There are some Doctor Who stories that are good. There are some Doctor Who stories that are great. And there are some Doctor Who stories that are sheer works of art.
"The Happiness Patrol", in my books, falls under that "sheer work of art" category.
It is, without a doubt, the "King" of all the "oddball stories". Because of this, there is an entire side of fandomn that maligns it to no end. They get upset by the fact that the show is making its sets and costumes intentionally cheesy. Or that certain premises are silly on purpose. As opposed to most of the stories of the last twenty four years where all kinds of silly things happened both visually and in the script but we, as fans, were expected to take them seriously!
I suppose if the three episodes were nothing but sheer "campiness" than I would have to agree with the side of fandomn that maligns it. But there's lots of serious content thrown in too. And a wackload of allegory regarding Margeret Thatcher and gay rights and suchlike that re-assures me, as a fan, that this isn't just Doctor Who "taking the piss out of itself". This is Doctor Who trying, once more, to keep iteslf fresh by exploring new ways to tell a story. I know some fans will never be able to appreciate what the show was trying to do in the eighties. It seems to me that said fans really just wanted bog-standard Tom Baker stories to be told over and over week after week. But I, for one, am glad that 'ole JNT commissioned stories like this and will always applaud him for his boldness as he tried to not just keep the series alive but also give it artisitic merit. And Happiness Patrol is a gem in his "producerial crown" when it comes to artistic integrity.
We begin the story (after an introduction to the characters that comprise the title, of course) with just the vaguest of continuity references. The Doctor and Ace arrive in the TARDIS whilst discussing dinosaurs. This dialogue seems intentional in a few ways. Firstly, it's the 25th anniversary so maybe they're trying to give, at least, a vague reference to the show's past before things get underway. But it also seems to me that it's perhaps thrown in for a deeper statement. This is going to be an extremely wierd and somewhat unique Doctor Who story and perhaps the continuity is added to tell us, the viewer, that this is still Doctor Who. That, as bizarre as the story might be, it ties in with all that we've seen before. It's still all about the Doctor and his companion(s) getting into trouble.
One of the very nice "edges" to this story is that our latest TARDIS crew is getting into this trouble intentionally. Once more, the Seventh Doctor's "cosmic chess player" image is being developped as he goes to Terra Alpha on purpose. This isn't a dictator regime that he's stumbled into by accident as he has so often in the past. This time, he's arrived to very specifically clean up the social mess the planet has turned into. And the way it keeps getting emphasised that he intends to do it all "tonight" just makes the story all the more stylish. And this latest incarnation of the Doctor all the more powerful. Even a bit scary. Especially after what we've seen him do to the Daleks only a story beforehand!
The villains of Doctor Who, I've often felt, are as important as the the hero. That if they're not handled properly by the production team, then the Doctor really can't "shine" against them as he locks horns with them. Our villains in Happiness Patrol are some of the best the show has ever come up with. We have, of course, as a principal villain, the very Thatcheresque Helen A. Not so much an evil woman as she is twisted. And because of this, there's a bit of pathos going on in her. As she weeps in that gorgeous final shot of her we not only delight in her "just desserts" but we also feel a bit bad for her. Because, in the end, she was a rotten woman, yes. But it's as plain as the nose on your face that she was rotten because she was as nutty as squirrel crap. And rather than make us detached from her insanity - we're able to actually feel a bit sorry for her instead. Some very sensitive portrayal going on here in our main villain.
As a sidenote, I am always impressed by how well the McCoy era delivered its "villainesses". It showed a very upward trend in the way the series was trying to portray females. Not only did we now have a very capable female companion, but we also had a whole set of female characters that could be as deadly as the many male villains that have populated the "Whoniverse". And Helen A is easilly one of the best of all the villainesses. Morgaine would give her a nice "run for her money" next season, but Helen A still holds a nice place in my memory as the best Who villainess of both the McCoy era and the series, in general.
