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Doctor Who: The Ace Adventures

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1987/1988
Studio: 
BBC WORLDWIDE
Genre: 
Sci-Fi
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Chris Clough
Cast: 
Sylvester McCoy
Sophie Aldred
Bonnie Langford
Movie: 
4
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
4

 This two-disc collection catapults us once more into that troubled era that was DOCTOR WHO in the late-‘80s: generally considered by many fans a period of the show’s history when the programme began to feel more than ever like a self-reflexive pantomime shadow of the entity it formerly was, staged by a bunch of media studies graduates with a 2000AD fixation and scripted by writers with nothing but the vaguest folk memories of the series they were actually now creating. But with hindsight, could these years have been unfairly maligned? The two stories gathered here are early showcases for the seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy’s companion throughout most of this strange period. Ace (played by Sophie Aldred) is a tearaway, 16 year-old, explosives-making council estate girl from the London suburb of Perivale, whisked up Wizard of Oz-style into a dangerous universe of time & space-traveling adventure. Conceived in outline by the show’s new script editor Andrew Cartmel, but given definition by first-time writer Ian Briggs, her introduction marked the moment when, for better or worse, the postmodern, day-glo, comic book-infatuated aesthetic inaugurated under Cartmel’s patronage with “Paradise Towers”, really began to find its place after an initial rushed period in the aftermath of the forced departure of Colin Baker (when it hadn’t even been certain that the show would be continuing at all) which had forced the new script editor into a desperate rush, trying last minute to patch together workable ideas for the-then imminent season 24. It’s probably a fair statement that few stories from that ensuing season are now fondly remembered by anyone who was old enough at the time to be aware of the show’s previous history; but its final offering – the three-part studio-bound adventure “Dragonfire” -- did at least present us with a glimmer of the general approach that would come to define DOCTOR WHO for the rest of the McCoy era, an approach symbolically represented by the contrast between the Doctor’s then-current and eternally wet companion Mel – the quintessential ask-questions-and-scream-later companion -- as portrayed by Bonnie Langford, and this new, fiery, puffa-jacket wearing prospective companion-in-the-wings, Ace.

By the following season, “The Happiness Patrol” sees a compelling relationship established between McCoy’s now-settled persona as a mischievous, sometimes deviously dark cosmic traveller with a hidden agenda (rather than the impish buffoon he seemed to be aiming for previously with his characterisation), and his unruly but spirited young companion. The still-hard-to-like mixture of whimsical playschool-panto postmodernism and achingly self-aware mini-pops politics-as-subtext which defined the programme’s outlook during the late-eighties (dating it along with its by-now aesthetically outmoded studio production values, Ace’s house music-inflected fashion sense and her weirdly outdated usage of slang terms such as “Mega!”, “Brill!”, “Wicked!” and of course, “Ace!”) grates as much as it ever did, but at least we were more often than not now spared such misguided, unintentionally  camp fare as season 24’s “Time and the Rani”. Ungainly and as frequently cringe-worthy as it is, this period of ‘80s WHO also unwittingly helped hint at an approach and direction which would certainly have its part in defining the re-booted version sponsored by Russell T. Davies, come 2005. Conceptually Ace can be seen in historical hindsight as a laughably gauche children’s-telly-friendly attempt to capture the mores and tone of ‘Yoof’ culture for the Salt-n’-Pepa generation, with a Blue Peter badge and a Top Shop t-shirt on top; but after the patronising traditional-companion-the-kiddies-will-like unreality of Mel, this was indeed a watershed moment in the conceptualisation of DOCTOR WHO companions, foreshadowing Rose Tyler’s grounding in the contemporary world of mid-noughties Britain and offering a sketched outline of the complex companion  psychology and developing backstory that has become so definitive in the portrayal of current companion Amy Pond. And on top of that, (whisper it), perhaps some of these stories have a certain nostalgic charm to them in retrospect. The two adventures in this set might well be good examples of two stories ripe for re-evaluation.

