Put Life Into Anything Made of Plastic (The Happiness Patrol)
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?
July 13, 2012 @ 1:16 am
man i love ya but it's a different tack not a different tact
July 13, 2012 @ 1:29 am
There are two things I've never quite understood about this story.
The first is it's at number 170 in the Doctor Who Poll?! Nine places worse than Attack of the Cybermen? Apparently this is because the Kandyman is silly. Of course, it's silly. It's in an sf dystopia in which being unhappy is a crime. What's it going to look like?
The other is I don't quite understand is the focus on Thatcher. Yes – obviously the performance is a camp version of Thatcher. But of all the things that I associated with Thatcherite ideology in the late eighties, making unhappiness illegal and having a giant sweet as an executioner were fairly low down the list. The Thatcherite presentation in both the right and the left was very much the Protestant work ethic. As you say, it's about political repression as a general form first and foremost and its relevance to Thatcherism is only in the application. Most Cartmel-era stories, while clearly about left-wing political problems of the time, go about their work obliquely. Or, in this case, have a giant man made of sweets shouting 'I'm an evil Bertie Bassett'.
July 13, 2012 @ 1:40 am
Making unhappiness illegal as a way of improving standard of living is only one step removed from blaming unemployed people for the lack of jobs, which is a piece of rhetoric firmly within the Thatcherite grasp, as we see now.
July 13, 2012 @ 1:54 am
If anything, The Happiness Patrol is more prescient than contemporary. As Phil indicates, compulsory jollity is very much a part of modern British culture, with this year's Olympics and Jubilee as its zenith. Indeed, The Happiness Patrol works incredibly well as a satirical attack on the awful militaristic, corporatist/authoritarian occupying force that seems to have materialised in London with the mission of making sure we all enjoy the Olympics in the prescribed fashion whether we want to or not.
July 13, 2012 @ 2:14 am
I've never understood this attitude of "compulsory jollity". It's not like in the 80s when we were being asked to hate Argentinians, and if we didn't we weren't British enough. Any constitutional monarchy has to make an attempt to celebrate a Royal Jubilee, and in our case it's mostly about celebrating the United Kingdom and it's current state representative, rather than a manufactured event like the Olympics.
Imagine looking back into the History Books and finding out that Queen Victoria's Jubilee had never existed because the population had objected.
Whenever there's such a national celebration the inhabitants of the UK all have the free choice to participate or not, and it looks like a large amount of them do. The rest of us can watch another TV channel if we like. I personally find the Olympics boring, but then because I live in an ostensible democracy I don't have to enjoy it if I don't want to. However part of being in a democracy means that if other people want to enjoy it, they're free to. For all this talk of compulsory jollity and Governments telling us what to do and think, I'm heartily sick of Anti-Monarchists continually telling me that I'm wrong to support a Monarchy.
And Phil, be careful please. Commenting on the UK's "nauseating national celebrations" might win you some friends, but could touch far more sore nerves (c.f. your previous Yorkshire Ripper" comments!).
July 13, 2012 @ 2:25 am
I think there was a sense that Thatcher was trying to control our feelings – not by imposing an emotion, but by excluding one. Thatcher's project was to replace the friendly embrace of the socialist state with the hard grasping hands of capitalism, so she had to unravel the feelings of community, mutualism and social solidarity which gave that state its legitimacy. Hence "there is no such thing as society". Thatcher tried to ban fellow-feeling.
July 13, 2012 @ 2:42 am
Just to say, due to real life I've not managed to watch The Happiness Patrol yet (and will be away from TV the whole weekend), so I'm postponing reading this entry until mid next week. Have fun, y'all!
July 13, 2012 @ 2:59 am
There is also an element in camp of mocking the thing you're pretending to be. So the intention of gay men appropriating and camping up their stereotypes would be to mock the stereotype. Helen A's regime is never self-mocking – it takes its frivolity far too seriously – and in that sense I'm not sure that it really is camp.