With all that said, the Kandyman still steals the show here. He just completely drips with stylishness and coolness. The fact that he looks so ridiculous and is built on an equally ridiculous premise just makes him all the cooler. His sadism and petulance are so well-crafted that every minute that he's on screen is just a thorough delight to watch. Even more impressive that he's used as economically as he is. He could've easilly had a half-dozen more scenes and no one, I think, would've complained. But, in the end, he's a secondary villain and is therefore kept under the appropriate reigns. This fight is really about the Doctor and Helen A and the Kandyman is just a pawn in the game. But what a fun pawn he is! I still cannot surpress my cackle every time I watch him flip a coin to decide whether he should kill the Doctor or Ace first. Particularly as he delivers his "That would be telling" line!
But the best aspect of this whole story is the Doctor himself. McCoy has mastered the role by this point. Providing a perfect balance between quirky mannerisms and raw power. He's taken those qualities that Troughton and Tom Baker distilled into the character of the Doctor "playing the fool" until the most crucial moment of the story and brought them to their ultimate fruition. Particularly in this tale. This little man with his silly outfit and brolly topples a regime in the course of one night. This is what Doctor Who is all about. The idea that no matter how weak and ineffectual something might seem, it can make as big a difference in the greater scheme of things as the people who seem like the real "power players". And no one embodies that sentiment better than McCoy's portrayal of the Doctor. He is as worthy of the role as any other actor before or after him. And it almost pains me sometimes how underappreciated he can be just because the show was in such a turbulent time.
Although every scene in this story looks absolutely gorgeous (and I mean that, as much some folks love to slag off on Chris Clough's directorial skils), there are two scenes that stand out even more prominently. The first being the "snipers in the balcony" scene where McCoy disarms his opponents with words rather than force. And the second being the final confrontation with the Doctor and Helen A. In this final confrontation, the real point of the story gets stated once and for all. That life is about balance. That, inevitably, the good must come with the bad and that neither can exist without the other. "Two sides, one coin" is delivered so well that it gives just the slightest of chills. And the fact that it's accompanied with a neat little sleight of hand truly makes this a "Seventh Doctor moment". A unique way for McCoy to put his signature on the role.
Yes, the last scene of the story is almost a bit superfluous but it is a nice little afterthought. I can remember reading that Clough wanted to end the story with Helen A crying over Fifi's corpse and that JNT requested a final scene be added. And considering we get just a bit more great dialogue like "There can be no other colours without the blues", I think it was worth throwing that in. And as the TARDIS gets its last little brush from its new paint job and the Doctor pronounces "Happiness will prevail", I find myself completely in awe of the fact that the show could deliver two amazingly good stories in a row.
This is Who at its best. As strong as anything you can dig up from the series' so-called "golden era". And though Happiness Patrol gets overshadowed by the incredibly awesome "Remembrance of the Daleks", what we've really been given is two classic tales back-to-back. And, in the case of Happiness Patrol, it didn't have to bring back an old monster to help with its impact. It did it all completely on its own merits.
How sad that some people miss the whole point of this story because they can't get over the campiness....
More so than any other serial from the final two years of the programme, The Happiness Patrol can be held up as evidence by those who would either champion or deride Cartmel era Who.
On the prosecution bench we have Justin Richards and Verity Lambert who will tell you that The Happiness Patrol is so devoid of merit that fans are forced to assign political meaning to it as justification; it is evidence of Doctor Who straying too far into the realm of camp.
On the opposing bench are Cornell, Topping and Day who proclaim this to be a Doctor Who serial for and of its own generation; a joyful anarchistic satire that we should all take to our hearts.
Who's right? Well they both are really, as I'll try to illustrate.
In the case of the prosecution let me say this first and foremost, the design on this serial is a shambles. It is possible to say that the artificial sets, gaudy costumes and theatrical makeup are there to reinforce the serial's underlying message about the paucity of Helen A's ideology, but really... it's bollocks, isn't it? As a Doctor Who fan you get used to ignoring the programme's budgetary limitations, but here there's no reason for it. The Kandyman looks amazing - a pat on the back is due to Dorka Nieradzik - but for God's sake, if she can produce that costume within the design budget then why does everyone else fail so spectacularly.