DRAGONFIRE (1987)

As this story proceeds it becomes almost tragically, ironically noticeable that, after being pretty much universally panned and vehemently derided in fandom circles down the years ever since her first introduction during the Trial of a Time Lord season story arc, the Doctor’s insufferably perky companion Melanie at last actually starts to make some kind of sense as a believable character only in her very last story, after being teamed up with her soon-to-be replacement (as she is for a good chunk of this adventure). Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred play off each other particularly well, and the contrast  between their respective approaches captures an interesting dynamic and suggests quite a good double act could have gone on to develop if they’d both joined the Doctor as joint companions. One can easily imagine how the super bright, ever-sunnily optimistic Mel would have frequently irritated and frustrated her younger more wayward co-companion; but equally, it seems, the troubled bomb-making teen would have gained an extra dimension from being exposed to Mel’s naturally helpful, caring disposition and her almost psychotic determination to stay positive no matter what. Conversely, Mel certainly becomes more rebellious in this story after just a few minutes in the company of her new streetwise friend.  Although Ace is brash, spiky and independent -- and over-anxious to stress how she doesn’t need parents or anyone else to tell her what to do -- she befriends and teams up with Mel quick enough to indicate that she’s also crying out for a confidante.

There are several small but telling moments along the way in Ian Briggs’ lopsided Crystal-Maze-meets-The-Maltese-Falcon treasure hunt storyline, that indicate something of how the two could have grown to complement and enrich each other over time: the first, when Mel and Ace decide to do some investigating of the ice tunnels and caverns for themselves on the trading planet Svartos, and stumble upon the mythical ‘dragon’ that has apparently been left to guard a supposed treasure, previously rumoured to have existed somewhere under the space trading colony known as Iceworld: while Mel immediately switches into traditional companion mode and lets out a piercing scream, Ace seems more shocked by Mel’s reaction than she does by the creature itself. Later, there’s a marvellous little moment when Mel and Ace have found themselves in an icicle-festooned underground crystal room known as ‘the singing trees’, waiting for the Doctor and the vagabond treasure hunter Glitz to arrive, and a chirpy Mel innocently suggests a game of’ I-Spy’ to help pass the time; Ace flashes her such a look of disdain and contempt -- before finally, in the end, reluctantly succumbing anyway. It’s a superb comic moment enhanced by the immediate rapport and interplay established between Aldred (who had never acted in front of a camera before) and the unfairly maligned showbiz thespian Langford (who, after all, could only ever play the character she’d been employed to portray in the first place). It signifies the change in approach all the more that it is Mel who eventually suggests that the Doctor take Ace on-board the TARDIS as her replacement just after suddenly springing her decision to leave at the end of the story; it’s as if the old-style of companion is realising that times have changed, and all that screaming is outmoded: from now on, the Doctor needs a modern girl (even though Mel was always supposed to have come from the 21st Century!).  

Ian Briggs was another of the young untried writers Cartmel found at the BBC’s now-defunct script writers unit, who he then decided to try out on the programme after first sounding out some ideas. Cartmel’s penchant for eschewing the creative old guard for brand new and much younger (and inexperienced) writers with a wider interest in contemporary SF, is another of the contributory factors that helps make DOCTOR WHO from this period feel very much more different in tone from any other. That tone -- on the surface -- makes the show seem like it was being aimed at a much younger audience than had been the case for many years; the performance style of the actors often seems pitched at a much broader level, as is frequently the case in drama aimed at a younger audience (particularly back in 1987), yet the stories also often come with an archly ironic slant and a self-aware absurdist element to the writing; the style is that of parody, and the tone is comedic and light, even if the subject matter has the potential to be quite dark.  “Dragonfire” highlights the new direction the show was now headed in under guidance from Cartmel and his cabal of young writers. The approach had been evident in the two preceding stories, but with the introduction of Ace (who fitted the irreverent tone much better) and with McCoy’s characterisation now finding its moorings, it arguably now began to at last produce stable results  which, although never popular at the time (audience figures declined steeply during this period before the show’s eventual cancelation in 1989, although the fact that it was scheduled against “Coronation Street” obviously didn’t help matters) can perhaps at least finally be appreciated for their distinct contribution to the programme’s ever-changing history now that we can finally relax about it and see this period, with the hindsight of history, as a brief blip in the show’s on-going development, rather than the era that finally killed off DOCTOR WHO (which is what it had appeared to be for many years until 2005 changed the story).  

