Companion: Peri Brown
Written by: Anthony Steven
Directed by: Peter Moffat
Background & Significance: Of all the stories we've thus far reviewed on this blog, none have I been more scared of discussing than "The Twin Dilemma". It's not without reason. In a Doctor Who Magazine Poll in 2009 (in which all the readers ranked every TV story ever), "The Twin Dilemma" came dead last, lower even than "Timelash" and "Time and the Rani" (which, to date are bottom of the barrel, for me anyways). As a slight aside to this, "The Twin Dilemma" is the lowest rated story on this poll, while the story that came before it ("The Caves of Androzani") was ranked the best Doctor Who story of all time. The disparity, to me, is stark. It's weird that what's considered the best Doctor Who story of all time aired finished airing just five days before what is considered the worst.
"The Twin Dilemma" is terribly not good. More than anything (as with, it seems, the entire Colin Baker era) there are a series of huge mistakes and truly, truly bizarre choices that do nothing but hurt not just this serial, but the era.
One of the weird choices that deserves mentioning here, because we probably won't have space to do it later: Airing this story as the final story of Davison's final season, instead of ending it with "Caves of Androzani". The intial idea, of course, was to use this story to tease the viewership with a Doctor and get them excited and talking about that Doctor in the nine month wait for the next series. They had successfully overturned the madness of Tom Baker, and now they would show you where they were going with Colin Baker. Now you'd get excited and get buzzing and talking about it and you'd come back.
Most tragic, perhaps, is, of course, Colin Baker. We'll talk about it more later, but going into this, I'm going to remind you, again, that Colin Baker WANTED to be The Doctor. He wanted to be awesome. He wanted to outlast Tom Baker. To add to the tragic, he wanted people to come to their love of The Doctor. He wanted to earn it, but the thought was always on his mind. It's when you hear about the fact that he specifically went for extremely elevated diction in an effort to encourage children to expand their vocabulary by looking up the words at home that just... Yeah. That sorta thing just breaks me.
But then... you watch this. And you just... you can read the writing on the wall. You can just... it feels like a joke. Surely this isn't and can't be real. I mean, they made every single wrong decision they could possibly make. They didn't honestly think this would work. Did they?
Hang on. You'll see what I mean. Because I'm not wrong. There's a lot of lessons both in this and that we should come out learning. This is the story that started the epic and tragic fall of the classic run of Doctor Who. And it's heartbreaking to watch.
So let's get to it!
Can I just start by saying fuck this story? No really. And it’s to the point where I don’t even know why there are people out there who name this as one of their Doctor Who guilty pleasures. No seriously. That’s a thing. But the reason this story sucks is because of how insanely tone deaf and not self-aware it is.
Let’s start with something that I’m going to recant on right here, right now. Back when I heard that The Doctor strangled Peri in a bout of post-regeneration mania it was something of a curiosity. I mean, in my brain they made it work because they were showing The Doctor at his absolute lowest point and bringing him to what is easily the nadir of the entire series with regards to his character. And in my silly brain where I could imagine that this creative team thought they could throw up a grapple and pull themselves out of this hole and use it to start to redeem this Doctor or hell THE Doctor and make him into wherever he was going.
What I failed to realize was that this team doesn’t really know HOW to write characters. Nathan-Turner had no talents as a writer in any way (that’s not a slam; it’s an admission that not everyone can be a fucking writer). To call Saward a good writer is to completely ignore pretty much any script he oversaw that was written by a writer who was (for lack of better term) sucky and to completely ignore every single Doctor Who script he’d written up to this point. And to assume that Anthony Steven would be good at this is to completely ignore the fact that he had NEVER written Doctor Who before in his life. So yeah. We give a defining Doctor Who script to a guy who had NEVER written Doctor Who before. So that's a good idea. Let's hand a critical, crucial Doctor Who story to someone who has no idea what the fuck we're doing. Someone who doesn't know the show or how to write it, who doesn't know how to write a good Doctor or a good companion or even a good Doctor Who story. Yes. And let’s IGNORE the fact that EVERY PREVIOUS POST-REGENERATION STORY SAVE ONE was written by a former script editor.
Oh. And that “save one”? That one was written by someone who had two Doctor Who stories under his belt, someone who would eventually be script editor for three and a half years, and someone who also happened to be ROBERT FUCKING HOLMES.