Stand up John Asbridge. Doctor Who is NOT art house cinema, a genre even less popular with the general public than science fiction. There are not going to be a load of pipe smoking critics commenting on how 'Fritz Lang' the whole thing looks, or how the design ethic is sympathetic to the underlying message. Doctor Who is a piece of populist entertainment watched by a mostly passive television audience that is not going to take too kindly to a set design that wouldn't look out of place in the theatre, no matter how well intentioned it might be. I can believe that there were a LOT of people who switched on only to last as long as it took for Georgina Hale's mad be-wigged harridan to cock her red and yellow stripey gun.
Take a bow Richard Croft and poor Dorka. Before the dowdy painted backdrops of Terra Alpha stand the gaudy colours of the Happiness Patrol themselves. It's like lurching from one extreme to the other between each celluloid scene. Instead of complimenting the design they simply undermine it further, looking as they do extremely silly.
And last but not least a round of applause for Chris Clough. There's another one of those - probably - apocryphal tales about poor old Chris. Apparently he wanted to shoot it in black and white at weird angles but was vetoed by JNT. In all honesty, does anyone believe that this man has the ability to do any more than point and shoot in a by the numbers fashion? More likely, this approach would have made the final product even less watchable than what we do have.
When Verity Lambert, a woman who can justifiably speak with a lot of authority about television, stuck the knife into the McCoy era on 'The Story of Doctor Who' last Christmas, it was accompanied by a clip from The Happiness Patrol and my heart sank. It felt like an attack on Sylv and Sophie and theirs is a corner I will fight to my dying day. For the reasons outlined above, The Happiness is a very easy target - it looks silly; the people in it are dressed silly; oh look, there's Bertie Bassett, isn't he silly?
But if that's all you've got, then bring it on. Because Doctor Who fans know that deep down, 95% of the programme looks silly.
And so to the defence, or as Justin Richards might say, to read meaning into sh*te in the search for justification.
I'll leave the deep and meaningful discourse on cottaging and gay rights to far more informed commentators than myself. I'm sorry, chaps, but I was still a slip of a boy in 1988 and I have every reason to believe that any such allegory will have gone well over my head. Having read other reviews and insights I think that anything I have to add will seem trite at best so I'll concentrate on the frippery instead.
I am happy to argue that Happiness Patrol is more evidence of Doctor Who spreading its wings in a narrative sense and looking to tell more complex and involving stories, a move that is more successful the following season after this imperative filters down to the writers proper, but can be seen here, Remembrance and Greatest Show. Proof, if any were needed that the upward curve (despite a couple of blips) from the tail end of season 24 is continuing.
I call Sylvester McCoy to the stand. This was the last serial of season 25 to be recorded and it shows. 99% of the time he's on screen, he's excellent; seeking out trouble, wanting to speak to Helen A and the Kandyman almost as soon as he's identified them. It seems odd that the Doctor makes straight for the bad guys at the outset, having spent the 24 previous years seeking out the oppressed and giving them a leg up. It's more evidence of the seventh Doctor's increasingly proactive nature; next year his plan will have been set in motion before he leaves the TARDIS rather than the vague "rumours" and knockabout planning here.
And then there's the scene on the balcony with the snipers. It's the antithesis of the café scene in Remembrance; there it was the Doctor's decision to be made, here it's the snipers. Interestingly of course, we don't know the decision that the Doctor is agonising over in Remembrance - the destruction of Skaro - but he does go through with it, bringing the moral dilemma that troubled Tom Baker in Genesis to an end by wiping out his nemeses. But here he turns the tables; we have always seen the Doctor face down injustice and cruelty before, but never has he done it with such cold detachment. Sylvester is clearly furious here, and his anger proves to the snipers that they are better human beings than they thought they were. Of course, this Doctor did look Davros in the eye and end his life (or so he thought) but that's just part of this incarnation's moral ambiguity, and you know what - I like it.
