Tuesday, 6 October 2015

FTA: Doctor Who Classic: Time and the Rani, The Happiness Patrol and The Greatest Show In The Galaxy

This eighth volume of articles from Celebrate, Regenerate! covers stories from the Seventh Doctor.(See here for more on this project.)

Time and the Rani
(Main article.)

When I first sat down to watch Time and the Rani, I was caught up in the fan opinion that it was one of the worst things this side of the Iraq War, but like my reaction to the Sixth Doctor’s stories, I was pleasantly surprised. So surprised, in fact, that I would go so far as to call Time and the Rani one of my favourite stories of the Seventh Doctor’s era, behind only the wonderful The Happiness Patrol. The reason? Time and the Rani doesn’t just break the So Bad It’s Good barrier in the way that a story like Time-Flight does. It smashes that barrier into bits, and leaves you to try and rebuild it while throwing all it can at you. Time and the Rani is not in any way a story; rather, it is an exhilarating and endlessly entertaining experience that never gets old.
     Sylvester McCoy’s early portrayal of the Seventh Doctor is very different to his later more manipulative persona, but that doesn’t make it worse by default. Instead, it’s fresh, vibrant, and unassumingly mad – it takes the bravado of Colin Baker’s Doctor and channels it into a fluid wit. The Rani, while not as unique in her performance as in her introductory story, still balances the new Doctor perfectly. Her scheme is completely mad and fifty shades of scientifically impossible, but it’s the sheer convoluted lengths to which she goes (kidnapping Albert Einstein, etc.) that make the story what it is.
     Fans lambaste Time and the Rani for being too silly, putting an emphasis on goofy humour over plot, characterisation and common sense. But the rejection of the latter is what makes it unique. Doctor Who’s primary feature is variety, and it’s a simple law of probabilities that a story this silly would pop up sometime. And what do the fans do? They have the guile to complain, to complain about this beautiful, nonsensical thing. Time and the Rani doesn’t try to preoccupy itself with the serious stuff, and instead simply tries to let the audience have fun. And at the end of the day, isn’t that just what Doctor Who is about?

The Happiness Patrol

Despite trying to not get involved with politics, my kinder friends have called me “a liberal”. This, perhaps, is the catalyst to my incredible enjoyment of The Happiness Patrol, a story which takes a metaphor for Margaret Thatcher’s regime and twists it in a deliciously demented way. Even though the Iron Lady herself was described by Sylvester McCoy as “far more terrifying than any monster the Doctor had encountered”, Sheila Hancock’s Helen A is a portrayal that is both hilarious in its send-up of the former Prime Minister and frightening in the way it represents certain aspects of Conservative policy.
     It could have been awfully dry, but the addition of just a few ounces of absurdism makes The Happiness Patrol into a complete and total classic. Most memorably, The Kandyman is a villain that does exactly what good Doctor Who villains do best – they scare the kids, and make the adults think. On the one hand, it’s been suggested that the sucrose-composed robot was designed as an attack on the indulgence and power of the capitalist system, while others simply regard it as a demonstration of just how insane Helen A is.
    And sometimes the story actually puts you under the regime’s spell. So many detractors tell of how they can’t take the villains seriously: they paint the Tardis pink, walk around with frilly hairdos and drown people in strawberry sauce. That’s the whole point! The Happiness Patrol isn’t just a satire of a specific political regime, it’s also a wider warning about the power of appearance over ideology in politics. Of course you couldn’t take Helen A’s happy clappy approach seriously at first, in the same way that people voted for good old Maggie because she looked better than Jim Callahan. 
     Plus, this is where we really see the peak of the Seventh Doctor’s powers of manipulation. Sure, we’d seen him plot to blow up Skaro in the previous story, but that had been set up back in the Pilot episode; here, the Doctor waltzes onto a planet and deposes a tyrannical regime in a single night. He seems to understand everyone he meets instantly; he talks down the Sniper who’s never had to face a man’s eyes, defeats the Happiness Patrol by showing them a smile and then introduces Helen A to the concept of negative emotions. He is not just a faceless hero, but a character in his own right, and one that is prepared to go to any lengths to defend justice, truth and freedom. 
     The Happiness Patrol isn’t just a silly exercise in 80s camp. It’s one that has a dark political undertone that has a lot to say to both the kids of the era and their parents. It's scary, disturbing, funny, melancholy, and exciting. And it’s my favourite story of the entire Seventh Doctor era.

The Greatest Show In The Galaxy

The much-mocked BBC Quarry has had to stand in for a whole variety of planets, with varying results. In the McCoy era there was a move away from the bland rocky faces of Destiny of the Daleks and Time and the Rani to what has been referred to as “a high-class quarry.” Segonax, the planet currently being inhabited by the Psychic Circle, does as Enlightenment does and provides a visual treat to go alongside one of the most metaphorically profound scripts in McCoy’s era. The Circus has many guests of many different flavours, and the secret at the heart of its’ core reflects the state of the program at that late time in its existence.
       The Circus, having moved about a bit but now firmly in one spot, is the perfect metaphor for Doctor Who. Desperately reaching out to foreign markets, it tries to attract writers and fans to please their audience, the British public (here lovingly rendered as the Gods of Ragnarok.) The Whiz Kidd represents the core fanbase, with their constant admiration for stories broadcast before their birth (“I’ve never seen the old stuff, but I know it’s not as good as it used to be.”) and how their interaction with the show only caused more problems than it solved. The three who run the circus represent various figures in the show’s production team, all of them desperately trying to pull together a show so they’re not devoured by the public’s disinterest. The Doctor, stepping in and destroying the Gods of Ragnarok (or at least ending their influence), is a profound statement by the show. It is the statement that it is ready to move on and do whatever it wants to do, no matter what the executives say. 
     Of course, the joy of the story comes not only with the various metaphorical readings, but also with the story’s aesthetic, which helps to satisfy the children blissfully ignorant of the serial’s undertones. The clowns and robots in black limousines, skating across a acrid desert; Mags transforming in the arena; Ace being locked in the robot room – this is the stuff of nightmares. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is intelligent, and manages to say a lot more than other stories can without spoiling it for the kids. And that’s just how we like it.

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