Former longtime UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s death this week has everyone remembering the ups and downs of 1980s politics. But did you know that her iron fist extended beyond Britain — even beyond this world?
A 1988 episode of Doctor Who, near the end of the original series’ run, sought to skewer the “Iron Lady” in a sci-fi satire called “The Happiness Patrol.” The storyline was part of the production team’s conscious campaign against what they saw as social injustice in Britain during the hard-hearted Thatcher regime.
Watch “The Happiness Patrol’s” writer and director and Doctor Who script editor Andrew Cartmel talk about Thatcher’s influence in a BBC video special feature:
Thatcher’s satirical Doctor Who counterpart was the bubble-gum-haired Helen A, a maniacal despot obsessed with purging unhappiness from her colony world of Terra Alpha. This involves the cleansing of “Killjoys,” those who won’t conform to contentment, and a confectionery executioner named The Kandy Man. Seriously, he’s made of candy. She even has a furry killer pet, “Fifi,” whom she strokes like a Bond villain’s cat! It was over the top for sure, in every aspect of the production’s design.
“The Happiness Patrol” is absurd, but it works great as the dark satire it’s supposed to be, and it’s one of the more outstanding adventures in the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who. (The episode is available on DVD.)
McCoy once said to the Sunday Times (as retold in a 2010 Telegraph article): “We were a group of politically motivated people and it seemed the right thing to do. Our feeling was that Margaret Thatcher was far more terrifying than any monster the Doctor had encountered.”
Cartmel said producer John Nathan-Turner’s goal was “to overthrow the government” — not out of the realm of possibility for an influential pop culture institution that’s now celebrating its 50th year. But the show’s influence was waning (Cartmel said no one ever noticed or cared what they had done), and soon it would be off the air, not to return until 2005.
Thatcher, even in death, is divisive — and all too real. She was formidable and controversial. (And she was a scientist, which is kind of a nerd’s dream for a leader, if she’d had any hint of social conscience like Neil deGrasse Tyson.) But her impact on satire will be eternal.
Other candidates …
Some might say that other prime ministers in the modern Doctor Who universe are more deserving of comparison to Margaret Thatcher than the non-terrestrial Helen A.
Harold Saxon — actually the evil Time Lord known as the Master in disguise — orchestrated the invasion of Earth by homicidal aliens from the future, all in a bid to turn the planet into a personal warship with which to conquer the universe.
Brian Green, some time later, is actually human — unfortunately. Serving as prime minister during the “456” crisis in Who spinoff Torchwood: Children of Earth, he is willing to sell out 10 percent of the Earth’s offspring to save his own skin. In other words, he was every politician ever.