“Dragonfire” takes its tendency towards satirical parody and postmodern pastiche to a previously unheard-of level of playfulness. After the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Mel (Bonnie Langford) arrive at the frozen city of Iceworld on the dark side of the planet of Svartos, we discover that the place is actually a glorified city-wide freezer centre to which a colourful array of off-world aliens regularly comes to do its shopping for supplies of intergalactic frozen foods. On a tea room set clearly designed to mimic the cantina scene from “Star Wars” the Doctor and Mel meet a feisty waitress from 20th Century Earth called Ace (Sophie Aldred), who’s been whisked here in a time storm caused by an explosion she created during one of her frequent experiments with combustible compounds (although a later story by Briggs will fill in a much more elaborate backstory as to how Ace came to be on Svartos) and Sabalom Glitz (Tony Selby), a roughish bounty hunter type imported from the previous season’s Trial of a Time Lord story “The Mysterious Planet” because the character Briggs had originally written as a Han Solo-stand-in already fitted with Glitz’s personality, and producer John Nathan-Turner was keen to bring the character back. But the reference to “Star Wars” is only the first and the most obvious of a whole slew of film references that pepper the story. It turns out that Glitz has got himself into debt with someone called Kane (Edward Peel), a sinister being who can only survive at very low temperatures (which forces him to sleep vampire-like in a freezer cabinet) and who originally comes from the planet Proamon. Kane now runs Iceworld with the aid of a recruited army of cryogenically frozen zombie slaves and ‘officers’ he recruited to work for him, ‘branding’ them on the palm with his freeze-burned seal because they were suckered into pledging eternal allegiance after accepting his sovereign. Kane is desperate to locate the treasure that’s supposed to be hidden in the ice caves beneath the city, and in order to pay off his debt and regain control of his ship The Nosferatu, Glitz has been furnished with an ancient map and told he has to locate that treasure. Sensing there’s more to all this than meets the eye The Doctor joins Glitz on his quest while Mel and Ace manage to cause trouble for Kane’s troop of white-suited henchmen and women, after which Kane almost manages to tempt Ace into also taking his sovereign by offering her a more fulfilling life of adventures and space travel.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Glitz find a holographic message in the ice passages which explains that Kane has actually been exiled on the dark side of Svartos after having previously been transported there on a prison ship sent from his home world. The Kane-Xana gang were a bunch of thieves and robbers headed up and organised by Kane and his now-long-dead lover Xana. The latter was killed when the couple were finally apprehended on Proamon, and Kane’s quest to find the treasure is now motivated by his desire to escape his confinement and take revenge on his people. The Doctor realises that the treasure Kane is pursuing is actually the power unit belonging to the prison ship which originally brought him here (and which is now the control centre of Iceworld) and that the dragon is a biomechanoid designed to protect it from him at all costs by harbouring the device within its own bio-engineered head. Kane has planted a bug on the map he gave Glitz and, now in possession of this information about the dragon, sends his followers into the tunnels to destroy the mechanoid, kill the Doctor and Glitz, and bring the source of the ship’s power back to him by removing the creature’s head. But the Doctor has discovered something else about Kane’s home planet of Proamon that changes everything …

This is essentially a studio-bound film parody runaround, seemingly modelled on the 1980s series “Treasure Hunt” with the perpetually grinning Annika Rice, but plonked amid some often sort-of-impressive underground ice face-mimicking sets designed by John Asbridge and built on the sound stages of BBC studio one to be occasionally augmented by the 1980s’ answer to CGI -- the paintbox system. As usual, it is horribly over-lit by director Chris Clough to reveal that the icy facades are in fact merely swathes of plastic sheeting. Nevertheless, much of this still looks good -- Kane’s control room and the cavern of the singing trees in particular, stand out as beautifully intricate examples of studio-based design artifice. Studio set design on the show was never done better than it gets here, and Asbridge still stands as one of its most talented practitioners. Briggs soon reveals his postmodern credentials by playfully naming every single supporting character after a litany of film critics, obscure foreign film theorists or film directors while the villainous Kane is a reference to Charles Foster Kane from Orson Welles’ film “Citizen Kane”, and Xana references his mansion Xanadu. The story also incorporates many nods to other famous films including the likes of “Superman” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (and of course, with Ace’s backstory,  “The Wizard of Oz” -- made even more obvious when she reveals her real name to be Dorothy), but the Mechanoid’s resemblance to the creature from “Alien” probably shouldn’t be too surprising given the fact that designer Lindsay McGowan had been part of the creature effects crew on the previous year’s blockbuster sequel “Aliens”. Later scenes in the ice caves, when Kane’s troopers go in search of the creature while toting huge blaster weapons, are clearly also intended as a citation of James Cameron’s successful action movie follow-up to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic. Perhaps the most famous example of self-reflexive humour included in this story though, comes about during the Doctor’s attempt to distract a guard with an arcane theological discussion. The scene has a distinct Monty Pythonesque university undergraduate style of humour about it, but concludes with the guard bamboozling the Doctor with the question: ‘tell me … what do you think about the assertion that the semiotic thickness of a text varies according to the redundancy of auxiliary performance codes?’ Although this functions as a piece of amusing, perplexing double-talk, it is also an in-joke, since the quote was famously plucked by Andrew Cartmel from page 249 of John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado’s  media bible “The Unfolding Text”, in which DOCTOR WHO was studied under the rubric of the latest and (at the time) most fashionable literary theories, using an on-set visit during the making of the Peter Davison story “Kinda” as the framework for a media studies case history.

