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Doctor Who: The Two Doctors (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Two Doctors originally aired in 1985.

That is the smell of death, Peri. Ancient musk, heavy in the air.

– welcome to the Colin Baker era

The Two Doctors is an oddity. It’s the only story of the Nathan Turner era that runs over two hours, unless you choose to count The Trial of a Time Lord as a single story. It’s also the only “multi Doctor” story that wasn’t filmed on one of the show’s significant anniversaries. (Time Crash was, after all, filmed in the show’s forty-fifth year.) It’s also notable for the fact that it completely eschews the charmingly impish portrayal of the Second Doctor that fans have come to know and love over the course of reunion stories like The Three Doctors or The Five Doctors.

Indeed, The Two Doctors is almost the exact opposite of the show that you would expect it to be. The low opinion in which fans seem to hold the serial confirms that writer Robert Holmes has delivered a story that is markedly different from what those waiting for a team-up between Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton would have been expecting. Far from a nostalgia-packed love-in, The Two Doctors is written with Holmes’ trademark cynicism. This time the writer is directing that cynicism towards the show itself.

Patrick Troughton! In colour!

Patrick Troughton! In colour!

Appropriately enough for a show about the evils of eating meat, The Two Doctors leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It’s unsettling and downright uncomfortable, for reasons that have less to do with jump scares the the unnecessarily graphic gore involving the Sontarans. The reason has to do with the portrayal of the Doctor himself. Over the course of The Two Doctors, the character comes across as racist and insensitive and completely disconnected.

This is par for the course when it comes to the Sixth Doctor. Eric Saward and Colin Baker will both claim that they always intended the Sixth Doctor to have a bit of a raw edge to him. There isn’t a lot of evidence to support that claim, and it’s a lot easier to attribute the problems with the Sixth Doctor to poor writing. Even if the writing staff were trying to give him an edge, turning the relationship between Doctor and companion into a physically and emotionally abusive relationship was an example of how poorly the production team had judged the character.

What's cooking?

What’s cooking?

Had all the nastiness in The Two Doctors come from Colin Baker’s Doctor, it wouldn’t seem so bad. Indeed, the serial features a significant amount of poor taste from the Sixth Doctor. Like Vengeance on Varos, he gets to deliver some terrible puns after dispatching an adversary. He’s neglectful and dismissive of Peri. He expresses views that are very clearly and uncomfortably racist. While none of these are things to get excited about, they are perfectly in keeping with the problems the show has been having in defining the Sixth Doctor.

The problem with these views is that they come from the Second Doctor. He spends a significant amount of his screen time being horribly and unapologetically racist. When he discovers that Dastari has been conducting genetic experiments on Androgums, the Doctor is outraged, but not for the reasons you’d expect. He’s not angry at the exploitation of another species, or the attempt to make another sentient lifeform conform to Dastari’s idea of “normal.” Instead, the Second Doctor is worried that you can’t change the basic nature of an Androgum.

Go fish...

Go fish…

“That’s dangerous ground, Dastari,” he warns his colleague. “You give a monkey control of its environment, it’ll fill the world with bananas.” Later on, he insists, “Dastari, I have no doubt you could augment an earwig to the point where it understood nuclear physics, but it’d still be a very stupid thing to do!” When Dastari argues that there are no longer any limitations to her potential, the Doctor doesn’t argue that those limitations never existed, he instead argues that she could never surpass them.

“There’ll be no limit to her capacity for evil,” he advises. “She’s an Androgum, Dastari, whatever you may say! She’ll snap off the hand that feeds her whenever she feels hungry.” It’s a rather jarring argument to hear from the Second Doctor, and it would be easy to hope that this was some mistake – that this isn’t the same character or this isn’t really the Doctor. However, Holmes cleverly juxtaposes this racism with a few of the Doctor’s recognisable catchphrases to make sure that there’s no confusion.

Crossed wires...