On that note, I think the most genuinely camp moment in THP comes at the end of Part Three, when Susan Q is the only person in sight still wearing a Happiness Patrol uniform. She's spent the whole story saying how sick she is of pretending to be happy when she isn't, and you'd think she'd be the first one out of the wig and blouse, but there she is sporting the outfit in front of her ex-superiors as they, dressed down, embark on their community service. That's got to be a massive statement in itself.
July 13, 2012 @ 3:01 am
I agree that the focus on Thatcher is misplaced. The story isn't about Thatcherism — it's just that when writing a megalomaniac female leader convinced of her own correctness, there was an obvious model around at the time.
Writers (good ones, anyway) mix lots and lots of influences into every piece. It can be very annoying when people grasp just one of those myriad sources and decide that that is the lens through which to view the whole piece. Yes, of course Helen A was influenced by Thatcher; does that mean the whole story is about Thatcherism? Of course not; that's just one tributary among many that flows into the piece.
With regards to the Kandyman, I recently showed this story to someone sadly deficient in real Doctor Who. Now, I never had a problem with the Kandyman, but when I discovered was that to someone used to the new series, the idea of a giant talking sweetie killing people (which apparently seemed so silly to some at the time, though not, I repeat, me) is practically mundane. The new series does stuff far more surreal than the Kandyman on a whim (which is its problem, actually: the Kandyman is there to be symbolic of sweets as artificial things that make you feel happy, which is empty and meaningless and makes your teeth rot, while in the new series surreal images are thrown in just for the sake of making surreal images, without that kind of meaning behind them).
So, yeah, it's a good story for remedying a lack of real Doctor Who in someone who has been exposed to the new series.
July 13, 2012 @ 5:35 am
I don't wish to be rude, SK, but I have to confess that I find that my tendency to otherwise completely agree with a lot of what you're saying is kind of hampered by your slightly irritating tendency to throw around terms like "real Doctor Who" as if there was some kind of objective scientific litmus test of Doctor Who purity that The Happiness Patrol somehow passes in spades but that the new series is somehow lacking in. Particularly since there's plenty of people who would argue that The Happiness Patrol is itself far from 'real Doctor Who'.
I think the one thing that any marathon viewing of Doctor Who will ultimately prove is that there's no part of Doctor Who that's any more Doctor Who than any other part of Doctor Who. No story is any more 'real' than another story. It's all real Doctor Who. Even the new series. There's just Doctor Who you like, and Doctor Who you don't like. Anything else is just artificial divisions and snobbery.
July 13, 2012 @ 5:40 am
I rewatched this one a few weeks back, and one interesting thing that your discussion of camp has prompted me to realize; the two most sympathetic characters in the entire story are Earl Sigma the blues musician and Susan Q the blues fan (who's discovery of her love of the blues is in no way treated as if she were 'coming out of the closet' in another sense, oh no) — the blues being possibly as far from camp in terms of sensibility and style as you can possibly get.
Another pointed bit of satire that only just recently struck me; when Trevor Sigma reveals that his purpose is to take a census of everyone who's disappeared rather than everyone who's still around, and the ensuing (personal) revelation that the planetary government he reports to would apparently rather make lists of the dead rather than do anything to stop those lists growing.
July 13, 2012 @ 5:45 am
Is it? Clearly a term I've heard instead of read – I always assumed it shared a root with tactic, which made sense for "a different approach." What's the etymology on "tack" being used in that way?
July 13, 2012 @ 5:52 am
Spacewarp – I certainly wouldn't claim that American national celebrations are any better. We've just mostly avoided having any major ones in the past few years, save perhaps Obama's inauguration, which was actually, as such things go, marginally tolerable. Go back any further than that, though, and you get into the ghastly mess of 9/11 fetishism, and frankly, give me the Diamond Jubilee any year over another recitation of that.