The adventure walks a fine line throughout between knowing, clever-clever undergraduate humour like this and the more unintentional hilarity caused by, say, poor scripting decisions, some parts of the set often being ill-served by the harsh studio lighting, and a few poorly done special effects. While the Mechanoid is a potentially clever and very striking piece of design work, it’s not helped at all by the fact that, when shot with the actor’s feet in plain view, it looks considerably less effective and almost ridiculous. One particular element of the story depends on Kane commissioning a sculpture of his great lost love Xana, and then killing the silent old sculptor who has been chiselling away at it for several episodes. Kane does this because no one must ever be allowed to know his true identity and the work must likewise never be seen by any other eyes but his own. The sculptor goes willingly to his death because he believes he has created his greatest masterpiece and now has nothing else to live for. The drama behind this chilling but romantic idea is ruined however, not only because the director shoots the death scene in such a way that the original intent is obscured, but because the prop used for the sculpture of Xana is so hilariously awful … and yet Edward Peel, as Kane, is forced to stand before it and sincerely proclaim its great beauty and life-like verisimilitude, when in reality it looks more like Tony Hancock’s effort in the film “The Rebel”. Another famous faux pas occurs at the end of episode one: it is literarily a cliff-hanger in which the Doctor, for no reason whatsoever, clambers over a railing atop  a sheer precipice and then simply hangs there from his brolly! No explanation is ever offered as to why he does this. Subsequently Ian Briggs claimed that the script specified that the Doctor was trying to follow the treasure map, and that this was the only way forward since all other directions were blocked off; but the set as rendered on the screen offers him a choice of at least two other directions -- left or right. Even so, why would anyone simply dangle from a ledge above a massive drop, even if they did have no other way forward? The scene is made all the more perplexing when Glitz is shown, first leaning over the railing and looking down at the Doctor offering to help, and then later, standing at the bottom of the cliff face reaching up to help him down, with no explanation offered as to how exactly he was able to get to the foot of the cliff without himself first climbing down the same precipice!

The main trouble, then, with “Dragonfire” seems to be that the many good things about it are so often sabotaged by a plenitude of poorly thought out decisions, either in the scripting stage or during the recording. Edward Peel’s portrayal of Kane gives us a classic DOCTOR WHO villain in many ways, but the character’s story seems to get a pretty poor pay-off; we’re supposed to believe he’s been plotting his revenge for three thousand years but then gets scuppered by a simple mistake over star charts which causes him to instantly loose heart and commit suicide by opening the shutter that protects Iceworld from the glare of its sun -- burning himself to a crisp courtesy of an amazing melting man effects shot by Susan Moore and Stephen Mansfield which, in attempting to echo a similar sequence from the climax of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, ends up looking unexpectedly more grisly than anything usually seen on the programme. It led to a few complaints on “Open Air”, but nowhere near as much hullaballoo as would have been generated if the show was still commanding the numbers it had been getting during the days of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. Likewise, Patricia Quinn offers hints of an interesting backstory to her character, Belazs, the employee-officer in Kane’s private army who dreams of escaping his grasp and indicates the possible fate of Ace if she had also accepted Kane’s sovereign. What with most of the story taking place near a Freezer Centre at an intergalactic shopping centre, Briggs’ tale seems here to be using its space opera theatrics as a metaphor for wage slavery and the ensuing death of ambition it engenders. Too many other supporting roles though, come across as being mere cyphers, thinly sketched characters that, for instance, change sides at the drop of a hat with next to no motivation. There are so many agreeable touches which add atmosphere to the proceedings (such as the mysterious little alien girl Stella in the blue dress, and that puppet creature who attempts to nip the Doctor on the hand when he tries to pet it in the refreshment bar!) though, that you can’t help wishing the production team had been able to solve all these teething problems. “Dragonfire” is that close to being a half-decent effort, but ultimately fails too many hurdles to stand up in the end as well as one might have wished. But many of the same players -- director Chris Clough, set designer John Asbridge and composer Dominic Glynn (whose incidental music is indeed very effective in the many scenes set in the ice caves here) – would return again the following year to bring to the screen what many still consider to be one of DOCTOR WHO’s most contentious serials ever. Whatever one thinks of “The Happiness Patrol” though, this was Cartmel’s vision of the show finally getting into gear and producing one of the most bizarre and out-there villains in the programme’s entire history.

