Doctor Who Project: The Twin Dilemma

That hardly sounds in character.

Each new Doctor’s inaugural tale must fulfill two objectives, often at odds with each other. In addition to providing a rousing introduction for the new title character, one that establishes a tone, an arc, for the adventures to come, the story must still function as a narrative whole, placing the new Doctor in some engaging situation that puts the fledgling Time Lord’s fresh attitude to the test. Not all of Doctor Who‘s post-regeneration stories work as well as others, and Colin Baker’s proper debut as the Sixth Doctor, in Anthony Steven’s “The Twin Dilemma” (Story Production Code 6S) doesn’t quite deliver the comprehensive punch of, say, Jon Pertwee’s “Spearhead from Space,” which introduced the Third Doctor in as compelling a tale as possible.

Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker as Peri and the Sixth Doctor

In part, this narrative disconnection comes about because producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward seem intent on telling one long story with their run on Doctor Who. Most other Doctors take over at the beginning of a season, with months passing between the prior Doctor’s regeneration and the new Doctor’s first real appearance, separating the audience from their memory of the predecessor. Here, Colin Baker assumes the role in Season Twenty-One’s final story; only six days pass between the Sixth Doctor popping up with a burr under his saddle at the end of “The Caves of Androzani” and the first episode of “The Twin Dilemma.” Having built the Fifth Doctor’s story as a continuous slide into ruin and despair with the first six stories in Season Twenty-One, Nathan-Turner and Saward seem intent on directly addressing the trauma they caused by inducing a regeneration crisis in the Sixth Doctor that leaves him initially with no discernible character at all.

A less-than-impressed Peri taking in the Sixth Doctor's gesticulations

Such a character-driven focus can pay real narrative dividends, and a more daring approach might have seen this as the sole focus of a story, a tight two-episode tale along the lines of Season One’s “The Edge of Destruction,” where the TARDIS crew turns on each other in an existential fugue, revealing far more of their true identities than any encounter with a Dalek ever could. But as with Peter Davison’s initial story, “Castrovalva,” Nathan-Turner’s concept of the “regeneration crisis” in “The Twin Dilemma” starts out strong and then flounders as the “action” part of the plot fails to keep pace. For once again, the notion of magical sums comes into play.

Romulus and Remus (Gavin and Andrew Conrad) -- or maybe the other way around

Two precocious, mathematically gifted twins, with the unfortunate names Romulus and Remus (Gavin and Andrew Conrad), disappear from their home on Earth, kidnapped by Professor Edgeworth (Maurice Denham), who seeks to harness their genius in order to move planets. Adric, it might be noted, similarly found himself trussed up in a skien of webs in the Master’s TARDIS in “Castrovalva,” his own calculation skills used to power the “block transfer equations” that create the mysterious town of the same name out of sheer nothingness. Much of beginning of “The Twin Dilemma” establishes the twins and the efforts of the Earth authorities to rescue them, padding out the story by introducing characters never seen again, save Lieutenant Hugo Lang (Kevin McNally), whose squadron of space fighters explodes while chasing Edgeworth’s space freighter to the asteroid Titan 3.

Maurice Denham as Professor Edgeworth (for now)

The Sixth Doctor, inevitably, turns his sights on supposedly abandoned Titan 3 as well, seeking a hermitage in which to recover his senses; the Fifth Doctor obviously never replaced the TARDIS “Zero Room” he retreated to (and then ejected) during his own regeneration crisis. His behavior immediately after his regeneration veers wildly—madly, even—at turns irascible, cowardly, brash, and, in a frankly shocking twist for the character, violent. Throughout “The Twin Dilemma,” the Sixth Doctor, and indeed Nathan-Turner behind him, seems to be daring the audience to dislike the Doctor. By the time he accuses Peri of being an alien spy and pushes her to the ground, throttling her, one might well say he succeeds…

