You Can't Handle Doctor Who's In-Your-Face Politics!

Illustration for article titled You Can't Handle Doctor Who's In-Your-Face Politics!

Seriously, you won't be able to deal with the sheer intensity of Doctor Who at its most political and confrontational. You may have thought you'd already experienced the most insane Wholitics after you watched "The Green Death," after which you resolved to start eating tofu and bicycling to work, or the evil maggot computer would win. But two new Doctor Who DVDs will Occupy your Brain. There are some serious Messages from the Time Lord in "The Nightmare of Eden" and "The Happiness Patrol."

Those messages? Respectively, they are: "Drugs are bad, 'mkay — especially in hyperspace." And: "Margaret Thatcher was a really, really bad Prime Minister, and just imagine if she was twice as campy and obsessed with candy."

Sorry for not giving you a spoiler warning before revealing the central message of both of those stories. Now that you know what they're both about, you don't even need to watch either of them — but you may want to, because they're both surprisingly fun, in their preachy, campy ways. These are quite possibly the two preachiest and two campiest Doctor Who stories ever, and they are completely bonkers in the best way.

One of them hails from the goofiest season of Doctor Who, when Tom Baker was just kind of mugging his way through it. The other one comes from the very tail end of Who, when the show was making a major effort to be a "serious" and challenging piece of television in its final days. But actually, both shows are equally silly, and in retrospect it's hard to believe that anybody thought Margaret Thatcher would be quaking in her sensible shoes over the pink-neon insanity of "Happiness Patrol."


But like I said, they're both amazingly fun, and dated in the absolute best way. They're a great time capsule from, respectively, the disco and Stock-Aitken-Waterman eras in pop culture.

"The Nightmare of Eden," from Tom Baker's penultimate year as the Doctor, is about two spaceships colliding in hyperspace and getting spatially locked together. (The sort of actual science fiction premise the show was big on in the 1970s.) And then it turns out someone aboard is smuggling the Worst Drug in the Universe, known as Vraxoin. Also, there are some ridiculously cuddly monsters, the Mandrells, who escape from a version of the TimeScoop from "Carnival of Monsters" and wreak havoc. Mostly, it's a huge anti-drug rant, with spatial mechanics and dodgier-than-usual special effects.

Rewatching "Eden" on DVD, it's a great reminder of how campy Tom Baker's late-middle era was, but also how intricate the stories were when Douglas Adams was script editor. There are a lot of neat ideas in there, buried under some very over-the-top performances, including a German mad scientist with weird sunglasses. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are always fun to watch together. The DVD extras consist of everybody complaining that it was a horrendous disaster of a story to make. The visual effects were way more rushed than usual, and the monsters were ludicrous. And the director and Tom Baker nearly killed each other before the director was finally fired or quit. They actually made commemorative T-shirts saying "We're Glad The Nightmare Is Finally Over."

Here's the relevant bit about the director, Alan Bromly, and how he made this story much more of an ordeal than it had to be. I love that the featurettes on these DVDs are increasingly filled with people not holding back about what was actually going on.

Oh, and there's a featurette where a comedian and a couple of fans discuss the fact that the drug messages in this show were really way, way over the edge into preachiness. Which they clearly were — and apparently it was partly because the producer was worried someone might think the story was pro-drug in some way. So every few minutes, bad things happen due to drugs, or the Doctor turns to the screen and delivers another lecture about how drugs ruin lives. At the end, the Doctor is more contemptuous and horrified by the drug kingpin than he is by all the genocidal maniacs he's met in his long career.


Meanwhile, there's "The Happiness Patrol," which... hasn't aged well. It hadn't aged well five minutes after it was first broadcast, to be fair. But now, the pastel colors and jabs at Margaret Thatcher and coarse American culture and bubble-gum pop and all that stuff are just like watching an old person yell about those kids and their Walkmans.

In "The Happiness Patrol," there's a false utopia where everybody is required by law to be happy — or die. (Yes, it's basically the same idea as Monty Python's "Fairy Tale.") Somehow, this shiny happy fake jolly world is turned into a satire on Thatcherism, partly because there are oppressed workers, the "Drones," and partly because Sheila Hancock aggressively channels Thatcher in her performance. People who refuse to be happy, "Killjoys," are executed — mostly by the Kandyman, who is made out of candy and kills with candy.


Most dystopian worlds are a little contrived, and that's part of what makes them fun — but this one is really, really contrived, and as a concept, it has a hard time sustaining a full-length adventure. As with "Nightmare on Eden," the people interpreting Graeme Curry's script seem to have gone for the most exaggerated version possible, from the insane-looking Kandyman to the scenery-chewing other characters.

And the preachiness, as with "Nightmare," gets really overwhelming — yes, we get it, forcing people to be happy all the time is bad. Blues music is nice to listen to. And so on. There's a telling moment in one of the "making of" featurettes where Curry says something like, "I know it sounds rather grand for Doctor Who, but I wanted to talk about what it means to be human." Which makes it sound as though Curry isn't very familiar with the program he was writing for, since dozens of Who stories before "Happiness" had explicitly delved into the question of what it means to be human. So it's not "rather grand for Doctor Who" to suggest that, at all.


There are definitely a few nice moments in "Happiness" — the bit where the Doctor disarms two snipers using only the force of his personality and his moral outrage is nice, if somewhat suspension-of-disbelief-taxing. And the very insanity of the story is a big part of its charm, especially with the crazy alien dog and the weird sewer-dwelling creatures who start saying "Gordon Bennett" every few minutes. It's one of those stories you enjoy for its cheese factor, not in spite of it.

The DVD has a ton of deleted scenes, most of which don't add much — although there are some shots of that alien dog looking especially fake and silly. There's a fairly long featurette about the making of the story, and then a separate 46-minute (!) featurette discussing the political messages in the story, which I could not bring myself to sit through.


All in all, if I hadn't gotten these DVDs for free as review copies, I'd probably still have bought them, because I'm a bit of a Doctor Who completist and I love how earnestly silly both stories are. If you're not a Doctor Who completist, and just want to see the classic series at its best, you're probably better off looking elsewhere — to the many Who stories that managed to have a philosophical or social message without shouting it in your ear.

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James Whitbrook

Apparently we really can't handle the Politicking of The Happiness patrol - a few years back the 'controversy' of using the show to bash Thatcher cropped up again as if it was big news, it was in all the newspapers, and I think there was even an episode of Newsnight on it!

But yes, I harbour a secret adoration of Nightmare of Eden, even though I've only just been able to finally see the serial thanks to this DVD. It's a delightfully silly story that sits at the heart of a delightfully silly season, and is just incredibly fun (oh, the cheesetastic delight that is The Horns of Niiiiiiiiiiiimonnnnn!). Not trying to be big or special or anything, it's just a romp, and it's fun to see Tom Baker just run with it. Even without genuinely wonderful serials like City of Death or Destiny of the Daleks in there, I'd say Season 17 is one of my favourites in Classic Who.