July 13, 2012 @ 5:56 am
It's from naval language. Shift the sails to tack to the right or the left. Tact is one's approach to someone by means of what language you use, but tack literally means direction.
July 13, 2012 @ 5:58 am
Interesting – I knew of that use of tack, but only as a verb.
July 13, 2012 @ 5:59 am
This comment has been removed by the author.
July 13, 2012 @ 6:02 am
Well, fixed not just here but throughout the blog, in any case.
July 13, 2012 @ 6:25 am
Yes, SK, I'm really going to enjoy your angry rants when Phil gets around to covering the Davies and Moffatt years of Doctor Who, which he's said he enjoys quite a lot, and which I consider equal to the Lambert, Hinchcliffe, and Cartmel eras.
This story was really the political consciousness of Cartmel and the anti-Thatcher left more generally finally coming to Doctor Who. I will grant it is one of the flaws of the new series that Davies' similarly adjusted political consciousness tended to express itself so clumsily compared to Cartmel, whose stable of writers were able to fire on many cylinders at once. If one positive thing came out of the political and social oppressiveness of Thatcher culture, it was a thriving arts movement that created some of the most vital music, comics, and Doctor Who. I feel like Harper culture here in Canada is doing the same, inspiring the mass movements in Quebec and the Canadian indie rock renaissance.
Probably the biggest triumph of all the signifiers in The Happiness Patrol was, as you pointed out Phil, that it's aware of the limitations of camp and appropriation as well as its power. I've always found this was a drawback of minority cultures embracing the stereotypes of their opponents in an empowering manner. The minorities themselves understood the positivity of their images, but to people outside the culture, the minorities are still alien, strange, and intimidating.
It reminds me of an insightful Daily Show segment, where Jason Jones contrasted the gay communities of San Francisco (still dominated by leather, queens, and camp) and Minneapolis (largely boring suburbanite Costco shoppers), and found the Minneapolis folks more politically effective because other boring people, whom the San Francisco community would unnerve, could empathize and accept gays. The culture that had embraced stereotypes empowers the community itself, but still makes Others of the culture. It prevents the empathy required to collect mass numbers of allies.
I also quite liked that Susan Q (a CCR reference maybe?) ends the story authentically wearing her Happiness Patrol uniform, as she's genuinely happy with her life, and walks away with her arm around the waist of the tall, black blues musician.
July 13, 2012 @ 6:45 am
And both Earl and Susan are least affected by the camp aesthetic.
July 13, 2012 @ 6:59 am
Another major criticism I seem to see this serial getting a lot is that the Anti-Thatcherite message is "too obvious" and, wedded to its other major theme of a critical re-evaluation of camp, impossible to really take seriously. So, in other words, pretty much blatantly misreading the entire point of the story. Not to mention the fact that one can really never be too blunt about decrying the evils of hegemony and, as you so rightly said, that's nowhere near the full portrait of what's going on here.
Other than that I have nothing to add. I just love this serial, and for all the reasons you outline above. Sadly though I don't have the same emotional attachment to it as you do given the way I was introduced to the McCoy era (I'm surprised you didn't use the cover of the Target novelization for the photo, actually, given your history with it).
July 13, 2012 @ 7:01 am
Oh, bugger! I had totally meant to do that, then spaced out adding it last night. Fixing that now.
July 13, 2012 @ 7:11 am
a CCR reference maybe?
Dale Hawkins, man. Dale Hawkins.
July 13, 2012 @ 7:15 am
Now, I never had a problem with the Kandyman, but when I discovered was that to someone used to the new series, the idea of a giant talking sweetie killing people (which apparently seemed so silly to some at the time, though not, I repeat, me) is practically mundane. The new series does stuff far more surreal than the Kandyman on a whim
You still hear people denouncing things in the new series as "too silly" or something similar. Witness the condemnations of Love and Monsters, or the folks who complain about the Slitheen farting.
