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Doctor Who: The Twin Dilemma (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 Twin Dilemma originally aired in 1984.

Whatever else happens, I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not. 

– the perfect sentiment on which to enter a nine-month gap

Some mistakes only seem obvious in hindsight. Some errors are easy to judge with the weight of experience and history behind you. Some calls are easy to dismiss and ridicule retroactively, completely divorced from the context in which they were made.

Of course, some mistakes should have been blindingly obvious when they were made in the first place.

Go on, guess which one The Twin Dilemma was.

Hardly a moment of triumph...

Hardly a moment of triumph…

To be fair, not every decision made in the production of The Twin Dilemma was entirely irrational and borderline suicidal for the show. You could make an argument that – independently and in the hands of a stronger writing staff – the production team actually had some pretty clever ideas for the Colin Baker era. Unfortunately, the team had neither the skill nor the freedom to really carry these ideas off.

It’s hard to watch The Twin Dilemma these days without getting a sense that we’re watching the show commit a form of suicide. It’s tempting to look at this as the beginning of the end. After all, this is the episode that quite frequently comes near the bottom of Doctor Who polls, with extra contrast provided by the fact that it aired directly following an episode that frequently comes near the top of Doctor Who polls.

Ch-ch-ch-changes...

Ch-ch-ch-changes…

However, The Twin Dilemma doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s the spiritual successor of Davison era stories like Resurrection of the Daleks or Warriors of the Deep. It might not dabble as heavily in the show’s tangled continuity as those instalments, but there’s the underlying nastiness at play here. There’s a grim nihilism at the heart of The Twin Dilemma that has been fermenting during Peter Davison’s era and which would really be pushed to the fore during Colin Baker’s tenure in the role.

There’s a sense of this in the Doctor’s interactions with Edgeworth, a character originally intended to hark back to the Pertwee era. He’s clearly intended to be K’anpo from Planet of the Spiders, the hermit from The Time Monster, even if the script details fudge the numbers and details quite a bit – an example of how terrible the Baker era was at dealing with continuity, even while reveling in it.

A curate's egg...

A curate’s egg…

“There’s nothing to rejoice about,” Edgeworth tells the Doctor. “I wish I could extend the hand of friendship.” The Doctor innocently responds, “Then why don’t you?” Edgeworth explains, “Well, the old times are gone, forever.” Given the episode’s harsh final line, and the Sixth Doctor’s smug dismissal of his predecessor, it’s clear that the show is trying to argue that this is a harsher Doctor for a harsher universe.

There’s the familiar insecurity of this era at play here. The Eric Saward era of Doctor Who has an obvious discomfort with being “optimistic” and “cheerful.” There’s a sense of resentment of these values as inherently “immature” and “childish.” Ever over-compensating, the suggestion is that only dark and cynical stories can really be truly “adult.” It’s no coincidence that the next season opens with the gratuitous and gory Attack of the Cybermen.

Suits you, sir...

Suits you, sir…

The Twin Dilemma is built on the sense that the universe is a cruel and nasty place, and the Doctor is an ineffective hero incapable of keeping up with these grim realities. In a way, The Twin Dilemma is far more indicative of the rest of this season than The Caves of Androzani was. In The Caves of Androzani, Robert Holmes was able to subvert all that glum nihilism by arguing that maybe the Doctor could still save one single life, and retain his basic decency. In The Twin Dilemma, even that is stripped from the Doctor.

The Sixth Doctor is obviously intended as a sharp contrast to his predecessor, which makes sense. Most regenerations seem to play up the contrast that exists between one Doctor and another. Patrick Troughton was a space hobo, so Jon Pertwee is refined. Jon Pertwee was establishment, so Tom Baker is bohemian. Tom Baker was bombastic, so Peter Davison is understated. Peter Davison was timid and inoffensive, so Colin Baker is loud and offensive.

Standing up for the little guy...

Standing up for the little guy…

However, there’s something quite striking from the outset. Colin Baker’s Doctor isn’t just intended as a contrast, but as a critique. His first words were to suggest that he had changed “not a moment too soon.” When the Doctor introduces himself, Peri clearly misses his predecessor, “You were almost young. I really liked you. And you were sweet and…” The Doctor finishes, “Sweet? Effete. Sweet? Sweet? Sweet? Huh, that says it all.”

So the Sixth Doctor is intended to be a bit more abrasive and bombastic. And he certainly is. After all, most people remember the character’s costume, if little else about the character. Baker’s Doctor is clearly intended to be more proactive and dynamic than Davison’s, but the problem is… he isn’t really. He’s just louder. Instead of a Doctor who tends to fail tragically and reflectively, we end up with a Doctor who fails loudly and dramatically.

