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.

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!”

The Moon-Spinners (1964)

I have to admit that every once in a while, I pick a complete flop with our son. He didn’t like Disney’s The Moon-Spinners at all. I thought it was a perfectly fine adventure film for kids, especially American kids in that early sixties sweet spot right before the Beatles exploded into pop culture.

I’ve often felt that Hayley Mills was absolutely in the right place at the right time. She had a legion of young girl fans and she was perfectly cast, often by Disney, as the engaging lead in fun movies like The Parent Trap and In Search of the Castaways, and of course she usually had dreamy boys with English accents around. You know how many of those girls who showed up to scream at the Beatles when they arrived in New York were Hayley Mills devotees? All of them.

But I guess that fifty-four years later, there’s not quite as much in a movie like this to thrill a six year-old boy. It sounded promising enough. There’s danger, intrigue, stolen jewels, and Eli Wallach and Paul Stassino as dangerous criminals. Plus there’s a terrific set of stunts when Hayley gets locked in a windmill by the baddies and everybody climbs out down the sails and blades. Honestly though, the part he liked the best was when Wallach got chased out of some ruins by feral cats.

For slightly older viewers, the story concerns Mills’ character, Nicky, and her aunt, played by Joan Greenwood, visiting a small village in Crete at the same time that a young man arrives in the hopes of finding some emeralds, stolen while under his care in London some months previously. So the young people get to have an adventure while an impressive cast of character actors, including Sheila Hancock, John Le Mesurier, Andre Morell, and George Pastell, provide support.

The lack of any of Disney’s trademark comic slapstick was perhaps one small failure in our son’s eyes, but this is a much more straightforward adventure movie than their seventies output, without a lot of levity. There is one deliciously funny moment where Mills breathlessly recounts her escapades to a millionaire played by Pola Negri, who definitely needs a drink before the recap is finished, but that’s more for the grown-ups in the crowd. I think somebody our son’s age would probably read that scene as played straight, because yes, that’s an accurate recap of the story so far. And viewers his age probably wouldn’t see the small hints to the audience in the way adult characters play certain scenes. We instantly knew that John Le Mesurier’s character wasn’t being completely honest in his explanations, but the reality of what he’s actually up to still eluded our son. And Sheila Hancock brings surprising tension to a scene in which her character gets drunk and talks too much, but all of these adult conversations just seemed like noise to him because it’s more subtle than the Hulk knocking over buildings.

So perhaps six was a little young or perhaps the movie is just a dated piece that’s going to appeal more to older viewers anyway, especially the older viewers who enjoy seeing all these great actors. Maybe we should have waited a couple of years, but I’m certainly glad of the experience and enjoyed the movie very much.