THE HAPPINESS PATROL (1988)

Once again, “The Happiness Patrol” came about as a result of Andrew Cartmel’s determination to seek out new writers. In this case Graeme Curry was recruited after Cartmel heard a highly regarded play he’d written for Radio 4. Curry wasn’t a natural fit for DOCTOR WHO though, and it took many attempts before he found an idea Cartmel even liked. The one he eventually alighted upon revolved around the concept of a planet where nobody was allowed to be unhappy. Curry had figured that the normal course of events in the average DOCTOR WHO adventure involved the Doctor solving people’s problems and restoring happiness and order; instead he wanted to come up with a story in which the Doctor restored the option for people to be unhappy and to be able to express it if they so wished, realising that sadness was part of life and that the feeling of melancholia could even be pleasurable. “The Happiness Patrol” has the flavour of an Orwellian dystopia or a Kafkaersque parable, but executed in the style of a perverse Roald Dahl tale. The main inspiration for the story came about as a result of Curry’s dislike of lift musak and the falseness of ‘have a nice day’ retail culture which was beginning to be imported from America through the proliferation of fast food outlets in the 1980s. The decade was also simultaneously of course one of high unemployment and social unrest under Margret Thatcher, a fact which seemed to fit uncomfortably with the increasing inanity and celebration of superficiality which was a core part of the period’s popular culture. One only has to think of the chart dominating output of Stock Aitkin and Waterman, with its relentlessly cheery, samey melodies and bouncy rhythms: for some, there seemed to be a deep connection between the ruthless political single-mindedness of Thatcher and her minions on the one hand and the almost psychotic superficiality inherent in the complete avoidance of any emotional nuance whatsoever in most popular chart music of the day, with its vapid declarations of positivity and ‘Go For It’ slogans. This kind of popular mass culture announced itself as being apolitical yet seemed to collude in the political status quo with its relentless, under-nourishing diet of daydream-sunny optimism.

 This story has since come to be seen, particularly by tabloids looking for a way to lambast the BBC for its alleged bias, as a left wing attack on Margret Thatcher, and Shelia Hancock’s portrayal of the story’s psychotic female autocrat Helen A a blatant parody of the 80s Conservative PM. In fact, although there clearly are exaggerated elements of Thatcher’s personality in the character, the story as a whole is a much wider and general allegory about how dumbed down culture and the relentless pursuit of instant gratification are in the end emotionally numbing and alienating, which imagines how the suppression of such subtitles of feeling and emotional nuance might well go hand-in-hand with promoting the black and white, right or wrong social certainties of an autocrats mind.

This is late’80s WHO though, so the message comes wrapped up in the usual self-aware candy-coloured pantomime coating by now so familiar under Andrew Cartmel’s reign. But in this case that aesthetic happens to fit the material perfectly and “The Happiness Patrol” might just be the most likable story from the seventh Doctor’s brief three year career. In many ways this production -- yet another studio-bound story with no location shooting included at all -- is very similar to “Paradise Towers” in style and execution. Yet it feels so much more convincing in every aspect of its realisation. Design, music, costumes and performances are all perfectly judged to fit the mood of surreal, dystopian unreality Curry’s writing sets out to portray. The actual details of the mechanics of the plot itself are, thankfully, largely unimportant; it’s the various imaginative iterations of its core idea which sell it, and the bold way this feeds into the daringly original set designs and unashamedly garish costumes and make-up of the supporting characters.