The Sixth Doctor behaving badly

It is, in short, a terrible scene, one completely unthinkable at any time in the series to date, one that might have been better left on the cutting room floor. It also completes the Doctor’s descent, started with the Fifth Doctor’s embrace of violence in “The Resurrection of the Daleks.” He hits bottom, acknowledging, at one point, “The very core of my being is on fire with guilt and rage!” Stevens, Nathan-Turner, and Saward cleverly work all of the Fifth Doctor’s trauma into the Sixth Doctor’s crisis. His vacillating moods carry him through all the guilt and fear stored up by the Fifth Doctor, and even as he castigates his prior persona as “effete” and infected by a “feckless charm,” he cannot excise the personality entirely. At the moment he looks at Peri, who is visibly wary of this strange behavior and uncertain about venturing onto the surface of Titan 3 with him, and tells her, “Brave heart, Tegan,” one sees the attempt at delicate plotting. Even the deliberate use of math-wiz children as the main plot McGuffins tugs at the Sixth Doctor’s—and the audience’s—memory of Adric, whose death sits at the heart of the Fifth Doctor’s story.

The Sixth Doctor and Peri, captured for the first of many times

The Doctor’s haphazard behavior thus works, after a fashion, to provide character development for this new regeneration, though a defter hand could have omitted the cravenly violent scene with Peri. He remains malleable through the four episode story, and that uncertainty alone provides a narrative heft to proceedings; this Doctor is as likely to abandon a wounded Hugo Lang to his fate (he doesn’t) as he is to hide behind Peri when they are captured in the tunnels leading to Edgeworth’s hideout (he does) or to boldly stride into the hideout thereafter and act like he owns the place (and how).

The Sixth Doctor reminiscing with his old friend, Azmael, aka Edgeworth

As if to reassure the audience that this really is the Doctor—not unlike Polly and Ben being quite unsure of the Second Doctor in “The Power of the Daleks,” coincidentally also the last time the Doctor regenerated mid-season—Stevens reveals Edgeworth to be an old friend and drinking companion of the Doctor’s, the Time Lord Azmael, who last laid eyes on the Fourth Doctor in an off-screen adventure that resulted in one them winding up in a fountain. It’s a humanizing touch, at least until the Doctor tries to strangle Azmael as well.

The Sixth Doctor behaving badly again

Not until the third episode does that actual threat driving the plot reveal itself. Once ruler of planet Jaconda, Azmael unwillingly ceded power to the giant gastropod Mestor (Edwin Richfield), whose progeny have completely defoliated the formerly lush world through their incessant hunger. (Yes, the main antagonist of the story is a slug; Richfield’s costume proves so unwieldy that he requires assistance to conquer small stairs. But given that Season Twenty-One also features telepathic pillbugs, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising.) Azmael seeks to harness the twins’ mathematical genius to move and balance the orbits of two smaller planets around Jaconda, in order to provide more resources to help his starving subjects. Mestor, however, has other plans. He’s in a breeding mood.

Much ado about slug eggs

So the Doctor is called upon to save the universe once more, entirely in the fourth episode, by foiling a giant slug’s attempt to spread its legion of heat-resistant eggs throughout space through the explosion of Jaconda’s sun; Azmael forgot to account for the pull of the sun’s gravity on the relocated planets, which would destroy the star upon contact, vaporizing Jaconda and everything on it, save the impervious offspring. The scheme doesn’t seem to make sense to anyone on screen, either.

Edwin Richfield as the giant gastropod Mestor

The entire narrative exists to thread moments through the story for the Sixth Doctor to explore his new, and old, personality. To that end, the specifics don’t matter, except for the minor fact that the audience expects a coherent tale, which they decidedly do not receive. The initial encounter with Azmael, for instance, allows the Doctor to positively reflect on his past as opposed to automatically rejecting it. When Peri is captured and presumed to be shortly killed, as the third episode cliffhanger, he reacts with palpable grief, anguish, and rage—he will not allow it to happen again. Finally, as the Doctor and Azmael confront Mestor in his throne room, the Doctor encounters a moment of grace; his old friend, possessed by Mestor’s mind, chooses to trigger a regeneration knowing full well he has none left, thus trapping the slug whose body the Doctor has dissolved in a trademark moment of Nathan-Turner and Saward goo. He sees, once more, the power of belief, of holding to principles beyond the self.