July 13, 2012 @ 7:41 am
It probably took me about a year after I first saw it for me to understand what Love and Monsters was actually doing, and once that clicked, I realized it was close to brilliant. Not actually brilliant, but close to it. In a nutshell (and I hope I'm not stepping on Phil eight months too early with these ideas):
It's based on what I now know (again, thanks Phil) was a very Robert Holmes idea of juxtaposing the cosmic and strange (a freaky alien criminal who killed people by absorbing them still conscious into his body) with the everyday (Elton, LINDA, and Jackie Tyler playing a role redeeming her past pettiness) with a touch of camp (the "LINDA united!" shout from inside Peter Kay, and the Fat Bastard impressions I remember everyone online complaining about) to create a very chilling conclusion about the nature of the Doctor that constituted a moral challenge to his nature (the Doctor brought Elton and his friends together, but also was an indirect cause of their deaths and horrifying disfigurement), to which Davies could never figure out an adequate answer throughout his run.
Farting Slitheen were a second, flawed jab at another very Holmesian idea: that immature petty criminals acting on a cosmic scale could destroy whole civilizations and planets for the sake of such mundane gains as a quick buck. The problem was that they veered too wildly between being cartoon comedy villains with the farting, and being chilling hunter-killers. Davies hadn't yet mastered being able to switch tones quickly enough to make that work. Cassandra's evil scheme in The End of the World was the first attempt, an insurance scam in a cosmic setting. I don't think he really perfected this idea in execution until the character of Max Capricorn.
July 13, 2012 @ 7:42 am
On the question of the Kandyman, it had – for the children of the late 80s – the same impact as the giant maggots had on the children of the early-mid 70s. It's the one image from late-80s Who that children of the era always mention. And far from being silly, it was scary enough to give my sister (who, at the time, was nearly 8) nightmares (which, sadly, has the result that she refuses to watch the show now).
On a different note, this is the first story that I know for sure I saw all the way through. Though my parents assure me that we always watched the show, my childhood memories before Remembrance are fragmentary – one scene from The Five Doctors and one from The Two Doctors. But from Remembrance onwards I know which episodes I missed (part 4 of Remembrance, parts 2 and 3 of Silver Nemesis, and parts 2 and 3 of Ghost Light).
July 13, 2012 @ 8:35 am
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.
That scene was electrifying and should have silenced forever the people who wouldn't take McCoy seriously as the Doctor. I think it is possibly my favorite single moment from the entire history of the series. The Doctor effortlessly defeats a psychopathic killer with nothing but words. I'd give anything to see how "Midnight" would play out with the Seventh Doctor instead of the Tenth. There, the Doctor came within seconds of dying at the hands of the people he was trying to save because he utterly failed to establish any sort of trust bond with them. I wonder how things would go with a Doctor who effortlessly reads the people around him psychologically and who is nearly unflappable under stress, as opposed to one who is chronically oblivious to how abrasive and condescending he can sometimes be towards "the little people."
July 13, 2012 @ 9:14 am
I can't say "I second this" enough.
July 13, 2012 @ 9:23 am
Also, throughout the blog you've called the show DOCTOR WHO when the actual title is DOCKED OAR HOO (another naval reference, this time to the Sutton Hoo ship).
Well, it was worth a try.
July 13, 2012 @ 9:34 am
As I mentioned in my comment on Philip's "Remembrance" post yesterday, I was taken aback by just how "abrasive and condescending" toward "the little people" the Seventh Doctor is throughout that story. None of them even seem to notice; maybe he's successfully read them psychologically and knows they'll passively accept all the abuse he throws their way for being parochial, militaristic, foolhardy, and ignorant?
As for the "look me in the eye, pull the trigger" stuff: that felt trite to me even as a kid watching it. I've never really believed anyone who's a real threat could be stopped in that way and I didn't believe it there either. I'm not disputing your point — I do think McCoy's portrayal deserved to be taken seriously. I just figure there's probably a different moment I would pick to illustrate it.
