Companion: Peri Brown, Jamie McCrimmon
Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Peter Moffat
Background & Significance: In 1985 Doctor Who turned twenty two. So it was a few years past the 20th and still a few years from the 25th. Other than that, it's not really that remarkable. Sure, I suppose it's the sole season featuring Colin Baker as The Doctor. Compared to the previous twenty two, his twenty third is positively abbreviated, so it's hard to count that in my head. This was his first proper season. Other than that, there's nothing special or remarkable about it, is there?
Given the rousing success with which Robert Holmes had written "The Caves of Androzani", Eric Saward was quick to hire him back for another go at some Doctor Who. John Nathan-Turner (capable of knowing how good "Androzani" was and being not unintelligent) was quick to acquiesce to the idea. So we have the return of Robert Holmes offering one of his last stories for one of the most... marmite seasons of Doctor Who ever. And he was given a laundry list of things to do: bring in the 2nd Doctor. And Jamie. And Sontarans. Oh and set it in America. We're thinking New Orleans, because that lines up with your desire to do a story about food.
But the point stands that this story had a laundry list of things to accomplish and Holmes had three whole episodes (the equivalent of a six parter in the old, 25-minute episode days) with which to incorporate all his ideas. And is it too much? Perhaps? How does Holmes react to the violence and intensity that he helped usher in with "Androzani"? How does he handle all of these elements and how does Colin Baker do? So many thoughts. I mean, well, we haven't talked about C. Baker in a god damn age. And it'll be the last time we talk about him. Sad.
So let's get to it!
Resurrection of the Daleks”. And given that it was an intense format change after something that had (more or less) been the norm for twenty plus years it’s easy to assume there would be some whiplash.
I mention this because we have Robert Holmes writing for the forty five minute format. He’s one of only two writers in the Classic series to have prior Doctor Who experience before working with the 45 minute format (the other is Eric Saward), and so it’s interesting to see how he handles it. Also interesting because he’s Robert Holmes: one of the best Doctor Who writers of all time and one of the few masters of the Doctor Who structure of the Classic series (the others that spring to mind are Whitaker and Hulke and… uhhh… I’ll get back to you).
Holmes, though, had a history of making stories that shredded through their running time, stories that were paced very well (“The Space Pirates” is an epic exception) and never really seemed to spin their wheels too much or waste anyone’s time. And yet here he’s wasting everyone’s time. I’m sorry, but he is. This episode is forty five minutes of setup. And that’s… mostly okay, I suppose. But the problem is Holmes is clearly writing to a structure that is unsustainable. It’s one thing to do a first episode that’s forty five minutes long if you have to close it off forty five minutes later. It’s quite another to have a forty five minute episode that you have to close off ninety minutes later.
Sure, shooting in Seville can’t have been cheap, nor can it have been cheap getting Patrick Troughton. Or Frazer Hines. I mean, I’m sure they weren’t paid millions and millions of pounds, but they probably were not cheap to get because they were in such specific/high demand for this story (specifically, no one can replace them). Nor can it have been cheap getting Seville. Because god knows now that we’ve headed abroad the previous two seasons we have to go abroad for this one too. And I guess I shouldn’t complain, because all the location shooting is kinda really pretty and really exotic regardless of the story.
Why is this important? Why am I complaining? Because ever since I first watched this episode for the first time two years ago I found myself enjoying it with way too many concessions. I remember saying “this would have been the best story of the season and handily if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s three parts.” And being one episode in I absolutely stand by that. It’s not that this episode is bad (because it’s not), nor is it quite good. No, the problem is that it’s remarkably dull because everything is so… decompressed and almost nothing happens in this episode.
But why are the stakes low? Why do we suddenly not care about the space station? I mean, it’s where we started and where a whole lotta madness came down. Yeah, it feels aesthetically interchangeable with just about every other sci-fi setting in this season (I’ve decided it’s the production design and the purple accenting/tones) so it feels like “Timelash” and “Revelation of the Daleks" after it, which is… impossibly generic 80s sci-fi in Doctor Who. And yes, those things don’t help. It looks like "The Twin Dilemma” and the less we can be reminded about that the better. But that’s not the issue here.
