From now until the end of the classic run, all of these stories are new to me; Remembrance was the latest I’d previously delved. There are so few left and they’re all so well-documented that I know a fair few details about most of the remaining titles, and The Happiness Patrol was certainly one that I came to with a few preconceptions.
I remember a minor controversy a few years ago when it suddenly emerged that this was a secret leftie BBC attack on the Thatcher government. The allegory is definitely there, and Sheila Hancock is very good as Helen A, but then she’s Sheila Hancock, so you expect that. She uses Thatcher’s mannerisms sparingly, usually only when she’s addressing her public or talking to Joseph C/Denis, and the language is subtly reminiscent of Thatcher, rather than directly quoting.
However, while the parallels with the miners strike were handled well, I feel like they could have gone further to stick the boot in a little more. I was expecting a slightly toothier satire, but you could tell that it had been toned down between first and final drafts. It was only towards the end that they really started to portray the heartless, unfeeling, amoral side of Thatcher, and then it sort of descended in to wish fulfillment by having her empire collapse so emphatically. On the plus side, it successfully predicted some of the betrayal and backstabbing that led to the real Thatcher’s eventual ousting, but the side-effect is that it looks like The Doctor killed Helen A’s pet dog in order to make a point.
Fifi was reminiscent of a Jim Henson creature, and quite a nifty piece of design, which is more than can be said for the other infamous thing about this story. Regardless of the fact that it is clearly a rip-off of Bertie Bassett, no matter what anyone may say, The Kandy Man is just ridiculous and rubbish. It’s the voice, and the spinny little eyes, and the giant metal moustache. There are times when you can almost look past the design and start to see him as a threat, but then he says stuff like “I am a Kandy Man of my word” or “you’ll feel the back of my Kandy Hand”, and you’re reminded of how preposterous he is.
Elsewhere, like many other stories of this era, it’s an interesting premise that’s let down by the execution. The sets weren’t great, and you could tell that this was the cheap one of the season. Not for the first time in Doctor Who, the decision to put all the extras in identical wigs, costumes and make-up made it difficult for me to follow the story, or it could just be that the plot wasn’t particularly cohesive. The revolution seemed to come out of nowhere, and the stand-out scenes – such as The Doctor talking the snipers out of killing him, or taking to the stage to initiate the uprising – were few and far between.
It might have been interesting to go further down the film noir route, as a more consistent and distinctive style would have helped disguise the shortcomings. The candy-themed death factory, indigenous pipe midgets and happiness-enforcing death squads all felt like they came from different stories, and the only attempt to tie them together was through a wandering freelance harmonica player. This added a certain amount of atmosphere, but it ended up being a bit annoying, and that pretty much sums it up for the serial in general.