But really, behind the scenes, Steven was a nightmare. Either he was the unluckiest bastard in the history of all writing (he once claimed that his typewriter “literally exploded") or he was just a vicious liar who was extremely unprofessional (he got so sick in the midst of the writing process that he couldn’t complete his scripts). So that’s not good. We have a guy who's setting the template for The Doctor and he has no idea how to even design the template. So we’re left with Saward writing or re-writing a vast majority of this story. Which, you know, is a recipe for greatness, isn’t it? At least it explains some of the more Sawardian elements we see here.
My biggest Sawardian beef at this point is the fact that the entire episode is just The Doctor and Peri in the TARDIS for an entire episode. Oh right. Sorry. There’s ONE scene where The Doctor and Peri aren’t in the TARDIS and it’s not even the fucking last scene. No. They leave the TARDIS then go back inside.
It’s this sorta thing that’s maddening if for no other reason than because it’s clear that the vast majority of this episode is more concerned with the eponymous twins. I mean, isn’t that the point? At least in every other story in this season we get The Doctor and his companion(s) entering the plot about halfway through the first episode. Or at least, they’ve entered “the arena” and have gotten involved in some way before the end of the first episode. Sure, in “Warriors of the Deep” they happened to be wandering around the undersea base or whatever and got in trouble, but they were definitely involved.
No. For “The Twin Dilemma” we have to spend an inordinate amount of time with the eponymous twins and whatever the fuck is going on with them, which… what is? I mean, I guess all that’s important right now is that they’re special and needed for some galactic blah blah blah. So it’s wonderful.
But here’s the thing: I don’t care. It’s so insanely obtuse, this storyline. It’s shitty writing. It’s the guy who played Gharman from “Genesis of theDaleks” giving us ham-fisted exposition that doesn’t even matter. So the kids don’t have a mother who loves them. What does that have to do with anything? It’s not like these twins are even given… well… any characteristic qualities except a bizarre pre-pubescent teenage awkwardness and a propensity to sometimes say the same thing at the same time which they only do just to do. So… that’s useless. But it doesn’t provide anything thrilling. It’s terribly padded, even for a first episode, because… well… nothing is really accomplished. The kids are kidnapped (which their people seem to figure out relatively quickly) and then carted away. And then it’s over.
Oh and there’s that weird Owl-headed slug thing. But we’ll talk about that later. I can already feel myself shutting down with regards to him.
So we have two plots. We have that storyline, which is the main narrative plot thrust of the story. And then we have the Doctor/Companion storyline.
The problem with the Doctor/Companion storyline (besides the fact that we go an entire episode without getting into any sort of major plot or whatever) is that it’s absolutely toxic. It’s this episode that single-handedly destroys The 6th Doctor and Peri as characters. Maybe my thought on that will change (it’s the four episodes as a whole that does that). But the fact remains that this is… this is the ultimate result of Saward not understanding a relationship that goes from playful ribbing and small disagreements and a little emotional conflict to a relationship that, quite frankly, doesn’t work.
It’s here that the character of Peri completely falls apart, where (as Sandifer is fond of pointing out) she turns into the ultimate peril-monkey, creepy-male-fantasy companion. With this episode she loses all sense of being any sort of real, believable character. The Doctor changes in front of her and instead of there being any sort of reassurance, she just rolls with it despite the fact that she clearly doesn’t get it and clearly doesn’t like him anymore. He strangles her and she’s not COMPLETELY traumatized by it. Her best friend who just died for her tried to strangle her and never apologized and she follows him around like a battered woman who can’t seem to escape him.
Why she thinks this traveling thing will be any fun after this is beyond me.
And The Doctor… Oh The Doctor.
Here’s the problem with The Doctor as they choose to play it. This story completely undoes the beauty and the poetry of Androzani. Androzani is the story about heroism in the face of adversity and the lengths to which one extraordinary man would go to save a girl he barely knows simply because “it’s the right thing to do.” And now that we’re in a new incarnation all of that goes completely out the window. And fine. We’re reacting against the previous Doctor. Where the 5th was unassuming and polite, the 6th is a self-righteous douchebag (and that’s not even word enough) .
It’s something I’ve been in favor of for a long time. I love that The 5th Doctor so traumatized by the brutality and carnage after seeing the evils that men do in “Caves of Androzani” rejects humanity in all its forms and becomes boorish and awful and an absolute alien.
