The Happiness Patrol is one of the greatest triumphs of Andrew Cartmel’s aesthetic as applied to Doctor Who. It’s a Brechtian political satire about consumerism and Thatcherism, a cutting polemic and the logical end-point of the theatrical tradition which I have spent much of these essays arguing is where Doctor Who is most at home.

It’s also an utter failure in one important way. Doctor Who is what is euphemistically called a ‘family show’. This is another way of saying it’s a children’s programme which is taken seriously enough by enough adults that it’s not considered politic to mention that it’s for children. And The Happiness Patrol is absolutely not a children’s show in any way.

As an adult, I could watch this and appreciate the way that the sets are deliberately avoiding mimesis; to a child, even a bright child, it just looks cheap and like they’re not even trying. As an adult, the Kandyman can seem a sinister repurposing of an advertising icon; to a bright ten-year-old, it’s just silly. Even more than something like the 60s Batman TV show, this story is one that to a child looks like they’re not taking it seriously, and to the extent that a child can see that there’s anything more going on in the story at all, it looks like a bunch of patronising adults taking the piss out of the programme they’re making, and out of their audience.

The end result is a programme that’s a bit like that “What I/my family/my friends think I do” image macro that went around the internet shortly before I wrote this:

Who Andrew Cartmel apparently thought this programme would be watched by
: bored Media Studies and English students, who could watch partly ironically and partly with an appreciation of how Brecht’s theatre of the absurd is being adapted for the purposes of a prime-time SF drama. (All those students were actually watching Coronation Street on the other side).

Who the BBC apparently thought the programme would be watched by: small children, at least that group of small children whose parents weren’t watching Coronation Street on the one TV in the house (children turned off in disgust after seeing the Kandyman, if not before). When Cartmel went to see the head of drama at the BBC, he was asked who he thought the programme should be for, and said “for everyone”, and was told in no uncertain terms that no, it was for children.

Who was actually watching the programme
: the ‘core fanbase’, at this point mostly made up of people whose idea of intellectual discussion was whether you should count number of episodes or number of stories appeared in to determine whether the Daleks or the Master was the Doctor’s arch-enemy.

And this sums up a lot of the problems with the Cartmel era of the programme. Take, for example, the character of Ace.

The official line among Doctor Who fandom is that Ace is the best companion from the classic series, more realistic than any of the previous companions, tough, working-class and streetwise. And, indeed, in the later books and audio dramas that’s a fairish description.

But what we have on the TV screen is a twenty-seven-year-old middle class kids’ TV presenter playing a sixteen-year-old street kid, speaking in slang that was just a year or two outdated at the time, so to actual kids she sounded like a painful attempt to be down with the kids, and who manages to be the only violent juvenile delinquent who refuses to use any language stronger than “bloomin’”.

This isn’t to say that the character didn’t have value — if nothing else she was the first companion other than Jo Grant to actually have much in the way of character development — but she was a gesture at a particular idea of realism, and one that appealed to the existing fanbase but not to the audience of children she was meant to.

(This has changed in recent years — now Ace is not meant to be even remotely contemporary, children find the character easier to relate to, because she’s not in the uncanny valley of slight wrongness).

But this sort of thing is repeated throughout the Cartmel era. To take a more blatant example, let’s look at race in Doctor Who around this time.

Andrew Cartmel believed, correctly, that Doctor Who was too white, and that it needed more black characters. But the solution to this was not to write good characters and have them happen to be black, but rather…well…let’s look at the four stories in this year.

In Remembrance Of The Daleks, despite its anti-racist theme, there a single black character, a Jamaican immigrant who has one scene, in which he talks about how his grandfather was a slave and offers philosophical advice, and who has no interaction with the wider plot.

In this story, there is one black character, a wandering blues harmonica player who gives the Doctor some help and teaches the planet about the blues and to get in touch with their feelings.

In Silver Nemesis there is one black character, Courtney Pine appearing in a cameo as himself, getting one line of dialogue but otherwise just playing jazz saxophone.

And in The Greatest Show In The Galaxy there is the character of the Ringmaster — a rapper.