The Ark in Space”, which is actually not so terribly different than what happens with The Doctor and Peri here. But why is this more insufferable? Why am I not able to handle this wheel-spinning like I was able to handle it in “The Ark in Space”? Because the first episode of “The Ark in Space” is quite a fair amount of wheel-spinning and table setting and nothing REALLY happens until episode two when everyone starts waking up. No, this really isn’t different from that. And indeed, there’s a version of this in which The Doctor collapses and then chooses to go to Dastari, investigate, investigate, CLIFFHANGER (which in my vision would be different than what we got, but I’ll get to that in a minute).
He doesn’t do anything wrong. We just have a problem because we START with him. And it’s why Colin Baker is (once again) completely shafted as The Doctor in the midst of his own era.
The reason the stuff with The Doctor is dramatically unfulfilling is because the plot has clearly moved on. Based on the structure of this The Doctor spends the entire episode catching up to where the rest of the plot is (spoilers! It’s in Seville). If we had STARTED with him and then showed him investigating this space station and show him piecing out the crazy shit that went down (setting things up for a later payoff) this is way more satisfying. “This laser bolt here. It melted the lock.” “Someone shut down the auto-destruct.” “He crawled to this control panel and then was summarily stabbed.”
But the plot has moved on by this point. Clearly. The Doctor is wandering around an area and everyone else has CLEARLY moved out. Dastari has clearly left the building. The Sontarans have already come, slaughtered, and left. The Doctor and Jamie are nowhere to be found. Shockeye, a Sontaran, and Chessene have moved onto Seville, where the story will continue. And that’s what we want. A constant sense of moving forward. Feeling like we’re stuck in neutral is a sure way to get me to turn the story off because I’d rather watch something that’s, well, more engaging. Because this is the opposite of engaging.
And it also explains why two random asshat moth catchers are more interesting than The Doctor and Peri. I mean, is there any other explanation? Oscar and Anita are randomly thrown in the middle of here and they… they catch moths! That’s what they DO! How fucking boring is that? And it’s interesting because they’re actually engaging with the Sontarans. And how much does it take? LITERALLY they have to see a Sontaran sphere fly over their heads and get scared. THAT’S ALL IT TAKES FOR ME TO BE MORE ENGAGED.
Isn’t that better? Doesn’t that fix everything? Give me Robert Holmes writing THAT. It turns Troughton into an exciting reveal to have the kids coming back next week. It fixes this thought that The Doctor and Peri are redundant. That they are is inexcusable and should NEVER be the case; I don’t give a fuck what previous Doctor is crossing over into the modern story; there’s no reason why the current Doctor shouldn’t be the major focus of the story at hand. It’s clearly his story. Make it that way. I’m also just going to come out and say that there’s NO REASON this should be forty five minutes. Cut it to twenty five. Forty five is impossibly excessive and means we have entire scenes that meander and take their time and not in a good way. God. The forty five minute format is something no one EVER got to work out. And it means that we’re left on a cliffhanger that feels like BOG STANDARD Doctor Who for a twenty five minute episode. At forty five minutes it feels laughably anti-climactic.
And no story called “The Two Doctors” should be so anti-climactic at the end of episode one.
Barring one exception, this episode is a vast improvement over the previous episode. Here the plot “rockets” forward (“rocket” being a relative term) once it gets off the bloody space station, and it’s funny how like… once they get away from the space station, the moratorium appears in what is, essentially, a six minute scene right at the top of the episode. Six minutes! Like for reals you guys! And thank goodness Colin Baker is good and can carry the scene along without you actually realizing it. It’s just weird that they don’t really crosscut it with anything to spice up the intrigue or the scene and that later on Holmes almost remembers to do that.
So discounting the stuff on the space station (beceause it’s rubbish and a big waste of time and makes me hate this episode), the rest of this episode plugs along nicely. It takes its time sure, but it’s good in the way a six part story is good. Holmes uses his extra time to give all the major players an opportunity to play against The 2nd Doctor. Sure, The 2nd Doctor is strapped to a table, but it still allows him time to talk to the Sontaran commander and Dastari (who still looks like he’s right out of “Revelation”. Like seriously? Are we so aesthetically uncreative?).
