Doctor Who: Dragonfire/The Happiness Patrol

Directors - Chris Clough

Cast - Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Bonnie Langford

Country of Origin - U.K.

Discs -1/1

MSRP - $24.98/24.98

Distributor - BBC Home Video

Reviewer - Scott MacDonald

The Serials    

     When I first got into Doctor Who via the local PBS station it seemed that the only Doctor whose serials were readily screened were Tom Baker's (Fourth Doctor). It was not until I started collecting the DVD's that I began to catch up with the other actors who played the role before and after Tom, and one of the Doctors I was most curious about was Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy.

     McCoy for those not familiar is the Doctor whom the classic series ended its 26 year run with, and his tenure tends to be a decisive period amongst the Who faithful, with some praising it as a change in the right direction that was not allowed to go far enough, and others declaring it an absolute car wreck. 

     The first of his serials that I caught up with is Remembrance of the Daleks.  This is often considered one of the finest episodes of his entire run, and the start of classic Doctor Who's last great run of stories. At the time I saw it, I was largely unimpressed. I could not gel with Sylvester's performance, the credits reminded me of the children's television programming I grew up with from the same era, and then there was Ace, his companion. 

     My first impression of her was a pseudo-rebellious militaristic teenager, and I couldn't stand her calling the Doctor "Professor."  It was too drastic a change, just as I was starting to catch up.  I have ended up warming up to the Seventh Doctor, Remembrance of the Daleks, and Ace. It just took some getting used to.

     BBC Home Video was recently released 2 of the Seventh Doctor's last 3 unreleased serials Dragonfire, and the Happiness Patrol.  In the U.K. they are being released as the Ace Adventures Box Set, however, stateside we are getting them on separate releases. Neither is considered a classic by the majority of Doctor Who fandom, however, I went in with subverted expectations and came out pleasantly surprised.

 

Dragonfire (3/5)

     The Seventh Doctor and his shrieking companion Mel have landed the TARDIS on the Iceworld colony of the planet Svartos.  Iceworld is run by a manipulative businessman named Kane who has watched over the colony for 3,000 years. Shortly after their arrival Mel and the Doctor make the acquaintance of Ace, a 20th Century teenager who ended up on Iceworld when a chemistry experiment gone awry created a time-storm in her bedroom, and brought here to Svartos.  They also run into the rogue, Sabalom Glitz, a prior acquaintance of the Doctor who was involved with him during an incident on Ravalox (The Mysterious Planet). It turns out that Glitz through dealing with Kane has come into possession of a map that will lead into the bowels of Iceworld, and to some great treasure.  The only stipulation, it is guarded by a dragon.  It is up to the Doctor, Mel, Ace, and Glitz to uncover the treasure, and Kane’s actual plan as they unravel the mysteries on Iceworld.

     Going into Dragonfire I had known of it's decidedly "mixed" reputation.  When it was released in the late 1980's, it was considered the best episode of it's series. Granted, this is the same series that contained Delta and the Bannermen, Paradise Towers, and Time and the Rani, so in comparison this is practically the Caves of Androzani. 

   It is also known for having what is quite possibly having the silliest cliffhanger in the history of Doctor Who.  At the conclusion of episode 1, The Seventh Doctor goes over a railing hanging only by his umbrella.  It then appears as it he is hanging hundreds of feet in the air over a ravine. When episode 2 begins Glitz helps him get down, but what was perceived as an epic distance at the end of the prior episode was apparently only about 6 feet.

     I have actually heard a minor complaint that Mel's departure seemed quite abrupt, as she did not seem to have a good relationship with Glitz throughout the 3 episodes. I have heard this complaint mentioned in regards to Leela's departure in the Tom Baker vehicle Invasion of Time, and in that case wholeheartedly agreed.  In this case, it actually seemed to fit. That being said, it could have simply been my desire to see Mel depart the TARDIS (Never to be seen AGAIN!).

  All complaints aside, Dragonfire is a fun episode. I will admit as a film and TV viewer I will watch everything from Bergman films to Zombi 2 (I draw the line at Zombi 3), and if I can have fun with something then I can look past its perceived faults, and honestly, I can definitely see what viewers were talking about in the late 80's.  I didn't care for the other 3 Serials from this series, but this one was a great adventure yarn told in a classic Doctor Who style, and I wasn't going to let the occasionally shoddy effect, or directorial flub get in the way of that. If you really are a fan of Doctor Who, and like a good adventure story, you definitely get that here.  It's a good introduction to the Ace character, and I enjoyed Glitz in the Mysterious Planet, so it was a nice callback seeing him here again.

 

The Happiness Patrol (4/5)

   The Happiness Patrol, Like Dragonfire has a reputation for being a less than stellar serial in the Who canon amongst the Doctor Who faithful.   After my experience with Dragonfire, I decided to open my mind a bit to it, and found that it is quite an enjoyable serial, and one of the best of Sylvester McCoy's outfit that I have seen thus far.

     The Happiness Patrol sees the Doctor and Ace land the TARDIS on Terra Alpha. A planet that is being run by the militant Helen A., and her Happiness Patrol.  The Happiness Patrol, wanders the streets of Terra Alpha, and with the help of informants attempt to sniff out "Killjoys," aka people who are happy, and in tune with the everyone must be happy law of of Terra Alpha.