Trademark Nathan-Turner and Sawardian goo

The Doctor, in keeping with many a regeneration before him, leaves the scene of the carnage before the bill comes due, leaving the human Hugo Lang in charge of the newly free Jaconda before shepherding the twins back to Earth in a quick resolution of a threat that is barely revealed before its solution. The twins’ calculations never come into play except as a reason to drive the narrative, and really all the Doctor does to resolve the conflict is throw two bottles of acid on Mestor—after giving him a chance to stop his improbable scheme, of course, because killing in cold blood is something only the Fifth Doctor would do

The Sixth Doctor comforts his dying friend

The guest cast does what it can with the script. Gavin (actually Paul) and Andrew Conrad hit their marks as the bubbly Romulus and Remus, frequently speaking in concert with a skill likely innate in twins. As the heavily costumed Mestor, Edwin Richfield drips contempt and ichor in equal measure, but it’s not a subtle role by any means. That “The Twin Dilemma” functions at all comes down to Maurice Denham as Edgeworth/Azmael, adding as much gravitas as he is able to his dialogue. He seems, at least, like a Time Lord who has seen much, and his craven behavior, all in service of saving his people from Mestor, redeems itself in his sacrifice, recognizing that the Sixth Doctor’s mental state prevents him from successfully sparring with the slug.

A bemused Nicola Bryant as Peri

Nicola Bryant puts in a brave showing, gamely trying to portray Peri’s dismay at this emotional chameleon who has suddenly appeared in front of her. She pushes back against his behavior frequently, certainly more than any companion ever did against the Fifth Doctor, though in fairness they had little cause for such reactions. It’s been a tumultuous three stories for Peri thus far, but the character has a consistency of pluck and verve thanks to Bryant’s depiction. It’s broadly a shame, though, that instead of allowing Peri to stand as the sole companion on her own merits, the pseudo-companion figure of Hugo Lang takes up screen time that could have gone more profitably to Bryant.

Colin Baker, in one of the Sixth Doctor's less heroic moments

As for the star himself, one must admit that Colin Baker handles the Sixth Doctor’s shifting internal compass quite well, selling the extremes of pride and anger especially; though his depiction of the fearful, cowardly Doctor fares less well, it must be said. He seems an ideal actor for this newly mutable Doctor, and there’s a well of certainty behind his visage that speaks to a continuity of the character’s long history. He’s a Doctor who knows his power and does not shirk from acknowledging as much. What we don’t know, as yet, is what he believes in, other than himself.

The Sixth Doctor, triumphant (?)

Indeed, just when one suspects that the Doctor might have settled into a more equanimous figure at the end of “The Twin Dilemma,” broadly trending towards the mores and attitudes of his forebears, Stevens—and Nathan-Turner through him, no doubt—throws down the gauntlet once more in a discomfiting coda to end the story. After admonishing Peri—and the audience at large—to “wait a little bit before criticising my new persona,” because she “may well find it isn’t quite as disagreeable as you think,” he concludes on a defiant note:

The Doctor: “Whatever else happens, I am the Doctor. Whether you like it or not.”

Any goodwill this new Doctor might have built up, painstakingly, across four uneven episodes of unprecedented violence, mania, and wonky plotting, dissipates at that moment, even with the cut to Peri’s broad smile and then his own after this emphatic declaration. It’s an unnecessary challenge posed to the audience, daring them to leave if they don’t like it. With Season Twenty-two a full eight months away, perhaps the venom will fade and people will want to tune in again to see if the “manic” Doctor is up to his antics, in his multi-colored jacket and trousers, but it’s quite the gamble to take with such an iconic series that never quite had the BBC’s full backing in the first place…

(Previous Story: The Caves of Androzani)

(Next Story: Attack of the Cybermen)

Post 142 of the Doctor Who Project

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