Does not compute...

Does not compute…

There’s a lot of debate about the Sixth Doctor. Several sources close to the production make the argument that the Sixth Doctor was intended to be hard to like, with the audience getting to know him a bit better as the show went on. It’s a nice theory, even if there isn’t too much evidence to support it. After all, there’s no real material progress in the characterisation of the Doctor between The Twin Dilemma and Revelation of the Daleks. Still, Colin Baker has compared his version of the Doctor to Mister Darcy:

I thought it was quite exciting to have a character who was a little inaccessible, a little enigmatic. I don’t know if you have this experience in your life, but I have it in mine, the people who are my best friends are the ones I didn’t like much at first. Some of them I loathed at first. There’s a book called Pride and Prejudice, I don’t know if you’ve read it, there’s a character in that called Mr. Darcy who for the first two thirds everyone thinks is the villain, they think he’s a deeply selfish swine because he doesn’t go around wearing his virtues on his sleeve. And I think those characters are very interesting, and I wanted to play the Doctor like that.

That doesn’t seem entirely fair (for one thing, the Sixth Doctor never quite got redemption on the air; for another, Darcy never strangled Elizabeth), but you can see where he’s going with this.

You can't make (it) up...

You can’t make (it) up…

Even John Nathan Turner has suggested that Colin Baker never really got the chance to develop the character in the way that he would have wanted:

As for Colin’s contribution, I actually think he got a tremendously raw deal, in that he did one season, then there was the hiatus, then we came back and there were only fourteen episodes and they were in a different format, and then the decision was made to move forward with a new Doctor. So Colin never got a chance to get his teeth into the part. I think most people would agree with me that the first season of virtually every Doctor is really a very tentative one, the actor trying desperately to find a way to play the part, which after all is very thinly sketched, and coming to terms with the amount of themselves that has to be injected into the portrayal. So I really feel that Colin, maybe, if there hadn’t been that hiatus, would have got into a slightly higher gear that would have allowed him to mature his portrayal.

It’s a fair point, even if actors like Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton settled into the role relatively quickly.

Not all he a-Peri's to be...

Not all he a-Peri’s to be…

However, the point stands that introducing a Doctor who is rough around the edges is not inherently a bad idea. Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor has a lot of the same abrasive personality traits of the Sixth Doctor. He’s manic and bipolar, prone to mood swings and bouts of unpredictable behaviour. He can be aggressive to his companions, and prone to overreact to the smallest slight. As the first season of the revival progresses, we peel back the layers of the onion to reveal a nuanced and heroic figure. It’s really a more successful version of what Doctor Who seemed to be attempting with the Sixth Doctor.

However, it doesn’t work nearly as well for Colin Baker. There are lots of reason that this idea is a bad idea in context. The most immediate is that Colin Baker is no Christopher Eccleston. Baker is a stronger actor than most give him credit for, and he tries his hardest to make the material work. However, Christopher Eccleston is one of the strongest British actors of his generation. Peter Davison and Patrick Troughton are the only actors who can possibly hope to match Eccleston’s skill. There’s a reason that Colin Baker doesn’t work with Danny Boyle or get cast in crappy under-written roles in Hollywood blockbusters.

This is a healthy relationship...

This is a healthy relationship…

There are other problems. While the Ninth Doctor demonstrates that you can successfully introduce an abrasive and confrontational Doctor, there are limits to just how unlikeable the character can be. The Twin Dilemma has no ideas of these limitations. The Sixth Doctor is not only brash and loud, he’s also cowardly. When captured, he tries desperately to blame everything on Peri. The Ninth Doctor would happily yell at Rose, but he would never use her as a human shield. And yet this isn’t the worst part of the relationship between Peri and the Sixth Doctor.

The relationship between Peri and the Sixth Doctor can’t help but recall an abusive relationship. In fact, it comes as close as you could expect a family show could come to constructing a metaphor for an abusive relationship. Peri meets a magical man who takes her away from her mundane life and who sweeps her off her feet. Despite John Nathan Turner’s strict “no hanky panky in the TARDIS” rule, The Twin Dilemma hints that Peri was attracted to the Fifth Doctor. She describes him as “young” and “sweet”, in mourning his passing.

"Did somebody call for a party entertainer?"

“Did somebody call for a party entertainer?”

