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

Sixth Doctor Whovember Jokertoon


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!

Doctor Who: Legacy – “We’re trying to defeat the Daleks, not start a jumble sale” (Whovember #1)

First Doctor Whovember Jokertoon


The grand start to Doctor Who viewings in the 50th birthday ‘Month of the Doctor’.  This first arc finds the original Doctor in full swing, fighting off Daleks and time itself.

#1: The Space Museum and The Chase.

The young, the grumpiest… The First Doctor.  Hmm?
This choice of adventures isn’t all about beginnings though.  Coming well into the Hartnell era, they also bring a significant ending as well. In November 1963, An Unearthly Child began with teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright conscientiously pursuing their mysterious student Susan Foreman through the London fog to 76 Totter’s Lane.  It was a precipitous mission and one that ultimately landed them – after two years of concussions, gas and radiation poisoning  – in the London of 1965.  At the beginning, in that totter’s yard, the two teachers were the hook that the show was built around.  They were the audience’s eyes, discovering the mysterious Doctor and learning more about his enigmatic grand-daughter.  It was a trick so good that it would be repeated again in 2005 when the series regenerated and once more when the show spun  into Torchwood.

The Space Museum (Season Two, 1965)

Recent ‘New Series’ stories have built-up the role of those two, ‘first’ companions in Who mythology.  Some have developed that stumbling discovery by the accidental stowaways as the catalyst that creates the Doctor as we know him.  They’re the two that make the crochety old exile get involved.  If not, he would have presumably happily stayed in the East End, hoping that regeneration wouldn’t catch him in the chemists or at school parents’ day.  As seen in the first episodes, at this point he’s a Time Lord who would rather run away from adventure than embrace them.  It’s a powerful idea, that adds weight to that first adventure.  While, as the Doctor mentions in The Space Museum, he’s already played spectator roles in the likes of James Watt discovering the power of steam he’s not the rampaging freedom fighter (and most dangerous man in the universe) that Steven Moffat would seek to take down a peg or two 50 years or so later.

That reading it pure retcon however.  In the show, little is heard of them again after the Doctor grudgingly sees they’ve arrived safely through the Time Space Visualiser at the end of The Chase.  The main exception is the strange reference in the Sarah Jane Adventure Death of the Doctor and the their implicit inclusion during the Tenth Doctor’s morbid coda.

They weren’t the first companions to leave the good ship TARDIS though.  That sole privilege fell, oddly, to the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan earlier in Season Two.  She was quickly replaced with Vicky a young character who can be kindly described as an extension of Susan’s character rather than a carbon copy.  Of Ian and Barbara’s final two stories, it’s The Space Museum where Vicki comes into her own, although that tale is also generally considered one of the weakest stories of the show’s first two years.  True, there are many problems with the four part serial, but it’s main and unavoidable trap is that it could never live up to the promise of its first part.  Caught up in Script Editor Dennis Spooner’s plans to have thematic diversity between serials, it picked the short straw of hard science.  The first part works wonderfully, sustained by the TARDIS crew alone, some great directorial flourishes, moments of great tension and that fantastic cliff-hanger – when the crew find their future selves boxed as exhibits in the titular Space Museum.  But the pace was always going to alter when the time travellers are caught up by time in part two.  Perhaps the strangest thing is that the blatant science plot of part one is replaced by comedy.

I don’t think the fault quite lies in the fact that an essentially comedic story was taken far too seriously by cast and crew.  There are strange truisms that appear comedic, but many factors are highlighted in retrospect.  The rather pathetic aggressors who’ve invaded the planet seemingly only to build a staid and empty museum to their own achievements – with no curators, but guards and a governor – are indeed proto-Douglas Adams.  but could they ever really be anything else?  to this day, their equally ineffective opponents, the planet’s native Xenons, are some of the most pathetic rebels that the show’s seen.  But while they’ve trapped in a stalemate of ineptitude, this miserable struggle  provides Vicki with the bite she’s been waiting for.  And then it’s not just Adams.  In retrospect, it’s a bit like Rimmer taking charge of the WaxWorld allies in the Red Dwarf series four episode Meltdown

The ending is the treat: a blunt example of the TARDIS crew finding that every road leads to Rome – or at least their eventual fate as Museum exhibits.  However, those ‘paths’ are as typical in the context of the show as kidnapping, capturing and gassing.  The most extraordinary thing is that the museum has no CCTV network.  Perhaps the great Morok Empire, despite the frankly bizarre suggestion that they’ve defeated Daleks, just hadn’t got round to it yet.  Despite the ineffectiveness of either party, or perhaps because of it, the ending is oddly satisfying as the Doctor’s content to point out.

A clear highlight of the serial is Hartnell himself who is clearly having a grand old time.  On many occasions, he’s merrily chuckling away, but that may be the pre-and post- effect of the holiday that took him away from episode three.  Here his Doctor is particularly mercurial and wonderfully eccentric.  Fascinated by the smaller things, finding it far to amusing that he turns a Dalek into a hiding place – his behaviour adds immensely to a finale in which he plays a very minor role.  Though we may later find him to be a Time Lord,  The Space Museum establishes the master.

