Doctor Who: Reputation – “He’s dangling on the edge of oblivion!” (Whovember #6)

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Time to even some scores on this Doctor Who viewing odyssey for the 50th birthday Month of the Doctor!  Here the arc is simple: two tales of the Sixth Doctor that are terrible or at least… Perceived terrible.  Yes, the two most despised stories of the underrated Sixth Doctor…

#6: The Twin Dilemma and TimeLash.

“CHANGE MY DEAR, AND IT SEEMS NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON” AND “LEAVE THE GIRL, IT’S THE MAN I WANT”.  Both classic phrases that kicked off post-regeneration stories in the 1980s and both two of the most promising lines in Doctor Who’s 50 year career.  But, both times, that promise wasn’t fulfilled.

Particularly in the Sixth Doctor’s case, the cards were stacked against him the minute he regenerated.

For this part of the Whovember re-watch, the Sixth Doctor again draws the short cat broach as I tackle his two most notorious tales.  The two, legendarily infamous serials, The Twin Dilemma and, shudder, Timelash.

Interestingly, and no doubt uncoincidentally, they are also the two Colin Baker serials I’ve never seen.  Well, if I have to watch these to complete the set, what a way to go… (Presses play on DVD player)

The Twin Dilemma (Season 21, 1984)

Dilemma’s main problems are worn on its multi-coloured sleeve.

It followed The Caves of Androzani, and nobody’s supposed to do that, to paraphrase a later Doctor in the throes of regeneration.  Caves has achieved widespread acclaim for a number of reasons, including Robert Holmes’ storming script, Graeme Harper’s energetic direction and Davison’s poignant last performance.  In truth it’s more than the sum of its parts, a fact that lifts some of its low points.  As good as it is, I know from experience it’s not a great jumping on point for Who fans-in-waiting. Never doing that again…

It’s not great idea to set yourself up by completely slagging off your immediate predecessor…

For the follow-up it’s well documented how the production team wanted to mix things up.  There wasn’t any real need, but as with the 11th Doctor’s arrival, I can see how and why crews can get carried away with a show that has change at its very core.  In fact, Dilemma’s main problems are worn on its multi-coloured sleeve.  The Doctor’s costume is clearly a mistake and Colin Baker’s probably its most outspoken critic.  Perhaps more unforgivable is the amount of time it takes for the Doctor to select it…  The serial’s also not helped by its position as the final story of Season 21, particularly when it falls into the same pit of hubris as other science fiction shows.  Much like the third Star Trek TV sequel found, it’s not great idea to set yourself up by completely slagging off your immediate predecessor.  Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the Sixth Doctor, a self-proclaimed regenerative “triumph”, does.  Throttling his assistant then spending a great deal of time playing up his future as a hermit doesn’t add much – in truth, as many have observed, it just alienates the audience.  If the tale is looking for a hook to drag the Sixth Doctor into (Time Lord) normality and back into ‘the role of the Doctor’, it needs to be strong.  It needs to be Androzani strong.

Almost inevitably it isn’t.  The story is weak.  Never work with child twins and gastropods is the moral here.

There are some interesting touches put up in mitigation, as ever.  The idea of the genius twins with universe unravelling powers is intriguing, even though it fares badly against Bidmead’s conception of Logopolis just a few years previously.  It actually needed to be drawn out – just look at the few scenes with their father and the bizarre scripting about their mother.  Unnecessary to the plot and useless for adding depth.  The police force that provides an in for the reliable Kevin McNally isn’t a bad idea, but it’s bewilderingly realised as what amounts to a personal bodyguard for such powerful children – guards who fall at the first hurdle.  That opening high concept heist has appeal, even more so when we find out the perpetrator’s race, but it’s far too underplayed.  While there is tension, but it could have been so much better, so much clearer.

Most interesting is the presence of that other Time Lord, another exile, wonderfully portrayed by Maurice Denham.  It’s interesting how much of the Sixth Doctor’s tenure pays  in homage to the past, something I’ll come on to later… Here Azmael is a Time Lord that the Doctor last met a couple of regenerations before.  The more you hear about those fountain antics, the more likely it seems that this was his fourth incarnation.  Azmael’s involvement adds an element of intrigue to the plot – a Time Lord yes, but a blackmailed one.  It’s an interesting idea, even if it seems as unlikely as the bird-like Jacondans.  Similarly Mestor’s plot isn’t too bad, a nice maximum impact scheme, if only more time was spent on explaining how the Giant Gastropod of legend seized control of the planet and less on the new Doctor’s changing room.

By the end, it’s clear that Twin has presented something that is less than the sum of its parts, contrary to the promise laid down by its predecessor.  In that context, the impact of points like Azmael’s interesting forced self-death is lost.  That said, there are definite highlights, one being the Doctor’s nifty escape from a ticking spacecraft death trap.

Cliffhangers should, as always, be the crucial consideration

Saddled with an awkward tone and pace, perhaps The Twin Dilemma’s main fault is matching its weak plot with some incredibly poor cliff-hangers.  None of them stand much stead.  In one Peri talks a bit; in none of them does the Doctor really do anything.  That should, as always, have been the crucial consideration and would have certainly lifted its renown.  Unfortunately, Twin is left to carry a lot of the can for the larger decisions that affected the whole of the Sixth Doctor’s short run.

