Tony Fyler feels like a steak.
Robert Holmes was one of Classic Who’s outstanding geniuses. The man who gave us the Nestenes and Autons, the Sontarans and at least the idea of the Rutans, who rebuilt Time Lord Society in The Deadly Assassin, who speared the taxation system in The Sunmakers, who gave us Jago, Litefoot and a giant rat in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, who developed the likes of The Ark In Space, Pyramids of Mars and the Brain of Morbius, and who ultimately put the Fifth Doctor through hell in The Caves of Androzani left a staggering legacy.
But there were other stories less stellar in the Holmes resume – The Space Pirates, The Mysterious Planet - and The Two Doctors, 1985’s dabble with Sontarans, must probably in the final analysis by counted in that second column.
If you look at The Two Doctors objectively, the creative tensions behind its development become reasonably clear. First thing’s first, let’s say this – it’s not really a Sontaran story. Holmes had no particular inclination to write a Sontaran story – indeed he hadn’t since The Time Warrior, which arguably accounts for at least some of the species’ chequered history after that brilliant debut. But producer John Nathan-Turner insisted the Sontarans should make a comeback. The result is that they’re in it, but there’s no very good reason to have them in it, they just swan about the place looking silly and shouting.
Secondly, there’s equally nothing in the way of logical reason for the filming in Seville – that came about because a firm that had been promising to sponsor some American filming backed out, and Seville was doable. But if you can think of a story less suited to filming in the heat of Spain than one including the Sontarans swanning about in big heads and close-fitting shiny space-suits, not to mention other cast members in shimmering silver gowns and essentially a Bacofoil crop-top…well, it probably has Ice Warriors in it, but honestly, the Seville sections are lunacy grown from financial necessity and the desire for headlines.
And thirdly, the pacing is all to outer-space cock. While there’s a certain amount of sense about the Sixth Doctor and Peri facing obvious, tedious traps on Space Station Chimera, there’s little in the way of disguising the padding. There’s also little sense that, faced with a sense of cosmic angst about being put to death in a previous incarnation, the Doctor should go looking for the only man capable of isolating the symbiotic nuclei of a Time Lord, when that’s a bit of medical gubbins used, allegedly, to control the Tardis. There’s no connection between the condition and the supposed cure, and wandering about a derelict space station for the best art of an episode being attacked by a ‘creature’ that’s really Jamie is just tedious to watch and listen to. As, come to that, is the fact that the Second Doctor does practically nothing within the adventure bar a bit of grumping and one neat escape.
What The Two Doctors clearly wants to be is a clever two-part allegory about the badness of eating meat, through the medium of an alien race who see us, the normally omnivorous human race, as just another in the line of edible animals. It could so readily have been that, without the Sontarans, without Seville, and without the Second Doctor and Jamie or its third episode. And it would have been so much better for it. What The Two Doctors actually delivers is a multi-Doctor Sontaran story with no point to either of its key selling points, and some guff about time travel thrown in to raise the stakes.
So – nothing to love about The Two Doctors, then?
On the contrary – whatever else it is, The Two Doctors is a Robert Holmes story, so the supplementary characters are superb – Chessene’s an interesting raised-eyebrow take on genetic enhancement and manipulation (just seven years after the birth of the first human test-tube baby, Louise Brown), and the divide is keenly explored between the dispassionate and strictly scientific quest for advancement and the more primitivistic concepts of ‘blood’ and nature, particularly a racial purity embodied by Shockeye’s Quawncing Grig heritage (Chessene’s falling to the ground to taste blood is a telling moment on the authorial slant here). Oscar Botcherby and Anita are a complex pair, Oscar’s moderate grotesquery playing off Anita’s more inherently compassionate, down-to-Earth personality, and they come to life, as does much else, in Holmes’ only novelisation in the Target range – the argument that The Two Doctors is a better book than it is a TV story is eloquently made here.
Besides the superb supplementary characters, let’s not forget this was the first experience fans of a certain age had had of the Sontarans, and while they’re on a naffness-par with The Invasion of Time’s Sontarans, Clinton Greyn and Tim Raynham as Stike and Varl dominate scenes whenever they’re on screen, even if you’re frequently watching the weird way their lips move inside their lips. Chessene’s not just any ordinary supplementary supervillain, either – she’s played by Jacqueline Pearce, known to geeks everywhere at the time as the superbly amoral Supreme Commander Servalan from Blake’s 7. If ever there was a woman who could have given Kate O’Mara a contemporary run for her money as the Rani, it was Pearce, and she brings a complex callousness to bear here. Laurence Payne as Dastari too is above average at least at the start of the story – his scenes with the Second Doctor are superb before everyone comes over all woozy and the shooting starts. Frazer Hines surely has a painting in his attic that looks haggard as hell, because he barely seems to have aged at all in the twenty years between his regular appearances as Jamie and The Two Doctors, and when he’s allowed to be conscious and get a word in, Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor is by turns delightfully grumpy, loveably sneaky and charming. There’s actually plenty to really enjoy about The Two Doctors. It just takes a hefty dose of suspended disbelief and a go-with-it spirit to appreciate the good things. Holmes, less hemmed in by the demands of what had to be included in the story, would probably have delivered a stronger, probably more gruesome, comic story about the perils of moral equivocation between species that allow rational species to eat other animals. It would probably have been a better story.
Still…it wouldn’t have been The Two Doctors then.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk