Sunday, September 06, 2009


DVD Taster: The Twin Dilemma

Tomorrow, a new Doctor Who DVD goes on sale. The Twin Dilemma is Colin Baker’s first story as the Doctor, and he’s terrific in it. As for everything else – well, its reputation is less terrific. When, in a week and a half, DWM reveals the results of their vote on “all 200” Doctor Who television stories, I confidently expect this to be near the bottom of the poll. Can neither Maurice Denham, Kevin R McNally nor a villain that’s a cheap Jabba the Hut knock-off save this 1984 B-Movie adventure? In a word, no. But it isn’t all bad…

That Golden Moment
“The shades of night were falling fast
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ’mid snow and ice,
A banner with a strange device:
Ten minutes into Part Two, the new Doctor appears to have settled down – if only temporarily – and, ironically, this brings one of the most extrovert scenes in a far from hesitant performance. Leaving the TARDIS for the cold, gritty wilderness of Titan III, the Doctor goes striding up a rocky hill, exuberantly decrying lines from Longfellow in an hilariously misguided attempt to ‘cheer Peri up’. She’s tagging along behind, complaining and unimpressed (“Who cares!”) until he finds a metallic outcrop and, searching the surface, presents her with a door into an underground passage…

This has always been my favourite scene from The Twin Dilemma. After the deliberately off-key and off-putting Doctor essentially emerging straight from a regeneration into a nervous breakdown the previous week, this was the scene where I knew I was going to love Colin Baker. His evident joy in cutting a dash and reciting at the top of his voice may not be infectious for Peri – scripted to say she’s tired, but with the mini-skirted Nicola Bryant visibly frozen too and clearly not having to act being pissed off – but it worked for me. Colin looks like he’s having the time of his life (and rather good-looking here, too), with his infamously multicoloured coat for once working a treat, standing out brilliantly against the bleak grey landscape and evidently keeping the actor much warmer than his companion. There’s a lovely bit of music underscoring it all, the Doctor gets to work out and seek out a clever way in, there’s a probably deliberately funny exaggeration of the traditional roles of the Doctor as wide-eyed explorer and companion as feebly fed up, but most of all it taught me that, if you’re frozen to death in some depressing wilderness and still have miles to walk, you’re best off being very loud to keep your spirits up. As the South Wales police officers who once picked me up in the middle of the night, yomping the last few miles to a particularly unpromising by-election after many hours of hitch-hiking and singing Shirley Bassey Bond themes with everything I could must muster against a hailstorm, would no doubt testify.

Something Else To Look Out For

Colin Baker’s verve and enthusiasm is by a long way the most entertaining thing about this story. Unfortunately, the dreadful and unwisely protracted regeneration crisis writing means the Doctor is also often the worst thing about it. The concept of Colin’s Doctor was a cold ‘Mr Darcy’ figure that could be gradually unwrapped, but despite the actor working wonders with rotten material, the script editor was utterly hopeless at writing that overarching story. Randomly making him a bully, a coward and a loon doesn’t conceal a deeper layer; it’s just wrong all the way down. He runs from endearing and stirring to deeply unlikeable, without any natural dramatic progression, while Peri even lectures him on compassion, flabbergasting after the previous Doctor has literally just given his life for her (it’s difficult not to conclude that she fancied the old him and is now grumpy at not getting a shag before he ‘died’). And showing this story at the end of a season blighted poor Colin’s Doctor: writers and fans alike got stuck on the idea that his post-regeneration trauma was ‘what he’s like’, despite almost every other Doctor’s opening story being very different to how they settled.

