The Happiness Patrol

Back in the late 1980’s, I edited the newsletter for the local Doctor Who fan club, TARDIS (or the torturously named “The Arizona Regional Doctor Who Interest Society.) Amongst other things, I wrote reviews of Doctor Who episodes. A collection of these old newsletters has come into my possession. Here then is my December 1988 review of The Happiness Patrol.

The Happiness Patrol was better the second time I saw it.

My initial reaction was that The Happiness Patrol was easily as bad as Delta and the Bannermen. Upon reflection, I think it falls into the second level awful category, along with the other legendary awful episodes: The Gunfighters, The Horns of Nimon, Time and the Rani and Paradise Towers. (Please note: Until Delta and the Bannermen came along, these WERE the first level awful episodes.)

Briefly, the story goes something like this:

The Doctor arrives on Terra Alpha, a lovely little planet where they play “Lift Music” (Muzak to Americans) from all the loud speakers. True, this is a great evil anywhere in the Universe, but it’s not the evil the Doctor has come to remedy.

I think I should note here that the Doctor specifically states that he is here because of an evil. In Remembrance of the Daleks the Doctor goes to Earth specifically to deal with “unfinished business,” in this episode, he is purposely seeking our wrongs to right. Seldom, if ever, in the Doctor’s past has he started out aiming for trouble. Why this sudden change? Could this be the direction that the producers and writers have set out for Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor? If so, it makes him a far more “serious” Doctor than any who have preceded him.

In any case, Terra Alpha is in the grip of a tyrant (and her pet dog [?]) who insists that everyone be happy. (One wonders if the author of this episode had just listened to that insipid song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” prior to writing this episode.) With the aide of her evil henchman, the Candyman, she is actively eliminating all the “Killjoys.” One of her favorite forms of execution is smothering people in Strawberry Fondant. Of course, her band of vicious, but smiling thugs, the Happiness Patrol, with this Fun Guns, are also an effective means for dealing with those pesky Killjoys. Oh, did I forget to mention that the Candyman is made entirely of candy, caramel, chocolate, etc? Created by a not fully explained character names Gilbert, who escapes at the end, making us worry about the possibility of a sequel. (Who said Doctor Who was no longer frightening?)

Sounds too stupid to be true, doesn’t it? Sounds to me like John Nathan-Turner refuses to turn down a script no matter how bad it is.

And let’s not forget Fifi. Fifi is a creature (technically very good for a Doctor Who episode) which looks like a cross between An American Werewolf in London, the little creature that gets split in two in the Star Trek episode, The Enemy Within (Not Kirk, the other one) and a Pekingese. Fifi is an incredible beast which can take an exploding bottle of Nitro-9 in the mouth, and come out with only a few bandages (which get removed later in the same episode.)

Plot Synopsis? Nahhhhh, why bother? They didn’t.

Ace and the Doctor do have a nice rapport in this episode, and so far this season, Ace is proving a well-matched companion for the Doctor. I’m going to predict that they’ll try to keep Ace in much the way they kept Jamie during the Troughton era: a long time.

The Happiness Patrol deserves a first look, and it does improve some on the second viewing, and every Doctor Who collector should have it, but how often do you show your friends The Horns of Nimon?

Episode 102 – Doctor Who – The Rings of Akhaten

Doctor Who, Series 7, Part 2 continues with episode 2, The Rings of Akhaten.

Blakes 7 Remade

I am filled with trepidation.

Long-time listeners may have noticed that I tend to be negative about re-makes and (so-called) re-boots.  It’s not without provocation.

This is mostly because the people who mount them usually have their own “take” or “artistic vision” that they want to apply or they want to “update it for modern audiences.”  (Which is TV-speak for:  “We can’t syndicate an old program made to this cultural or technical standard anymore.”)

Perhaps on another day, I shall launch a tirade on why I generally think these are bad ideas.  For the moment I will just say that they all have in mind the notion implicit in them that they are “improving” upon the original in some meaningful way.

