Doctor Who: The Twin Dilemma DVD, from BBC Video
In September 2009, Doctor Who Magazine published the results of a poll ranking the popularity of the 200 Doctor Who television stories. Coming in last: Colin Baker’s debut story The Twin Dilemma. In other words, most fans of the show regarded The Twin Dilemma as the worst Doctor Who story ever.
Could this really be the case? In a word: no.
To paraphrase, and invert, a famous line by Shakespeare, I come to praise The Twin Dilemma, not bury it.
When I purchased The Twin Dilemma on DVD recently, it had to have been at least fifteen years, probably more, since I had last viewed that serial. My memories of it were hazy, but I did not recall it being especially bad. Re-watching it, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is nowhere near as awful as many people have made it out to be. More to the point, I spotted certain specific areas where, if things had been done differently, the story would have been improved tremendously.
Let’s cut right to the chase and address the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Following on from the events of The Caves of Androzani, the Doctor dies and regenerates, transforming from Peter Davison to Colin Baker. I do not know if it was producer John Nathan-Turner, script editor Eric Saward, or writer Anthony Steven’s decision. But someone came up with the idea that this time around the regeneration process would be especially unstable, leaving the Doctor an unbalanced manic-depressive throughout almost the entire four episodes of The Twin Dilemma.
Granted, other regeneration stories before and since have seen the “new” Doctor in precarious mental and/or physical health throughout much of the narrative, Castrovalva and The Christmas Invasion immediately springing to mind. I think that both of these stories suffered to a degree. A better model would be Robot and The Eleventh Hour. In those two stories, the rejuvenated Doctor is uncertain and confused for the first five to ten minutes, but then quickly finds his footing, allowing the audience to discover the new aspects of his personality, as well as allowing the story to progress unhindered.
So a serial like The Twin Dilemma, where the Doctor is mentally unbalanced for nearly the entire duration, is just a bad idea. And the worst aspect of this is how, during a fit of paranoid hysteria, the Doctor attempts to strangle his traveling companion Peri. For the life of me, I cannot imagine what the production team was thinking when they came up with that particular scene.
If only Colin Baker’s Doctor had been allowed to settle down into his new persona within the story’s first episode, and the homicidal blackout had been omitted completely, then The Twin Dilemma could have been so much better. To their credit, Baker and Nicola Bryant as the Doctor and Peri do their very best with the material that they are given in these scenes.
The other major problem would be the Sixth Doctor’s costume. Baker wanted the Doctor dress in a dark, somber outfit to reflect the more aloof, alien persona that the actor intended to invest the character with. Completely disregarding this, Nathan-Turner decided that the new Doctor would be totally lacking in style and subtlety, and had him given a tacky, multi-colored ensemble that was, to quote Baker himself from one of the interviews on the DVD, “a symphony of bad taste.”
If Baker’s wardrobe was infected with bad taste, then it must have been contagious, as the majority of the costumes in The Twin Dilemma can be classified as gaudy. Peri is given a very odd-looking dress, and the character of Hugo Lang, portrayed by Kevin McNally, spends the second half of the story sporting a jacket that looks like it was made out of colored tin foil.
So what about the rest of The Twin Dilemma then? Well, leaving behind the problems of the Doctor’s regeneration and the various wardrobe disasters, it’s actually a halfway decent story.
The standout performance would have to be Maurice Denham, playing Azmael, an old friend of the Doctor’s who has been coerced into serving the evil conquerors of the planet Jaconda, which he once ruled. Denham’s performance really brings across the weary, tortured reluctance of a decent man forced to commit immoral acts, all the while searching with desperation for some way to extricate his adopted world from the dire crisis that plagues it.
