Tony Fyler asks what the hell went wrong – but still loves The Twin Dilemma.
The Caves of Androzani was superb. Almost everybody in this dementedly broad fandom realises that, but back in the day, the effect was massively palpable – the Fifth Doctor had gone out on a serious high, arguably his highest point in three seasons. If you cried when David Tennant left, we applauded when Davison bowed out – everything was so right. Well, everything except the Magma Beast, but hey, let’s not let facts spoil a good bit of sentiment.
Then, rather than having to wait a year to get our first taste of the new Doctor, the BBC did us a solid and ran his first story immediately, the very next week. We were all set to write our thank-you letters to the Corporation.
Then The Twin Dilemma came on. Ooh, they’ve changed the credits a bit – nice and colourful. Cool.
It’s hard to really know where to begin. The twins themselves were nauseating, but any Doctor Who story worth its salt can withstand a little nausea in the performances. Hugo Lang, Space Cop has pretty much the charisma of a rice pudding, but to his credit, Kevin McNally does manage, in a handful of moments, to punctuate the sparse writing with some knowing characterisation that saves him from being utterly unremarkable, which is what happens when you give dodgy parts to really good actors. See also Maurice Denham in that regard – clearly, he has not the faintest idea what he’s talking about, bless him, (but then, who does? It’s The Twin Dilemma), but Denham still plays the Edgeworth/Azmael part with warmth, with regret, and with a kind of believability.
Then of course, there’s the Sixth Doctor himself. Colin Baker had been on a charm offensive on all the interview shows ahead of his first appearance, so even those who didn’t remember him as quality meanie Paul Merroney from The Brothers had a bit of time to settle into the idea of him, the charming Colin Baker, as the new Doctor.
What we got on screen was anything but charming – arrogant, verbose, half-mad and regrettably violent, the Sixth Doctor was all over the place in The Twin Dilemma, and while he has his endearing moments – “Watch it, Mestor!” being about as bold a difference in style from the Fifth Doctor as could be imagined – overall was an unsettling watch when all you knew was that this was how it would continue.
But more than any of that, there are the gastropods. Looking, as has been pointed out ad nauseum, like stiff, upright, moth-eaten, time-worn turds with a face mask on, Mestor and his giant slugs were the kind of uninspiring villain, both in concept and in delivery, that made a fan look back at the Tractators and the Terreleptils with a misty-eyed fondness for their edgy believability. They were dreadful, and the Mestor outfit particularly unbalanced the audience’s capacity to engage with the story on any level. Those twins, the tacky 80s plastic-looking design, underwritten secondary characters, a Doctor who throttles his companion, an uninspiring gravel pit, a villain who is both a giant slug and who looks like a roll of dubious student-housing carpet with a mask on. Also, for those who subscribe to the idea that it had any impact, that costume for the new Doctor – it was almost as if it was deliberate, as if the Production Team were saying to themselves ‘How can we piss away all the goodwill that The Caves of Androzani bought us? Oh, I know, how about this…”
Of course on some level, we know that’s what they were trying to do – they were going anti-avuncular with the new Doctor, making him tricky to love and get a hold of, so that over the arc of his time in the Tardis he could mellow and impress us. But they made one fatal mistake – they gave us The Twin Dilemma at the end of Peter Davison’s strongest season. Rather than letting us wonder for a year about what the new Doctor would be like, giving themselves time to get the script polished and crucially – oh God, so crucially – the budget of being the first episode in the new season, rather than the last of the old, they pushed straight on and delivered us The Twin Dilemma. Bear in mind, the budget for Peter Davison’s last season had delivered new Silurian and Sea Devil costumes, that godawful Myrka, an animatronic Malus, the *cough, cough* Tractators, a shedload of overseas filming in Lazarote, plus more outside filming for Resurrection of the Daleks and Androzani. By the time they got to The Twin Dilemma, we were actually quite lucky they could afford a turd with a mask on and a gravel pit.
Except of course, that’s the point: we’re really not lucky that’s what happened. Rather than that world in which they had time to work on the script, and budget to deliver the monster, and even, please gods and little fishes, space in which to question the whole premise of giant slugs as the monsters or this particular story for the season opener, they gave us what they could. They gave us The Twin Dilemma. And then they disappeared for a break. They stamped The Twin Dilemma on our perception of the Sixth Doctor, and then buggered off and left us to stew about it. There wasn’t time within the script as it was filmed to soften the Sixth Doctor any, to bring him back from the brink of the wild-eyed lunatic who had actually nearly killed his own companion and then went swanning about the place being grandiose and shouty – and then they left that image of him in our heads while they went away and made the next season. That’s the fatal flaw of The Twin Dilemma – it created a Doctor that was hard to like, and then let him congeal in our imaginations before he could be moved on at all.
All that said, there’s still a lot to love about The Twin Dilemma, watched over thirty years later. Perhaps counter-intuitively given that we’ve said about the unlikeable Doctor, the best thing in the story in retrospect is Colin Baker by a Gallifreyan mile. Embracing the role with energy and gusto, he sets immediately about the job of being as different from his predecessor as possible – where Davison’s Fifth Doctor was inherently unsure about ‘what he’d got’ when he regenerated, Baker’s Sixth Doctor reverses that insecurity and is entirely certain that he is the man he wants to be – the bumptious, arrogantly-tinged Doctor, thoroughly pleased with himself and charging off into the universe to right its wrongs, smite its wrongdoers and generally be sick to death of going unnoticed or not being heard. As a performance, it’s spot on. In a better scripted episode, or at the beginning of a run of stories where we got to see different facets of the rainbow-coated Doctor, it would have been recognized as one of the strongest beginnings a Doctor has ever had. But in the cold porridge story that The Twin Dilemma was, and at the end of Davison’s strongest run, it looked unfortunately like shouting to drown out the previous incarnation.
Ultimately, The Twin Dilemma had a lot that hampered it: the fact that you quite welcomed the idea of torture and murder awaiting the noxious Sylvest twins; the unstable Doctor; the cheap sets and the even cheaper-looking monster. But the thing that has really sealed its fate over the years is the initial sense of despair it gave fans left high and dry after it, as its version of the Sixth Doctor solidified in their mind – loud, unloveable, and arrogant. The Twin Dilemma was a story under-edited, underfunded, and horribly misplaced in the run. But as we know so many years later, Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor evolved on audio into one of the finest of them all, finally doing the job that The Twin Dilemma began but never promised to finish.
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