Before you raise an objection to that sweeping statement, consider the following:  Do you really think that any producer, writer or director entered into making a remake with the idea that they’d do anything worse than the original?  Of course not.  Let us at least agree that the road the remake hell is paved with good intentions!

Therefore, I would argue that the shows that should be due for a remake are those that failed originally.  Those shows that had some germ of an idea that was brilliant or promising but were let down by the writing, directing, studio, network or whatever.

Even though I didn’t like the remake, let me give the example of the original Battlestar Galactica as an example of a failed show that was (and still is) itching for a good remake.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often because one of the selling points of a remake is name recognition. Previously popular programs have an immediate audience and marketing buzz.

Nobody wants to remake a failure because you start with the stink of failure already on your hands.

And so, they remake the better shows – the ones that don’t need it.

Yesterday marked a key turning point in my discomfort with remakes:  The last of my five favorite TV shows of all time, Blakes 7, has been green-lit for a remake.

Let’s look at the how the rest of my top 5 has fared:

Show Comments
Doctor Who The most successful of the bunch, mostly because there’s no re-imagining.  It is simply picking up where the old series left off, albeit with modern techniques, format and sensibilities.  This was possible because the format of Doctor Who has always lent itself well to changes in cast and format.  Also, the story didn’t need a complex origin plot for new viewers to get the premise.  Each time a new companion arrives, we’re all reminded of what we need to know to enjoy the series.
Star Trek I’m of mixed feelings about this one.  Undeniably it was a commercially successful “reboot” and it is an enjoyable action film.I’ll also give them points for coming up with a clever, if occasionally problematic mechanism to explain both why we have to start at the beginning again and why the new Star Trek’s continuity is so completely screwed-up versus the old.  Incorporating the time travel and re-writing of history element into the plot allows them to effectively bury most (but not all) of their continuity mistakes.  It also allows them to reuse any previous Star Trek story and twist it to their liking.  It’s clever, that.

Where it’s less successful is that the filmmakers, accomplished though they may be, failed to understand Star Trek and opted for the mindless action, buddy movie paradigm instead of the more thoughtful nature of Star Trek.

Hopefully the new franchise of movies will eventually recapture the true spirit of Star Trek.

The Wild, Wild West What the fuck were they thinking?There isn’t enough scorn in the world to express my contempt for this abhorrent, cancerous turd of a movie.
The Avengers I could ask the same question here, but I think I know.  Obviously this wasn’t just clueless idiocy like Wild, Wild West.  This was an active campaign to destroy the Avengers.Anyone that would have cast Uma Thurman in the role of Emma Peel clearly had fantasies about taking all the Avengers fans in the world, knocking them over onto the ground and methodologically shitting in their open mouths.

I’ve exhausted all of the world’s scorn the Wild, Wild West and yet the Avengers movie requires it in equal or greater measure. It’s a good thing the world keeps making new scorn.  I estimate the Wild, Wild West and Avenger’s scorn debt will finally be paid in full in 2136.

Blakes 7 ?

1.75 out of 4 isn’t bad, is it?  Or, in other terms, 43.75% success rate…  yeah, that’s shit.

I heard about the upcoming remake of Blakes 7, funded by the SyFy network and I wanted to weep, but, to be fair, that was based entirely on zero information, except my experience with remakes above and with the crap that is the overall output of the SyFy Network – a network so ambivalent to science fiction that they took the SciFi out of their name.

Subsequent to that, I found online, some of the people involved in the remake and, through that medium, I’ve come to believe that they are genuinely trying to do Blakes 7 justice.  (Of course, see my point above about the road to remake hell.)  My hopes were raised.

I was also pleasantly surprised to have come across a SyFy-based audio drama remake of Blakes 7 that was made in 2010(?) for the SyFy Channel’s website.  Fearing the worst, I listened to the three stories, which roughly approximates the original series episodes The Way Back, Spacefall, Cygnus Alpha, Seek-Locate-Destroy and Redemption.