I’m fond of many elements of this story, but I don’t rush to watch it. While Colin is striking, almost anything else that can go wrong, does. Save for an intriguing frieze and the odd model shot, the design is shocking, and it’s a thoroughly rotten B-Movie cliché of a script, full of appalling science and worse characterisation. The guest actors range from rather good to awful, but even the good ones can only work with what they’re given. Future Pirates of the Caribbean star Kevin R McNally has a thoroughly unlikeable character in worse outfits than the Doctor’s; Edwin Richfield is wasted as a monster (in theory one of the most powerful enemies the Doctor’s ever faced, but largely ignored in lists of gods and demons because it’s a bit rubbish); and Maurice Denham, emerging with some dignity, perhaps tellingly does best when acting ‘weary’. But if you want one reason to watch this – and there’s not much more – it’s always Colin. Making you believe that a bit of turned earth was once a beautiful grove on an alien world by words alone, making “Thou craggy knob!” entertaining or exploding “Villain! Murderer! A thousand currants on your head!” (perhaps the DVD will tell me what the real line is, but from past subtitling fiascos I doubt it), his vocal style’s what I remember, but today it’s his physicality that strikes me: closing in menacingly on Peri, deranged; leaning on the console; just walking round a gun; pointing a dramatic finger of doom; sprawling across a lab; striding up that hill. He’s endlessly watchable.

Extras include a piece on fashion and the Doctors – I suspect Colin will not be kind about his coat – along with the usual commentary, text notes and Photo Gallery, with contemporary items from Breakfast Time and Blue Peter. I remember the latter, even down to the sound effect when Colin, in full costume as the Doctor, does some ‘Time Lord magic’ to make the cat disappear. I suspect David Tennant, only a few months older than I am, saw the same edition and that’s why he vowed never to do interviews ‘in character’, but only as ‘David Tennant’. There’s also, I’m told, a trailer for whole Doctor Who DVD range (have they finally dug out those commissioned-then-dropped ‘also available’ trailers?), though apparently Colin doesn’t come out of it well. The extra I’m most looking forward to is Stripped For Action – The Sixth Doctor, a look at one of the most vibrant and memorable periods for Doctor Who comics (not least for the character of Frobisher, an occasional penguin). The one I’m most grinding my teeth over is that, yet again, there’s no isolated music provided. It’s not Malcolm Clarke’s best score, with rather too many unsubtle clangs, but I enjoy listening to them and – noting no ‘making of’ feature this time, either – it’s hard not to conclude that, increasingly, they’re doing this once award-winning, standard-setting range on the cheap.

On the bright side, The Twin Dilemma’s release means Colin is the first Doctor to have every one of his stories available on DVD, and with this and Delta and the Bannermen out of the way this year, the only way is up.

Colin these days is immensely pleased that he now has more action figures than any of the other Twentieth Century Doctors, with “Old Sixie” available in his infamous coat of many colours, in a sober blue version and in the mud-covered Peter Davison outfit he’s still wearing at the start of this story. You might be able to track down the novelisation by script editor Eric Saward, who may have made a total pig’s ear of the original script but whose book, as I’ve written before, at least does something interesting with it. Far more interesting, though, is Paul Cornell’s Circular Time, a set of short Doctor Who audio dramas with one a re-imagined prequel to The Twin Dilemma. It’s almost worth putting up with the original to get that. Astoundingly, one of the worst guidebooks available on the series – John Kenneth Muir’s obvious, overpriced and often idiotic A Critical History of Doctor Who On Television – not only likes this story but makes some interesting observations for once, arguing that it borrows from cop drama with a crime boss, getaway vehicle with false number plates, and the Doctor and Hugo each fit the idea of flawed cops (fallen cop trying to atone and revenge-ridden vigilante cop). It’s not worth shelling out for that entry alone, though. Besides, a list of “50 Reasons To Love The Twin Dilemma” I once found online was far more enjoyable to read, and I even agreed with twelve of them…

Final (leading) question: if, for some baffling reason, you were dead-set on calling a story “The Twin Dilemma,” and if, for some utterly inexplicable reason, your script were only to feature one of those two key words, which would you pick? Would you supply endless scenes of terrible teen actors who happen to be twins, or remember to include some sort of dilemma? Consider your answer more carefully than the script editor did.

