Doctor Who: Ace Adventures REVIEW

Sylvester McCoy faces off against The Kandyman in "The Happiness Patrol".

"Hello sweetie!"


Release Date: 7 May 2012
1987/1988 | PG | 147 minutes | £29.99
Director: Chris Clough
Cast:Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Bonnie Langford, Edward Peel, Sheila Hancock

That nitro 9-lobbing companion Ace became one of ‘80s Who’s best-loved characters is miraculous, considering how unpromising the original conception was. She’s meant to ooze authenticity, but the streets of late-‘80s Britain were hardly teeming with her kind: well-spoken 16-year-olds who look 22, wear Blue Peter badges on their bomber jackets, use the word “bilgebag” as an insult, and are also experts in home-made explosives.

Fortunately, Ace had three things going for her. She replaced Mel, Bonnie Langford’s screaming cipher. Sophie Aldred had something about her – immense charm, for one thing. And the writers made real efforts to give Ace depth, and something approaching a believable backstory. Set against Rose, those attempts look crashingly ham-fisted (at times, they appear to have been scripted by Legz Akimbo), but hell, at least they tried.

Ace’s debut story, “Dragonfire” is probably her worst. The only Who adventure whose villain owns a freezer centre, it’s set on an ice planet to which the evil Kane (Edward Peel) was exiled thousands of years ago. It makes for an interesting backdrop. Sadly, the story, which sees the Doctor and Tony Selby’s returning Glitz – initially a sociopathic mercenary, now defanged as a cuddly Arthur Daley type – searching for a mythical “dragon’s treasure” that’s really something else entirely, doesn’t make a jot of sense. Not only is there no reason why Kane waits 3000 years to send someone after the Dragonfire, but it’s ridiculously easy to find, and when we find out what it really is, there’s no reason for it to be there in the first place!

The story has its moments: a witty scene where the Doctor distracts a guard by discussing metaphysics; a Raiders-style melting face. But they’re cancelled out by the many irritations, which include Ace continually yelling “Ace!” and “Wicked!” (that kind of thing was, as Ace might put it, “mega-naff” even in 1987) and a monumentally stupid cliffhanger in which the Doctor literally hangs off a cliff, for no apparent reason (in the extras, all concerned have the decency to be shamefaced and apologetic about this “complete cock-up”).

The following year’s “The Happiness Patrol” is far superior. A gloomy tale set entirely at night, it may be the closest Who’s come to noir.

The titular Patrol are the all-female enforcers of a dictatorship under which all displays of melancholy – dark clothes, sad music – are punishable by death. Sheila Hancock plays the despotic Helen A as Margaret Thatcher, but the main satirical target is the “have a nice day” ethos of enforced jollity.

The regime’s executioner, the Kandyman – a Bertie Bassett-alike android who kills people with sweets – had unimaginative fans up in arms as much as he did the manufacturers of liquorice allsorts. If Tim Burton came up with a creation this memorable tomorrow, everyone would genuflect before his genius, but this being Doctor Who, we’re supposed to feel embarrassed that the villain is so visually witty. What rot. The Kandyman is as sinister as he is silly, and his lair, the Kandy Kitchen, is wonderful too, springing from the same dark-fairytale lineage as Willy Wonka’s factory and the witch’s cottage from Hansel And Gretel.

The supporting cast is excellent too, as is the bluesy, doom-laden score – all kettle-drums and plaintive harmonica. There’s even a rare scene where Sylvester McCoy strives for gravitas and totally nails it, as he confronts two government snipers and dares them to shoot; it’s sorta the Seventh Doctor’s Tiananmen Square moment.

That might appear to be a fatuous comparison, but rewatching the story, it’s shocking quite how dark some of the subject matter is, and how close to home. Helen A’s goons mow down dissidents with bullets, and half a million deaths can be laid at her door. Sure, there’s a sweet, sugary gloss to goings-on, but we’re essentially watching the Doctor striving to overthrow a South American dictator.

Sadly, while the script is brimming with witty, provocative ideas and droll one-liners, it struggles to piece them together into a satisfying narrative. The resulting vacuum is filled by teleporting the Doctor to and fro (he strolls in and out of both the despot’s throne room and the monster’s lair with disconcerting ease), all manner of chasing about (in one desperately embarrassing sequence, this involves a go-cart which moves at the speed of a lackadaisical snail) and repeatedly restating the premise. After a while, you feel like yelling, “Yes, we get it – you’re not allowed to be sad!”

Extras:

As per usual, both stories come with well-staffed commentaries by cast and crew and Making Ofs (35 minutes/24 minutes), along with deleted scenes (the one where Glitz is trapped under a polystyrene stalactite is a laugh riot…), text commentary, galleries, Radio Times PDFs and isolated scores.

“Dragonfire” also snags a light-hearted discussion by SJA writer Joseph Lidster and comedian Josie Long (16 minutes) and – somewhat bafflingly – an explosives featurette in which Danny Hargreaves (new Who’s chief blower-upper) comments on clips of classic kaboomery (13 minutes).

But the real must-watch is “When Worlds Collide” (46 minutes), which uses last year’s media kerfuffle about “The Happiness Patrol”’s portrayal of Helen A (which, surreally, saw the story discussed on Newsnight) as the jumping-off point for a discussion of Who’s approach to politics. Probably the only place you’ll see Troughton tale “The Krotons” and the Paris riots of 1968 discussed in the same breath (or Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor compared to George W Bush…), it’s erudite, accessible, even-handed and quite, quite brilliant.

Ian Berriman twitter.com/ianberriman

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