The story takes place on Earth colony Terra Alpha. The original rodent-like inhabitants, now subsisting under the reign of crimson-clad dictatoress Helen A (Shelia Hancock) and her cohorts Daisy K (Georgiana Hale) and Priscilla P (Rachel Bell), have been supressed and driven from the city to the sugar pipes below ground where they are regularly hunted and hounded by Helen A’s vicious pet Stigorax, Fifi; but the matriarchal leader’s autocratic reign has also resulted in the banning of all public expressions of negative emotions and the implementation of a state mandated happiness, so no-one can now question the ‘disappearances’ which have become part of her policy of population control. Even words with negative connotations have been banned, so that prisons are designated merely as ‘waiting areas’ and consist of a painted line on the ground over which it is forbidden to step without being gunned down; public executions are nicknamed ‘The Fondant Surprise’ and staged as gaudy theatrical public spectacles -- the surprise of the title being to be drowned in a deluge of liquid toffee! Perfectly manicured Death Squads comprised of middle aged women in face packs who dress in garish pink beauticians’ uniforms roam the streets, executing anyone who looks a bit glum or dresses in dark clothing. They’re also authorised to brighten the place up by force -- which results in the TARDIS being re-painted a shocking pink colour!  Trench-coated, Harry Lime-like double agents try to flush out and entrap the secretly unhappy by posing as kindred spirits and offering to put them in touch with like-minded comrades who have an affinity for the autumn months or enjoy sad music, only to gleefully shop their victims to the death squads after having successfully ‘outed’ them; banal musak is pumped constantly from public Tannoys, and snipers dressed in pink line the dingy terraces, looking to pick off any ‘killjoys’ and factory ‘drones’ who might be thinking of organising demonstrations and protesting by dressing in black. Meanwhile, Helen A’s regime coats its malevolence, quite literally, in candy: the state executioner is a bad-tempered, squeaky voiced cyborg confectioner called the Kandy Man (David John Pope), his body built entirely from sweets, marshmallow and liquorice (the design quite blatantly echoing that of the Bertie Bassett liquorice allsorts mascot!) by his laconic scientist-turned confectioner-in-crime Gilbert M (Harold Innocent). 

The Doctor and Ace’s arrival in this peculiar, heavily stylised world seems to have resulted in the production team going all out to create a warped Hansel & Gretel setting of bizarre details and effective mock-gothic fairy tale sets that look like they belong in a Tim Burton film made on the cheap. Even Dominic Glynn’s incidental score (which counterpoints bland piped musak of satirical intent with evocative melancholy blues harmonica riffs in illustration of the story’s main concept) tips into a whimsical, pseudo-fairground soundscape for the sequences set in the Kandy Man’s candy kitchen, anticipating the sort of work written by Danny Elfman for Burton’s films. The Kandy Man is, off course, one of the most outrageous villains in the show’s history and given vivid expression here thanks to David John Pope’s dynamic performance; but in the surroundings created for him by production designer John Asbridge – a kitchen-cum-laboratory full of steaming cauldrons and vats of confectionary beneath a rope-pulley system of grinding cogwheels – the expressionistic painted set in which he is seen to lurk forms an ideal backdrop to the character’s child-like bright colours and his absurdist characterisation, helping to sell the nightmare cartoon vision of a society mired in corruption and venality that tries to gloss it’s villainy with images of the trivial and the banal, but only succeeds in infecting them with a patina of horror. Curry uses sweets as the ultimate metaphor for a fast fix of false pleasure. The Kandy Man kills by devising sweets that are so tasty that they overload the body’s ability to handle pleasure and so lead to death!

Asbridge’s sets for the outdoor streets on Terra Alpha take Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart” as their inspiration, recreating an artificial night-time city exterior on the studio floor without deigning to worry about realism. For once, the low lighting in these scenes is more conducive to atmosphere, and Asbridge’s muted pastel colour schemes are effective in conveying the contrast between the enforced jollity policed under the pink-shrouded happiness patrols who roam the streets, and the shabby, fading glamour of this world, with its mix of neo-classical colonnades and balconies, and terraces modelled on the look of New Orleans. Chris Clough the director originally intended to shoot these noir-tinged scenes with Dutch angles (there was even talk of the serial being shot in black and white at one stage) but was overruled by producer John Nathan-Turner.