But this isn’t the way to do it. This isn’t. Having the 6th Doctor turn a blind eye to the girl he saved. Don’t you think if that was the plan they would have gone for something completely different? If they had realized how much The Doctor flat out cared about Peri, how much he out and out loved Peri, that that would be the resounding notion on his head as we go into this story? Hell, we’d get something akin to a Doctor who was completely, doggedly attached to Peri. A Doctor who was saving her at every turn, who was caring about her. Who would (as Sandifer notes) apologize for STRANGLING her and wouldn’t go for the impossibly douche bombastic “I must hermit myself and you will be my disciple”.
Right. Because disciples must be of the strangle variety.
No. They went in a completely different direction and it’s all the worse for it. What had previously been THE strongest thing about the show IN JUST THE LAST STORY (the relationship between Companion and Doctor) now becomes the thing that we can’t possibly want to get more of. Between this or the shitty ass twins… I mean, we have to choose that? That’s how bad this is. I’m contemplating watching the lifeless, boring, flat twin characters in a storyline that’s poorly defined, woefully generic, and woodenly written because it’s less offensive than a relationship that in the span of seven minutes (it didn’t even need the full twenty five) has completely ruined this entire incarnation of Doctor Who.
Now I can mention that I don’t care about this cliffhanger because there’s no tension. The Doctor held at gunpoint? Shit, well I haven’t seen that before. Oh wait, it’s this asshole I don’t care about? Right. Because I’m going to care about that.
They don’t understand why narratively this beat will not matter. I don’t care if The Doctor survives this cliffhanger (even though I know he will). This episode is so vapid and lifeless and toxic that I can’t think of anything I want more. At least if he’s back on the floor we can regenerate and get a different Doctor who will be better than this guy because anything will be better. But the people making this story think I care because they can’t see how I could not.
And we still have another three parts to go. Joy.
So after the insane amount of ranting and raving I was doing with the last part, I was fully expecting to come into this part with another fifteen hundred word screed about how insanely bad this is. How it’s wanton negligence and hubris in the highest degree and how it doesn’t understand the way the various elements it’s throwing together are toxifying Doctor Who and poisoning the well as it were. That’s the biggest problem with the first part, anyways: that it doesn’t really realize just what it’s doing to fundamentally, systematically destroy the structure of the show and make it not just bad Doctor Who but bad television and drama. It’s just a bad story that’s unaware of itself.
Now imagine my delight when I finish this episode not really having anything about that to say, but instead realizing that this went and does the worst thing it could possibly do.
As of this episode this story is boring.
Now, a lot of this is my own problem. Ten minutes into this story I threw my hands up in the air, called it an unmitigated disaster, and realized it’s not going to get me back. So I’m checked out of it on an emotional level. I’m not really interested in the plot, and if we’re gonna be honest about the “plot”, it’s not like the plot really works in such a way where this is a gripping tale about… anything really. And the only real interesting character here is The Doctor and it’s so insanely overplayed in the script that it’s more off-putting than engaging.
So let’s look at the plot. What’s happened? Well we have two stories going on. We have the storyline involving the twins and we have the storyline involving The Doctor and Peri, and both of these finally intersect (halfway through this episode, no less, but a win is a win, I suppose. Actually it’s not. Fuck that. It should not take an episode and a half for The Doctor and Peri to hit the main narrative thrust. That’s wheel spinning of the highest degree), but… so what? We still don’t know shit about the twins except that they’re wanted because they’re extremely talented or whatever (which is about the same we knew in the previous part) and The Doctor is still extremely erratic and all over the place. But there’s no real forward movement. Azmael (the old man; we’ll talk about him later) and the aliens and the twins leave the planet, leaving The Doctor and Peri to die. So… they left the planet. Congratulations. The story moves forward after an episode of static nothing.
But here’s how you know this episode just isn’t engaging in the least.
Before the twins etc leave the aliens who look like aliens because they do activate something that looks like a bomb. And it is. So when Peri finds it, she rouses The Doctor to action. And he solves it by… how? Walking around? I mean, that’s your move? As a script, that’s your move? God knows that Colin Baker’s been all over this script with overplaying every single dramatic beat he can possibly play because 1) that’s what he’s told to do because they don’t want a “boring” Doctor (a la The 5th Doctor) and 2) that’s the way it’s written. It’s insanely over the top. But we get to this moment of certain death. Oh snap. A bomb. And the script has him have NO sense of urgency. And there’s none. None. THIS IS STAKES AND DRAMA. THERE’S A BOMB ABOUT TO GO OFF KILLING OUR HEROES AND NEITHER PETER MOFFAT’S DIRECTION, NOR ANTHONY STEVEN’S SCRIPT, NOR ERIC SAWARD’S SCRIPT EDITING & REWRITES CAN SUMMON ENOUGH DRAMA TO MAKE IT EVEN ENGAGING.