Then he changes. Having taken the young woman away from her family and friends, the man changes. He becomes monstrous. When Peri dresses up for him, he’s dismissive. “Yuck,” he states bluntly. His attitude towards her is bi-polar. He’s alternately flirty and belligerent. “Peri,” he muses at one point. “How did you come by a name like that?” It seems like a cheesy come-on line. And then it’s followed by a violent mood swing and a brutal strangulation that is only halted because Peri flashes a mirror at her attacker, who is too afraid to look at himself.

And yet the Doctor makes excuses for his conduct. When Peri holds him to account, his first response is denial. “You had another of your fits,” Peri tells him. The Doctor bluntly responds, “I don’t have fits.” When Peri refuses to let him deny the matter completely, he tries to mitigate. He offers excuses, “I told you, manic moments of no consequence. They become less dramatic and less and less frequent.” He doesn’t even promise to never do it again. While he seems genuinely concerned that Peri is (understandably) petrified of him, he makes no effort to genuinely reform.

Rings around each other...

Rings around each other…

Instead, he promises her that these spells will become less common. He also suggests that he will fly half way across the universe and become a hermit. He won’t drop Peri home, though; he won’t even offer her a trip to a hospital. Instead, she’ll accompany him. “Why should I be made to suffer?” she wonders. The Doctor explains his grand plan, “Because you have been chosen. It shall be your humble privilege to minister unto my needs.” The Doctor has already taken her away from everything she knows. Now he plans to strand her on an asteroid with him for the rest of his life.

Sure, you can rationalise away the sequence, but none of the excuses really work. Regeneration trauma is a stock trope in Doctor Who, so it can’t really be compared to domestic abuse; except that it never manifested in this form before. The Sixth Doctor really wasn’t himself; except he never actually apologises, and spends most of the next season being just as abusive and indifferent towards his companion. The Doctor is being absent-minded rather than malicious when he expects her to stay with him for centuries, he doesn’t realise that she’s different than he is; except that’s exactly the sort of self-centred behaviour one expects from an abuser.

Now there's a face!

Now there’s a face!

It’s clear that the writing staff doesn’t have the technical skill to make the Sixth Doctor an ambiguous anti-hero. The character traits here don’t make him hard to like; they make him impossible to like. He’s not just rude; he’s abusive. He’s not just arrogant and cowardly; he’s ready to sacrifice his companion to save his own neck. He’s not just angry at the universe; he’s also sexist. “This is work for heroes, not for faint-hearted girls,” he boasts.

It’s worth noting that Russell T. Davies actually comes quite closer to getting the core ideas of the Colin Baker era to work than any of the writers working on the show. That’s no surprise, given how heavily influenced Davies’ writing is by eighties Doctor Who. The Long Game is very much a Cartmel era story, adapted from a pitch Davies made to the show; Bad Wolf plays on a few of the same themes as Vengeance on Varos. As mentioned about, Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor feels like a functional version of the take attempted here.

"Hey, kids! Meet the new Doctor!"

“Hey, kids! Meet the new Doctor!”

There’s a hint of an interesting story at the heart of The Twin Dilemma. It’s the story about a Doctor who simply “isn’t ready yet.” Of course, history would demonstrate that the Sixth Doctor would never actually be ready during his time on the show. With the character struggling to deal with a traumatic regeneration, the companion finds herself pushed to the fore, trying to cope in a Doctor Who story without the Doctor.

If this sounds familiar, it probably should. It’s also the basis of Davies’ The Christmas Invasion. The Tenth Doctor is so weakened by his regeneration that he is mostly useless during an alien invasion of Earth. In his absence, Rose tries to fill that gap. She makes a valiant attempt, but doesn’t quite succeed. It’s a very clever structural choice, playing with the fact that a regeneration story often involves thrusting the Doctor into an epic confrontation before he’s quite ready for it. It’s a rather clever twist.

Slugging it out...

Slugging it out…

The Twin Dilemma does something similar with Peri. With the Doctor incapacitated, Peri is forced to drive the action and take the role of hero. She is forced to be compassionate and sensitive one, the strong one and the courageous one. She’s basically thrust into an impossible situation that she has no idea how to handle, and discovers that the person who should be dealing with the problem is in the middle of a personal breakdown.

The problem with The Twin Dilemma is that it’s not at all interested in Peri as a character. The script is built around the Doctor, even as he continually demonstrates how completely worthless he is. Peri is the character the audience can relate to in all this, and she’s the closest thing the script has to a hero, but the show is written, directed and produced in such a way that she remains a secondary character.

Never cruel or cowardly, eh?

Never cruel or cowardly, eh?

Which is a massive shame, as Nicola Bryant is actually a pretty solid actress, and spends far too much of her time on the show being treated as little more than an object to be menaced and leered at by villains of the week. Again, it creates a sense that the writing staff had no idea how to follow through on any of these big and daring ideas, with little technical craft or skill in constructing the episode.