While music and production design succeed in creating a surrealistic vibe of deranged artifice and allegorical parody around the story, the performances of the supporting cast members also help to layer it with details that imply an air of the comic and the grotesque. Shelia Hancock ‘s performance is so much more than a parody of Margret Thatcher, although she’s happy to slip into Maggie’s strident persona at certain points in the script that might have relevance to that tone. Otherwise she’s alternatively a neurotic Cruella de Vil or a wicked witch, rubbing her hands with child-like glee as she ponders ‘I wonder what the Kandy Man has conjured up for us today!’ – curiously as much a victim of her self-imposed resistance to any personal admissions of sadness or grief as her downtrodden people are under her yoke, since her repression of all negative opinion also works against her on a personal level and leads to her feeling unable to admit out loud to the imminent disintegration of the society she’s created, slipping into denial when the Doctor’s intervention facilitates the revolution that eventually deposes her. There’s a small but perfectly contrasting role for Ronald Fraser as Helen A’s quietly calculating husband Joseph C, while ex “Dear John” star Rachel Bell and Georgina Hale (Ken Russell’s “The Devils”) put in quirkily compelling performances as the gushingly enthusiastic and trigger-happy Happiness Patrol members, with their gratingly smiley hotel receptionist personas, thinly obscuring the vindictive pleasure taken in their work. The script is liberally dosed with a smattering of enjoyable smaller roles for John Normington as intergalactic census-taking bureaucrat Trevor Sigma, Lesley Dunlop as Susan Q -- a disillusioned Happiness Patrol member who teams up with Ace, and Richard D. Sharp as psychologist and street-corner harmonica player Earl Sigma. Child actors were employed to play the diminutive, rodent-like pipe people and an extremely likable puppet was used to bring to life Fifi the killer Stigorax, the razor-toothed lapdog of Helen A. Perhaps the serial’s most effective moment comes when Helen A is finally induced to re-join the human race in all its complexity of emotion at the very end of the story, when she discovers the dead body of her pampered pet (appropriately killed after being crushed to death by a sugar-slide inside the candy-encrusted pipes where it had been pursuing pipe people underground) and finally breaks down: the puppet creature is designed to be unusually expressive, enough to render this scene unduly moving. The story bravely allows us to experience some degree of sympathy for its cast of grotesque villains in the final moments despite their outlandish Charlie and the Chocolate factory-style surroundings.

 Both stories in the set feature commentary tracks with key production personnel and cast members. “Dragonfire” sees Mark Ayres stepping into the role of moderator as actors Sophie Aldred and Edward Peel are joined by director Chris Clough, script editor Andrew Cartmel, writer Ian Briggs and composer Dominic Glynn. Both commentaries in this set also include contributions from twitter competition winners whose recorded questions are edited in at certain points in the tracks for the commentary teams to answer. The contributors on “Dragonfire” are quite willing to fess up to the mistakes and poorly executed elements of the story, particularly the mix up over the ‘cliff-hanger’ scene, which they put down to the usual rush to get the show recorded without having time to stop and think if what they were doing actually made any sense! Briggs seems to be enchanted with the whole thing to a slightly delusional degree though, and Aldred recalls being outraged at being forced to shave her armpits for a scene in which she has to toss a milkshake over one of the difficult alien customers in the refreshment bar. Aldred, Chris Clough, Andrew Cartmel and Dominic Glynn all return for the Toby Hadoke moderated commentary to “The Happiness Patrol” in which, after everyone labours the joke about how ‘happy’ and ‘delighted’ they are to be appearing on this commentary track, Cartmel talks about the belated ‘scandal’ created by the BBC-hating tabloids’ recent discovery, twenty-five-years after the fact, that Sheila Hancock’s character Helen A in “The Happiness Patrol” was perhaps intended as a slight parody of Margret Thatcher. Everyone is in general agreement that the story holds up particularly well all these years later; even the fact that the Doctor appears to overthrow an oppressive political regime virtually overnight seems to chime with the developments of the Arab Spring! Both commentaries are full of the participants’ happy memories of the various different guest actors who appeared on each of the serials in question, and there are plenty of anecdotes and on-set stories from during the various stages of the production.

The “Dragonfire” disc also features a straight-up making of documentary in which most of the same information is repeated in a more concise form. “Fire and Ice” features a peculiarly attired Sophie Aldred along with Briggs, Cartmel, Clough and Peel, and with contributions from Sylvester McCoy from an interview recorded in 2003. Aldred talks about her casting and how she didn’t know until the end of the first day of filming whether or not she would be staying on as a full-time companion or leaving at the end of the serial. John Nathan-Turner was also considering Sara Griffiths (who appeared in the simultaneously produced “Delta and the Bannerman”) as a potential replacement for Bonnie Langford’s departing character. In the event, Aldred had to be written into the show in a hastily scribbled scene allegedly written on the back of napkin. “Happiness will Prevail” is a similarly straightforward ‘making of’ documentary made for “The Happiness Patrol” DVD, with Cartmel, Aldred and Clough joined by actor David John Pope and writer Graeme Curry to discuss the genesis of the story and its transformation during the transference from page to screen into the fantastical allegory we came to see on our TVs.

