4 years, 7 months ago
You have to understand, the World Wide Web had only existed for a year. Even for an early adopter household like mine, with two parents both of whom had their own computers with modems and ability to dial in to the campus network and use the VAX, the fact of the matter is that the availability of information in the fall of 1992 was thin in ways that it's difficult to really comprehend today. And my house, in terms of Doctor Who, was stuck in 1985. The Colin Baker era definitely existed, but my parents had, as I've mentioned before, hated it and stopped watching. I had Doctor Who: A Celebration as my only major reference source on the series.
I didn't know, in other words, that the series had been cancelled, or how many post-Colin Baker Doctors there were, if any. And when, on the bookshelf of Target novelizations, I happened upon The Happiness Patrol, I had little context for it beyond the knowledge that the man in the white hat was not a Doctor I had seen before, nor was the logo familiar to me. For the first time since approaching the series without any context, in other words, I found myself approaching a Doctor Who story without the benefit of historicization. The book was, after all, just two-and-a-half years old. The McCoy era was only three years past.
I have maintained myself as an incidental character in this story since the late Pertwee era. This is, in part, why. Because here we get, as David Tennant puts it, my Doctor. The first one I learned about through experience, watching stories I hadn't read summaries of. The one I grew up with. And Happiness Patrol, or at least its novel, was my first look into that era. We're not long from catching up, chronologically, with my own experience of the show. I've long said I'd stop this blog when I lose the benefit of history. Here, though, I lose the benefit of double history, exiting the realm of things I've only known as historicized events and entering the realm of things I lived once. I myself am history. Or, in terms from Wednesday's post, I myself am a fixed and certain part of the narrative. To excavate Doctor Who past this point is to excavate myself.
Personal archeology is always a dodgy process. There's no way around it - at the age of ten I missed large swaths of The Happiness Patrol. I didn't even have a solid idea who Ace was, little yet that Helen A was a Margaret Thatcher parody. For the most part it looked like standard and unambitious dystopia: a world where everyone is forced to be happy turning out to be an evil place seemed a relatively heavy-handed idea meant to teach me some sort of moral lesson. And yet there was something about it that crackled with the forbidden. Something about it that I was missing, but could tell that I was missing.
Now, nearly twenty years on from this first, tentative encounter with the McCoy era, it is possible to reconstruct this… oh, let's tip our hand to those who have read my writing more extensively than this blog. This secret history.
COMING FROM BOUNTYLAND
It's November 2nd, 1988. Enya remains at number one with "Orinoco Flow," losing it in the final week of this story to Robin Beck with "First Time." Milli Vanilli, Art of Noise, Robert Palmer, Gloria Estefan, and INXS also chart, while Kylie Minogue hits number one on the album charts.
In the news, George Bush defeats Michael Dukakis in the Presidential election. A Neo-Nazi group beats an Ethiopian law student to death in Portland, Oregon. The first Fairtrade label is launched in the Netherlands. And, apparently, future Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams sits down to watch some television.
What he sees is The Happiness Patrol. These days everybody starts with Thatcher. Heck, I did. And am. Because yes, Helen A is a blatant Thatcher parody. Shock. Horror. The real joy of this is when the press, in 2010, finally got around to noticing what anybody who had actually watched the era with a remote amount of political awareness had figured out years before, which is that the Sylvester McCoy era was blatantly made by a bunch of politically leftist views - a controversy that mostly indicated the extent to which nobody had watched the series in 1988. But some context-sliced quotes from Cartmel led to the hilarious idea that Cartmel had some masterplan to overthrow the government via Doctor Who - an idea even less plausible than the other Cartmel masterplan.
Let's try a somewhat saner tack. By 1988 the left was starting to do all right for itself, if only artistically. Politically it was still getting its ass handed to it, but leftist counterculture was in full and glorious swing. Since Paradise Towers its been obvious that Doctor Who's aesthetic sympathies lay firmly with this counterculture. The Happiness Patrol is the second story of the McCoy era, after all, to have a name that flagrantly invokes a proto-goth band. (Some day I'll get around to a plot breakdown on my idea for a completion of this implicit trilogy, entitled Susie and the Bean-Shìdh.) So yes, the story has a blatant Thatcher parody in it. Because it fits into an established genre of "late 80s anti-Thatcher stuff" in the same way that the Hinchcliffe era so often positioned itself in terms of the existing horror genre.
