Tony Fyler feels like a steak.
Last year in conversation with Andrew Smith, writer of Full Circle and a number of the best recent Big Finish titles, I learned that back in Colin Baker’s day, he was asked by Script Editor Eric Saward to write a script including the Sontarans and the Marie Celeste. The script for the story that would, decades later, become The First Sontarans, got a little way – a treatment and scene breakdown were written – before the feedback stopped coming, and it turned out that Sontaran supremo Robert Holmes was writing The Two Doctors. Sontaran origin stories were out, and what we got in their place was a fairly typical but slightly overstretched slab of Holmesian satire, this time on the whole business of eating meat, with an extra kick in the Gordon Ramsays aimed at pretentious chefs in both their raptures and their ranting.
When it became clear that Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines were available to reprise their roles as the Second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon, the relatively straightforward Sontarans-and-meat-eating marriage gained a whole other dimension – it was suddenly required to be a multi-Doctor story into the bargain.
Oh and then there was Seville.
John Nathan-Turner, Producer for all of the 80s, had a burning desire to take Doctor Who to foreign locations. It’s been said by Saward that the desire was rooted in a way of Nathan-Turner getting something out of the relatively loveless job, by allowing him to swan about on location report visits. So suddenly the story had multiple Doctors, chefery, satire, and Sontarans in Seville. To bring the Doctors, the chefs and the Sontarans together, Holmes added a silver thread of sci-fi toing and froing over a biological connection between Time Lords and their Tardises.
We’re gonna need a bigger scout ship.
The format of Season 22 saw the programme run stories in 45 minute episodes, and The Two Doctors would stretch to such episodes, in order to fit in all the plotting elements and make the most of the Seville location.
The problem with which would be essentially getting all the players into the same environment. The return of the Sontarans for the first time in seven years began with the Second Doctor and Jamie visiting a space station to put a halt to some time experiments on behalf of the Time Lords. So – no continuity issues there then, given that the Time Lords were only revealed as being the Doctor’s people at the very end of Troughton’s time in the Tardis, and came as a surprise to both his companions at the time.
In typical Holmesian style, the satire gets its hooks in early, with Shockeye the chef offering to buy Jamie from the Doctor like a prize bull for slaughter. The sub-theme of genetic enhancement is quickly established too, when Shockeye is revealed as an Androgum – a conceit that never quite works throughout the story, these massively powerful, boilingly energetic humanoids who think of nothing but the pleasures of the flesh, and particularly the stomach. To be fair to the master, Holmes does deliver a lot of societal background to prop up the idea of the Androgums, but on a kind of entropic basis, the more effort he puts in to this, the less effective it actually feels. Chessene, the ‘augmented Androgum’ who is behind the plan to meddle with time travel, is played beautifully by Jacqueline Pearce, following relatively closely on the heels of the end of Blake’s 7, in which she played the Supreme Commander of a world of geeks, Servalan herself. But the sense of ideas being shoveled into the story by the sackload comes across quite early on, as within minutes, we have the Second Doctor working for the Time Lords, time travel experiments, pompous chefs, augmented species and, very soon afterward, the raised three-fingered hand of a Sontaran.
Meanwhile, the Sixth Doctor is boring Peri senseless, fishing for and waffling about gumblejacks. When he collapses unexpectedly, he begins instead to waffle about being killed in a previous incarnation. When Peri suggests he should see a doctor, he agrees, and sets co-ordinates to visit Dastari – head of projects on the space station visited by the Second Doctor, and the man responsible for augmenting Chessene. The Sixth Doctor reveals he’s also the only person capable of isolating the symbiotic nuclei of a Time Lord.
With this revelation, the story feels like it should really be off to the races, but instead, this is where it runs into its first prolonged paddingfest, as the Sixth Doctor and Peri wander round the darkened space station for evvvvver, and then around its climbing-frame innards for what feels like even longer, while a creature growls at them from the shadows. While Dastari, Chessene, Shockeye and Major Varl, the first Sontaran to hit screens in the 80s, set up a base in a remote Spanish hacienda, the Doctor and Peri mostly gibber, while discovering that the growling thing is actually Jamie in a cowl.
The one thing you could always be guaranteed in a Holmes script was world-class characterization of the bit parts, and The Two Doctors is no different, bringing English actorrrr-turned-restaurant-manager Oscar Botcherby and ‘dewy-eyed naiad’ (don’t blame us, he really calls her that), Anita, out on a butterfly hunt when the aliens arrive.
Meanwhile, Varl’s superior, Stike, has arrived, with the intention of carving up the Second Doctor’s brain to steal his symbiotic nuclei and give the Sontarans the power of time travel.
After a little psychic tomfoolery, the Sixth Doctor picks up the sound of a bell in Seville (no really, that’s the flimsy thread on which the story is connected), and he, Peri and Jamie hot-foot it to Spain. Alliances are strained, with Dastari and Chessene turning against their Sontaran allies at the same moment the Sontarans turn against them. But just when the story has another chance to power on through and come to a reasonable end, the would-be time travelers thwarted by their own differences and competing agendas, there’s a second long lull as Chessene instigates a secondary plan to set the Androgums free in the universe of time, getting Dastari to make her a time-capable Androgum mate – the Second Doctor. When Shockeye wakes the Androgummy Doctor, the two head off into Seville for a feeding frenzy, meaning much of the arguably unnecessary third episode is a long justification of the foreign filming, with both Dastari and Chessene, and the Sixth Doctor, Peri and Jamie chasing the gluttonous pair around the city, the idea being that the Second Doctor needs a second operation to make his Androgum nature permanent.
Another thing you could always be sure of with Holmes was horrible death, and as the third episode moves towards its end, the death toll gets high and gruesome – particularly gruesome in the case of Stike and Chessene, and particularly pointless in the case of Oscar. The Sixth Doctor also personally, horrifyingly, kills Shockeye, offering a James Bond-style quip to the corpse. With all the aliens destroyed though and the Second Doctor restored to his normal self, all that’s left to do is for the Sixth Doctor and Peri to underline Holmes’ message of vegetarianism, before the two Doctors go their separate ways.
The Two Doctors is complex, tangled, and overly padded, with two much to do, and none of it making a particularly high degree of sense. The Sontaran costumes and masks were a sad disappointment even to those who hadn’t seen the Sontarans on TV before. The Androgums were walking metaphors of the bestial nature of carnivores, Holmes’ satirical themes writ as large and simplistic as they were in many of his other stories. Dialogue and characterisation though were Robert Holmes’ great strengths, and even when the storyline makes no sense, and the padding of The Two Doctors is visible, The Two Doctors survives as a likeable romp at least on that level. Besides, ideas may have been shoveled into the story by the bucketload, but what that means is it stays alive in the minds of many people for what sticks for them – some see it as a vegetarian polemic, others as a Sontaran renaissance. Still others remember it as the story that brought Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton together on screen. Take what you want from The Two Doctors, there’s plenty to enjoy – even if there’s also plenty to question.
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