The villains of The Twin Dilemma are the Giant Gastropods, humanoid slugs who have overrun Jaconda, totally devouring all food and plant life on the planet. Their ruthless leader Mestor is played by Edwin Richfield. Buried beneath a heavy costume, it is mostly a vocal performance, and Richfield’s deep tones imbue Mestor with an imposing, menacing presence. The costume is perhaps not nearly as successful, looking less like an alien slug than an owl, of all things. Creating human-sized slugs was probably beyond the budget of the show in 1984, but at least the production team was attempting to do something different. And Richfield’s performance is strong enough that it mostly overcomes the limitations of the costume.
Much better realized are the avian inhabitants of Jaconda. The bird-like make-up for the Jacondans is original, striking, and flawless. They are some of the most interesting alien races to have appeared in a Doctor Who story.
One of the few aspects of The Twin Dilemma that remained in my memory over the years (well, aside from the Doctor’s erratic behavior) is Mestor’s plan to conquer the universe. When I was around ten years old or so and I first saw this serial, I was awestruck at how brilliant and original Mestor’s scheme for universal domination was. Even now, more than 25 years later, I still regard it as a very clever and audacious plot.
Actually, if there is one think that has improved my appreciation of The Twin Dilemma, it is the fact that, in the years since I last saw it, I’ve had the opportunity to watch a number of the serials from the show’s first couple of years. Back in the early 1960s, when originally portrayed by William Hartnell, the Doctor was very much an anti-hero. He was an arrogant, self-righteous, condescending and, yes, alien figure. As the show progressed, the Doctor gradually became a warmer, more caring individual, at least most of the time.
Watching Colin Baker’s performance in The Twin Dilemma, listening to his delivery of certain lines, I could easily imagine much of the dialogue being acted in almost exactly the same manner by William Hartnell during the very first season of Doctor Who. Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor returns the character to his anti-hero roots, making him an unpredictable, dangerous, even unlikable figure.
In 1984, after a decade of watching first Tom Baker and then Peter Davison playing the Doctor as a warm, friendly individual, it must have been a shock to suddenly see Colin Baker’s brash, aloof characterization. But, in hindsight, looking at his Doctor within the entire history of the show, it makes perfect sense. It ironic, but as flawed as The Twin Dilemma happens to be, it really helps in understanding what Baker was going for with the role. It also gave me a greater appreciation for the rest of his tenure as the Doctor, including his wonderful performances in the Doctor Who audio plays produced by Big Finish.
The Twin Dilemma, although the first Colin Baker story, was the last to be released on DVD. As such, most of the extras covering his run as the Doctor were included on previous disks. “Looking 100 Years Younger” is a bit of fluff with Baker and comedian Amy Lame humorously critiquing the Doctor’s costumes over the years. Once again Baker reiterates that his Doctor’s costume was not his idea. I do not blame him for repeating himself. If it had been me, I would be shouting it from the rooftops!
More significantly, the “Stripped For Action” installment covering the Sixth Doctor’s comic book adventures is included on this disk. Several of the people involved in those very memorable comic strips, including artist John Ridgeway, are interviewed. The retrospective also covers Age of Chaos, the graphic novel that Colin Baker himself wrote. It’s a bit disappointing that Baker himself wasn’t interviewed, as I would have enjoyed hearing his insight into being given the opportunity to write the Doctor. After all, they got him to do that “Looking 100 Years Younger” piece. While he was in the studio, couldn’t they have taken an extra fifteen minutes to ask him a few questions about Age of Chaos?
In any case, looking back at The Twin Dilemma, I really do not think it is the worst Doctor Who story ever. Yes, it has a lot of glaring deficiencies. Yes, it is a poor introduction for the Sixth Doctor. But despite its problems, it is still a fun story. I would much rather sit through The Twin Dilemma than, say, The Time Monster or Time-Flight or the audio reconstruction of The Space Pirates, just to name three stories. And I can think of a few more besides those.
The Twin Dilemma is an interesting specimen. On the one hand, it exemplified so much that was going wrong with Doctor Who as a whole in the mid-1980s. At the same time, it contains many of the distinctive elements of fun and originality that have made the show so great throughout it existence.