Of course, all of this is rendered somewhat moot by the decision to air The Twin Dilemma as the final story of the season. This is the first time that a regeneration story hasn’t aired as a season finalé since the very first cast change, when William Hartnell handed over the role to Patrick Troughton early in the show’s fourth season. Even then, Troughton was afforded the lion’s share of the fourth season to establish himself and define the character. Colin Baker gets four half-hour episodes, amounting to one single story.

Feeling slightly sluggish...

Feeling slightly sluggish…

The oft-cited rationale for this decision is that it would allow the audience to get to know Colin Baker before breaking for nine months. This seems like a bit of a strange concern to have at this point in the show’s run. While the departure of any lead actor from the show is potentially troublesome, it’s worth conceding that the potential trauma caused by the departure of Peter Davison pales in comparison to the scale of the departure of Tom Baker. If viewers came back after Tom Baker left, they’d come back after Davison left.

So the logic isn’t entirely sound on its own terms. After all, actors take a bit of time to settle into the role. Part of this is due to the fact the show is often getting ready for a new era, and partially down to the inexperience of the actor at that point in the show’s run. As wonderful and confident as Tom Baker was in Robot, it’s hard to point to the episode as indicative. Even though it wasn’t the first story he filmed, we didn’t really get the strongest sense of Peter Davison’s Doctor after Castrovalva. And those are cases where the show wasn’t actively trying to make the protagonist unlikeable.

Did somebody call for a Doctor?

Did somebody call for a Doctor?

If you’re going to have an unlikeable main character, it makes sense to give us time to know them – to allow us a chance to warm to them. However, it is counter-intuitive to introduce a character the audience is intended to dislike from the outset… and make them wait nine months for you to continue their character development. Even assuming the Sixth Doctor would eventually get character development, it’s hard to justify the decision in context.

Even had The Twin Dilemma worked as exactly as intended, even if it was the start of an impressively long-form story arc, it was still going to leave the audience with a character they hated. The image of the Sixth Doctor festering in the public imagination would be a sexist and cowardly bully, with a terrible costume. This was the absolute best case scenario, one that assumes the writing staff on Doctor Who knew what they were doing. Obviously, they didn’t; so the outcome is a lot worse.

(Out)fit to be forget?

(Out)fit to be forget?

The Twin Dilemma is a pretty dire story by any measure, one which can stand alongside the very worst Doctor Who ever produced. However, in the context of the show itself, the failure becomes magnified. Given absolutely everything at stake, and all the surrounding circumstances, it’s really hard to argue that Doctor Who ever produced a more damaging and short-sighted story in its entire fifty year history.

4 Responses

  1. Could not agree more! I also dislike the idea that Edgeworth is a future K’Anpo…c’mon, Saward, get your inept hands off my toys!

    • Yep, the Saward era had a wonderful knack of taking something that had worked before… and then completely forgetting why it had worked at all.

  2. I strongly disagree … The Twin Dilemma was a courageous attempt to take the show back to its roots, reintroducing the Doctor as a Willy Wonka-style antihero. Let’s not forget, the First Doctor himself attempted a couple of murders in his earliest episodes, before he mellowed out … and was also occasionally both ‘cruel and cowardly’. Yes, the 6th Doctor’s initial behaviors were disturbing and psychotic … this was temporary, of course, and he soon stabilized into a swashbuckling rogue with a heart of gold (and pink, and blue, and red). What a refreshing contrast to today’s Doctor, who is treated like a mix between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ even as he burns out entire stars just to have a maudlin chat with his ex-companion. Yes the Sixth Doctor was initially sexist and arrogant, but the writers were actually criticizing those traits, with Peri as the sympathetic intermediary. OK, the story was not particularly memorable, but at least it had a sense of alien whimsy, comparable to The Web Planet, The Underwater Menace and Robot. As for the acting, I far prefer Colin Baker’s mesmerizing, unhinged performance to, say, Eccleston’s dour and humorless take on the part (the latter clearly didn’t even like the show or the character he was playing). Colin Baker eventually hit his heights with Revelation of the Daleks and Mindwarp among others, and I would argue he is one of the most underrated of Doctors. In my mind, after he was fired the show lost its nerve and has never really gotten it back. Finally … how could anyone not love that psychedelic coat?

  3. By the way, why would anyone think that Azmael was K’anpo? That is never stated or, unless I missed it, implied. Why wouldn’t the Doctor have a number of old Time Lord friends?

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