As far as I know, this is the only story to have ever made it into an address by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Here is what Dr Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, had to say about the story in 2011:
Some of you might just remember an episode of Doctor Who a couple of decades ago called ‘The Happiness Patrol’ where the Doctor arrives on a planet in which unhappiness is a capital crime, and blues musicians lead a dangerous underground existence. But less dramatically, most of us know the horrible experience of a family outing where things aren’t going too well and Mum or Dad keeps saying, through ever more tightly gritted teeth, ‘This is fun, isn’t it?’
There’s the catch: the deepest happiness is something that has crept up on us when we weren’t looking. We can look back and say, Yes, I was happy then – and we can’t reproduce it. It seems that, just as we can’t find fulfilment in just loving ourselves, so we can’t just generate happiness for ourselves. It comes from outside, from relationships, environment, the unexpected stimulus of beauty – but not from any programme that we can identify. It’s a perfectly good idea to test and tabulate the ways people measure their own happiness – but beware of thinking that it will yield a foolproof method for being happy.
The previous year, The Happiness Patrol hit the headlines when its supposed anti-Thatcher agenda was bizarrely dredged up by journalists many years after the event. But Doctor Who was big news at the time, experiencing perhaps its most popular year ever, so anything that could be rehashed to make a story was obviously viewed as worthwhile by the media. Here’s what The Telegraph had to say:
Left-wing script writers infiltrated Doctor Who to give it anti-Thatcher plot lines in the late 1980s in a failed attempt “to overthrow the Government” Sylvester McCoy has claimed.
McCoy, who played the seventh doctor from 1987 to 1989, and Andrew Cartmel, the script editor at the time, both admitted the conspiracy, saying that it “seemed the right thing to do”.
Here’s the BBC’s reaction:
A spokesman for the BBC said it was “baffled” by the claims.
I’m not surprised! If The Happiness Patrol was an attempt to “bring down the government” with a caricature of Thatcher, it was a pretty weak attempt. I mean, come on, this was the era of Spitting Image. And it all spectacularly misses the point, because if there is a message lurking under the surface of The Happiness Patrol then it isn’t anything to do with Thatcher and her politics – it’s about gay rights, with everyone having to conform to the norm, or face punishment, and then there is the entrapment and of course the pink TARDIS. But whatever you choose to take from this story or read into it, there is no doubt that it is thought-provoking and entertaining, giving us plenty to talk about. A Doctor Who story from the 80s that only went out to five million viewers at the time, and makes it into headlines and an Archbishop’s address two decades later is most definitely punching above its weight.
But this is one of those stories that is divisive. It’s marmite. And the main reason for that is the Kandyman. Nothing I write or anyone writes is going to change the opinion of those who love him or those who hate him. It’s just one of those things that you either like or you don’t (Fifi on the other hand, is very obviously a puppet and rightfully is a bit of a source of embarrassment). My opinion of the Kandyman is informed by the age I was when I first saw him – for a child watching he was the scariest thing ever! I still think he is an utterly brilliant creation, and voiced in such a creepy way. I can remember everyone talking about him at school, and if Doctor Who achieves that the day after broadcast then it is doing its job and doing it well. RP
The view from across the pond:
I can’t sugarcoat it: I’m not sweet on The Happiness Patrol. While I liked McCoy as the Doctor, I find his era marked by halves; as I’ve said elsewhere. This season was a 4-story season. It had the excellent Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis. And it had The Happiness Patrol and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy which, for me, were the two weak stories for this season. The Happiness Patrol was slow, though thankfully we only had to endure 3 parts. This episode sees the TARDIS painted pink. There’s a ravenous puppet (which probably could have been kicked off by anyone it attacked). There’s harmonica music….! But worst of all: there’s Kandyman, a character literally made of candy. I’ll credit Roger with this: his voice was creepy! But this is a villain we can actually get to stick to the floor. Muscle power be damned, a little sugary mess and this villain is glued to the spot. How great a threat would this thing really be??? I guess there I should give Doctor Who credit for experimenting with the variety of villains though, no matter how tacky. I guess there are all-sorts of villains. (How many puns can we come up with for this guy; I’m only just getting started.)
