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The Twin Dilemma

“Embolism time again, is it?”

By Phillip J. Gray

The Bottom Ten No.1
DWM Score: 43.68%
DWM Placing: 159th

Well, here we are at number one. The absolute worst of the very worst. The nadir of Doctor Who.

Or is it?

While preparing for this article, I dug around to see if I could find any positive fan writing on The Twin Dilemma. I wasn't expecting a completely favourable article, just a single isolated sentence or two expressing someone's opinion that they liked something about the story. Think I found anything? Right - I didn't. Even the recent InVision article on The Twin Dilemma took the easy way out - substituting lazy, third-rate sarcasm for thoughtful analysis (Mike Golding, ‘Mission Impossible’, InVision 77). (That's not to mention some of the vitriolic pieces of writing I found - a particular favourite being Dallas Jones' effort in DWB about five years ago. ‘A Change for the Worse, my dear’, DWB 101, May 1992)

This struck me as particularly interesting. Because although there are other stories and eras of the programme which have attracted similar opprobrium (far too many, in fact, to list here), as far as I'm aware The Twin Dilemma is unique to date in not having been reappraised favourably as part of what Paul Cornell categorised recently as a ‘second wave’ of ‘New Fandom’ (Paul Cornell (ed.). Licence Denied, Rumblings from the Doctor Who Underground, Virgin, 1997).

I'm aware that I enjoy a reputation as someone who likes to take the opposite view to the rest of fandom. (The editor has been generous enough to point to examples of this in his introduction to this series of articles). So perhaps you're expecting a wholesale re-examination of The Twin Dilemma - a glowing review which attempts to persuade you that the story is a pinnacle of true Who at the height of its greatness.

“Why do you like to play the man of mystery? It's a role you play very badly!”
- The Sylvest twins

Well, I'm not going to do that. Because it wouldn't be true - for me. What I will try and show you is how certain aspects of The Twin Dilemma have been unjustly overlooked - and why the next time you watch the story, you should look out for these. I'll also address the fascinating question of why The Twin Dilemma in particular seems to be so universally loathed among fans - and how this is bound up in our own perception of ourselves as fans of Doctor Who.

This article might change your opinion of the story as a whole - or it might not. But if it does encourage you to watch the story again with some of my comments in mind, you'll be engaging with the story at a new and more constructive level - the search for things to like, rather than things to hate.

“Have you heard of Joconda?” “No - what happens there?”

I commented in a previous article that fan appreciation of Doctor Who is generally coloured by the fan's knowledge of background information, particularly production information (what might be described as ‘auxiliary codes’), rather than analysis of the text (‘Why the Nimon Should be Our Friends: Storytelling and Stylistic Change in Doctor Who’, TSV 41, reprinted Licence Denied). Fan (mis)appreciation of The Twin Dilemma can be classed in similar terms. How many articles have been written, for instance, damning the story while lamenting the casting of Colin Baker? Or the creation of that ‘totally tasteless’ outfit? A close reading of The Twin Dilemma certainly reveals some problems - but also many positive and previously unconsidered features.

The Twin Dilemma is a relatively rare example in Doctor Who of the ‘space opera’ (other examples include Frontier in Space and The Invisible Enemy). The locations switch initially at great speed from Earth, to the TARDIS, the space headquarters on (near?) Earth, the barren asteroid Titan III, and then to Joconda. Unfortunately, The Twin Dilemma does not have either the wide sweep or the bravura of other stories which also take in so many exotic locations. Instead, the plot consists of a mishmash of SF cliches, tacky and garish sets and costumes, accompanied by some of the most stereotyped dialogue ever heard in the programme (“warp drive”, “service ducts”, “medical kit” - a sad contrast to the grandeur and richness of the dialogue given to the newly-regenerated Doctor).

“Launch pursuit crews!”

