Monday, June 3, 2013

Doctor Who Debuts: The Twin Dilemma By @ThePlanetHarris

The Twin Dilemma: 
Colin Baker’s debut as the Doctor 
By Steven Harris

            The 21st season of Doctor Who still had one story to go when Peter Davison’s 5th Doctor regenerated into Colin Baker’s 6th at the end of The Caves of Androzani, the Timelord having succumbed to spectrox poisoning from which even his stupid stick of celery could not save him. On 22nd March 1984, therefore, Colin of the Baker type made his proper debut in the Anthony Steven penned, Peter Moffatt directed, The Twin Dilemma

          Although regenerations more usually took place at the very end of a season to allow a new series to open with a brand new Doctor, there was a precedent for this in-season change – the very first regeneration of all, which took place in the middle of William Hartnell’s last series. Perhaps 80s show-runner John  Nathan-Turner wanted to evoke memories of Troughton’s triumphant taking on of the mantle?

 Unlike Davison’s debut there is no pre-titles flashback to the process of regeneration. The programme was by this stage being shown twice weekly so the departure of the 5th Doctor would be fresh in the memory. The titles had altered slightly to accommodate the face of the 6th Doctor, of course. Faces, in fact, as for the first time we get two images of the Timelord, the second one smiling, which never sat right with me: just felt like yet another tepid attempt to curry favour with younger audiences where good scripts, believable aliens and some decent acting would have served such a purpose far more successfully.

            The opening scene shows twin boys with hideous pudding-basin haircuts playing a game that looks like it is meant to be three dimensional backgammon without the need for dice (or actual rules). Their father enters and the ensuing dialogue imparts everything we need to know about the boys – they are mathematical geniuses as well as being slightly brattish with a mild superiority complex.

            And so to the Tardis where a smiley sixth Doctor appears delighted to have regenerated. Peri is less convinced and not a little confused so the Doctor tries to reassure her with his talk of ‘natural metamorphosis’. He says that he calls it ‘a renewal’ which harks back to Troughton’s description of the process in Power of the Daleks. This latest regeneration is, as far as the Doctor is concerned, “a positive triumph”.

            Peri is still unconvinced and, grabbing a mirror, demands he tell her what he sees. In strict contrast to all previous post-regeneration mirror scenes what he sees is immediately deemed good. “A noble brow, a clear gaze…a firm mouth…a face beaming with a vast intelligence.” Peri, still not happy, speaks of his previous incarnation which Doctor number six dismisses as having little to offer but a certain ‘feckless charm’. As they are talking the pair have headed for a room full of racks of clothing. Once there, the Doctor has something of a wibbly moment and starts to talk to himself in depressed rhymes.

            The twins meanwhile are now playing ‘equations’, some kind of advanced mathematical pastime which their father was concerned about them indulging in before his departure. Pressing on what appear to be prototype iPads (or broken Etch-a-Sketch pads) the boys bring up symbols on two huge screens which line up in rows, making it seem almost as though the two have reinvented that arcade classic from the early 80s, Space Invaders.

            The Doctor has now recovered from his poetic moment and finds a Troughton-esque fur coat on one of the racks. Peri seems to like it but he tosses it aside in favour of a maroon velvet jacket that Jon Pertwee would have cut quite a dash in. This is also discarded and his eyes fall on something colourful on another rack.

            The twins, now having finished their little brain-game, are impressed by the magical appearance of an old codger who says he has “come a long way” to see their father. He’s lying, of course, as it is them and their genius he wants, but we don’t quite know this yet so forget I told you. Oh wait, we do work it out pretty quickly as he slaps some weird jelly circles on their wrists which gives him a form of hypnotic control over them and the three of them vanish from the room.

    In the Tardis the Doctor is now wearing a multi-coloured suit that even Joseph, of many coloured coat fame, would turn his nose up at. The Timelord is delighted with his new , explosion in a camp paint factory style apparel, and pins a cat brooch onto a lapel as a final touch. Though it is never explained, the cat is meant to symbolise several things – adventuring spirit, many lives, perhaps even an apparently domesticated creature which is still feral under the surface? The emblem was Baker’s own idea and uber-nerds can get their rocks off checking the different cats he wears throughout his time on the show. Peri’s response to the outfit speaks for many viewers, I’m sure. She simply says “Yuck!”

            The Twins and the old codger, whose name is Edgeworth (sort of) materialise on a ship being piloted by some strange half bird, half demon headed creatures. Edgeworth instructs one of these creatures to put the boys in a secure room while he contacts Mestor,  the mastermind behind the kidnapping. We do not yet see Mestor clearly, his face is faintly superimposed over Edgeworth’s as they converse. This makes it seem as though the old man is talking to a poo which has learnt to speak. The poo instructs Edgeworth to take the twins to a safe-house on Titan 3.

            The Doctor is fiddling with some Tardis controls in the main console room. Peri enters, having also changed outfits. The Doctor petulantly tells her that her outfit is “Yuck!” before having another funny turn. Well not so funny for Peri, as it turns out. He quotes a line from Irish poet Thomas Moore and wonders at the name Peri, which is peculiarly close to a Persian word for an evil fairy. Feverish with paranoia the Doctor grabs Peri by the throat and has a good go at strangling her before she repels him with his own reflection in the mirror she inexplicably still holds in her hand.