And really, only Troughton could hold his own against so many rotating characters without being able to stand up. Is it a poor use of Troughton? I suppose. I do like him manically flitting about the place, but that’s all episode three, isn’t it? This is just him verbally sparring with the people around him and being a consummate professional and fantastic Doctor. And it’s hard to complain because I’ll take as much Troughton as I can get and he’s still remarkably good here. I love the way he treats the different players with different options of disdain. It really… enhances the reality of these characters, doesn’t it? We understand The 2nd Doctor. We trust him. We like how he sees the people.
It’s an interesting TARDIS team and one of the most remarkably clever choices Holmes makes here. By taking a chance on Frazer Hines and Colin Baker chemistry, he plays on something that the Big Finish team would later pick up on and run with for a whole ‘nother trilogy. And I’ve no idea why it works that The 6th Doctor and Jamie is NEARLY as good a pairing as 2nd/Jamie. On paper, it makes no sense. Imagine the 3rd, 4th, or 5th Doctors with Jamie. It just wouldn’t work. And yet… 6th/Jamie just feels right in the way that 6th/Charley ended up feeling right even after she was written out of being the quintessential 8th Doctor companion.
Honestly, here, I’m reminded most about why I romanticize and love this story. Everything is painted in and drawn so lovingly. Hell, even Oscar and Anita are interesting here (and again, they catch moths) and there’s a… tragedy to this that I find myself heartbroken by even though it hasn’t happened yet. I mean… I know what happens to Oscar, but he’s a guy who clearly doesn’t deserve it. He’s sucked into this story because he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. I mean, he probably would be anyways (in the next episode, I mean). But this is a guy who’s kind of a geeky lamer dude. An aspiring actor who just happens to also like catching moths. It’s… unfair.
Okay, so, if when I had finished part one you had asked me whether or not I would put this story at the top of my Colin Baker list I would say “no way in hell.” I mean, it’s still up there. It’s no “Attack” or “Timelash” or “Mark” or “Varos” or “Twin Dilemma”, but it’s just a drag. That first part was, anyways. Super drag. Super boring. Scenes that go on for too long. Nothing happening. Padding out the wazoo. When we got to episode two it was much, much better, but relatively speaking. Still about the same in terms of rankings (there’s not a lot of good Colin Baker on TV, you guys) but it’s a far cry from me being bored out of my skull. Hell, enjoyable is enjoyable and consistent and it’s hard to argue against that.
So let’s talk about it.
The thing that strikes me most, and immediately is the tone. And tone is something that’s mostly conveyed by the director. Or at least, it’s the director’s job. And it’s not something that was prevalent in the first two episodes, but Holmes digging into an episode that goes ridiculously Holmesian creates a tone that is… impossibly strong. And perhaps that’s because it’s the third episode and things are happening fast and furious and hot and heavy, or maybe it’s because Peter Moffat (for all his faults) really, really gets it.
This can’t have been easy. Robert Holmes fits into that same category as other creators like Joss Whedon and Bryan Fuller as writers who have a very specific tone that straddles the line between wonderfully comedic and terribly dark so it becomes… undefinable. It’s hard to capture (as Whedon was quick to point out on the recent commentary to the deliciously delightful Cabin in the Woods) and when you find someone who gets what you’re going for you hold on tight to them and never let go (and so he said about his editor Lisa Lassek).
Here it’s different. There’s shots that are exciting. Watching The Doctor flee from the house with the gash on his knee, watching Shockeye chase after him, or even watching Chessene lick The Doctor’s blood off the step (more on this later) are all shots that are visually arresting (and not even the Chessene one because of the licking of the blood, although that does help). Watching The Doctor and Jamie flee from a Sontaran while it shoots at them reminds me greatly of some of the better action sequences in “The Visition” (in a good way; that shit was and is legit exciting).