Seriously. When there’s a literal bomb in a room set to go off in the “insanely soon” (could they really not even give us a “we have less than three minutes?” The Doctor is left saying “we haven’t got days, not even a few hours, in fact we haven’t got that many minutes” which, by the way, is the opposite of engaging) and you can’t even muster to get me to care that it’s about to go off, we have a problem. No. A serious problem. And if no one could have even possibly come up with a way to make a literal ticking time bomb even remotely engaging you might as well just throw your hands up in the air and consider the sequence a cataclysmic failure because if that’s not working can you even imagine what else possibly isn’t? I mean, Jesus Christ. Star Trek: Voyager got ticking time bombs to work and that show was written by people who couldn’t even write anything that felt like drama.
To add insult to injury the story then shoehorns in the relationship between The Doctor and Azmael. I’ll have more to say on this later, but it hurts that Colin Baker has turned up his energy to eleven and Maurice Denham is barely pulling a six. They’re on completely different levels. It doesn’t resonate. It doesn’t work.
And really, that’s the thing that’s not working for me about this story. I love Colin Baker. I mean, if you talk to me about Classic Doctors for even just a few minutes you’ll hear me exult the praises of Colin Baker nonstop. He’s the bee’s knees. I’d go so far as to say he’s the best of the Classic Doctors, right up there with Troughton and Davison. And I mean that. Now, granted, most of that love is down to me hearing what he’s capable of in Big Finish, but he does have a lot of decent material on television as well.
Unfortunately, this is not it. This is the opposite of that. This is one of those things that proves to you just how important good writing really is. His Doctor is horribly, horribly written and you can see Colin Baker acting his ass off, trying to get it to work. And it’s hard to watch because what he’s given is abominable. One of the moments my friend/co-host/person Scott points out is the moment when The Doctor and Peri run into the two aliens with guns and The Doctor loses his frakking mind, hiding behind Peri for safety because… well… now we’re going to make him a coward. Because that’s an endearing quality for this guy to have on top of everything else. And it’s not that the sentiment is not understandable. The Doctor is currently in a terribly fragile space and is still probably reeling from the events of Androzani and can’t handle the notion of being killed again.
But it’s a horribly striking moment, and it’s just another cut into the body of Doctor Who. The Doctor in this post-regenerative state is so completely all over the place that it’s like we’re watching an attempt to make the character not work by showing all the ways in which he possibly can’t. I’d say that’s not premeditated, but knowing what I know about Saward and his feelings for Colin Baker’s Doctor, I can’t in good conscience say that it isn’t. Sure, you gotta build him up from a low point, but at a certain point… the low point is so low that it’s completely irredeemable. It’s like that time I took a class in college on the History of African American Film and the first movie we watched was Spike Lee’s Bamboozled because, according to my teacher, it was probably for the best to show you something low and then bring you back up or whatever.
And that’s fine. But Bamboozled was overwhelming, made me impossibly depressed, and turned that class from something I was vaguely interested in into something that I would just have to get through.
That’s really what they’re doing here, and they’re going to turn that around in next episode’s cliffhanger (or try to, anyways), but it doesn’t change the fact that that cliffhanger’s not going to have any resonance because before we can get there we have to watch this cliffhanger, in which The Doctor is seemingly blown up inside the complex on Titan 3 and all is lost. Nevermind that the previous episode ended on the super hackey “Doctor in peril” cliffhanger, but nondiegetically you JUST introduced me to this guy and now you’re going to kill him off? Please. I don’t buy that. And diegetically you’ve shown me two episodes of this guy you’re ACTIVELY trying to get me not to like and then throwing him into peril in the cliffhanger so I’ll care? You can’t have it both ways. I’m sorry. You can’t.
Not that the cliffhanger mattered anyways, because it’s so poorly played. Remember that bit where the ticking time bomb thing didn’t like matter at all? Yeah. Same with the cliffhanger.