That the 80s counterculture has been, in the quarter century that has since passed, re-integrated into the spectacle such that a Tory Prime Minister can claim the Smiths as his favorite band and not cause everybody's head to explode and a big budget Hollywood movie can be made of V For Vendetta without anyone realizing the irony until it's occupying their back yard is, admittedly, a hinderance here. Similarly, we have to admit that the skill with which the right, and particularly Thatcher, learned to clutch frantically at its pearls in order to delegitimize the left plays in to the supposed shock of Doctor Who being so political. But frankly, if Doctor Who could have, in 1988, gathered a stable of writers who could do three to four really good stories a year without stocking its closet with leftist agitators it would have been far more shocking than the fact that they eventually parodied Thatcher.
What I'm getting at is that it's altogether more interesting what The Happiness Patrol does within the realm of anti-Thatcher agitprop than the mere fact that Doctor Who did a story like this. So, let's see. Anti-Thatcher sci-fi with a sadistic confectioner who is made out of candy, pipe people, and a climax in which the Thatcher parody weeps openly over her dead killer dog as the camera pulls back and the orchestra soars.
Clearly focusing on Thatcher is getting the wrong end of the stick here. And indeed, a laserlike focus on Thatcher ignores, for instance, the obvious Pinochet references (the use of the word "disappearances" most obviously), or the criticism of western "monitoring" of human rights abuses implicit in Trevor Sigma. (The fact that Trevor Sigma's census bureau was the ostensible reason for Helen A to undertake dramatic population control measures via "disappearances" is almost unambiguous in its evocation of the US-assisted Operation Condor in the mid-70s, in which the US served in an advisory capacity for a coordinated crackdown on political leftists in Latin America that killed, at a bare minimum, 60,000 people.) The political net that's cast, in other words, is far wider than just Thatcher.
But what's striking is that this collection of right-wing targets is skewered with such unadulterated camp. The standard interpretation is to make some reference to gay rights here, following from Paul Cornell. But Cornell's Discontinuity Guide argument doesn't quite wash - he exaggerates the case for some of the gay allegory, falsely claiming that the victim of the fondant surprise in the first episode is wearing a pink triangle, while eliding the extent to which the instruments of repression on Terra Alpha are also gayer than a spring lamb. Which is to say that the core of the observation is straightforward - The Happiness Patrol is one of the most blatantly gay things in Doctor Who.
But the nature of its gayness is unusual in that the entire world of Terra Alpha is a pile of camp. It's not just an inverted dystopia where the people coded as gay are oppressing the "normal" people - Cornell is spot-on in observing the similarity between Silas P's stings and cottaging busts, for instance. It's that the entire story is funnelled through an overtly camp sensibility.
The link between camp and gay culture is itself worth expanding on briefly. Camp, broadly speaking, is characterized by an indecorous excess - a willful theatricality. This got linked to gay culture through a sort of vicious cycle. As we've been discussing on this blog since quite early on, the arts and particularly the theater were always one of the areas in which male homosexuality was tacitly tolerated. As a result theatricality became associated with gay culture, a link reinforced by the stereotype of gay men as effeminate. But camp, being an aesthetic based on taking things further than can be taken seriously, proved to be something of a self-defense mechanism in response to its own stereotype. In essence, negative stereotypes based on camp can readily be reclaimed by camp. Any stereotype can simply be latched onto and played up so far as to become camp itself.
The result is that gay male culture, more than most minority subcultures, has a historical legacy of embracing its own stereotypes. This is an element of many minority subcultures, mind you - look at black culture's endless reclaiming and reappropriation of the angry black man stereotype or of racial slurs. But gay culture takes it particularly far. This is worth noting in connection with The Happiness Patrol because the story was written as the battle over Section 28 was playing out in Britain, and started filming just two months after it.
For those playing along at home, Section 28 was a grotesque piece of homophobia that effectively forbade local governments from any positive treatment of homosexuality whatsoever. This was part of a generally horrific tenor in the late 80s for the gay community, which was busily being slaughtered wholesale by AIDS while governments in the US and UK did nothing, right up until AIDS started killing straight people, at which point it became an acknowledged public health crisis, and while James Anderton, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, went out of his way to crack down on homosexuals while declaring AIDS victims to be "swirling in a cesspool of their own making," a comment that Thatcher protected him from an inquiry over.