Philip Sandifer AND Robert Shearman) this seems the point. Holmes has the opportunity to bring back and do more with his original creations. The last time he did this it was with The Autons (doing “Terror of the Autons” after “Spearhead From Space”) and it featured him unleashing the promise of “aliens made of plastic” (essentially; it’s not entirely accurate but let’s go with it) by introducing the giant clowns and the plastic flowers and the evil phone cord. Here, though, he does nothing because he has no mandate TO do anything. All that Nathan-Turner said to Holmes was “bring back the Sontarans because god knows you’ll want to do something new with them after the last two times, which, I will admit, were not nearly as good as the first time.”
Because really, the thing I take away from this story (and what I didn’t the first time) is that it’s an Androgum story and NOT a Sontaran story. I walked in initially wanting a Sontaran story. I ended up disappointed. But if you approach it as an Androgum story (that happens to feature Sontarans) I can’t imagine walking away from this story thinking it anything less than tremendously satisfying. And I think the reason for that is because the Androgums are given an enormous amount of play. Sure, they’re not QUITE as ingenious as The Sontarans (what with the probic vents, amongst other things), but there’s a delightful barbarism that comes from Holmes’s wonderful imagination as he introduces the Androgums and builds them into fantastic Doctor Who monsters and without making them overtly grotesque or monsterific; (as Shearman/Sandifer point out: they look almost completely human/Time Lord).
I suppose now’s good point to sidebar into the death of Oscar, which, on initial viewing, left me somewhat ambivalent while on this viewing it left me feeling somewhat crushed. Oscar is the death in this that feels completely… unjustified, I suppose? No, perhaps that’s not right. Unfair. It feels unfair. And the reason for that is because he’s about as innocent a character as you can possibly imagine. He collects moths (he has hobbies, but the hobby is cute). He is an aspiring actor (he has dreams). He is temporarily running this restaurant for his friend (he is kind-hearted/giving). He wants no part of the narrative (he doesn’t deserve what the narrative foists upon him).
His death, while tragic, fits perfectly in this… nightmarish tone that Holmes cultivates. He has a history of wholesale slaughtering his entire hoarde of characters in order to make the point of the story (“Pyramidsof Mars” and “Androzani” come to mind) and the only character to make it out of this story who isn’t The Doctor or a Companion is Anita, and even then she’s left mourning over Oscar’s body after his death. The rest of this story is a bloodbath in which the Sontarans are killed by Chessene/Dastari, Shockeye is murdered by The Doctor, Dastari is murdered by Chessene, and Chessene falls into The Doctor’s trap and dies screaming.
What I love most, though, is the humour as brought by Holmes. It’s delightfully funny. And not just the stuff with the dead Sontaran’s leg. Basically any scene with The Doctor and Shockeye is… incredible. There’s nothing like watching them form a comedic duo and head into Seville to feast like kings. Watching Shockeye dress up in coat tails like The Doctor and seeing the two of them march down the street like a pair of tramps or vagabonds is just… impossible not to love. And leave it to Patrick Troughton to completely sell every aspect of being an Androgum. He relishes in it and brings out all the traits that we come to understand: the ravenous appetite, the barbarism, the conviction/drive.
I mean, is there anything funnier than Oscar telling Anita that The Doctor and Shockeye ran up a bill of eighty one thousand, six hundred pesetas? And then listing all of the food and the sheer amount they’ve eaten is ludicrous. And then Shockeye being entirely nonplussed at having eaten thirty six thousand pesetas of food.
It’s incredible and one of my favorite things. Eric Saward is quick to point to this as “one of the funny ones” when it comes to this season and it’s easy to see why. This is about as wantonly funny as Holmes ever got. And yet it never feels like anything but the dark tone of the season. And that’s the thing about Holmes: it feels like a Holmes story and yet it also feels like a story that only could have come out around this time. He turns the violence of the whole situation to his advantage. More than any other Colin Baker story (outside of PERHAPS “Revelation”) this is the one that best balances the tone and gets it exactly right.
And with Peter Moffat no less. Of all the people. But it just goes to show you:
Final Thoughts?: If this story were two episodes it would easily be the best of its season.