Oh, and I guess I should mention the whole thing about Lang. You remember Lang? He’s the guy who The Doctor and Peri rescued from the crash site at the end of the previous episode and then he pointed his gun at The Doctor. Nevermind the thing where the resolution to the cliffhanger was “Hey don’t do this” and then he didn’t. No. The weird thing is the part where he goes into the TARDIS and changes his clothes for no reason. Ummm… Yeah. Maybe someone on production shoulda said 1) this is really creepy, 2) why the fuck is this here?, and 3) what the fuck does this have to do with anything? Because… I don’t understand why he puts on that ungodly garish outfit. It’s a decision that doesn’t have anything to do with anything, so… why is it there?
This might seem like overkill, but stories that are engaging do not inspire you to question choices. You don’t question the choices of Die Hard or “The War Games”. But if this story can’t engage me and I start picking it apart, the whole thing unravels. And it’s not like this is a masterpiece to begin with.
So if this weren’t a regeneration story, I’m sure it’d be a little more applauded. Nay, it’d probably be incredibly mediocre, but because it’s trying to do two things and failing it ends up being cataclysmically bad.
I say this because in this episode we get the grand cosmic explanation about what’s exactly been going on in the story. And yeah it crystalizes and yeah I guess it’s interesting. The idea is that the twins are going to help Azmael and the whoever they are slug aliens to move two planets into orbit around Jaconda, the new planet that’s always been the center of this story despite the fact that we’ve been hopping all over the place for little to no reason.
Now… I don’t mean to rain on the parade of this amazingly well-thought-out story, but why… are they doing this? To create more Jaconda-like planets? I guess that’s a viable solution. But why not just move to another planet? It’s not like they don’t have the power of space travel, is it? Sure it’s a massive undertaking, but it makes more sense than attempting to move two planets into orbit around another planet. And I’ll just go ahead and completely ignore The Doctor’s assertion that this “would rip a hole in the fabric of the universe.” I mean please. We already know you can’t build stakes. Don’t just arbitrarily bring the universe into it. I very much doubt the universe wants to be anywhere near this story, much less a part of it or the artificial stakes we’re gonna integrate because oh shit maybe we do need stakes.
No. Let’s go for the big elephant in the room: why the fuck do we need twins? I mean, I know this has been asked before, but why. Like why, for reals. It’s not like they’re working together and it’s not like they’re actually that smart. Okay. Maybe I’m wrong, but all we get is a lot of telling us that they’re really smart. And no, showing them playing a game made up of QR lines doesn’t really count in my opinion. That’s just saying “oh man they’re important guys! So important! Look at how important we’re making them.” Why not just make it a PERSON you stole? Or two adult twins? What I’m saying is did they have to be twins, especially because behind the scenes it was damn near impossible for Peter Moffat to find any twins and when he did find twins he thought were suitable they were girls and Nathan-Turner vetoed it because he happened to also let Peri get strangled under his watch. And god knows you can’t have Peri get strangled in the same story as you have a pair of hyperintelligent female twins trying to move planets with math equations. That’s the definition of a mixed message.
Because honestly? The whole TWIN DILEMMA is a massive waste of time. Sure, if you remove the twins this loses all of the things that makes it special. Except for the bit that’s it’s a post-regeneration story. So it’s already pretty important… I mean… because it’s all about The Doctor.
This is where the whole thing breaks down. I mean, it’s already way fallen apart before, but this is the point where the whole thing breaks down because, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter. See, the end of this episode is the real turning point for The Doctor, or at least it’s his first moment of absolute clarity. And it’s wonderfully played by Colin Baker, who really takes it into a place that doesn’t feel artificial or dramatized, where he’s not being an alien who doesn’t understand human emotions, where he’s not acting completely insane because he forgot what it was to be human.
It’s here, after all of Peri’s complaints and arguments about how he’s changed and how he’s different and how he’s lost his streak of compassion (which, again, given the last story? Kinda important) that he has a moment of true tenderness and compassion as he suddenly cares about someone outside of himself.
And it’d be a great moment. It would and they really try to make it work in the context of this episode, especially because of the way Peri rails on him more than once about how he needs to learn compassion and care about someone. But it’s not earned. It’s a moment that attempts to bypass “earning” and go straight for “catharsis.” But it didn’t really earn it. All of a sudden The Doctor who in this entire story has done nothing but insult Peri (and even then I’m being remarkably generous) for no reason, to say nothing about the way he attempted to murder her and then conscripted her into a discipleship in an effort to like… make her worship him or learn from him or whatever it is disciples do, turns around FOR NO REASON and gets serious about his care for Peri?