July 13, 2012 @ 9:36 am
so she had to unravel the feelings of community, mutualism and social solidarity which gave that state its legitimacy
Except, of course, that those feelings are incompatible with the legitimacy of any state, whether nominally socialist or nominally capitalist.
to someone used to the new series, the idea of a giant talking sweetie killing people (which apparently seemed so silly to some at the time, though not, I repeat, me) is practically mundane
It does seem to belong to the same conceptual universe as the Adipose and the Bane (and, as Jesse mentions, the Abzorbaloff and the Slitheen).
Admittedly those are not my favourite aspects of the RTD era.
July 13, 2012 @ 9:38 am
Helen A's regime is never self-mocking – it takes its frivolity far too seriously – and in that sense I'm not sure that it really is camp.
Well, we can distinguish between camp on the part of the characters and camp on the part of the show.
July 13, 2012 @ 9:41 am
As for the "look me in the eye, pull the trigger" stuff: that felt trite to me even as a kid watching it. I've never really believed anyone who's a real threat could be stopped in that way and I didn't believe it there either.
Well, presumably the Doctor has a sense of what kind of person it will work with. He doesn't try it on the Daleks, for instance.
July 13, 2012 @ 9:46 am
The point is that the sniper is not actually a psychopathic killer. The sniper is so caught up in his technical talk about guns – and that his targets are no more than targets in his scope – that he is able to ignore the fact that what he's doing when he kills people is killing people. So what the Doctor does is to confront him at a distance where the Doctor's not a target in a scope.
The scene's contemporary resonance includes the use of drone strikes to kill people.
July 13, 2012 @ 9:47 am
Yes, I have trouble with the idea that this story is somehow a critique of camp, though it's been a while since I last saw it. I think of camp as having layers, much as you describe — if it's artifice, it's artifice that everyone knows is artifice. There's a joy in it, such that even as John Waters fills his films with bizarre camp characters, there's rarely a sense that he loathes them (except possibly the villains and some of the Cecil B. Demented types). I'm not sure I see what in the story itself constitutes a camp critique of Helen A.'s regime, but maybe I need to read this post again.
I associate this story's artificial happiness not with camp so much as with the "everything's okay, I'm normal, I'm exactly who I'm supposed to be, I have no questions to pose" mask of the closet. The signifiers are reversed if you're reading this as gay allegory, sure — pink and smiling on the surface, drab and crying on the inside — but even that, the idea of an outer blitheness masking inner pain, is exactly what being in the closet usually involves.
July 13, 2012 @ 9:49 am
Surely he's just being dismissive of the military, with whom he has well-documented problems? He seemed to get along fine with Rachel and Allison. McCoy's Doctor is even more openly anti-military than usual (see also this serial, "Battlefield" and "Fenric"): Frankly, I'd rather have that than the almost passive compliance of Pertwee and Troughton. He struck me as more preoccupied then abrasive, really and given the situation I'm willing to grant that's justified.
Also, please excuse any oddities with my forum signature today: I'm currently in the process of moving to Google/Blogger full time.
July 13, 2012 @ 10:08 am
The adipose and the abzorbaloff seem to me not quite to work in the same way. For one thing the Davies era seems to me to have been fond of ill-judged body horror.
There's not much more to either of them except crude metaphor.
The headless monks or the weeping angels or a giant traffic jam with macra at the bottom are closer.
Still the point of comparison that springs to my mind is that the previous story was populated with giant pepperpots with sink plungers. Both the kandyman and the daleks signify, among other things, that their in-universe designers are as crazy as the BBC design unit.
On thinking it over, I think basing Helen A's performance on Thatcher specifically does work. It's wrong but not too wrong. Basing the head of the society on a parody of Cameron or Boris Johnson would be too easy. Basing it on a parody of Blair would be much too easy. But it wouldn't work at all, or not in the same way, with Major or Brown. The distance between the Thatcher brand and what Happiness Patrol does with that creates a space in which the critique operates.