That The Twin Dilemma has been known to rank as the worst Doctor Who serial of all time, sometimes lower than 30th anniversary muck-around-on-the-cheap Dimensions in Time, is a travesty.  It’s inexplicable.  How can anyone rate Time and the Rani as better?   Or perhaps there’s a worse Colin Baker…  Yes, unfortunately with the scores at ‘one down, one not so actually bad’, low budgets, inexperienced writers and shoddy plots come into play…

Timelash (Season 22, 1985)

Timelash is universally dismissed as bloody awful

quality shifts during the final part of Colin Baker’s first full season have been discussed at length.  It’s rather cruel that some senior figures in Wholore have described his entrance as the start of the end, but there were issues.  And right at the centre sits this little gem.  Timelash is universally dismissed as bloody awful while both its predecessor The Two Doctors and its successor Revelation of the Daleks are fondly remembered.  The truth however, is that both are quite awkward examples of Doctor Who, that just need that little something extra to break the ’80s malaise (it was there in parts of Davison and McCoy after all).  The mid-1980s in particular, were not an easy time, and writers Holmes and Eric Saward weren’t quite firing on all cylinders at times.   If they’re knocked out, what chance did Glen McCoy stand?  A writer with just two scripts to his name at time of commission…

Let’s start with the interesting.

What’s often missed with the Sixth Doctor is how retrospective that unpredictable Time Lord was.  Forget the Valeyard and New Adventures retconning, it was as through the shadow of death hung over from him from the start.  In many of his adventures he’s forced to look back at the past.  From the blatant pairing up with his second self in The Two Doctors to old friend Azmael in his first adventure.  From the old friend’s funeral he attends in Revelation of the Daleks to his trip back to Totter’s Lane in Attack of the Cybermen… History hang hevily around the Doctor’s neck at that time.  In Timelashhe’s overshadowed by Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor, hiding behind walls and as thoughts and memories.

It’s a morbid cloud in retrospect, but as a cohesive (if inadvertent) plan for a Doctor arc it wouldn’t be matched until the series revival.

That comparison to the revival is particularly pertinent  at the start of Timelash.  Foreshadowing his later trial, the Doctor wants to visit Andromeda, dismissing Peri when she asks why she never gets to choose where they go next.  Compare that to modern incarnations who positively thrive on the suggestions of their companions.  The return of a bickering TARDIS crew is out of time and out of place in the latter part of the season – a worrying sign that not all was write in the commissioning office.

The idea of the Doctor being known to Karfel is unfortunately the serial’s only really good idea, but draws an unflattering comparisson.  That link to the Third Doctor and Jo Grant is one that various production members are quick to lay squarely at the door of producer John Nathan Turner’s.  It does feel stilted – a reach for depth that only highlights that in many ways Timelash is a Bad Peladon tale.  And we all know what that means.

Saddled with too many ideas, the story could never sustain its politics with a population of approximately five (and two androids).  That they act as aggressors to puppet snakes with a super weapon doesn’t help (“Sounds familiar” says Peri. “To what?” asks everyone).  The faults are epic, to the point that you wonder how much worse it would have been without Paul Darrow’s over the top performance.  Oh, that the brilliant Avon came to this.

The Borad’s make-up isn’t that bad, but too much time is spent on him rubbing his ridiculous rubber fin Blofeld-style before his muddled reveal.  And that’s not an euphemism.  I will say that his voice is good, and so is his avatar.  The reveal of the fake Borad (Who regular Denis Carey) is quite striking if not chilling, but while the Borad’s lair is wonderfully dark, the villains sliding chair and the fact that no one notices him when he has his chair turned around is ridiculous.  More ridiculous, in fact, than the idea that merging with a Morlox would increase his intelligence.  He’s defeated by a mirror as well.  That must have looked good on paper.

Quite how that also works on the (interestingly designed) androids I’ve no idea, but it may have been the invasive and comedy incidental music that really disorientated it.  Yes, I’ve started to talk about the ridiculous. In a work of fiction.  But this serial deliberately pushes fiction to the fore, as if asking for it.  there’s a Frankenstein analogy to be had in the androids I’m sure, but the crass reveal to ignore is the laboured HG Wells reveal.  To think he was the hook that the episode was built around…  And all I can think of is how he and Vena converse in English.

Then there’s the cut-away (last minute?) scene where the Doctor calculates the time deflection coefficient.  And then there’s the clone reveal.  And the smiling, presumably sadistic android.  And the fact that its resolution tramples over Terror of the Zygons…

Possibly my favourite part of the story comes near the end where Mykros asks Vensa to “try not to be so pessimistic”.  Really?  She’s read the script…

Time Lords don’t have a monopoly over the fourth dimension… But they should have patented it.

A particular shout out to the technobabble of Timelash (now, there’s a title).  That’s something that can wear us and many a great science-fiction story down.  While the phrase ‘kronton tunnel’ is soon forgotten in favour of a time corridor, there was a crippling decision to add “time” to any bizarre device in the story.  We have the Timelash itself, the Time Acceleration Beam, the Time ruse…  As the Borad suggest, Time Lords don’t have a monopoly over the fourth dimension.  Indeed.   But they should have patented some of it.

Of course, Timelash was famouslyIt was short of money and at the whim of poor decisions, apparently from all over the timeshop…  It shows. But I would still happily trade The Twin Dilemma a little more respect in return for Timelash’s banishment in a… Timelash. The Doctor was clearly lying when he said that “The waves of time wash us all clean”.  Timelash once again proves that unlike James Bond, single word titles seldom bode well for the Doctor’s adventures.

For that reason alone it’s worse than Dimensions in Time.

Argh, the horror, the horror – time to pop a few incarnations back…

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Or if you prefer, a leap forward for the more chronologically-minded, read on for Seventh Doctor’s End Game in Whovember #7!

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5 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Reputation – “He’s dangling on the edge of oblivion!” (Whovember #6)”

    1. Yes, he’s doing well at that – and wonderfully reflective about the whole thing. Ah, the mixed blessings to have written for the Classic series, but to have contributed the worst… Sandwiched as it is between two classics. Ouch.

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