That’s bullshit. I mean, I’m sorry, it is. It doesn’t track. It doesn’t play. The only reason I see it is because I’m looking at it and trying to discern why Steven/Saward didn’t just cop out and go for another Doctor in peril cliffhanger.
It comes down to the notion that no one knows how to write this Doctor. And sure, each Doctor takes a while to develop a sense of nuance or specificity to its character, but by trying to shoehorn in crass assholeness instead of trying to make the character fun or interesting or, hell, even Doctorish most of the time they go for something completely different and in a way that, quite frankly, was never going to work and certainly not a first time out. Why make a character unlikeable, I ask you?
And that’s the crazy thing, because for all of his Doctor’s incessant unlikeability and all the poor decisions put into making the character this way, when he puts on his Doctor hat he is fantastic. Super way fantastic.
I noticed it in the last part when he starts to turn off the bomb. When he’s not completely wrapped up in his ego and is actually concerned with doing your typical Doctor stuff (saving the day, etc.) he actually feels like The Doctor and I’m able to see the Doctor behind the conceit. And really, this is all I want. I just want The Doctor to be The Doctor. He can be boorish and rude, but then again, Tom Baker’s Doctor could be boorish and rude at times. So could Jon Pertwee’s. But they could still be The Doctor. All of these decisions, though? They end up bringing me exactly the opposite of what I want.
What’s amazing is that no one recognized this. They decided to give a Doctor Who story that’s a Doctor Who story (episode three is when we learn all of the things), but they conveniently left out The Doctor. Sure, you can argue that this story is about The 6th Doctor finding himself, but at the same time I’d just the same argue that “Castrovalva” did the same thing and Peter Davison is characterized as The Doctor all throughout. The 6th Doctor is all over the place and not really building towards anything. In this episode he needs to learn compassion. In the first episode he’s got to… I don’t know. And in the second I got nothing. There’s no unifying principle, except to point out that this is a guy who’s just kind of a dick and isn’t the sort of guy who’s likeable at all.
So it’s a success? But in succeeding they have given us a crippling loss.
Oh and because I don’t really wanna discuss them ever again: I do not like slug aliens. I’m sorry. I do not. They can fuck off for all I care. Nevermind that I have no idea what the fuck the aliens are in this story except that Mestor the evil king guy has a mask that makes him look like an owl. I just hate them. Birds is fine. Slugs are just like… You do it just to do it. We get that they’re chewing up the environment, but you could so something more clever. At least the Tractators were like termites, but much more interesting and given characteristics. All we know about these slug folks is that they secrete mucus where they walk and the mucus hardens into cement (basically). So that’s something.
And fuck Mestor. He’s the worst.
So here we are the end of this story and now my resounding thought is the realization that this is basically the worst of what Doctor Who has to offer.
It’s these stories that I find I dislike the most. Much of the joy of Doctor Who is the promise of what’s outside the TARDIS when it lands there. The Doctor and his companions are going to walk out of the TARDIS and they can be absolutely anywhere. They can be on an alien planet (the easiest to do) or in the past (slightly less easy) or in The Land of Fiction (a pocket universe inhabited by the fictional characters we make up) or on the head of a pin or on a thought. It can do positively anything. It’s an infinitely malleable premise.
So it’s always disappointing to see Doctor Who do something bog standard. And fine, regenerations tend to be "bog standard". Wasn’t that the complaint with “The Eleventh Hour”? And “Christmas Invasion” is a fairly standard alien invasion story. “Robot,” a standard UNIT story.
That means I’m not too upset by choosing to do something standard in a post-regeneration story. Post-regeneration stories are all about introducing The Doctor in question and not doing anything that breaks the bank in terms of storytelling. But even within that, is it wrong for me to say that a story like this shouldn’t really have any ambition? Because this doesn’t have any ambition, does it? The design is about as campy and generic as it gets on Doctor Who. The characters are woefully generic and unmemorable and poorly written. The plot is about as campy and generic as it gets on Doctor Who except it’s really pushing the limit of simple, believable plot. Mestor wants to move two planets out of orbit so a sun will explode and disseminate gastropod eggs across the universe?