So in the face of terrifying homophobia Doctor Who serves up a leftist satire that doubles down on camp. Its not an allegory about gay rights - it's an unrepentant queering of the entire cultural apparatus. The venom is, in this context, in being willing to be this blatantly gay. Perhaps the most obvious thing to say is that this is the sort of bravery you can get away with when nobody is watching your show anymore.
But equally, we can't simply ignore the fact that this story has some real hostility to camp. Even if we don't take the fact that the campiest people in the story are evil terribly seriously - and I don't think anything particularly suggests that we should - the story is exceedingly hostile towards the performance of happiness in the absence of actual genuine feeling. Throughout this story is an opposition between authenticity and artifice, and the story repeatedly comes down on the side of authenticity. That puts it in opposition to camp even as it demands to be read in support of the gay community.
To some extent this is a theme underlying large swaths of the Cartmel era: a wariness of the iconography of the past. It's not quite a rejection of camp - any more than Delta and the Bannermen was a rejection of the iconography of the 1950s. But equally, it's suspicious - just as Remembrance of the Daleks portrayed the 1960s as a profoundly unenlightened time, and just how Greatest Show in the Galaxy will fairly directly accuse the hippie movement of selling out appallingly in two stories' time, this story has a bone to pick with the material manifestation of gay culture even as its giddily punching its opponents in the eye.
The objection, at its simplest level, is to the artifice of camp - to its basic insincerity. Ace gets used as the major mouthpiece for this, and she's perfectly suited to it. Her hybrid interiority-laden teenager/children's television character design means that she can both be the sort of person who is going to be thoroughly and disgustedly angry at forced happiness and the sort of person who makes moralizing speeches about it to explain this objection to the audience. Aldred does a compelling job of making Ace uncertain about what she's feeling but viciously, righteously angry at the people demanding she put on a happy face, and her skill at depicting a manic glee at moments of destruction and chaos is put to solid use.
But there's a larger issue at play here. What's under critique isn't just camp, but the relationship between camp and political consciousness. The truth is that under the hood the forced happiness of Helen A's regime is not that different from the reflexive patriotism called for by the political right, whether in the jingoism of the Falklands, the "Morning in America" tactic of the Reagan campaign, or, if we want a more current instance, the nauseating "national celebration" of the Olympics or the Jubilee. All of them depend on the enforcing of outward gestures of ideological loyalty and the swift denunciation of anyone who inappropriately wants to spoil the party by, say, asking whether it should exist in the first place. The iconography differs, but not the content.
And Curry's script is, in the end, aware that camp, in its own way, falls into the same category - that the transparently performative has serious, fatal flaws as a means of political resistance, or, at least, of political resistance to authoritarian structures. But it would be a mistake to suggest that this marks a complete rejection of camp - obviously it doesn't, because The Happiness Patrol is reveling in its camp even as it critiques its utility.
These tensions manifest most clearly in the Kandyman, a character that is, on the one hand, unabashed and over the top camp and is, on the other, a deliciously nasty and ghoulish character who is made all the more disturbing by his preposterousness. The sequence where his melted and disfigured remains come shooting out of the fondant surprise chute is a better piece of sick and twisted black comedy than anything that came out of the Saward era, and that comes specifically from the fusion of camp and sadism that the character embodies. In many ways we're just coming full circle here - this is, on one level, the basic joke of goth subculture: the camp performance of morose depression.
Another way of looking at it is as yet another version of the series' increasingly confident merging of children's television and adult concepts. And here I can vouch for its effectiveness, because I read it as a kid. And it did the thing that the best children's television does: it screwed with my brain for years. It was at once utterly intelligible and clearly about things I didn't understand. It was brilliant - at once broad and theatrical and clearly twisted and weaponized in ways I'd never seen before.
Meanwhile, Sylvester McCoy settles further into this new and darker version. Having last time come in with a plan in place, this time he seems almost to be in it for fun, dropping by and deciding to spend a night overthrowing governments. Almost imperceptibly over the course of the story he shifts from improvising to having a plan in place and letting the pieces fall around him. Meanwhile, the scene in which he stops the sniper by talking to him is like nothing we've seen the Doctor do before. Not something remotely inconsistent with the Doctor, but unprecedented in its anger and confidence. "Shut up. Why don't you do it then? Look me in the eye. Pull the trigger. End my life." Jesus.
It's not a change in what the program does. It's a change in how the program does it. Children's television with teeth. Sick and twisted camp. No wonder Rowan Williams was a fan. Who wouldn't be?
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