 Back in the twins’ bedroom their father discovers their disappearance and alerts the authorities. A dusty substance on the floor of the room hints at ‘extra-terrestrial kidnap’ and Commander Lang is sent to pursue a suspicious freighter out in space.

            The Doctor has no memory of his attack on Peri but realises something is going terribly wrong with the regeneration and decides he must atone by living the life of a hermit on some desolate rock of a planet, say Titan 3. “I am a living peril to the universe” he tells his companion, although he means because he might try and strangle more people rather than because he will ruin their eyesight with his outfit.

            Though the twins have had their memories wiped by Edgeworth’s jelly circles they are smart enough to work out that they have been kidnapped and rig up some kind of distress signal by tapping into wiring through a conduit which is handily placed in the very room they are being held in. Lang picks up the signal but the freighter warps off into warpy warp land before he can do anything about it. Odd thing is, such freighters are not meant to be capable of warp drive. Curious, eh? (There must be a deleted scene in which Lang’s superior orders more ships to join the pursuit of this freighter as the next thing we know, some five ships have been blasted out of the skies at Mestor’s command.)

 On arrival at Titan 3 the Doctor spouts all poetic again, this time extolling the desolate ‘virtues’ of this ‘craggy nob’ (has he been looking in that mirror more closely?). There is a big kaboom noise and some shaking of the camera to signify that explosions have happened nearby (that’ll be the five ships blasted by talking poo Mestor).

            Edgeworth, the twins and the bird things arrive at the safe-house and the old man contacts Mestor once more. This time we get a glimpse of the poo who turns out to actually be a slug thing sitting on an old rug in a badly decorated television set. Apparently Mestor needs the genius of the twins for some master plan or other (perhaps he wants them to help him stop smelling of effluent?). It becomes clear that Edgeworth is not really the villain in this piece but just a pawn of the talking poo.

 Peri and the Doctor find Lang out in the wreckage of the ships. He is alive but not in a very good way so they take him to the Tardis. They lie him on the floor and the Doctor kneels over him, congratulating himself on rescuing someone. Peri is unimpressed and rebukes the Timelord by telling him that she “never saw anyone who loved himself so much with less reason.” There is no time for the Doctor to be offended by this remark as Lang wakes up, believes the Doctor is responsible for destroying the ships, and draws a gun on him. Words then scroll across the screen and theme music blares out.

            The positives first: while there has always been a dodgy element to the process of regeneration, the Doctor himself is never considered dangerous. This is the first time that the character is taken to darker territory which is laudable. The original idea may well have been to begin with a less affable, more troubling Doctor who gradually mellows. Were it not for problems in-house with the BBC hierarchy losing faith in the show,  and for media criticism of Doctor Who’s alleged violence, this might have been played out over the course of Colin Baker’s tenure. Such continuity is not in evidence until his final season, however, with the unifying structure of The Trial of a Timelord story arc.

            The post regeneration scenes here are not helped by the fact that Nicola Bryant’s acting is not up to scratch. Instead of conveying true fear and a feeling of danger, she hams her part up to the point of pantomime. Not that Baker himself is much better at times. The visual nods to past Doctor costumes are all part and parcel of the process by this stage and work better here than when Sylvester McCoy takes up the role. A self-satisfied Doctor is not necessarily a bad idea, either. The character has always been pretty arrogant so why not push that arrogance further to the fore? Why not play with the darkness which would surely exist somewhere within a person who has lived for many centuries? In modern Who this is a given and even allowed to dictate events at times (as in Amy’s Choice, for example). Perhaps this is one of the Nathan-Turner innovations which was actually a good idea but too ahead of its time?

            7.6 million viewers watched Colin Baker’s debut, comparable with the figures for series 21 as a whole. Series 22 saw those figures dropping dramatically, however, and even a multiple Doctor story co-starring Patrick Troughton could not revive the show’s fortunes with viewers. Were two episode a week too many? Did it stop the programme being a weekly treat, something to set your watch by and make sure you were home and in front of the telly for? Or were the weakening scripts, wonky sets, and an increasingly camp sensibility alienating viewers? Whatever the reason, the glory days of Doctor Who were evidently in the past. There would still be peaks – Revelation of the Daleks probably being Colin Baker’s finest hour (aside from an all-too obviously polystyrene statue) – but there would also be some terrible troughs like Timelash and the arrival of Mel. 

            Personally I wonder if a change at the top might have saved the show and Baker’s Doctor. John Nathan-Turner was by now running the programme like a Hawaiian-shirted Stalin and one man should not be allowed so much influence over a show that had always relied on an ensemble of influences from writers to editors to directors to casting and design. A change of producer might just have saved Colin Baker the ignominy of being most famous for a hideous costume and those haunting final words from The Ultimate Foe: “Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice…”

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if giving more creative control to Colin might have helped too since he hated the outfit as much as anyone else and wanted to wear all black.