Maybe we should remind this whole story THAT EVERYONE HAS SPACESHIPS.
This is just bad Doctor Who. And it’s not helped because there’s a section of this episode where Mestor is eavesdropping on all the conversations The Doctor and everyone is partaking in. He’s like using one of the other aliens as eyes and ears on what’s going on. So… that happens. And our first hint is a moment where we cut away from our heroes to just a shot of Mestor sitting on his throne, chuckling to himself. It’s a moment of ultimate camp. And it’s supposed to be a moment of “he’s listening” but it comes off as just the most… derivative “what is this” moment of the entire storyline. Again, this is the case of a story that has no idea how completely it hasn’t earned the right to do something so sneaky because there’s been no subtlety to this story in any way. So it comes off as hack and awful and like the story’s trying to be awful.
Then there's the very meta conversation between The Doctor and Peri, the one that's supposed to be a vote of confidence. An assurance if you will. The Doctor himself says “And I would suggest, Peri, that you wait a little before criticizing my new persona. You may well find it isn’t as disagreeable as you think.”
Spoiler: He’s not talking to Peri. And it’s not so much “he” as it is the production team. They’re talking to us. They’re taking us by the hand and saying “trust me. I know what you just saw is not what you were expecting, but it’s going to get better. You’ll get used to it. I’ll mellow out a bit. You’ll see. Just have patience and give me time.” And I know you understood that and I’m getting to my point, but it’s worth remarking how impossibly self-aware this statement is. And it tells me that the people behind this story have every confidence in the story and their direction and the notion that “we’re going to make it better.”
Here’s the problem, though: if the production team feels confident in themselves and in this story, then I have no confidence in them.
How could you? They basically went out, made this story, and thought that it was good. They couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams that it would be as turning or controversial as it ended up being. But that they didn’t have any reservations is one of those moments of… The Emperor Has No Clothes. Like my god The Emperor Has No Clothes. They just turned out one hundred minutes of shitty television. They just turned out a hundred minutes of shitty television with next to no redeeming qualities. Even their big trump card (Colin Baker) gives a strong performance that’s completely obscured by some of the worst Doctor writing I think the series ever saw.
And now they want me to trust them? I mean… for god’s sake, doesn’t it sound like they think they made something that was mildly questionable at best?
Instead what we get is a story that can’t even pull off believable emotional resonance in its easiest moment. Azmael dies in The Doctor’s arms and what we get is a rehash of the same moment we heard before (about that time he fell in the fountain). There’s no catharsis to it because Azmael was never convincingly sketched out in any real or believable way. Yeah, Colin Baker does his damndest to sell it the best he can, but he’s given just about nothing to work with. It’s THIS scene that inspires the most confidence in the production team. Don’t tell me you know what you’re doing. Show me. And this does a good job of like… showing it, but it doesn’t actually matter at all because it’s still botched.
Even the wrap up is poorly done. Nevermind the way that Mestor goes out and melts in the way Saward loooooooooooooved watching weird aliens melt and ooze from their orifices. Oh, and nevermind the fact that The Doctor did this to him, essentially murdering him and making him explode from the inside.
What about the way the twins FOR NO REASON want to stay on Jaconda and want to stay anyways. Or what about the way Lang is like “oh I’m gonna stay here” because this is absolutely a Doctor Who story and some guy must stay behind to help rebuild society. Oh and by the way he doesn’t have anyone back home to go back to. How convenient is that madness? Just so long as we can leave the planet finally. Which, by the way, doesn’t actually happen forever. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the story’s done. Shit’s over. Let’s go home. But the story takes forever to get us out the door. It's like they think I care about Jaconda or something
Final Thoughts?: This is a story absolutely worthy of its reputation.
And really, this is just a cataclysmic train wreck of a story with no real redeeming qualities. It's a horrible portrayal of The Doctor with no attempts to make him in any way likeable. It's the complete corruption of the character of Peri, completely ruining her and anything that gives her potential. Every single casting decision is poor. Nevermind the twins (which is a foolishly useless problem), but Lang is entirely forgettable and woodenly acted while Azmael looks positively senile and nowhere near the sinister they wanted him to be. The Gastropods are one-dimensional, do-nothing aliens, and Mestor is only notable because he is both owl and slug and his voice is gross and gravely in the a shitty B-movie sorta way. If anything, it's a guilty pleasure.