Crossed wires…

“You are an irresponsible old fool!” the Doctor curses. “The Androgums are barbarians! Release them into time and every civilised people in the galaxy will curse your name! Do you hear me? Oh, my giddy aunt. Oh, crumbs!” It’s definitely the Second Doctor. Notably, the Second Doctor was the first version of the character Robert Holmes wrote for, so his inclusion here feels just a little bit pointed. This is as early as Holmes can reach back without reaching beyond his own experience of the show. In other words, this is early as his own first-hand knowledge reaches.

And it’s quite clear that Holmes is writing this for some purpose. Holmes was never a writer who tended to just write to fill space. His work wasn’t always brilliant, but it was always insightful and purposeful. He’s writing this version of the Second Doctor in this way to make a point. While the Second Doctor is consistently racist towards the Androgums, he is also racist across the board. The most jarring moment comes when he instructs Jamie to hold his “mongrel tongue”, which is a jarring moment even within the other extremes of the episode.

Welcome to the eighties!

Welcome to the eighties!

The Doctor also offers other racist stereotypes when Shockeye asks him about cannibalism on Earth. “I believe in the Far Indies it has been known,” the Doctor asserts, offering a strikingly colonial attitude. This colonial subtext is only enhanced by the decision to give the Androgums big bushy eyebrows, red hair, and putting them in outfits that have a loose resemblance to kilts. Clearly, the Androgums are meant to be Celtic, lending the whole thing a rather unsettling undertone, not least because the Second Doctor is travelling around in the TARDIS with a Scottish companion.

However, while the Doctor’s attitudes towards Jamie and the Androgums are quite striking, it’s worth noting that his views towards the Sontarans are lees dramatic, even while remaining consistent with these attitudes. “A face like yours wasn’t made for laughing,” he advises a Sontaran at one point. In the same conversation, he makes crass generalisations about both the Sontarans and the Androgums. “She’s an Androgum!” he explains. “A race to whom treachery is as natural as breathing. They’re a bit like you Sontarans in that respect!”

A bloody mess...

A bloody mess…

Holmes seems to be making a point here, and it’s quite a brilliant one. We accept the Doctor’s racist generalisations and attitudes when it comes to monsters that aren’t recognisably human. We accept that all Sontarans are war-like thugs, for example. The Doctor’s response to these monsters is almost always strong-armed, and he is quite willing to commit mass-murder against entire species if he has to. This is something that the show struggles with in Terror of the Vervoids. The audience tends to passively access this, because these monsters don’t look human.

After all, Holmes argues, this isn’t something that has gone away. Presenting the Second Doctor in this light makes it clear that it’s a major part of the show’s history, but The Two Doctors also makes it clear that it’s still part of the show’s present. The Sixth Doctor is also just as racist as his earlier incarnation. “We haven’t got time to bother about dead Androgums, Peri,” he insists – in what seems to be a rather ironic statement for a man who answers to the name “Doctor.” (Holmes draws attention to this somewhat hypocritical attitude by having the Sixth Doctor describe the Sontarans as “rabidly xenophobic.”)

We passed upon the stairs...

We passed upon the stairs…

Holmes rather consciously and cleverly frames the treatments of the Androgums in terms of racial politics. Dastari is just as racist as the Doctor, albeit in a more insidious manner. Chessene is an Androgum that has had surgery to allow her to “pass” as human, to raise her social status and improve her image. “I’ve carried out nine augmentations on Chessene,” he boasts. “She’s at mega-genius level now. I’m very proud of her.”

Dastari is obvious intended to mirror the Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion, helping a lower-class woman pass as a member of the higher class. At the heart of Dastari’s work is an uncomfortably racist assumption about the inferiority of the Androgums, as much as he might claim to be “progressive.” While Higgins hoped to improve Eliza’s standing through education and elocution, The Two Doctors has Dastari advancing Chessene via surgical augmentation.

"Potato man!"

“Potato man!”

In the context of the mid-eighties, this has uncomfortable overtones of cosmetic surgery used to facilitate racial “passing.” Around this time, Michael Jackson’s skin was getting noticeably paler, with many sources conjecturing that he was getting his skin bleached. Procedures like the Asian Blepharoplasty (“double-eyelid surgery”) were also reportedly used to “westernise” the appearance of East Asian individuals.

