The Twin Dilemma [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But lately I decided to spend both some of my birthday and Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

(Daily Doctor Who #228)

The Twin Dilemma

Starring Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor.
Companion: Nicola Bryant as Peri Brown
Written by Anthony Steven  Directed by Peter Moffatt

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  March 1984 (Episodes 23-26 of Season 22)

The Twin Dilemma is a story with a terrible reputation, but which I bought on purpose nonetheless. In truth, like Time and the Rani before, I got it mainly because it came in a package with other material–a few other Colin Baker-led adventures which I was interested in largely because I didn’t own any other Sixth Doctor stories (and I haven’t seen I used to have Trial of a Time Lord on VHS).

Spoilers Ahead!

Can I just start off by saying that my daughter pointed out to me that a big part of the plot of this story takes place because Azmael, this super smart Time Lord guy, forgot that gravity was a thing.

I’ve never been a massive fan of the Sixth Doctor, finding as I did his persona to be abrasive and unpleasant. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate Colin Baker’s take on the character a lot more through his in audio. But as much as I’ve enjoyed some of his Big Finish adventures, the truth is there are just no Sixth Doctor stories that I consider to be truly great.

Consequently, my daughters haven’t really been exposed to the Sixth Doctor until now, and so it’s potentially really unfortunate that they were introduced to him via The Twin Dilemma, considering how deserved the story’s poor reception is. Of course, the truth is, The Twin Dilemma was originally everyone’s introduction to the Sixth Doctor, and so we can perhaps understand why some people look at this serial as the beginning of the end of the classic series. The serial easily wins my pick for the worst set of major behind-the-scenes production decisions (presumably by producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward) that ever got made for a single story.

Analyzing what is wrong with The Twin Dilemma is tricky, not because it’s hard to put your finger on it, but more because there are so many problems that it’s difficult to organize any sort of discussion about it. Kicking off with the obvious is the fact that the story is tremendously tedious, unfocused and dull. It’s well into the second episode of the story before the Doctor is properly engaged properly with the plot (and even then, it’s only briefly, before he’s kicked out of it again for a while). I’m under the impression that there are other Sixth Doctor stories that have the same problem, with lots of the time being spent on the Doctor getting to the adventure rather than being in the adventure, but I don’t recall this well enough to say definitively.

In any case, instead of fairly quickly seeing the Doctor in action, we instead have endless scenes devoted to the his post-regeneration ravings, or to the meandering set-up of Azmael’s kidnapping of the twins. The kidnapping thread is especially flawed, as the actual twins are almost irrelevant to the ultimate plot. You know your story isn’t focused when it’s called The Twin Dilemma, and the titular brothers aren’t really necessary for your story, and the fact that they are twins is completely superfluous. As my one daughter pointed out, the twins could have been replaced by a bit of computer coding without changing the story at all.

The story also features some really unappealing design choices. The Jacondans are a bit silly, and Mestor the evil slug is really gross. And I’ve read somewhere once that the story features three people entering the TARDIS wardrobe, and the fact that the Sixth Doctor is not the worst dressed person to emerge is really saying something.

I don’t think I’ve seen a worst costume than that silver jacket that Hugo Lang ends up wearing. It’s enough to take away whatever sympathy we still had for the character, who is already pretty annoying and unsympathetic.

But all of that might have been excused if the new Doctor had worked. We can look no further than The Christmas Invasion, a story which might have been lost in the mess of spinning Christmas trees and machine-gun-toting-brass-band Santas, but is utterly redeemed by how spectacularly charismatic David Tennant gets to be. With The Twin Dilemma, there is a deliberate attempt to make the Doctor into a bit of a bitter pill–hard to like and hard to swallow.

There is something to admire in the effort to do something different with the hero, even to add layers of mystery or an alien mystique. But The Twin Dilemma leans into this idea just way too hard–the Doctor starts off as jarring and unpleasant, and then becomes dangerously homicidal, and finally self-pityingly insane. Really, for a good chunk of the story, the Doctor is the tale’s villain as much as anyone else is.

And bafflingly, the Dotor’s instability doesn’t end after the first episode–they keep bringing it back as the story goes on, with repeated over-the-top moments of broadly silly nonsense punctuating the story. This has the spill-on effect of making everyone around the Doctor just as agitating and difficult as he is–like there’s no way to relate to him without becoming petulant and snippy. Peri is a particular victim of this, which make the character harder to like.

The result is that we get to the end of the last episode without ever really getting a sense of what makes this version of the character someone I want to watch, or giving him a real moment to shine. It must have been a terribly frustrating place to leave fans of the show at the end of the season, feeling like the show had gone off the rails, and wondering if it would find its feet again when it finally returned.

Today, years later, I know that the televised adventures of the Sixth Doctor never really got the chance to be as good as they should have been, although they came up miles from The Twin Dilemma. But I’d say that except for the odd moment here or there, it wasn’t until Big Finish that Colin Baker got to be awesome in the part.

Do I like anything about this story? Well, Maurice Evans manages some dignity as Azmael. Colin Baker is not actually a bad actor, but he is badly written and directed here (and badly produced). And Peri is more sympathetic than I remember, but maybe that’s just because she suffers so much. Really, it’s hard to imagine why she wants to stay with the Doctor at the story’s end (or even, in the middle).

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