|What do you tell a companion with two black eyes?|
It’s March 22nd, 1984. Lionel Richie is at number one with “Hello,” and remains so for the whole of this story. Sade, Culture Club, Bananarama, and Depeche Mode also chart, along with, at number two for the second week of this story, the Weather Girls with “It’s Raining Men.” Hallelujah. In real news, the heyday of the Satanic ritual abuse panic begins in sync with the Colin Baker era as teachers at the McMartin Preschool are falsely accused of it. Speaking of Satanic ritual abuse, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Starlight Express opens in London.
While on television, we go from the supposed best Doctor Who story ever to the supposed worst. Unlike The Caves of Androzani, The Twin Dilemma made it as the worst story for two polls running. On basic quality, this might not be quite fair. It’s very bad, but as a matter of competent production and provision of a modicum of entertainment it’s not demonstrably worse than many others. If you were to show someone a selection of this, Warriors of the Deep, The Horns of Nimon, Mark of the Rani, and The Monster of Peladon and ask them to pick the worst of them I don’t think you’d see this one picked in particular excess to the others. There are actually moments of it that border on the compelling. I mean, this is praising with faint damnation, but it’s still worth noting that, taken on its own and out of context, and judged purely on its storytelling merits, this is merely among the worst stories ever made, but it’s not clear that it’s the worst story ever by any means.
But, of course, when have we ever taken things out of context here? Yes, the biggest problem with this story is its context in Doctor Who, but the thing aired on television in a context everyone involved knew about, so really, that criticism sticks pretty well. Because what this story does is doom Colin Baker’s tenure as the Doctor and, in doing so, ensure the show’s cancellation. In this regard it is the single story most destructive to Doctor Who. Never mind Michael Foot. At 100 minutes, this is the longest suicide note in history.
There are, of course, self-inflicted wounds prior to this. If the past two seasons hadn’t started with pieces of utter crap like Warriors of the Deep and The Arc of Infinity, if the Peter Davison era hadn’t been a monument to wasted potential, et cetera, et cetera. The Twin Dilemma’s spectacular faceplant and sabotaging of the series didn’t happen in isolation. On the other hand, it’s also not the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s the entire bale of hay flung at high velocity towards the camel’s back. Doctor Who was vulnerable coming into this story, yes, but even if the Davison era had been a consistent triumph it would have been, at the very least, in serious trouble coming out of this story.
The core of the problem was the decision to put so many eggs in one basket. Nobody has ever really offered a clear explanation for why Nathan-Turner decided that Colin Baker’s debut should be moved up to the end of Season 21 instead of the start of Season 22. It’s a strange idea, particularly in contrast to how Davison was introduced. With Davison they went out of their way to give him three stories to practice before his debut so that he’d know where he was going with the character. Now, with Colin Baker, who, while not the crap actor he’s belittled as by some, is not as good as Peter Davison, they dump him in the role with less prep time and expect his first time out of the gate to set the tone of the character for nine months.
There’s really no explanation for this. It’s a dumb idea on the face of it. At the start of a season if the new Doctor is wobbly coming out of the gate it’s not a huge problem simply because there’s a level of momentum carrying you from story to story. It’s easy to tune in next week after a rough story. But this asks people to tune in nine months from now and in a different timeslot. There’s much less insurance for a rough start. If Castrovalva had proven to be a turkey they had the opportunity to turn things around next week, as they did back in 1975 when Tom Baker’s debut was, let’s face it, not exactly inspiring but the next story was legendarily good. This is common sense – putting the debut of a new character at the start of the season gives you more than one chance to win the audience over. Putting the debut of a new character at the end of a season means that if you give a bad first impression that impression has lots of time to settle in.