The Chase (Season Two, 1965)

The following story does what it says on the tin-Dalek.  Again, The Chase, is not the best regarded Hartnell tale.  The third major Dalek serial, it’s inevitably going to look weak against its definitive predecessors.  It would have been impressive had it had the same strength, especially considering that it was a rather last minute commission from Dalek creator Terry Nation.  The fact that The Chase emerged close to the first colour Dalek film and never quite made it as the adapted second sequel in that series doesn’t help.

The main problem here isn’t the ambitious set-up, but the complete lack of plot.  As established at the end of The Space Museum, The Daleks have been rather irritated by the Doctor.  By this point, they’ve perfected time travel (they move quickly, these Daleks, but more on that later) and set off on an assassination mission through, as they say, “infinity”.  But after an auspicious start on the sandy, twin-sun scorched planet of Aridius – and the inevitable shot of a Dalek rising from the sand – the Dalek’s mission appears slightly flawed.  Once they’ve found that they can’t destroy the TARDIS, their pursuit is directionless.  They resort to a rather unconvincing attempt to duplicate the Doctor as their numbers are slowly whittled down by a dodgy Earth galleon construction and Frankenstein’s Monster among other things.

The Chase‘s plot is necessarily episodic, more so than a usual story.  In the middle, the similarly framed joke reveal of The Mary Celeste and the Haunted House attraction in successive episodes don’t help the repetition.  Model work is excellent though, not least in the final two episodes when the the two parties find themselves on the jungle planet of Mechanus.

Housed in their impressive city, the Mechanoids are a misstep.  The idea lurking behind their bulbous design and slightly too daft-voice is still good on paper – human designed terra-forming weapons.  But that fascinating edge is removed by the metal versus metal scrap at the end.  It’s o surprise that they never made a return appearance, foot noted as proof that Dalek-lightning doesn’t strike twice.

At points, The Chase seems even more of a parody of typical Doctor Who than The Space Museum.  The haunted house setting, where the set-up isn’t revealed to the travellers (nor the rather optimistic 1996 entrance price of $10) is a particularly noticeable twist on a traditional Who adventure.  Having previously penned The Keys of Marinus, the first of the Doctor’s ‘travelling serials’, here writer Terry Nation is simply repeating the trick by combining it with his pepper-pot creations.  Nation tropes abound, especially the unfortunate inhabitants of Aridius and their Mire Beast enemies. The Mechanoid planet, with its dangerous moving fungus and gleaming city twists the concept of the original Dalek tale itself.  Terry Nation was a master of filler when required, if not quite of pace.

There’s quite a few precursors to later and even New Who here, some vaguer than others.  Of course, the legacy of the structure is most felt in the The Dalek’s Masterplan, the Fourth Doctor’s search for the Key to Time and then 2007’s The Infinite Quest. In the course of this chase however, the Doctor is strangely open to the concept that they’ve left space to enter the human mind in the TARDIS when confronted with a house of nightmares – a theme that would return again and again   The Empire State Building foreshadows the plans the Daleks would earlier/later have for that skyscraper in Daleks in Manhattan.  Season Eight’s Hide necessarily picks up up its cues from the Haunted House, while Season Six’s Curse of the Black Spot would take the Doctor back to a galleon setting and prove just as inexplicable (editing can take the blame there).  Some of these are a stretch, with The Chase coming as it did just two years into a now 50 year career.  But, the third Dalek serial was always going to be important.  Just imagine the kids who were excited when they saw that Dalek prop in The Space Museum.  Then imagine how excited they were during this six part adventure…

Special mention must go to the Time Space Visualiser. Nicely picked up from the previous adventure’s museum, it allows a light filler-filled episode one that guest stars the Doctor’s future complication, Queen Bess – along with petrified Shakespeare –  Abraham Lincoln and of course, The Beatles.  “Now you’ve squashed my favourite Beatles” the Doctor quips. Badly. After they’ve regaled him with Ticket to Ride.

This adventure is a fine example of the early Dalek era, but its chronology may not be as clear cut as it seems.  Again, hindsight plays a large part.  As the Daleks say, their rather sudden revenge is triggered by the Doctor delaying their invasion of Earth, but is that the invasion seen earlier that year?  Some Dalek chronology puts the story after the Third Doctor tale Day of the Daleks, with a more compelling rationale.  By that time the Daleks would not only have been thwarted in their invasion of Earth twice (the second time by a Doctor they didn’t quite recognise at first) but also have developed more established time capability.  Certainly, the Dalek’s development of time travel, dimensional engineering (seemingly lost by New Who) and a new mobility without external power packs makes it a better chronological fit. Crucially, it still complies with the Pre-Davros ‘first history of the Daleks’.

A final word on the sulky Doctor who reluctantly sees his companions off at the end of The Chase.  “I shall miss them” he says at last.  Whether the Doctor as we know him was created by Ian and Barbara’s accidental intervention is open to speculation.  But it is fair to say that they gave him a push in the right direction.

While both The Space Museum and The Chase show signs that the show was becoming aware of itself just three seasons in, the show’s legacy was assured by the time his first companions had all left that battered blue police box.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on to find the Second Doctor turning up like a cosmic hobo penny in Whovember #2!

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