I was pleasantly surprised.  Certainly the story had been changed, smartly reflecting changes in the expectations of future technology and adapted for faster-paced storytelling, but none of it was too offensively wrong.  I enjoyed the stories and could accept them as an alternate version of Blakes 7.

Again, this raised my hopes a bit more.  Perhaps a modern take on B7 could be made to work.  There were not enough of the audio dramas to decide if it was a completely successful attempt.

Let’s turn to the new TV series.  They’ve got me worried, again.

The recent press release has a brief paragraph in it that chills me to my bones.  One of the producers had earlier tweeted much of this and it had set off my alarms, but now that it’s immortalized in the press, it feels like the proper time to worry.

To quote the press release:

“The year is 2136, Blake wakes up on one side of the bed. He reaches for the other side. There’s nobody there. As reality sets in, this handsome ex-soldier sits up, and looks at a photo of his wife Rachel. Beautiful. Deceased.”

Why does this worry me?

It’s not just because that’s the opening to Bill Bixby’s Incredible Hulk series, or indeed countless other movies and TV shows.  It’s a common (it’s not overstating it to say, “cliche”) shorthand technique for immediately getting the viewer into the mindset of the protagonist:  “He’s lost someone he loves and recently enough that he still forgets she’s gone, her loss motivates the actions you’re about to see.”

I’ll be the first to admit, six (almost) sentences is not a lot of information to go on, but, as I stated, this is a cliched setup – a shortcut – commonly used in television and movies to convey a lot of information quickly.  By releasing this information in the press release, the writers are using the same shorthand techniques to reach the intended audience of the press release.

I don’t think I’m unfairly drawing conclusions on the information given.

First worry: he’s a soldier – a professional killer.

That rather implies that he’s a former Federation goon, which completely changes his background, his motivations, loyalties and how he’ll interact with antagonists who are Federation military.

Prehaps he was an officer, even possibly a compatriot of Travis or Servalan.  A principled man in a corrupt world who quit in disgust (and later becomes freedom fighter.)  I am only guessing, but there are only so many paths to go from soldier to rebel and still be a “hero” to the audience.

Any way you go about it, soldier implies someone trained in the way of killing.  This is a far cry from the political activist and rebel that the original Blake was.

The second point that bothers me is the part about his dead wife.  Unnecessary to introduce that unless her death has bearing on Blake’s motivations.  It seems clear that Blake’s rebellion is somehow linked to his wife’s death.

If my (not-so-far-fetched) extrapolations are correct, it seems likely that the makers of the new version have completely and utterly misunderstood the original character of Blake and, in doing so, have failed to provide the necessary  framework for exploring the most important thematic component of the first two series of the original Blakes 7.

There is one major thematic element which I would argue makes Blakes 7 stand out against the mediocre backdrop of so many other space operas.

Blake is a committed idealist.  We are given that Blake, on idealistic grounds, was a prominent leader of an underground anti-Federation movement.  There’s every indication that this was a non-violent opposition movement, that was met with brutal violence and suppression by the corrupt Federation.

Blake, mind-wiped and drugged into submission, only comes back as a fighter and killer after his memories are returned and he witnesses the same brutality again – even at that point, he continued trying words as his weapon.

This failed and he was arrested on trumped up charges of sexual deviancy.  It was only when he was defeated by a system so totally corrupt as to control every piece on the chessboard, did Blake take to violence and killing.

For the next two series we watch as Blakes devolves from a compassionate man who tries to minimize casualties into an obsessive rebel unconcerned with collateral damage.

This is a pattern that has happened to idealogical revolutionary leaders throughout history.  This is what makes Blakes 7 standout!  (That and wickedly witty dialog.)

An ex-soldier pissed off about his dead wife undermines the groundwork that made Blakes 7 great.  He’s just another killer with a vendetta. How utterly pedestrian.

Please don’t let it be so. The percentage would plummet to 35%.

Episode 101 – Doctor Who – The Bells of Saint John

Series 7 and a half starts with the official arrival of Clara Oswald as the Doctor’s new companion. Are we set for a new era of Doctor Who, or is it the same old same old?