As a side note, it's interesting to note that as Cartmel was realigning the Doctor's position on the psychological scale by asking what drives this character to seek out monsters and destroy them, Tim Burton was doing the same to Batman, but that's a discussion for another day.
I call Sophie Aldred. "I want to make them very, very unhappy!" Constrained by the pre watershed nature of the programme, Ace the character is incapable of expressing herself with the colourful Saxon metaphors that she needs to carry the necessary weight, but all credit to her - like Sylvester, I think this is her best performance of the season.
David John Pope, next to the stand, please. I've already covered the Kandyman from a design perspective so I'll avoid retreading the same argument here by singling out the actor behind the liquorice. The Kandyman wouldn't be half as much fun without Pope playing him like a cross between surly mass-murdering psychopath and surly teenager. Pope keeps it dead straight and is matched for every line by Harold Innocent as Gilbert M, their bickering hinting at a shared history that remains frustratingly unexplored on screen.
And finally, I call Sheila Hancock. Regardless of her thoughts on the role today, she puts in a great performance here. As much a victim of her ideology as her citizens, she's caught in an unfulfilling and loveless relationship with Harold C to the extent that the only creature she has feelings for is her pet, Fifi. The camera pan as she cries over Fifi's body is majestic and had the programme ended here it would be proof positive that the newfound maturity and confidence of season 25 were here to stay. That Doctor Who could end on an emotional climax rather than a narrative one would have realigned what the programme was capable of, but instead we get a typically trite coda. Oh, well. At least we can take heart that twelve months later, shorn of Clough's less than dynamic direction, Curse of Fenric can pull off what Happiness Patrol cannot.
So, in summing up, Happiness Patrol is a rather schizophrenic serial where the truly awful sits alongside the triumphant. Derided for being camp and tacky, what Happiness Patrol really demonstrates is that although the BBC design teams are still stuck in a inescapable nosedive, Cartmel is championing a script and narrative ethic that if not 100% successful, is still full of promise.
The learning curve continues.
At the age of ten, when 'The Happiness Patrol' was first broadcast, I hated it. I'd just seen Daleks and I was looking forward to Cybermen and in the interim I got a Bertie Bassett monster armed with social commentary and metaphor that went totally over my head. Sixteen years on however, 'The Happiness Patrol' is easily one of my favourite stories of the McCoy era, a richly textured story sparkling with wit and a delightfully surreal monster. Doctor Who for adults? Perhaps not. But Doctor Who for me, certainly.
'The Happiness Patrol' is riddled with political allegory and can be interpreted in a number of ways. On the one hand, Helen A is, famously, an obvious nod to Mrs. Thatcher, due largely to Sheila Hancock's performance, and The Discontinuity Guide describes the Kandy Man as "capitalism itself, killing with sweeties". It also takes a swipe at colonialism, with the native population of Terra Alpha not even qualifying as second-class citizens, but instead dismissed as "vermin". These are perfectly valid interpretations, but 'The Happiness Patrol' can also been interpreted (and indeed has, by a small but growing number of fans) as an attack on communist states that have developed into fascist dictator ships over time. Thus, we have a police state, in which dissent is punishable by death, with undercover agents whose job is to encourage dissenters so that they can be identified and disposed of and there are state executions and an underclass of workers who are forbidden from entering the cities. There are designated areas for tourists. Helen A at times seems to be a response to the argument that the revolutions in Russia and China were initially welcomed by the majority of the people in those countries but gave way to tyranny later in Helen A's attempt to justify her actions to the Doctor when he contemptuously asks her about the "Prisons, death-squads, executions?", to which she replies "They only came later".