So faced with that problem, at the very least, one assumes, you throw away the old “regenerative trauma” structure and have the Doctor start with his feet on the ground. I mean, OK, if you’re going to use one story to form the impression of your new Doctor then you at the very least have to actually show what your new Doctor is like. You can’t spend episodes mucking around with post-regenerative trauma when you’re trying to cement your new lead in the audience’s mind such that they’re excited to come back next season. In this regard, at least, The Twin Dilemma deserves some credit, in that Baker settles into his default mode reasonably quickly. But any points it gains are more than undone by the fact that they not only decide to introduce the Doctor in regenerative crisis, they do so by having him try to strangle Peri. In the best of circumstances this would be an unwise way to introduce a new lead character. In these circumstances it is difficult to understand how the idea even got approved.
More broadly, if giving yourself one shot to introduce your new Doctor is unwise, to do so when your concept for the new Doctor is that he’s an unlikable character who the audience slowly grows to trust and like is simply farcical. The two ideas are completely incompatible. Even if we grant that one of them is good – and I don’t really think “make your lead character unlikable” was ever going to be a winning strategy – “make your character unlikable and then put yourself in a situation where the first impression matters more than ever to the success of your show” is an idea that almost weaponizes stupidity.
Of course, the Colin Baker era is also shot through with dodgy post facto justifications. For instance, the new party line is that Colin Baker’s Doctor was supposed to have a shameful secret that would eventually be revealed so as to explain his hostile demeanor and make him palatable to the audience. I don’t doubt that this idea came up in conversation at some point, but there’s a fairly easy way to check if this was actually a plan that people had or just something that was mentioned as an idea once that later got seized on to explain what they were really doing. What was the secret? Anybody? Have any of the people who allegedly crafted this idea of a multi-season “peeling back the layers of the onion” arc for Colin Baker’s Doctor ever actually indicated what the big secret at the heart of his character was?
Of course not. Because there wasn’t any. This was never an actual storyline that was being written into the series. And who would seriously think it might be? This was a production team that couldn’t remember to have Tegan and Nyssa be upset with the Master over things that actually did get onto screen, and we’re seriously expected to believe that they had some idea for deep motivations for the Doctor that never made it to screen? When nobody has even come up with a suggestion for what it might be? Or, for that matter, how it might work? I mean, how exactly does Colin Baker’s Doctor suddenly acquire a dark secret that hadn’t affected any of his predecessors?
No, the far more likely explanation is the one that occurred to everybody at the time – that every Doctor is a reaction against the previous one, and that they decided to follow “nice” and “bland” with “nasty” and “loud.” Then decided to give audiences one shot at this deliberately hard to like Doctor and see if they’d tune in nine months later. Given this, it’s a wonder that so many people were even around to be driven away by the first episode of Attack of the Cybermen instead.
But fine, let’s accept that, against all logic, we’re going to attempt this piece of madness. In that case we should, at the very least, make sure we have a solid writer. Not just someone with television experience, but someone who’s got a proven track record of working with Doctor Who.Instead they pick someone with extensive television experience who’s never done Doctor Who before. He turns out to be dangerously slow and prone to claiming that his typewriter has exploded, and his script needs a complete overhaul. Again, one wonders why they even put themselves in this position. In the past new Doctors were debuted by old hands – Bidmead, Dicks, Whitaker, even Holmes had ten episodes under his belt prior to Spearhead From Space. And yet instead of asking Bailey, Clegg, Gallagher, or even one of the writers they mistakenly have been putting so much faith in like Byrne or Dudley they take a risk on an untested writer. Heck, have this be the story where Eric Saward writes it under his ex-girlfriend’s name so that at least it’s from the start overseen by someone who knows how this is supposed to work. Any of these ideas are smarter than letting the new Doctor debut under an untested writer.
To continue to check off obvious things this story should have done, if this is the story you want to make a big impression, you want to put some time into it. As Tat Wood points out, when you have three stories – a regeneration, a debut, and a bit of transitional loose-end tying that shuffles the companions, you don’t blow the budget on an expensive location shoot in Lanzarote for the transitional piece and have the season-ending debut be the piece of cheap comedy. This is a story that absolutely has to be big – on which they’re openly and deliberately having everything ride – and they don’t even bother to try to make it big.