Shockeye accuses Chessene of losing her own racial identity in her readiness to blend in with human society. She refers to his “purity”, while he attacks way she has distanced herself from her roots. “Your purity could easily become insufferable,” she remarks. “These days, you no longer use your karam name, do you, Chessene o’ the Franzine Grig?” Shockeye asks. All of a sudden, we have Doctor Who actually exploring the colonial undertones of the very idea of “monsters.”

They should all blend in effortlessly...

They should all blend in effortlessly…

Rather tellingly, The Two Doctors features Patrick Troughton transformed into a monster. It’s not the most subtle moment in the episode, but it’s a very clear progression. The Doctor goes from a raving racist who hates the “monsters” into such a monster himself. This would seem trite if Holmes used the plot point to teach the Doctor a lesson about humility, but he doesn’t. The Second Doctor never sees the error of his ways, even if the audience does. The problem doesn’t magically get fixed. The past can’t be rewritten. (That said, the Sixth Doctor does at least seem a little changed by the experience, even if he doesn’t seem less racist.)

What Holmes has done here is cheekily subversive, and perfectly in-character for a writer who has built his reputation on wry cynicism. He has constructed a Doctor Who monster that looks close enough to human that the audience feels uncomfortable with how it is treated. To be fair, Holmes does over-egg the pudding slightly. There is a sense that the Doctor’s attitudes towards the Androgum are being amplified in order to draw the audience’s attention to this trope; to make the audience question the portrayal of “monsters” on Doctor Who.

Has Jamie been kilt?

Has Jamie been kilt?

To be fair, this is something that the show has gotten a lot better at in the years since the original show went off the air. While the revived Doctor Who does love its make-up and CGI effects, the show also tends to invest considerable effort into defining and classifying its alien creatures. Few villains are truly one-dimensional “monsters”, with many of those creatures given sympathetic motivations or at least explained in terms that feel a lot less patronising and condescending.

The Two Doctors sees Holmes launching a rather vicious attack on the very idea of “monsters” in Doctor Who, daring to challenge the audience’s preconceptions by asking them to imagine a decidedly human-like monster. The prospect is unsettling, as it is intended to be. It’s hardly what fans would have been expecting when Patrick Troughton decided to drop by. If you want a celebration of nostalgia, get Terrance Dicks. Everybody loved The Five Doctors, right? This is what happens when you ask Robert Holmes to write about nostalgia.

Flight of fancy...

Flight of fancy…

Indeed, The Two Doctors is a decidedly nasty piece of work. On its own terms, an attack on the nostalgia of Doctor Who might be refreshing. However, coming in the second half of a season that has been so consistently nasty and aggressive, it’s exhausting. The stronger episodes of Colin Baker’s first season suffer from that fact that they are bold and oppressive episodes surrounded by terrible and oppressive episodes. The better stories of the year feel like the ones that are meant to be dark and heavy, but that gloom is augmented by the narrative black holes spaced evenly between them. Even re-watching Baker’s first season is tiring.

The Two Doctors is a rather bitter little story from Holmes. It lays into Doctor Who quite heavily. Much has been made of the show’s tangled continuity, which isn’t really that much more tangled than anything seen in The Five Doctors or The Three Doctors. Holmes suggests that the Second Doctor is actually an agent for the Time Lords. The opening scene reveals that the Time Lords are capable of hijacking his TARDIS at will.

Something fishy...

Something fishy…

Dastari notes that he’s heard the Doctor is now an exile from Gallifrey, “But you still act on their instructions.” The Second Doctor laments, “It’s the price I pay for my freedom.” According to The Two Doctors, the Second Doctor is an agent of the Time Lords, perhaps even the CIA name-checked in The Deadly Assassin. According to Holmes, “plausible deniability” is the name of the game. “I’m a pariah, exiled from Time Lord society, so they can always deny sending me.”