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg; the society presented by writer Graeme Curry in 'The Happiness Patrol' is fascinating. In a series littered with stock megalomaniacs there are interesting hints as to what motivates Helen A; she expresses genuine anger at the "killjoys" and tells that Doctor that she only wanted people to be happy. She seems to mean this, and so we are presented with a woman whose frustration at failing to achieve her aims caused her to become a ruthless dictator. There is some dialogue that, when considered in any depth becomes chilling, as she states, "If they're miserable, we'll put them out of their misery. After all, it's for their own good". This is delivered not as the self-justification of somebody who revels in suffering, but as the firm unwavering opinion of somebody who really believes it. Later, she talks to a wounded Fifi alone and it becomes clearly that she really can't stand miserable people, it isn't just a façade that she hides behind to maintain her power. The Doctor's complete failure to make her understand how utterly terrible her actions have been is deeply disturbing, and as such I find the denouement one of the most satisfying and emotional of any Doctor Who story to date as Helen A is finally made to see the error of the ways by her discovery of Fifi's corpse and her bitterness and anger gives way to almost palpable grief as she weeps over it. Hancock's performance is outstanding throughout, but in that final scene it is astonishingly powerful.
Another interesting aspect of 'The Happiness Patrol' is the propaganda on display, from the obvious (the "lift music", the posters) to the relatively subtle, such as the refusal of Helen A to call a prison a prison, preferring instead the term "waiting zone" and glossing over her actions with phrases such as "We have controlled the population down by seven percent". And in the midst of this oppressive society, there is some interesting characterisation. There are some characters, most notably Georgina Hale's loathsome Daisy K and Rachel Bell's Priscilla P (who describes herself as a fighter but who is of course simply a killer), who thrive within the system, eagerly enforcing the rules laid down by Helen A. Interestingly, they are also confined by them, either because these rules are so deeply ingrained or because they in turn fear the consequences to breaking them, as demonstrated when they prove unable to kill the seemingly happy Doctor and drones in Episode Three. It is worth noting that undercover agent Silas P is doing rather well for himself until he tells Helen A, "I'm aiming for the top". She icily replies "not quite the very top, I hope" and he looks terrified; shortly afterwards, the Happiness Patrol seem awfully quick to kill him when he makes a very small mistake… Then there are those who have rebelled against the system in one way or another, most of whom end up dead prior to the Doctor's intervention. More interesting than either of these however are those characters who have chosen to live within the system rather than dying by it, but who clearly do not share Helen A's philosophies. These range from the Kandy Man, who is essentially a psychopath given free reign to kill people whenever he wants because Helen A needs a state executioner, to Lesley Dunlop's Susan Q. Susan Q especially interest me, because she obviously hates and fears Helen A and the Happiness Patrol and finally rebels against them. This raises an interesting question; she obviously joined the Happiness Patrol in order to survive in this society, but prior to her decision to make a stand, just how many people has she helped to make "disappear"? It isn't a question addressed in the story, but it is there nonetheless and it adds considerable to the underlying darkness of the story.
Enough subtext; 'The Happiness Patrol' works on a purely aesthetic level too, proving enormously entertaining. The Kandy Man has proved to be a rather controversial creation over the years, but I think that it's quite superb. The idea of a psychotic robot made out of confectionary is weird and disturbing, a nightmare creation akin to the Child Catcher from Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, and the decision by the designer to make him resemble a monstrous Bertie Bassett is highly amusing, even if it did nearly result in the BBC facing a lawsuit. Beyond his outlandish appearance however, he works well as a character, because he is a charismatic psychopath with lines like "sweets that are so good, so delicious, that if I'm on form, the human physiology is not equipped to deal with the pleasure". His scenes with the Doctor are especially good, as he threatens, boasts and bargains with him at different points, culminating in the scene in which he is trying to decide whether to kill the Doctor or Ace first; when the Doctor points out that he is vulnerable to the poker that Ace is brandishing, he cheerfully announces, "I have to bow, however reluctantly, to your logic" and turns on the Doctor instead. He's also incredibly unstable, his temper flaring up without warning, which of course allows the Doctor to trick him into sticking himself to the floor with lemonade. The character wouldn't work nearly as well if not for the body language of actor David John Pope who brings the Kandy Man to life with a variety of expressive hand gestures and manages to make it look as though the character's feet really are stuck fast in Episode Two.
