“I can hear the sound of empires toppling.” – The Doctor
This is another one of those stories where a large percentage of fans seem to hold it in high regard but I just can’t enjoy. There’s definitely some cleverness in the concept and I think they tried a lot of new things, but I find the editing jumpy and the story telling poorly done. It feels like a lot of good ideas stitched together and not done particularly well. For example, the strength of this story is the premise—a world in which everyone is forced to be happy or die—but though they reference throughout about slappy dappy forced smiles and false cheeriness, the visuals don’t bear it out; the scenery is drab, the ‘happy’ characters glower, and it feels gritty and noir. It would be nice to think that this is an intentional choice to underscore the hypocrisy of the idea that one can create happiness but I think it’s actually just poor execution of a concept.
There’s really quite a lot going on in this story which means they can’t devote the time they need. Helen A and the dystopian society ravaged by 80s glam women would almost be enough in itself but then they add characters that are not fully fleshed out like Earl Sigma (whose odd demeanor as sudden appearances are jarring and don’t at all fit his scripted explanation for being there). Then on top of that they add the underworld of the original ratlike inhabitants of the planet (whose overly muffled voices obscure the rather neat idea that they begin to take up Ace’s teenage slang), the drone workers of the mines, and the galactic census taker. All of these might be okay if they were better acted and given clearer storylines but they are not.
One big element of the story is the Kandyman whose presence, though he is touted as her executioner, hardly seems connected to the rest of the plot around Helen A’s dystopian rule. He’s definitely an eye-catching design, and the scenes in his kitchen have a totally different vibe than the rest of the episode. The idea that he makes candy that is so good that human physiology is not able to bear it is pretty interesting, and I would have liked to see his experiments in this regard played out rather than him simply dumping fondant through a bunch of pipes. In fact, I would almost like to have seen these be two separate stories altogether.
As for our main characters, they unfortunately go back to having a lot of hamminess in the Doctor’s performance—vestiges of his earlier characterization. Ace also seems a little less impressive than in the surrounding stories though I like the way they have her and the Doctor play around in the kitchen to destroy the Kandyman. Sylvester McCoy’s clowning around does get used to some good at one point as he does a stage comedian act to pretend he’s overly happy as a means of escape from the patrol. It somehow works despite being a bit too obvious and comes across like a big clever move by the Doctor. He also gets a few good big speeches like his ending “What were these opportunities you gave them? A bag of sweets? A few tawdry party games? Bland, soulless music? Do these things make you happy? Of course they don’t. Because they’re cosmetic. Happiness is nothing unless it exists side by side with sadness.”
It’s really the pacing of everything that becomes problematic—to the point that I think they cut out some crucial linking scenes like seeing Ace establish a rapport with Susie Q which would have explained why she is already helping when we first meet her instead of it all that seeming to happen off screen. (This is especially frustrating because there is lot of silly filler that could have been cut instead.) Running out of time, I think they pretty much just felt like things were good enough and in the end everything just seems to resolve all too easily, almost by itself.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The mood gets surprisingly serious when the Doctor confronts the two snipers on the rooftop, pushing the supposed brave bully into submission by calling his bluff: “Shut up. Why don’t you do it then? Look me in the eye, pull the trigger, end my life. Why not?” in a very adult and serious way.
When I look at the story “on paper”, it really could and should have been a brilliant one. I think they just had too many limitations and go for a bit of atmosphere at the cost of the plot and characterization. It’s almost like they decided that it was enough to just present some sketches and assume our understanding of what they are getting at rather than actually accomplishing it. I think they really could have done something even better with the ideas here.