Henry R. Kujawa
July 13, 2012 @ 11:28 am
"the hilarious idea that Cartmel had some masterplan to overthrow the government via Doctor Who"
I read about that job interview. Outer-rageous. A producer with severe psychological problems, in an ever-increasingly frustrating and maddening situation, and no doubt absolutely desperate at that moment. Instead of kicking the guy out on his behind, he hires him! I'd say it was one of those "What have I got to lose?" moments. The universe had spoken.
"The political net that's cast, in other words, is far wider than just Thatcher."
Yes. Since, it "worked" for me, and at the time, I knew nothing about Thatcher (and, tragically, not much more about what was going on in my own country).
"The Happiness Patrol is reveling in its camp even as it critiques its utility."
I grew up watching the Adam West BATMAN, so it felt like this story was made for me.
"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."
The momentum, the PACING, and the development of the Doctor-Ace relationship all makes more sense IF you watch these not in broadcast order, but the order they were intended. Please trust me on this one. Or see for yourself, you can't miss what I'm saying:
REMEMBRANCE, GREATEST SHOW, HAPPINESS, NEMESIS (in that order)
"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."
I actually see it as an extension of The Doctor confronting Gavrok on the stairs in DELTA. When I saw that scene, I thought… "Has he gone NUTS????" But when I saw this scene, I realized… no, he was just WARMING UP. Spooky.
"have a giant man made of sweets shouting 'I'm an evil Bertie Bassett'."
Now, if The Doctor had tried handing someone a JELLY BABY in THIS story…!
"making sure we all enjoy the Olympics in the prescribed fashion whether we want to or not"
I once got my Dad this birthday card. It had a photo oh the front of a sad-looking Russian soldier. It read, "Happy Birthday, Comrade." Inside, it read, "You must have fun. You have no choice."
Now, for the important stuff. I REALLY liked Ace in ths story. I don't think Sophie Aldred ever looked cuter, either. The student with the harmonica with cool. and wasn't it NUTS that they cast John Normington (formerly "Morgus" from "THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI") as the census taker? I didn't recognize him at all the first time around.
But I wanted to beat bloody whoever screwed over the sound mix. Some scenes, I couldn't make out the dialogue at all. HOW do you do something that basic and simple that wrong?
"Dale Hawkins, man. Dale Hawkins."
I wonder how many people think "Rock And Roll Music" is a John Lennon song?
July 13, 2012 @ 12:46 pm
Imagining you saying "Bugger" in your true American accent gave me quite the chuckle. 😉
July 13, 2012 @ 6:19 pm
"and wasn't it NUTS that they cast John Normington (formerly "Morgus" from "THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI") as the census taker? I didn't recognize him at all the first time around."
A pity he was killed off by Georgina Hale at the end of only the first episode. Especially since it means he got 'tea-bagged' in more ways than one.
July 13, 2012 @ 9:46 pm
Another thing I love about that scene is the deliberate ambiguity on whether the Doctor is using just psychology or hypnosis (as T Baker would have done). I didn't get the feeling that the sniper had been "persuaded" to change his ways through simple reverse psychology. I got the impression that he had been subjected to some type of powerful mental influence that destroyed his resolve and left him visibly frightened of the Doctor. But the scene could be read either way, which I find cool.
July 14, 2012 @ 2:03 am
"The momentum, the PACING, and the development of the Doctor-Ace relationship all makes more sense IF you watch these not in broadcast order, but the order they were intended. Please trust me on this one. Or see for yourself, you can't miss what I'm saying:
REMEMBRANCE, GREATEST SHOW, HAPPINESS, NEMESIS (in that order)"
I've taken your word for it, and I'm just starting Happiness now. So far it does seem to flow quite well. Unfortunately I can't really tell you if it's any better, as this is actually the first time I've ever watched them!
July 14, 2012 @ 6:30 am
I think we can discuss John Nathan-Turner without resorting to suggestions that he had "severe psychological problems," and I would ask you to, in the future, avoid such hyperbole.