The presence of Harold Innocent's Gilbert M also helps the Kandy Man's characterisation, as the pair bicker like an old married couple Incidentally, Gilbert built the Kandy Man to house the mind of a friend, whose "bones" he brought with him from Vasilip, and the novelisation confirms that they are old friends; additionally, it seems to be the death of the Kandy Man, more so than the collapse of the regime, that catalyses Gilbert's decision to leave. Fans have tried to find homosexual subtexts in 'The Happiness Patrol' for years - could they have been looking in the wrong place? Regardless of this hypothesizing, Gilbert is another fine character, brought to life by Innocent's acting, and is another example of a character who has clearly chosen to live within the system without really seeming to believe in it; he gleefully joins in the Doctor's mockery of the Happiness Patrol in Episode Three and quickly departs when everything goes wrong. Ronald Fraser's Joseph C, a character that is probably as much influenced by public opinion of Dennis Thatcher as Helen A is by Maggie, joins him. A browbeaten quiet man who is party to Helen A's atrocities but seemingly ignores them (he seems to find the fondant surprise execution in Episode One a mild diversion without being either troubled by or really concerned with it), more concerned with entertaining guests, he shows neither hesitation or remorse at abandoning Helen A, presumably pleased to be free of his domineering wife.
The production of 'The Happiness Patrol' nicely complements both script and performance. Most of the sets are drab and obviously studio bound, and Chris Clough's direction is as flat and uninspired as usual, but ironically this actually helps to enhance the claustrophobic and oppressive feel of Terra Alpha. The sole exception to the drabness of the sets is the Kandy Kitchen, a complex set with pipes and wheels that briefly makes me wonder what Doctor Who directed by Tim Burton would be like. There is also a superb score from Dominic Glynn, which is by turns sinister and dramatic and, appropriately enough, incorporates some nice blues stings, especially at the end.
And finally, there are the regulars. Sophie Aldred gives one of her better performances here, and although she gets saddled with the usual crap dialogue ("I wanna nail those scumbags. I want to make them very unhappy") it is kept to a minimum. Ace also gets a reasonable amount to do, showing anger at Helen A's regime without seeming too petulant or childish in the process, which is usually a problem whenever the character is called upon to show emotion. McCoy however, is for the most part brilliant. He conveys utter contempt whenever the Doctor speaks with Helen A, from the moment that he greats her with the acerbic "It's no pleasure, I assure you" to their final confrontation as he watches her veneer of happiness shattered by Fifi's death. This is the Seventh Doctor at his proactive best, as he proves the catalyst for massive social change and the collapse of a dictatorship, easily demolishing the mechanisms of Helen A's power with very little difficulty. As he says in Episode Three, "I can hear the sound of empires toppling". He also gets some nice moments such as when he exploits Trevor Sigma's obsession with bureaucracy to extract information from him, but his finest moment in the story is undoubtedly the scene with the snipers, as he confronts them and forces them to face the reality of what they do, as he invites one to look him in the eye and end his life. This works not because it simply assumes that killing is bad (following on directly from the, erm, explosive climax to 'Remembrance of the Daleks' it would be especially jarring if it did), but because it sees the Doctor confronting another couple of people who do what they have to in order to survive in Helen A's Terra Alpha, but who do so by not thinking about the consequences of their actions. That, for me, is why the scene is so powerful, not just because the Doctor stops the snipers from killing the drones, but because he makes them question their actions ("That's what guns are for. Pull a trigger. End a life. Simple isn't it?… Why don't you do it then? Look me in the eye. Pull the trigger. End my life" "I can't" "Why not? "I don't know").
Unfortunately, there is one flaw in 'The Happiness Patrol', and ironically enough it is McCoy. Although I've alluded to the limitations of his acting before, I've not yet had cause to elaborate, until now. Superb as he is for most of the story, there is one scene that is so bad, so cringe-worthy that it suddenly interrupts my enjoyment of 'The Happiness Patrol' like a smack in the mouth. During Episode Three, McCoy is required to portray the Doctor's fake happiness to confuse the Happiness Patrol and he performs the scene in truly diabolical style; he delivers his lines badly, guffaws unconvincingly and is generally embarrassing to watch. For that brief moment, I suddenly understand why so many fans dislike his Doctor, and it is so disappointing given the rest of his performance here. Bad as it is though, it isn't enough to ruin the story and 'The Happiness Patrol' remains a story that I'm happy to recommend.