Holmes has, in interviews, argued that this isn’t a continuity mess-up. According to Holmes, this had always been the intention during the Troughton era of the show. It certainly fits with Holmes’ portrayal of the relationship between the Fourth Doctor and the Time Lords in Genesis of the Daleks. The problem is that it doesn’t fit at all with what actually appeared on screen. It’s so incredibly hard to reconcile with what we’ve seen of the Second Doctor that fans have even come with an incredibly elaborate theory to make sense of it all.

Going to town with this...

Going to town with this…

However, The Two Doctors wallows in past continuity, much like the rest of the season. The Doctor randomly name-checks Rassilon while fishing. When the Doctor feels funny, both he and Peri assume that continuity is the obvious solution to the problem. “Can I get you anything?” Peri asks. “Celery! That’s what you need.” The Doctor answers, “Celery, yes. And the tensile strength of jelly babies! But I, I had a clarinet. Or was it a flute? Something you blew into.” The Two Doctors knows its own continuity. It’s just that Holmes doesn’t feel particularly bound to it. After all, this is the guy who wrote The Deadly Assassin.

Indeed, Holmes has a great deal of fun with the idea that The Two Doctors is itself a continuity error, with the Sixth Doctor reflecting on the fact that it’s impossible for the Second Doctor to die because he remembers not dying. “I am making perfect sense,” he insists. “I was being put to death!” He continues, “They’re executing me! Except it wasn’t that way. It didn’t end like that, so it’s not possible.” In a way, Holme is teasing the ultimate continuity gaffe. What if the Second Doctor was really a Time Lord agent? Not big enough. What if the Second Doctor died? Then you’ve got a continuity error!

A cut above?

A cut above?

When Peri asks what he means, the Doctor clarifies, “Well, I exist. I’m here, now, therefore I cannot have been killed then. That is irrefutable logic, isn’t it?” Then he gets side-tracked, “But the there and then subsumes the here and now, so if I was killed then, I could only exist now as some sort of temporal tautology. That also is irrefutable.” It’s an idea that Lawrence Miles would revisit for his novel Interference, where the Eighth Doctor is menaced by the surprising death of the Third.

The episodes makes some half-convincing attempt to explain how this could happen. “Yes, but if I arrived here during a time experiment, caught in an embolism and therefore outside the time flow,” he contemplates. “But if I were dead then and here now, it means that I was at the very epicentre of the engulfing chaos.” When Peri tells the Doctor that she doesn’t understand, he simplifies matters. “It means the collapse of the universe has started and nothing can stop it.” Well, the collapse of the internal logic that holds the show’s universe together, perhaps.

Sontar Ha!

Sontar Ha!

There’s a sense that, like Dicks with The Five Doctors, Holmes is having a bit of a laugh at the expense of the more serious continuity-minded fans. The Two Doctors seems quite aware of how little of what is unfolding here matches up with fan nostalgia. Jamie repeatedly observes that the Sixth Doctor is acting outside of expectations. “Now my Doctor wouldna have done that,” he protests after the Doctor takes a reckless action. Later on, after the Second Doctor is transformed, Jamie protests, “I can’t believe that was my Doctor just standing there and letting a man get killed.”

On both occasions, Jamie uses “my”, rather than “the.” There’s a definite sense of ownership and entitlement there. Jamie is a Doctor Who fan, criticising The Two Doctors from inside the narrative. Even that Androgums’ love of food is presented as some sort of fannish obsession, with Shockeye waxing lyrical about gratifying his own needs. “The gratification of pleasure is the sole motive of action,” he states. “Is that not our law?”

"What happened to the nice cricket fellow?"

“What happened to the nice cricket fellow?”

Shockeye seems to be expression views quite similar to those held by the fans who had managed to gain leverage in the show. After all, Ian Levine had secured a position as unofficial continuity advisor on the show, and Doctor Who was increasingly pandering to more obsessive fans at the expense of casual viewers. Any season that opens with Attack of the Cybermen has gone too far towards the gratification of fans’ pleasure.

It’s no coincidence that Peri and the Sixth Doctor arrive to find “decayed food” on the station. The Androgums have so recklessly satisfied their desires that there’s only rotting carcasses remaining. It’s not the most subtle of metaphors about the state of Doctor Who in 1985, but Holmes seems to be laying quite heavily into the fan mentality that has been eating away at the show for its own gluttonous gratification.