Instead we get poorly cast twins (that the director tried to cast with better actors only to be vetoed because Nathan-Turner, for no discernible reason, decided it was crucial that the twins be boys), poorly cast everyone else, wretched sets, a stupid monster, flat direction, and a paper thin plot. The story looks like its aspiring to the Graham Williams era. Which is improbable given Nathan-Turner’s views of that era, and anyway, the script completely lacks the self-awareness that the Williams era had. Say what you will about the Graham Williams era, but it knew enough to wink at the audience when it was being crap. Its only problem was that circumstances conspired to make it crap far too often.
Here, on the other hand, we have the show being crap without seeming to realize it, and on a story in which it’s vitally important that the show not be crap. Miles and Wood offer the diagnosis that Nathan-Turner has, by this point, come to completely misunderstand how the series works. Certainly he seems to have simply internalized the assumption that “doing Doctor Who-like stuff” is the sole purpose of Doctor Who such that he hasn’t bothered to think through the interactions of the material reality of production and transmission and the standard tropes of the series. That much is clear from the fact that he simultaneously went with giving Baker an orphan story to establish himself and using the post-regenerative trauma angle when one should have precluded the other.
But that doesn’t explain the more fundamental errors. It doesn’t explain how Nathan-Turner thought end-of-season filler was compatible with launching his new Doctor. Nothing does, really, save for incompetence – a complete failure to meaningfully think about how things were going to come off to the audience. And that’s the really stark thing. I mean, let’s imagine that we were to allow for everything we’ve already diagnosed. Let’s allow that we’re going with a deliberately unlikable Doctor, that we’re going to have one story set the audience’s impression of this Doctor for nine months, that we’re going to have him act worse than normal in that story, and that we’re not going to try to make it be good. I have no idea why we would allow all of these things, but let’s do it, just for fun. If we accept that a cheaply made piece of fluff about an unlikable Doctor might somehow hook people and make them excited about the series, can we say that this might work?
No. We can’t. Because even given all of that it’s impossible to suggest that this is a workable setup. Because Baker’s Doctor isn’t just unlikable here. He’s intolerable. He’s an overtly bad person who any reasonable audience should actively dislike and want to see get his comeuppance. Whereas the series still visibly thinks he’s the hero. It’s not just that Baker’s Doctor is prickly and hard to like, it’s that he’s a bad guy.
And I’m not just talking about the scene in which he strangles Peri. I mean, that’s an appalling bit of bad taste. No, I’m talking about everything that comes after that. The Doctor reacting to it by declaring that he’s going to be a hermit and effectively kidnapping Peri to spend the rest of his life tending to his needs. The Doctor’s complete failure, at any point in the story, to actually apologize to her for it. To, in fact, declare that he’s an alien bound to different values and customs and that he’s who he is whether she likes it or not. And her grinning broadly at him as he says it, clearly OK with this abusive bastard who tried to kill her not even caring about it.
Even if we do hold rigidly to the “no hanky-panky in the TARDIS” rule this is difficult to accept. The Doctor attempts to choke his heavily sexualized female companion. He physically and violently assaults her in a manner that is chillingly familiar as a real-world phenomenon that happens to women at the hands of their male partners. Then he drags her against her will to what he says could be an entire life in which “it shall be your humble privilege to minister unto my needs.” She readily forgives him and grins stupidly at his charms. It’s not Nicola Bryant’s fault – she plays the material as well as it can be played. Nor is it Baker’s fault. They try to make the scenes watchable, but nobody could possibly make this work. Peri is violently assaulted by a man who overtly sees her only purpose as being to serve him, and chooses happily to stay with him. The show treats this man as its hero and expects the audience to tune in nine months later to watch his continuing adventures.
Of course they declined to. Baker’s Doctor is completely poisoned here. There’s nothing whatsoever that can be done to make this character watchable to anyone who has seen this. And I speak from experience here. This is the story that killed my parents’ interest in Doctor Who. To this day my mother refuses to accept the possibility that Baker might be good on the audios simply because of how much this story made her hate him. That’s how bad this played to people. That’s how you kill Doctor Who in under a hundred minutes. You make it about a battered woman idolizing her abuser.
Yeah, OK. I take it back. This is the worst fucking story ever.