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The Twin Dilemma is the only Colin story I find completely, utterly unwatchable - I can't even get half way through it, while I can find *something* to like about even Timelash. Stories like this are genuinely upsetting to me - Baker is *so bloody good*, but he's in a show run by utter incompetents. The same goes for a lot of Davison's stuff, of course, but at least he was given a great opener like Castrovalva...
That’s a shame – I find this easier to watch than Timelash, at least. I think even Colin has trouble having fun in that one (though, if I’m in the right mood, I can enjoy PAUL! DAR! ROW! for his understatedness).

I do wince when you mention Castrovalva, though… It reminds me that the twins may complain about their genius being abused in Twin, but it seems much more like Mr H. Bidmead’s. Surely this is Peter’s opening story of an unstable Doctor, all-powerful maths and boy geniuses, re-written to take its brain out and stick every cliché in? And as for the science… No, I’d better not start.
Yeah, the comparison with Castrovalva is another point not exactly in its favour (and why they had to then go and do the 'two blonde geniuses' routine again in Trial I don't understand - did Saward have to flog *every* terrible idea to death?_

I think the difference between Timelash and this is that Timelash is just bad, whereas The Twin Dilemma seems actively mean-spirited. I'd almost believe it was Saward deliberately trying to sabotage Baker, in fact, given his well-known dislike of Baker's acting. Putting something that poor on right after Caves... well... it's not doing anyone any favours, is it?

Oh, and I suspect the lack of extras is just a one-off thing - the last couple of DVD releases have had pretty good extras, I thought (though the CGI on the new version of Enlightenment was embarrassingly bad...)
But at least the two in Trial were able to act, had some amusing lines, and weren’t central to the plot (though, structurally, having “It is said the Immortal eats them!” after we’ve already seen them faffing around deflates the threat the instant it’s raised). I quite like a couple of Mr Saward’s scripts, but as a script editor he was a disaster, and – as you say – it’s easy to conclude that he was deliberately undermining the lead. But was even he so bitter?

I do hope the extras pick up. You’re right about the quality of the Black Guardian set – but all too often it seems that the short-lived cut-price ‘standard’ range (they brought out, what, just four at a lower price? About two years ago?) lives on as a money-saver at their end, which they charge full price for at ours. And, yes, I know I’m always going on about them leaving the music score off when it still exists, but it irritates me enormously: that’s ten they’ve cut now, more than a quarter of the possible releases. On the other hand, I may be the only person who listens to them…
I agree, Saward was a better writer than script editor - though sadly, he seemed to be more-or-less getting the hang of the job just as he quit (or at least he'd figured out that the best strategy was just to keep commissioning stories from Robert Holmes and Philip Martin, though he did still have his Pip & Jane fixation...)

And it does seem pointless not to include the music track. I rarely listen to them, but it's not like it would take much effort to include them, and even if you *are* the only one, that's still one person who'd appreciate it...
I love Twin Dilemma BECAUSE Colin tries so manfully to save what is clearly the worst bit of scriptwriting in the history of Who. I cheer at every craggy knob and violent biological eruption.

And coming home to find this on my f-list after a really cruddy day at work (office politics in a pub. It's a joy) has cheered me up no end. The only thing that would be better would be if "Stripped For Action – The Sixth Doctor" did what it said on the tin...
Crikey, now you mention it.. I'm not even sure I've seen the Twin Dilemma properly all the way through. I have a feeling I must have dozed off.

Hmm. Theoretically, that ought to make the excitement of buying the DVD greater, but... I'm struggling.
I remembered at the time that we'd had a video recorder for a couple of years (certainly we recorded season 19 while I went to swimming lessons.

I watched Twin Dilemma the first time round in black and white as my family wanted to watch the other side. Then again on video and never ever again. I remember justifying in the playground "He's not a terrible doctor, he was just suffering after his regeneration- He'll be OK in his next story"

Castrovalva I have seen since, and it was disappointing.

Anyone want to buy a second hand copy on VHS?
You’re so right, Jennie (glad to be cheering). Colin is heroic here not just as the Doctor but as an actor. And I love his craggy knob.

So, Andy, have you stayed awake…? And I remember saying something similar after the next regeneration, Simon ;-)

In exciting news, 50 Reasons To Love "The Twin Dilemma is now available online again!
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