Digging beneath this unpromising surface, however, yields significant rewards. The scenes in the space headquarters' special incident room have been used, for instance, as examples of how not to portray a realistic society - by putting people in a room, with no reference to anything outside the room's (three) walls. There are several aspects to these scenes which mitigate against such criticisms. Notice, for instance, that when Professor Sylvest calls the room, Hugo answers the call and puts down a drink. This little touch - all too rarely seen in Doctor Who, showing basic human needs in even as obviously advanced a civilisation as this one - is an example of skilful direction and eye for detail. Having Hugo answer the call ‘ready for action’ would have demonstrated one-dimensionalism both of character and function, just as Fabian's need to consult with a minister and her pile of papers to be attended to are careful signposts to a wider, still-bureaucratic society. (Think how easy - and lazy - it would have been to have had Fabian sitting behind a desk giving orders with no apparent line of responsibility or chain of command.) Note also that Fabian's assistant, Elena, is both a woman and has a name (and a gun!) - a relative rarity in Doctor Who. Contrast this scene with a similar one in Day of the Daleks, where the women assistants are in effect mere objects, adjuncts to the Controller.

“He had a sort of... feckless charm.”

The greatest strength of The Twin Dilemma is of course Colin Baker's portrayal of the Doctor. Baker never lets up, running a rollercoaster of emotions which leaves the viewer metaphorically gasping for breath. The shift in style must have been astonishing to viewers who had just watched a season of Peter Davison's understated, subtle performances. The story sees the Doctor showing almost every emotion possible - pathos, for instance, when contemplating the ruination of Joconda by the giant slugs; cowardice when he betrays Peri to the palace guards; sorrow and regret at the death of Azmael.

And yet a great deal of care is taken to emphasise that the Doctor is an alien, and as such cannot be expected to react to situations as would humans (specifically Peri). The new Doctor has a distinct tendency to focus on self-preservation at the expense of those around him, and to point out even unconscious hypocrisy in others. “You would have left one of your own kind to die”, the Doctor taunts Peri over Hugo's body, emphasising that Hugo (and by extension, Peri and the viewers) are not one of his kind.

The other defining characteristic of Baker's interpretation of the Doctor is the glorying in language and quotations (Thomas Moore's Lalla Rukh, for example, or Longfellow's Excelsior), underscored in the early scenes in particular by some gloriously baroque incidental music. The regeneration is denoted in quasi-religious terms as never before - and the analogies continue in the aftermath of the attempted strangulation of Peri (the decision to go into exile, to “some utterly comfortless place... where you and I can suffer together”, to the pronunciation that “I must atone for what I have done” when the TARDIS arrives on Titan III).

The cat motif the Doctor adopts is also singularly appropriate to Baker's portrayal of the Doctor, because of the care taken to impart characterisation through body language as much as through delivery of dialogue. Notice how the Doctor adopts many different physical postures which subtly underscore the initially erratic and then increasingly bombastic nature of his new persona - cowering against racks of clothes in the TARDIS wardrobe room, for example, or lunging into Azmael's laboratory, and later sitting cross-legged on the table discussing how to defeat Mestor's plans. Baker is strikingly successful at conveying characterisation through body language in a self-conscious way not adopted by any of his predecessors.

“Don't be so melodramatic, father!”

One of the most interesting - and most criticised - aspects of The Twin Dilemma is the twins themselves. The opening scene has the significant subtext of the child having greater (intellectual) power than the parent. The twins' relationship with their father, and with the mother they obviously despise, is clearly one based on knowledge of their intellectual superiority, and a corresponding struggle by their father to maintain parental control.

The child/parent relationship is in fact one of the central themes of The Twin Dilemma, and one which crops up with startling frequency - the Doctor and Peri (or, given the circumstances of the regeneration, is it Peri and the Doctor?), Azmael and the Doctor, Azmael and the Jocondans, and so on. Each of these relationships is depicted - sometimes in visually very graphic terms - as dysfunctional. The Doctor's attempted strangulation of Peri is a sudden and effective signal to the viewers that all is not well with the new incarnation of the Doctor, and bodes for a rocky relationship with his companion for at least the rest of the story.