But all good science fiction should do at least one important thing: it should make us think. While this episode is not a favorite by any means, there’s a lot of allegory here. I never bought the whole anti-government agenda but frankly even if it were, that shouldn’t be something to put down. Science fiction, by its very nature, should be allowed to tell a story to get us thinking. Parables, fables and allegories were used since time immemorial to make a point without putting anyone down and science fiction does this better than any other genre today. Maybe if we see our governments flaws allegorically, we can see the reality that much more clearly. One of the most constructive tools we can use as a people (company/government included) is a mirror and to look at ourselves in that mirror to see what’s right and what’s wrong and make the necessary corrections is priceless. If The Happiness Patrol offered us a chance to look in the mirror, that’s a good thing and it deserves some acknowledgement for it. And if a government doesn’t like it, does that mean it hit too close to home?
Equally if there was a message about gay rights, where the harm in getting us to look at ourselves to determine if what we do is right. Why must people conform to be accepted? I don’t like any agenda being pushed; religious, political or other, but I’m fine with a story being told to make us question ourselves. If the wrongness of being forced to conform was the message of the episode, it does that fairly well. And clearly it struck a chord for people to be talking about it years, even decades, later.
Maybe the hidden agenda was just to get kids hearing some jazz music. Or maybe it was to tell kids that too much candy can be bad for us. Whatever the reason, if it gets us thinking and maybe looking at ourselves a little more critically, that’s a good thing.
Let’s end with a peep at this whopper of a nerdy creation, it’ll give you riesen to snicker! As villains go, he gets the lowest skor this side of the Milky Way, bar none! The Doctor doesn’t need a lifesaver to get out of this sticky situation. He gets into mounds of trouble, but to crunch this guy, he doesn’t have to lift butterfinger…. Talk about an opportunity gone to waist.
Donut say I didn’t warn you… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Silver Nemesis
I think The Happiness Patrol holds up even more today with all that’s coming out about breaking down barriers of social conformity. Sylvester McCoy’s scene as the 7th Doctor breaking down a young and otherwise trigger-happy soul with the brutal realism of taking lives is timeless. So it’s particularly unforgettable as something new enough for Dr. Who in its 25th as opposed to half of that season having the Daleks and the Cybermen. Thanks for the review.
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Thanks Mike, yes it really is a story that has remained relevant and interesting.
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I’m just now watching a Dr. Who documentary on YouTube: When Worlds Collide, which explores how Dr. Who via its own SF could tell politically identifiable stories. It can earn The Happiness Patrol enough points for proving how an otherwise extravagant story for Dr. Who, even with the Candyman as the behind-the-scenes torture expert to help mold society, can be profoundly realistic for its obvious reflection of the times.
On another point, my mother was recently mentioning how there are only about 15 or 20 creative and reusable plots left within our TV and cinema entertainment. Dr. Who’s vast revival for this century proves how SF can so fashionably refresh such familiar plots and reflections of reality in ways that most other genres haven’t in so long. Because we see the same black-and-white take on heroes-vs-villains done so many ways throughout the history of Dr. Who, as with Star Trek and X-Files, we’re comforted by a realism that both the old and the new can always walk hand-in-hand. The Happiness Patrol seems over-the-top for its time on the classic Dr. Who. But its message, whether you liken it to what was going on during the reign of Margaret Thatcher or not, is quite logically that there is always a vital equilibrium between the positive and the negative, which is basic math of course, and that trying to make a world perfectly happy for all can potentially lead to the inevitable dystopia.
Like the repetitious voices in THX 1138 told the population to be happy and, more to the point, do so and so to be happy, The Happiness Patrol is a political dystopia that proves how even Dr. Who’s often-problematic artistic approach can’t diminish this SF franchise’s timeless ability to reach us in all the right ways.