July 14, 2012 @ 7:18 am
I wonder how many people think "Rock And Roll Music" is a John Lennon song?
Ray Davies once told the story of a fan approaching him after a Kinks concert and thanking him for playing "that Van Halen song."
July 14, 2012 @ 7:03 pm
This comment has been removed by the author.
July 14, 2012 @ 7:04 pm
I thought it was a Justin Bieber song.
July 14, 2012 @ 7:06 pm
I think we can discuss John Nathan-Turner without resorting to suggestions that he had "severe psychological problems,"
Now "severe psychochronographical problems," on the other hand ….
July 14, 2012 @ 7:10 pm
What about the Bane? That seems like the closest analogy since it's actually a food-based horror.
Henry R. Kujawa
July 15, 2012 @ 5:30 am
("and wasn't it NUTS that they cast John Normington (formerly "Morgus" from "THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI") as the census taker? I didn't recognize him at all the first time around.")
"A pity he was killed off by Georgina Hale at the end of only the first episode. Especially since it means he got 'tea-bagged' in more ways than one."
No, no, you're thinking of Silas P (Jonathan Burn), the undercover Happiness Patrol spy. The census guy was Trevor Sigma, who The Doctor accompanied when he went to visit Helen A.
"I don't believe I've had the pleasure…"
"It's no pleasure, believe me."
July 15, 2012 @ 7:25 am
…ahhhh, but wouldn't that label apply solely to the write-ups for Three Doctors, Logopolis, and Trial? 😉
September 10, 2013 @ 10:20 am
"…the idea of a giant talking sweetie killing people…"
With that, I think I have another piece of the puzzle.
The Kandyman is "Doctor Who's" version of Mr. Stay-Puft, the marshmallow man from "Ghostbusters." He's an Expy of Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy, himself an ambassador of American pop culture. So, Stay-Puft is "American pop-culture turns against us."
As for the Kandyman, when you see Licorice Allsorts sold over here, they're always called "Bassett's Liquorice Allsorts," and sometimes they come packed in tins that represent aspects of British culture–telephone kiosks, a double-decker, etc. Sometimes the packages also display Bertie Bassett's smiling features.
If you think of Bertie Bassett, the Allsorts Man, as "a cartoon food mascot who also serves as an ambassador of British pop culture," then the Kandyman is "British pop culture turns against us."
September 10, 2013 @ 10:23 am
One caveat: Not "pop-culture," but "consumer culture." 🙂
December 23, 2013 @ 4:14 am
I have a long-time friend who to this day will sometimes answer the phone "Kandyman?" when I call. Priceless.
Popping on very late to say, I just watched this story with some New Who fans (I am 41, they are 22) who've been getting into the original series. They thought it was bonkers and didn't quite work but enjoyed it nonetheless, an opinion I pretty much concur with. As ever in the Cartmel era, the pacing is quite choppy and disjointed, due to all the over-running material that had to be cut. Still, you have to admire their ambition, and the fact that they didn't let coherence get in the way of having fun and throwing everything in to see what sticks – the messy, over-stuffed, self-contradictory nature of it is what makes it intriguing & un-packable all these years later.
Plus, it's so 80s it hurts me. It felt just like I felt as a closeted gay 15 year old in 1987, living through the cynical triumphalism of Reagan's twilight. The late 80s was the time the mask was really slipping and the culture at large was starting to show cracks and fissures revealing the rot beneath the day-glo colors. I didn't read Watchmen at the time, but I remember everyone wearing those "happy face with blood on it" badges and thinking, yes, that's exactly right.
February 6, 2014 @ 8:17 am
Eheberatung you hardly ever imagined seeing the day when you would need
June 21, 2016 @ 4:34 pm
I can’t believe that throughout all this that nobody has pointed out that Helen A and the Happiness Patrol want everybody to have, quite literally, “a gay old time”…