Vengeance on Varos" is held in higher regard than this, but the truth of the matter is I legitimately love everything about this that isn't in the first episode.
And why not? It's quintessentially Robert Holmes. The entire third episode is relentless in its scope/plotting. It's exciting. It's violent. It's sad. It's funny. Everyone dies. It's shot in Seville and shows the hell out of it. Originally it was supposed to be New Orleans, but that fell through, and you wouldn't REALLY know. The scenes at the hacienda are gorgeous and watching everyone race through Seville in search of The Doctor is basically the last half of the last episode of "Arc of Infinity" only done way better. The characters are ridiculously good (except the Sontarans) and it is a secret, scathing critique of returning monsters (who return because they are monsters who have returned). And of course it has the Androgums, which are wonderfully brilliant and terribly delightful to watch/experience. I almost want more of them, but at the same time that would defeat the point/statement that Holmes is trying to make here.
First, Troughton, because he's the guest star here. Troughton in this... I mean... the first time I thought he was horribly underused, and in the first episode he is (because the first episode is rubbish). But watching him in the back two is a reminder as to why he's one of the top (and I mean top) actors in the history of the role. The guy is given nothing to do in episode two-- hell, he's basically reduced to flailing and jiggling his arms and yet he steals every scene. And then in episode three he cuts loose. Completely loose. That's apparent from the FIRST SECOND Shockeye unveils him as an Androgum and Troughton digs his teeth into the part and never lets go for a second. Watching him eat is hilarious. Watching him bounce off Shockeye is brilliant. Watching them trounce around Spain dressed like Vagabond Hobos is incredible. Hell. There's even the way he sprints (and I mean SPRINTS) after that truck to try and hitch a ride. I mean, my god. This is a man in his mid 60s, less than three years away from his death (by over-exerting a heart condition no less) and yet he's sprinting around like a man in his 30s. If that's not quintessential Troughton (young man in an old man's body) I don't know what is.
And then there's Colin Baker.
Okay. Colin Baker? Honestly pretty damn good here. He's remarkably restrained after the previous few stories and that's the sorta thing that comes with time with his Doctor. But at the same time, we have Holmes writing The Doctor in a way that feels positively quintessential. He understands The Doctor and gets The Doctor's moments and movements. Now, I'm not sure why the holy hell The Doctor had to murder Shockeye (I suppose it was a life or death situation and there was no other choice; kill or be killed, as it were) but surely there musta been another way. And yet, his relationship with Peri here is tolerable, even palatable. His dealing with the other characters is quite delightful. And his smugness is perfectly restrained by... well... everything, like I said. It's a reminder of why Colin Baker is one of the good actors in the role. He's total Doctor here, but in a way that contrasts with Troughton's interpretation. He's perhaps less... specific than Troughton. But Colin Baker IS one of my favorite Doctors and watching this story I'm reminded why.
Is it weird I prefer that? I mean, I prefer most things about the third episode in general, but the fact that this story exists as a small moment makes it feel all the more remarkable. Who doesn't love it? Seriously. Watching Troughton is always a delight. Watching him squeeze into a Colin Baker story is brilliant. But watching the two of them interact and play off each other is more than just fanwank. It's two men who know each other intimately and yet both can't help but argue because what else would you do if you met yourself? I just.... I love it. I love the lack of flash. I love that it was a fun idea and a cool possibility and they went for it and this is what we got.
It's really good, I say. And yes, I say that unabashedly loving the third episode and actively despising the first. But the point stands. This is a great story and a gem of its era. If it were one episode shorter it would absolutely be the pick of the season. Were that the season's other stories here could achieve its greatness. And it's not even Holmes's best. No. Those are coming up. But it is one of Colin Baker's best and Troughton deserves some particular applause for carrying along this story even in the face of it being completely unintelligible (why are they turning him into an Androgum again?). It gets us to interesting places. It takes us to beautiful places. And it's all the richer for it.
See? All it takes is a kickass episode to completely turn me around.
Next Time!: 1st Doctor! Giant bugs! Beauty! Special effects! And ambition out the wazoo! "The Web Planet"! Coming Next Tuesday!