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To clarify my point, The Happiness Patrol as its own take on a story can’t diminish the SF values of dystopian-future moral tales. But where has dystopian-world creativity specifically progressed now with the modern Dr. Who? The Happiness Patrol was openly as fashionable for the 80s, as was of Brazil for the 80s and Gattaca for the 90s. Today, with the exceptions of homages to the creativity of Philip K. Dick like A Scanner Darkly and Blade Runner 2049, there can often be more escapism in the action-adventure format. THX 1138 was a nice exception to this problem, certainly with how George Lucas ironed it all out, for keeping the action-adventure (even THX’s climactic car-chase in the tunnel from the Chrome Robots on their bikes which is among my SF-film favorites) to a viable minimum. Then Ridley Scott made the first Blade Runner such a course-changing work of art that influenced almost every SF movie that followed. Then Nausicca Of The Valley Of The Wind made Anime’s futurism art well-known enough for its own reworking of Metropolis.
When we got round to Gattaca (voted by NASA, I might add, as the #1 SF film as I recall), it was a futuristic vision that was artistically closer to today, same with Anon. So if The Happiness Patrol is among SF’s most pivotal dystopian moral tales, would it have still felt creatively successful enough without all the classic-Who fashions of the late 80s? They were clearly justified enough to make it somewhat comedic, which of course worked with Terry Gilliam’s direction of Brazil. It can depend on how well we look beyond the outward fashions of the Candyman and recognize him as a villain that as a person could exist in reality. But The Happiness Patrol was set on another planet where human evolution would naturally be widely affected. So anyone can give it that much.
For the artistic approach of futuristic dystopia, even for Blade Runner 2049 in certain ways, it has now been appropriately toned down a bit. So even if it’s a familiar dystopian vision, whether it’s a sequel or a reinvention, like the recent endeavors with Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid’s Tale, we can be okay enough with quite familiar dystopian moral tales because, let’s face it, reminders are continually crucial. Even optimistic future visions like Star Trek and Babylon 5 need them as much as the other end of the SF spectrum. So I can still enjoy The Happiness Patrol for its main point on equilibrium and especially thanks to one of Sylvester McCoy’s timeless speeches as the 7th Doctor.
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These are my selections for the top 10 best dystopian moral-tales in the classic Dr. Who:
10. Paradise Towers
9. The Pirate Planet
8. The Happiness Patrol
7. The Sun Makers
6. Inferno (from the sideways-in-time perspective)
5. The Dalek Invasion Of Earth
3. The Enemy Of The World
2. Vengeance On Varos
1. The Daleks
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I watched The Happiness Patrol for the first time tonight. Yes, it took me over three decades to get around to it. Finally saw it on the Britbox streaming service.I had heard plenty about this story over the years, so it was interesting to finally watch it.
I don’t know if I want to describe this story as prescient. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it possesses a timeless quality, and that the issues that were on the minds of the creators in 1988 are ones that are still plaguing us in 2020.
Looking at this from a 21st Century American perspective, the scene with the snipers and the Doctor is incredibly relevant…
The Sniper: Stay where you are.
The Doctor: Why? Scared? Why should you be scared? You’re the one with the gun.
That has a lot of resonance in 2020, watching armed thugs in the streets shooting at protesters, shooting at minorities, threatening politicians and liberals with a bullet in the head. It’s all motivated by fear: fear of the world changing into something they don’t recognize, fear of people who are different from them, fear of a loss of power and privilege and control. It’s interesting that this can be summed up by an exchange of dialogue from a British television show broadcast 32 years ago.
The whole idea of conformity, of showing an eternally happy face to the world, is very much the mindset of the right-wing: How dare you protest? How dare you kneel during the national anthem? How dare you say you can’t pay your rent & bills on a minimum wage salary? How dare you make us uncomfortable? How dare you ask us to think? How dare you suggest that our country, our existence isn’t perfect?
The Happiness Patrol is a very strange, unusual story. At times it felt more like an allegory than a straightforward narrative. How much of that was due to creative choices, and how much was a result of the limited budget & technology, who knows?
In any case, this serial is definitely just one of many examples to hold up to people who criticize modern-day Doctor Who for being “too political.” Between this and Vengeance On Varos and The Sun Makers and The Mutants every story Malcolm Hulke helped write, there is plenty of politics in Doctor Who.
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