Tack on an impossibly generic-and-mediocre Doctor Who plot and you've got yourself a ball game.
It's amazing how impossibly tone deaf this story is. And really, I'll go ahead and blame all of this failure on John Nathan-Turner because he's so unaware of what he did here.
The biggest argument made in defense of "The Twin Dilemma" is that it comes after "Caves of Androzani" and how could any story compete with "the best Doctor Who story of all time"? How indeed. the same thing happened with ''Revenge of the Cybermen" (which we'll be talking about in a couple of weeks), because how could anything compare to "Genesis of the Daleks"? It's not easy or even fair. But looking at this story outside of the context of "Androzani", you get the notion that Nathan-Turner thought this story could be on the same level as that story. Nathan-Turner fought for the studio time for this story, anxious to get Colin Baker up and running so he wouldn't have anything to worry about when the new season got underway. He knew it was coming off of "Androzani" and couldn't recognize all of the things about that story that made it special, instead opting to go for this, which is... what, exactly?
And his hubris shines through. Really, all of the hubris shines through. It's in the way that the 6th Doctor is eager to rag on the 5th Doctor. Nathan-Turner probably thought Davison had been a good Doctor, but he was quick to side with the fans in a moment of spineless "Yeah! Fuck what I said!" fandom pleasing, despite being confident in Davison going into the run. The sheer nerve of his turncoating is usettling. And what's more unsettling is the way his confidence shines through in light of all the weakness. He wants this story to succeed. He wants this new era to be good. He wants to make good Doctor Who. No one goes out trying to make something that's bad, or at least, not anyone who wants to keep their job (which Nathan-Turner so clearly did).
But how can we be expected to derive confidence from this story? It's so scattershot there’s nothing confident about it. It’s clear the writing, acting, directing, and design is all flying by the seat of its pants and all over the place in the worst possible ways. It’s clear that there’s no money (because the season had to do a massive Dalek war story, a trip to Lanzarote, and a big ol’ regeneration story bash before we got to this one) and then we get The Doctor at the end mouthpiecing for the production team and telling me they're confident? That’s madness. It's like they're telling me what I just saw was "quite good" when what I actually saw was a cataclysm of utter, utter rubbish. And for Nathan-Turner or ANYONE in this production to tell me that "no, it's actually good" doesn't fucking matter when I can see how much it's not.
Because this isn't. It's the worst writing I think I've ever seen for The Doctor and the worst treatment of Peri, especially as she's coming off of her strongest story ever. It's all over the place, extremely convoluted and contrived. it's just an awful, awful mess.
It's a turn off. How could it not be? No wonder everyone fucked off after this story, and no wonder this is the first nail in the coffin. That they'd think I'd possibly want anything near this vision of Doctor Who is... it's lunacy. After watching this story I'm wondering if Doctor Who was ever good or if I'm just romanticizing it, suffering from massive delusions of quality where none actually exists. What interest have I in a show where the people in charge seem to have no care of quality? What interest have I in people who try to make a show that I have always called "if nothing else, 'fun'" something that makes me want to stick pins in my eyes and scoop out my brain so I don't have to deal with it any more? What interest have I in people who think that this is in any way acceptable?
The answer is I don't, and based on this story I never want to watch any more of Colin Baker's television stories ever again, which is incredibly unfortunate because I really, really love him. His audioplays are my favorite audioplays. He's one of my all time favorite Doctors and handily wins the title of "most underrated". And this... this is unacceptable. Shit, he's not even The Doctor in this. He's some perverse interpretation of The Doctor, with all of his "Doctor" moments obscured by proud, self-centered moments that (to be blunt) go beyond anything resembling The Doctor as we understand him. And fine, you're going in a completely new direction. It's been done before, but to make this choice?
Hell, at every possible opportunity they made every possible wrong choice they could have made and it single-handedly killed the show.
This is the opening shot of the only era of Doctor Who I actively despise. "I'm The Doctor whether you like it or not" is better translated as "This is what we're going to do whether you like it or not" and to be honest, by telling me that you have removed my choices you have reminded me of the last hail mary play I have: to stop watching. Because if that's your ultimatum and my choice is between this or nothing, I'm going to choose nothing. I'll just wash my hands and walk away and come back when you've rebooted the show. And that's fine anyways. There's better stuff on TV.
I'll see you next week.