This is the only Seventh Doctor-era story that seriously disappointed me. (I have seen all but Delta and the Bannermen.)
It claims to be an satirical and intellectual tale of a population being denied the right to feel sad, and to some extent it is; but, it comes off as fluff--not very intellectual, witty or funny, but just silly. Granted, the Kandy Man (an evil executioner who is literally made of candy) is /vaguely/ scary, esp. when s/he snarls, "Welcome to the Kandy Kitchen, gentlemen...I like my volunteers [to die] with...THMILES on their faces!", but most other characters are dismissably dull. And some of the things that happen during the 'revolution' against happiness make the viewer groan and say 'Riiiight'--such as the Doctor dousing the Kandy Man with lemonade, which apparently reacts with his candy-flesh so as to make his feet stick to the floor.
Another reason to dislike The Happiness Patrol is that unlike most Doctor Who stories, this is overtly and offensively politicized. What the political messages are is not relevant, but I will say that the reason I dumped Star Trek is that I had grown tired of Trek's arrogant and incessant attempts to indoctrinate its audience. Doctor Who has consistently avoided shoving lessons down the viewer's throat, but The Happiness Patrol does exactly that. Really, the only other such exception in Doctor Who is The Green Death, a laughable serial about capitalists who pollute the environment because they are bad, bad, bad.
Following on from the excellent 'Remembrance of the Daleks', 'The Happiness Patrol' features Sylvester McCoy still on top form, and the Doctor here has too many good lines to list. One glorious moment sees him turning the questions back on the questioner, Trevor Sigma, while another is his confronation with two guards (a classic Who moment). There are many more good moments, and only two lapses into bad-McCoy territory: the first, at the end of episode one, where McCoy really doesn't manage to pull off a plausible reaction to the Kandy Man's threat; and the second, a moment where he tries to sing the blues, and just looks silly. The latter, however, is saved by the context of the scene, where atmospheric and subtle support is given by Richard D. Sharp, playing Earl Sigma, a wandering medical student, who happens to be an ace player of the blues harmonica.
The score of 'The Happiness Patrol' is, of course, one its very best traits. Layered on top of the usual incidental music is a carefully judged combination of blues guitar and harmonica playing. In tune with the score is the set design, mixing together (with no lack of irony) the hard-edged industrial paintings of Fernand Leger, imagery from Lang's 'Metropolis', and the colour pallete of a children's sweet packet. Of course, as we know, good set design in 1980s Doctor Who stories was often ruined by boring, flat lighting. Pleasingly, that is not the case here. Moody and atmospheric film-noir (albeit full-colour-film-noir) lighting of the street and pipe scenes makes for one of the best looking Doctor Who stories ever made. One of the scenes to benefit vastly is the cliff-hanger to episode two. From a shot of a member of the happiness painting 'RIP' (in pink) onto an execution poster, the camera slowly pans to focus on the Doctor, eyes in shadow, looking part-anxious, part-highly-dangerous toppler of evil regimes; the shot is held for a second or two, and then the music surges in. A cliff-hanger to beat all cliff-hangers.
Watching 'The Happiness Patrol' now, almost 15 years after it was originally broadcast, what stands out is the cleverness of it all. The evidence indicates that a lot of work, on several levels, went into constructing a story often accused of being poorly made and tacky. It may have had a low budget, but it doesn't suffer from it; and any 'tackiness' is clearly ironic, working within the context of the narrative. There are occasional moments when a detail of the production makes you wonder if they couldn't have thought things through a bit more, and occasionally the editing is over-zealous, cutting a scene a little too short, and lessening the effect of a punchine or a dramatic speech. But these are minor problems, and they do little to spoil the enjoyment of a thoroughly ambitious and engaging Doctor Who serial.