     If anyone is found to be guilty of being a Killjoy the Happiness Patrol either immediately executes them or puts them into the Waiting Zone, not quite a prison but a containment area where they are to remain for a period of time.  If they do not get happy they are executed using the sweet confections of the Kandyman, a psychotic candy-based lifeform/robot creature who creates treats so sweet in his "Kandy Kitchen," that the sheer joy from eating them is enough to kill the intended victim.  The Doctor and Ace alongside a harmonica playing bluesman, and a rebel who turned against the Happiness Patrol to bring down Helen A., and allow the people of Terra Alpha to feel anyway they damn well please.

     First, I have to get this off my chest. I've heard mixed things to the Kandyman's look in this serial, and I have to say. I seriously LOVED IT.  Maybe at the time of broadcast it was viewed as a cheesy Doctor Who monster, but watching it now, I really enjoyed the presence of Kandyman*.

   The story itself is pure sci-fi pulp satire, taking elements as far reaching as 2000 A.D. and Heavy Metal comics, film noir, and the political climate in the U.K. at the time.  This serial is of course notable for the Helen A. character who is as blatant a stand in for Margaret Thatcher as I have ever seen.  I have always taken an interest in genre fiction that reflects current events, and Doctor Who notably did this on a few occasions for example the Jon Pertwee Peladon tales, and while I may not be well versed in the U.K. politics of the era, the little I do know makes the viewing experience much more in depth, as it tends to give it an additional layer to dig into.

   The performances are across the board really fantastic, with McCoy really digging into the Doctor here, and Sophie Aldred really coming into her own as Ace.  Of course even the minor players really bring there all to this one, and it definitely helps elevate the material.  The direction from Chris Clough, while not technically sharp definitely helps to create a fantastic pulpy-noirish atmosphere that is truly befitting of the material.

   While the Happiness Patrol is often considered a lesser entry in the classic Doctor Who cannon. The elements in play here really elevate it to a great sci-fi satire.  I personally think it works fantastic 23 years on. I would definitely recommend this to other Who fans who may be reluctant to give it a first time go, and would suggest a rewatch for those who haven't seen it in the decades since broadcast.

 

Audio/Video (3.5/5)

     BBC Home Video have presented both Dragonfire and the Happiness Patrol in their original 1:33:1 full frame transfer.  Both transfer show the really consistent work that the Doctor Who Restoration Team puts forth on these releases, as colors pop, detail, and black levels are solid.  There is some minor softness throughout, and I did notice some minor banding issues in episode 3 of the Happiness Patrol.

     The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital Mono track, that fits perfectly with the restored video. The dialogue, music, and sound effects are perfectly audible throughout the serials.  There do not appear to be any pops, background noise, or hissing anywhere on the tracks.  There are 2 Optional Subtitle tracks, 1 is a trivia track, the other is an English Subtitle track.

 

Extras (3.5/5)

   BBC Home Video have once again put together a nice slate of extras for the releases of Dragonfire, and the Happiness Patrol. 

   The Dragonfire disc kicks off with a massive cast and crew commentary featuring Sophie Aldred, Edward Peel, Andrew Cartmel, Ian Briggs, Dominic Glynn, and Chris Clough. Obviously, it is lacking in Sylvester McCoy's presence, but he might be a little bit busy at the moment (*CoughTheHobbitCoughCough*). The track, however, is a good blend of entertaining and informative.  We then have Fire and Ice, a making of Dragonfire featurette. We then have roughly 10 minutes of deleted, and extended scenes. We have another entry in the Doctor's Strange Love series, which basically sits down with a few hardcore Whovians to discuss Dragonfire. The disc rounds off with The Big Bang Theory a documentary about the explosions that have taken place in the entire run of Doctor Who, a photo gallery, alternate music track, and a Radio Times Listing (.PDF).

   The Happiness Patrol starts out once again with a massive audio commentary with many of the same players as the last one.  This one has Sophie Aldred, with writer Graeme Curry, script editor and man with the Master Plan Andrew Cartmel, composer Dominic Glynn, and director Chris Clough, it is moderated by Toby Hadoke who has been doing quite an excellent job moderating Doctor Who commentaries recently. We then have Happiness Will Prevail a 23 minute Making of for the Happiness Patrol.  We then come to a 45 minute documentary called When Worlds Collide, which is definitely one of the contenders for favorite extra on the entire range.  It discusses the occasions where Doctor Who took on real world politics such as my aforementioned reference to the Peladon stories during the Pertwee era.  The disc also has deleted and extended scenes, an isolated score, a photo gallery, a coming soon trailer, and a PDF Radio Times listing.

 

Overall

   Both of these Seventh Doctor stories have less than stellar reputations amongst Doctor Who's fanbase.  However, these releases are much better than their reputations would have you believe.  There is a lot of fun to be had here, and the A/V restoration is simply fantastic, the extras really add a lot to the package.  Dragonfire is Recommended to Completest Who fans, and The Happiness Patrol comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

 

*Full Disclosure, I have never seen the mascot that Kandyman was designed after. I'm not sure if this make a difference.