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Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol (part three)

There’s a moment in this episode where Helen A calls the Kandyman. He picks up an old-fashioned telephone and says “Kandyman!” That slays me every time. It’s so perfect.

For a long time, I would have gladly told you this was one of my favorite stories without even paying any attention to what was happening when the Kandyman was offscreen. See, there was a good chunk of time there when… well, I had a long-running association with a certain illegal hallucinogen. And when you’re in that incense-and-peppermints / listen-to-the-color-of-your-dreams state of mind, an amazing visual like the Kandyman kind of pops out a bit and lingers.

A couple of years later, I actually paid attention to the rest of the story. It struggles with many of the things Doctor Who always struggled with: there are nowhere close to enough extras, the sets don’t convey the scale and scope of the city, the microphones are never in the right place to clearly catch Sophie Aldred’s wonderful dialogue and delivery. But the ideas at work here are fascinating. This is a story about empires toppling, about this Doctor getting furious enough to flex his muscles and overthrow a totalitarian government in a single night. David Tennant’s Doctor owes a great deal to the Seventh. “Don’t you think she looks tired?” is something this incarnation would have come up with.

It’s a fabulous story full of great performances by John Normington, Harold Innocent, and especially Sheila Hancock, who gets one of the best climaxes any Who villain ever gets. It is bring-a-tear-to-my-eye good, every time. Part of me wishes the budget could have given the story a little more visual depth, but part of me likes it just fine the way it is. “The Happiness Patrol” transcends its low budget limitations and remains one of my five or so favorite Who stories. It’s a simmering, angry masterpiece.


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Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol (parts one and two)

I had the silly idea to distract from the astonishing first appearance of the Kandyman in tonight’s story – more about him next time – by telling our son that there was a dog in this serial. A mean dog. Well, sort of a dog. He’s called Fifi and he’s owned by an even meaner woman, a despot called Helen A who talks a lot like Margaret T and acts a lot like Pinochet. Helen A is played by Sheila Hancock and it’s a terrific performance. It’s possibly not quite as devilish as Spitting Image was to Thatcher, but it’s devilish, all right. Some time after Doctor Who became popular again, there was a newspaper story about how this one time in the late eighties, this show was being… gasp! political! Took them long enough to notice.

But no, the Kandyman quite naturally stole the show from Fifi. Our son responded with a face of utter astonishment and even after it resolved into smug satisfaction because he “knew it was a robot,” he was amused and amazed and had a lot to say. He complained that Fifi didn’t do very much, and I assured him that we’d see more of Fifi tomorrow night, and that we’ll see the Kandyman answer the phone. “What’s he going to do,” our son asked, and I’ll grant you this very next bit is a very odd thing to say, “take his arm off and scream ‘Gilbert! I’m stuck in the lemonade again!’ or something?” Then he wondered whether the Kandyman would win a fight with a lemonade stand, and for the next two minutes, he bellowed “Gilbert!”

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Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani (parts three and four)

I enjoy watching old Doctor Who in a vacuum, with my family not knowing what to expect, like the Doctor regenerating. It makes for some fun surprises. Our son was particularly blindsided, and says that he’ll miss this Doctor.

Me, I say there definitely should have been another way. Peter Davison has never been shy about expressing his frustrations making the show. He loved being the Doctor, but the experience of actually working on this show, particularly in his delay-plagued second season, was too frustrating to continue. Davison said that Patrick Troughton had advised him to not stay for more than three years up front, and I still think Troughton should’ve zipped it. Particularly with the original version of “Resurrection of the Daleks” canceled and the producer’s very disagreeable decision to give Colin Baker one story at the end of this season, Davison was already down eight episodes that he should have been able to make – ten if you count K-9 and Company, which was made with season nineteen’s budget. We should have had more.

I’ll come back to that “disagreeable decision” when we start watching the Sixth Doctor next month, but speaking of “Resurrection,” this is the second story this season where darn near every person in the thing dies. The only ones to make it out in one piece are Peri, the evil Miss (“Krau”) Timmin on the other planet, and that dude in part one who doesn’t have any lines but is seen on his way to blow up the North Core Copper Mines, and he was probably arrested in the sweep of Morgus’s businesses and sentenced to death. Unlike “Resurrection,” all these creeps had it coming. A great character actor named John Normington plays Morgus, and I just love his asides directly to the camera. These are meant to be very theatrical, but it’s almost like Morgus knows that we’re watching him!

Roy Holder, who had been Chas in the third series of Ace of Wands twelve years earlier, is one of the gun runners. I mentioned earlier the fun of watching the show with my family, who don’t know what to expect. Holder’s character is one of two who decide against joining their boss and Morgus in their last, desperate search for more of the rare McGuffin element. They say they have two kilos and that’s more than enough. So Morgus and their boss leave them to it. Marie quietly told our son “I think he made the sensible decision.” I smiled, knowing that “sensible” decision was seconds away from ending his life.

“Caves” is excellent, but it’s also so unpleasant that I can’t believe that Peri would have chosen to stick around had this been her first trip after “Planet of Fire.” Would you? I’d be saying “Take me home immediately” after this – particularly when the guy with whom I agreed to travel about a day previously sat up looking like Colin Baker and got snide with me – unless I’d spent a few weeks with less traumatic events first. So there are several novels and more than a dozen audio adventures with Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant, several of which also feature an additional companion from ancient Egypt called Erimem.

I don’t actually enjoy the audio adventures myself – I think that my problem is that I lack the imagination to see the worlds that they’re describing – but I love that there are so many to choose from for all the fans who enjoy them. The same is true for the next two Doctors, who also had their BBC runs truncated before they should have ended. At least Peter Davison got to end his Doctor’s TV run on a really high note, and got to leave when he was ready to go.

We’ll start watching Colin Baker’s run as Doctor Who in mid-February. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani (parts one and two)

Ask a hundred people which is their favorite Peter Davison Doctor Who story. Five will say “Kinda.” I’m one of the five who’ll say “Snakedance.” The other ninety will say it’s this one. Less the stragglers who’ll eventually pop in the comments and protest that it’s something else, of course.

“The Caves of Androzani” really is blisteringly good. It’s the first of two adventures in the eighties that Graeme Harper directed, and wow, did he ever know what he was doing. This looks amazing, and the great music by Roger Limb helps a lot, too. The direction is so good that Harper could have made even a mediocre story into a highlight, but this story isn’t mediocre. It’s the first Doctor Who script by Robert Holmes in five years. Man, was he ever missed.

“Androzani” features some of Holmes’s effortless world-building, but this one’s a little different from the planets and cultures he’d designed in the past. There is no wit, and there aren’t any heroes. We only see the horrible people: an army of brutal military thugs, the corrupt politicians and businessmen bankrolling them, a team of bloodthirsty gun runners, and the criminal who controls the rare substance they all want: spectrox, which can extend or even double the life spans of humanoids. They are all terrible. And they are all going to get what’s coming to them.

A lot of people will tell you that this story is perfect except for a dopey, fake, and honestly quite unnecessary monster in the middle of it. Typically, the monster – it’s called a Magma Beast – is by far our son’s favorite part of it. Since he likes good guys and never villains, there isn’t anybody in this story, other than the Doctor and Peri, for him to cheer on. So the Magma Beast is perfectly placed to keep his interest!

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