No time to argue about time...

No time to argue about time…

This attitude finds expression in Chessene’s rather bizarre decision that she wants the Second Doctor as a “consort.” It leads to the whole “Second Doctor as monster” sequence we talked about earlier, but it’s also a rather literal embodiment of how fans tend to fetishise the past. Like so many fans, Chessene wishes that the Second Doctor would become a curiosity or a pet; a quirky collectable rather than an individual or a fully-formed character. So that fan obsession manifests itself in a bizarre and literal fetishisation of the past.

Like the Sontarans attempting to build their own time machines, there’s a sense that these fans are mimicking what has come before without any real understanding of how it works. Criticising the replica time machine, the Doctor observes that the Androgums and the Sontarans had no appreciation for nuance. “That, of course, was what they didn’t understand. They simply copied the technology, without realising that old Rassilon had a second trick up his sleeve.”

Peri dresses for adventuring, as ever...

Peri dresses for adventuring, as ever…

So the continuity obsession of these last few seasons is only shallow, written by fans with little real understanding of how Doctor Who is supposed to work. In a way, Holmes seems to have written The Two Doctors as an attempt to pull back the curtain and reveal the occasionally ugly inner workings of Doctor Who, the truths bubbling beneath the surface of the nostalgia that the show was peddling during the eighties.

The show needs to constantly improve and evolve. There’s a sense that Doctor Who stagnated in the mid-eighties and failed to keep moving forward. Part of the problem was the romanticism around the show’s past. Evolution doesn’t happen if you treat the past as something magnificent to which you want to return. It’s telling that Holmes’ meditations on monsters would be picked up in the years ahead when the show returned to television. It’s also telling that Holmes used Patrick Troughton to make his point.

Throw a bit of stick about...

Throw a bit of stick about…

Eighties Doctor Who‘s fetishisation of the past really began with writer Eric Saward, who wrote Earthshock as a throwback to the Troughton “base under siege” stories. Coupled with the show’s twentieth anniversary season, it really turned Doctor Who into a show looking backwards. Using Patrick Troughton to pick apart this obsession with the past feels just a little mean-spirited, but it’s quite effective. The Two Doctors is a rather scathing criticism of what Doctor Who was at the time, by criticising what it had always been.

So it’s easy to understand why The Two Doctors never really made that strong of an impression. It doesn’t help that the adventure feels at least a half-an-hour too long, the direction is rather leaden and the location feels ridiculously excessive. The story’s criticisms of Doctor Who are undermined by the way that it plays right into some of the more obvious flaws of the era. The story is just as grotesquely graphic as the stories around it, and there’s also the usual unpleasantness around the way the show treats Peri as sex object.

The weak are meat and the strong do eat...

The weak are meat and the strong do eat…

Ironically for an episode about “meat”, Peri is treated as nothing more than a walking object. Her outfit is the embodiment of the creepy “for the dads” aesthetic championed by Nathan Turner, including shorts and a shirt with impressive cleavage. The second episode’s climax sees Peri attacked by a sinister villain, who is reaching out as if to grope her and repeating the word “pretty” over and over again. The imagery is crass and tasteless.

Even at the end of the episode, the Doctor seems to have no real sympathy for what Peri has been through. Peri has been brutally victimised by Shockeye, but it’s the Sixth Doctor who apparently makes the decision (for both of them!) to go vegetation. “Doctor?” Peri timidly asks. “We’re not going fishing again, are we?” The Doctor replies, “No. From now on it’s a healthy vegetarian diet for both of us.”

Don't leave him hanging...

Don’t leave him hanging…

The Two Doctors is a very flawed piece of work, but it’s an interesting and bold one. It’s a nostalgia-driven episode dedicated to condemning nostalgia. Holmes’ script suffers from being handled by a production team that doesn’t seem to get the script’s wry and bitter tone, and it’s clear that the script is the victim of various production demands and restrictions. Still, there’s a wealth of clever ideas here, even if the show can’t deliver on them entirely.

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