Essentially we’ve moved from having no black representation at all in the show (off the top of my head I can’t think of a black person with a speaking part in Colin Baker’s thirty-one episodes — I may be missing one, but if so they were a small part) to having black characters, so long as they’re Magical Negroes or performers of stereotypically ‘black’ music (or, ideally, both). This is an improvement of sorts, but it actually draws attention to the problem more.

And that is, in a nutshell, the problem with Doctor Who’s twenty-fifth series. It’s clearly better than what came immediately prior to it, but in a way that makes the problems even more obvious. 1989 would see another huge improvement, but by then it was too late…

11 Responses to “Doctor Who: Fifty Stories For Fifty Years: 1988”

  1. New Who Post On Mindless Ones | Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] In which I talk about The Happiness Patrol. [...]

  2. Iain Coleman Says:

    You’re basically missing Mindwarp, which features Trevor Laird as Frax, Gordon Warnecke as Tuza, and the debut of Nabil Shaban as Sil – all non-white actors cast in roles that did not demand any particular ethnicity, and which certainly did not involve performing any of the classically black American musical forms. And unless I’m missing something, Shaban is the only disabled actor to have had a substabtive role in Doctor Who – indeed a very memorable role.

  3. Iain Coleman Says:

    Oh, and you’ve got Ace absolutely bang to rights. My wife is of an age that McCoy was her Doctor, and Ace was her companion. My God, she loathes Ace, or “that fucking horsey girl” as she calls her – and for exactly the reasons you mention.

  4. Andrew Hickey Says:

    You’re quite right. I *knew* there was something I was missing.

  5. Iain Coleman Says:

    “substabtive”? That’s what I get for drinking all day.

  6. Dan Turner Says:

    Absolutely bang on about Ace. The modern revision baffles me mainly because I can remember how I felt at the time. I was eight or nine when the character first appeared and everything about her immediately irked me; the badge covered jacket (with her name on the back!), the, as you say, outdated speech, the baseball bat, the rucksack full of Nitro sodding 9. A real case of trying too hard, like your parents idea of being down with da kids. Even her name was irritating, it could only have been worse if she was called ‘Well Wicked’ or ‘Skill’.

  7. Matthew Craig Says:

    …I liked Ace. I mean, I watched THP a couple of months back,and yes, at thirty-seven point nine, her exclamations are a little…ehn. And yes, the whole Dorothy/tornado thing is, perhaps, a bit too on the nose. Still, she blew things up and had a baseball bat and dressed like Salt and/or Pepa. Could I tell her apart from any of the other stage school sparrahs I saw on Grange Hill? Ahem, possibly not, to my shame. She challenged The Doctor, though, right? Without Ace, no Donna, etc.?

    I do love seeing the odd soap star in Who, though. THP has Lesley Dunlop, of May To December and Emmerdale.

    //\Oo/\\

  8. Dave Page Says:

    I loved Ace, growing up with Sylv as my Doctor. But then, I was growing up in the countryside and so perhaps didn’t know how Perivale girls were supposed to sound…

  9. moose n squirrel Says:

    “Without Ace, no Donna, etc.?”

    Is that meant as an endorsement or a condemnation?

    Plenty of companions have challenged the Doctor prior to Ace – Romana (either incarnation), Tegan, Sarah Jane, even Leela frequently. I think it’s only in the new series, where all the companions but one have been obsessed with or romantically entangled with the Doctor in some way, that the idea of a companion with an even somewhat oppositional, independent, or defiant relationship to the Doctor is seen as somehow groundbreaking.

  10. Matthew Craig Says:

    Awk! Good point, that man. Dorothy has that working-class/council estate thing going for her, though, like Rose/Donna (kind of).

    At least I resisted the temptation to conflate Ace with a number of similar (and subsequent) tomboy sci-fi characters, e.g.: Tank Girl, MotorMouth (Captain Marvel to TG’s Superman?), Wired World(??), etc..

    //\Oo/\\ (whoops)

  11. Eliot Says:

    See when I watched this as an 11 year old, I loved this era of Doctor Who. It was so much better than the previous few years. And, frankly, I knew I wasn’t cool & Doctor Who wasn’t cool, so whilst Ace occasionally had a line or two that made you wince, I could let that pass. But yeah, THP was beyond me then, whereas I just rewatched it & it is now possibly my favourite DW story ever.

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