Azmael has been deposed as the leader of his people by a giant slug - and among the Jocondans we see in the story, Noma seems to represent those not entirely unhappy with the situation. The Doctor and Azmael's relationship - once it has been established - is conducted under straightened circumstances, with only Azmael's death scene offering both the opportunity for redemption and for the new Doctor to display the tender side of his new persona.

The Doctor's relationship with Azmael, and the idea that Azmael was the Doctor's teacher, is also one which gives rise to some extremely subtle touches - the image, gone in a few seconds, showing Azmael's two hearts on the Titan III scanner (before it is revealed he is a Time Lord), or the Doctor bellowing “Still bullying children, eh!” as he charges into Azmael's laboratory - encouraging us to consider that the latter's depiction as a harmless old man may not be the full story (he was, after all, ruler of a planet of aliens, benevolent despot or not - consider how the Rani's similar rule of Miasimia Goria is presented the following season).

“Our genius has been abused!”

[Sylvest Twins]

In fact, the presence of children in the story, and particularly their centrality to the plot, may be one of the greatest reasons that The Twin Dilemma seems to be so universally loathed among fans. This operates at several levels. Firstly, programmes with children as major characters are generally classified as children's programmes - programmes made for and targeting as their key audience, children.

As fans, however, how many of us have made apparently fruitless attempts to persuade sceptical non-fans that “it's not a children's programme”? If there's one Doctor Who story which really does look like it's making an all-out effort to appeal to children, it's The Twin Dilemma. The cartoon-strip feel of the production; the plasticky props and garish, deliberately artificial sets; the one-dimensional villain with the soft toy cross-eyes; the presence not only of the Sylvest twins but also of Peri and Hugo as their substitute parents (check out the final scenes on Jaconda in episode four!) - all of these conspire to subvert what fans would like to present as an adult programme with serious, dramatic acting, and lots of guns. (In other words, Resurrection of the Daleks or The Caves of Androzani.)

“That awful creature!”

At another level, the actual performances of the actors playing Romulus and Remus have also been used as ammunition with which to attack The Twin Dilemma. Not, admittedly, prime examples of naturalistic performances - although the hint of a lisp certainly doesn't deserve the criticism to which it has been subjected - the twins' studied intellectual arrogance (or blandness, depending perhaps on your generosity of spirit) seems entirely appropriate. Their Enid Blyton-like dialogue - “What a super trick! You did it jolly well!” - does not serve them well, however, signalling further how far removed they are from anything with which viewers could have any real sympathy. The twins' most interesting scene occurs in episode two, when having been confronted by the power of Mestor, they realise that they are simply children - something their intellectual superiority has led them previously to dismiss from their perception of themselves.

One wonders, however, whether the depiction of the twins by ‘better’ actors would have made any difference to the level of dislike they attract. From the fan point of view, watching two teenaged boys of above average intelligence but poor social skills is like seeing the last possible thing you want to see on television - yourself. (No wonder Adric was/is despised so much!) No wonder the twins have attracted so much fan vitriol - they're uncomfortably close to being ourselves (and worse still, they're the ones on screen having the adventures with the Doctor).

As I hope this article has shown, there is a lot about The Twin Dilemma which deserves criticism. But there is also a great deal which deserves long overdue recognition - notably Colin Baker's performance, but also some of the subtleties which manage to subvert the clichés of plot and dialogue. It's easy to see why fans in particular dislike the story - it makes no attempt to be consciously adult, instead conforming both to some of the worst cliches of both science fiction television in general, but also of children's television.

This series of articles should have reinforced that there's something for everyone in Doctor Who - even in the ‘worst’ stories. So why don't you give The Twin Dilemma another go?

“You may well find it isn't quite as disagreeable as you think.”

This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).

Index nodes: The Twin Dilemma