“Dragon Fire” also features two other featurettes: “The Doctor’s Strange Love” has writers Simon Guerrier and Joe Lidster together with comedian and life-long DOCTOR WHO fan Josie Long coming together for an affectionate appreciation of the absurdities and pleasures of this particular story … while sitting on the set of the current TARDIS control room! The team pick up on a number of issues, particularly the relationship between Mel and Ace and how Mel goes from being the ultimate goody-goody at the start to enthusiastically joining in with lobbing Ace’s homemade Nitro-9 bombs all over the shop by the end. This is an acutely observed and extremely funny 15 minute feature and Josie Long is particularly interested to find out the director Chris Clough has since gone on to produce the programme “Skins”, for which she has herself written scripts. The other featurette on this disc is a 12 minute piece called “The Big Bang Theory” in which special effects supervisor on the current series Danny Hargreaves looks back at scenes involving explosives on earlier shows, from 1964 and the very first exploding Dalek, to the rather explosion-happy Sylvester McCoy years when safety rules appeared to fall by the wayside. Hargreaves notes that essentially little has changed between the methods used in the sixties and those utilised today, but he’s clearly worried about the apparent recklessness seen in some of the sequences he’s shown originating in the late-eighties, speculating that many of them wouldn’t be allowed now on safety grounds!

“The Happiness Patrol” features only one other documentary besides the ‘making of’, but it’s a corker. “When Worlds Collide” is a forty-five minute look at how politics and the drama of DOCTOR WHO have constantly mixed across the entire span of the show, from the post-war suspicion of pacifism expressed in Terry Nation’s first Dalek story to critiques of the hippy movement in Patrick Troughton story “The Dominators”, politics it seems wasn’t something that only played an overt role during the Cartmel years. By far the most overtly political phase of the show seems to have been the early seventies under Barry Letts, but the documentary illustrates how the show has always reflected the times in which it was made regardless of any deliberate intent to do so. The early eighties saw the threat of nuclear annihilation and the Cold War having an influence on the kind of threats dealt with by Peter Davison’s Doctor, while Colin Baker faced an intergalactic yuppie slug in “Vengeance on Varos”; then the Cartmel years saw the show tackling issues such as racism much more directly, although not always in a particularly subtle fashion. It’s interesting that the current series’ obsession with stories and long term arcs in which the Doctor has to face the consequences -- for himself and those around him -- of his past intervention in the affairs of others can be thought of within the context of our current involvement in ‘regime change’ in Afghanistan and Iraq, when previously even the more left-leaning production teams wouldn’t baulk at allowing the Doctor to topple totalitarian regimes willy-nilly, as is, in fact, the case in “The Happiness Patrol” itself. Only very occasionally were the potentially far-reaching consequences of the Doctor’s actions even addressed during the days of the classic series, in stories such as “The Face of Evil” when Tom Baker’s Doctor discovers his meddling has caused chaos across millennia of a planet’s history. Nicholas Briggs delivers a fascinating overview, here, narrated by Shaun Levy with contributions from Terrence Dicks, Andrew Cartmel and a host of commentators including writer Gareth Roberts.

Both DVDs in the set also include all the regular features, such as a photo gallery of production stills, text based production notes (as ever crammed full of fascinating facts) and PDF files of listings and Radio Times articles (plus a few Radio Times readers’ letters). This season seems to have particularly suffered from the scripts being far too long for the running times and both stories here are no exception: there’s a good 12 minutes of deleted scenes included with “Dragonfire” and a whopping 23 minutes (that’s a full episode’s worth!) of cut material from “The Happiness Patrol” now included here for your enjoyment -- and there’s some interesting stuff in there as well. Finally, each story comes with an isolated music track option for those who want to really groove out to Dominic Glynn’s synth incidentals.

After years of never having been all that keen on the stylisation of the show as it was presented during this period, these two stories did a fair job of bringing me round to appreciating 80s WHO’s particular flair for colourful parody and comic book excess, and the McCoy and Eldred partnership was clearly one of the more successful Doctor-companion pairings for many years. This set features several flawed but immensely likable serials, with a decent selection of extras that do much to highlight and accentuate their virtues while acknowledging the less successful elements: if anything Andrew Cartmel is rather harder on “The Happiness Patrol’s” production deficiencies than is really warranted. It is well worth giving this set a spin and embracing the McCoy era’s brazen flightiness. There’s a lot to recommend both these imperfect efforts.

Read more from Black Gloves at Nothing But The Night!

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