episode – Peri? Adric? Jo, especially?

As for the production’s embrace of German Expressionism being a bad choice due to the show’s position – well, what about Season Twenty-Two and all of its excesses? How would you feel if those stories had compromised their excesses and aspirations just to appeal to the masses? I, frankly, like that this story embraces its weirdness – that it isn’t afraid to juxtapose the good drama and the moments of pantomime (the deliberate ones, anyways, not the bad acting or whatever).

One of the things I find the most pleasing about the McCoy era is that it rewards deep viewing – because beyond all the tackiness and the inconsistent performances, there is a rich undercurrent of ideas and aspirations that are there for the viewers who care to look. It’s easy to see why some people would turn away from this, but then those are the sorts of people who shouldn’t be watching the show in the first place, those who look at a series about a guy traveling the universe in a police box and see all the bad special effects and bad acting and think it’s too “silly”.

This is not to say that “The Happiness Patrol” couldn’t have been better, and I think that many of the flaws you point out are valid in terms of scripting and characterization. Then again, I seem to be a stickler for the stories that are great in concept and scripting but don’t come across as well on screen – “The Invasion of Time”, “Battlefield”, “Paradise Towers”, and “The Beast Below” are all more my cup of tea than stories like “Delta and the Bannermen”, “The Armageddon Factor”, and a good portion of the Russell T. Davies era, stories which are well made but which I ultimately find rather lacking in terms of substance or intellectual entertainment. Perhaps it’s just my late-adolescent tastes, but time will tell….

And the moment when the Doctor quietly responds to Ace’s line in the Dreadful Dialogue section above, whispering “Don’t worry, Ace. We WILL.” No matter how bad its surroundings may be, that moment never fails to send a chill down my spine. That may be one of McCoy’s defining moments for me.

I’m aware that much of what I’ve written is pretty rambling but I hope you got something out of it ☺ And as a side-note, I finally listened to “Thin Ice” and look forward to posting my thoughts on that one…

Joe Ford said...

1) I got that the buzz joke was supposed to be a bad pun - I'm not that much of an idiot - it's still a *terrible* piece of dialogue

2) I like dinosaurs too, but I don't go around exclaiming about it like a retarded four year old.

3) It wasn't the German expressionism that I objected to, it was how that was translated on screen in a pretty shoddy bunch of sets that were clearly a gaudily dressed up BBC studio. Season twenty two rarely looked as bad as this.

4) I noted the undercurrents, but you shouldn't have dig so deep and die of embarrassment when doing so. There's things looking silly and childish...and then there's The Happiness Patrol.

5) I think Bannermen and Armageddon are great in concept and scripting...

I have the feeling you are a New Adventures fan as well...

This didn't work for me on so many levels. It is trying, but nowhere near hard enough it is so inconsistent in tone it makes you wonder if the writer, director and script editor ever met.

Peakius Baragonius said...

Don't worry, I don't think you're an idiot :P But that's how I might have exclaimed it, except without the mentally handicapped bit...

I get your point about the sets, they worked for me I guess. And to be fair I haven't rewatched those stories in a while...

New Adventures!? Oh no, no no noooooo! I've read Lungbarrow and enjoyed it but from what I hear about the rest of them I'm staying the heck away from that crap! The sooner they retcon that horrible "New Ace" idea to the realm of poorly written fan-fiction, the better! As I'll discuss in my upcoming response to your "Thin Ice" review since I finally listened to it...

Anonymous said...

I watched the first part of this way back when it was first shown. I'm afraid I didn't watch any more after seeing the Kandyman. I really liked Bertie Basset and his Liquorice Allsorts ... and this was just too much!

Anyhoo, I can't really comment on the rest of it but I think in the right medium the story works very well. I am currently half way through the audiobook (read by Rula Lenska!) and you get a much better sense of the darkness and Orwellian environment. For example when Ace says "can’t you afford a real gun?’" and then you hear the "toy" gun shatter the nearest streetlamp. Also I think the haunting tones of the harmonica really work as it gives you the sense of total desolation (or desperation) of Terra Alpha.

As for the Kandyman ... his portrayal in the book/audiobook is far better and creepier than his Bertie Bassett counterpart. The part where he accidentally chops of his thumb, sighs, reattaches it slowly and carefully before carrying on his work is a joy to hear and you can feel his menace. Your analogy of a decrepit child-catcher works brilliantly ... and I won't sleep tonight - thanks :).

Maybe I just have a great imagination but I do think most of the earlier Doctor Who episodes work better as Audios. The stories are able to tell themselves without being lost in poor acting, bad sets and poorly adapted villans. Of course the downside to this particular audio is Rula Lenska's (bad) portrayal of the Doctor's accent - it truly grates on the nerves.

Other than that I think it is a very good story, letdown by classic 80's Who!

Tony

Anonymous said...

I've just noticed my appalling spelling ... apologies. At least I didn't use text-speak :).

Tony

Joe Ford said...

Never mind about the spelling, what a great post full of fascinating points! I do think you are right...had this story been made in other eras of the show it would have been far less artificial and camp (except perhaps in the Williams era!). Mind you I don't think such an outlandish concept would have made it past the script stage of any other era too!

Anonymous said...

Thanks :).

I agree, even in these days of soaps' "horror-shock", this concept would probably still be too much.

Cheers

Tony

Ed Azad said...

I would have ditched the Kandyman. It seems Doctor Who flounders whenever it tries to juggle more than one monster (unless said monster is a flunky of another), and neither poses a threat. Fifi is plot device - albeit an effective one - and the Kandyman's existence justifies the presence of two other peripheral characters.

Sorry to go on about that. I'm getting the vibe that this was Joe's least favorite era of the show. I quite like it apart from the later episodes being shot on video. Doctor Who was already up a creek and even if Season 24 had been like Hamlet it wouldn't have changed any minds. It feels unfair to hold that against it.

Moreover I don't understand the obsession over set designs that so many fans and even production staff do. Once we were in the seventies Sci-Fi had far surpassed the BBC's abilities and it came down to imagination and creative storytelling. Writers with bigger budgets could never get away with telling McCoy stories because too many people would be tuning in. With diminishing returns the show returned to being experimental and continues to be fairly bizarre under Moffat. Traditionalism in Doctor Who has its own ebb and flow and I don't count either as superior to the other.

Anonymous said...

You know, there was a moment in New Who in 'The Idiot's Lantern' where the Doctor is being questioned by the police until he manages to turn the tables and starts interrogating them instead, echoing their exact opening words back to them (I don't remember the exact phrasing but I think it was something like "Tell me everything you know, from the beginning"). I'm almost POSITIVE that was a direct callback to McCoy's meeting with Trevor Sigma in this story, where he does the EXACT same thing to the poor, befuddled census-taker, spinning him around until he's treating the Doctor like an authority figure. It was one of the classic scenes from this serial.

Anthony Pirtle said...

I think, given that I rated this 4/5, that I liked it twice as much as you did. Yes, it looks shoddy, but its relentless weirdness appeals to me.

Joe Ford said...

Anthony, just to say I truly appreciate and have enjoyed reading your comments. Thank you for taking the time to do so. Your love for the show shines through in the comments.