A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009
The very month DWM publishes the results of its Mighty 200 survey, Doctor Who’s 200th most popular adventure is released on DVD. They should pop a sticker on the box to celebrate the fact. ‘From the people who brought you Timelash and Time-Flight‘ perhaps, in large, friendly letters.
And – what fun! – The Caves of Androzani is at the top of the list. Two serials, produced on the same watch – with the astonishing final episode of Caves broadcast just six days before the astonishing first episode of The Twin Dilemma – but when we assess their relative worth, we find the whole history of Doctor Who slotted between them. It’s a remarkable thing.
But what does The Twin Dilemma’s placing, and that survey as a whole, tell us about how we judge success and failure within the world of Doctor Who? To my mind, what the top stories have in common is a robust commitment to the fictional world they offer. When we watch Doctor Who we pray that it won’t break its own spell; that it will never make us think of studios, of cameras, of actors. We know it’s a TV show, we revel in the trivia and relish the gossip, but what we really want is to believe, to be transported to another place for 25 or 45 minutes. And so strong is that desire, we are a more forgiving audience than we sometimes affect to be. Even in that Top 10, there’s the Magma Beast doing its budgerigar shuffle through the caves of Androzani. Calamitous clams om-nom-nom beneath the surface of Skaro. In the sewers of Victorian London lurk the results of Weng-Chiang’s unholy experiments in upholstery.
These burdens strain the fragile threads from which our disbelief is suspended, but we accept them. A strong story and a spirited script can weave a new world out of words alone, and still allow latitude for disaster further along the production process. However, when a story falls at that first hurdle – when its script is arrant gibberish from the off – then it’s impossible to forgive. And, as the survey proves, impossible to forget. The Twin Dilemma – a story of alien twins kidnapped by a giant slug to aid his conquest of the Universe – does almost nothing to help us believe in it. At times, it almost looks like a deliberate send-up of Doctor Who.
So let’s accentuate the positive, just for a moment. Skilled guest stars Maurice Denham, Edwin Richfield and Kevin MacNally use what energy they have left after wrestling the script into submission to breathe some life into Azmael, Mestor and Hugo. The twins themselves have long been the target of criticism, but really, they’re not so bad. However, following the casting of the Conrad brothers, someone should have changed the names of their characters. The boys speak with a soft ‘r’, so ‘Romulus and Remus’ is too cruel. Their pronunciation has always invited cheap jokes – but not here. Well, at least not yet.
Also in the ‘plus’ column, the model effects are as good as you’ll find in any 80s tale. But that’s the only compliment we can pay the design and dressing of this story. Look! The twins have a foot-square Rubik’s Cube in their living room, so gosh, they must be clever. A computer console is wrapped in Bacofoil and we’re expected not to notice. Perhaps that lazy zig-zag of gaffer tape on the front was supposed to draw the eye? There’s no more to be said on the subject of the Sixth Doctor’s costume, but it looks positively restrained alongside Hugo Lang’s Quality Street kimono. And our monster, Mestor – imagined as a giant slug when everyone must have known such a thing was impossible to realise – is a disaster. It’s the boggle-eyed Penfold stare and feeble flapping flippers that really do for the stupid thing.
We shouldn’t be surprised. The shoddy monster and the stupid coats are symptoms, not the sickness. They are symptoms of a production team admitting defeat from the off. Anthony Steven clearly didn’t believe a word he was writing. Director Peter Moffatt clearly didn’t understand a word he was reading. As Steven laboured on these scripts – according to lore – his typewriter blew up, causing him to miss deadlines. What a selfless sacrifice on the part of that humble Olivetti. When even inanimate objects turn against you, it’s time to admit defeat; as the forces of Nazi Germany discovered in the final, decisive battle of Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
However, if we are to apportion fair blame for the failure of The Twin Dilemma – and it’s no fun if we don’t – then stand up Eric Saward, our script editor. It was his job to salvage something from this mess. Even if the meandering plot was beyond help, he should at least have worked harder on the dialogue. It’s a challenge to choose the most pathetic line. “I found Zanium on the floor! It looks serious!” is a contender. As made-up space nouns go, ‘Zanium’ is as low rent as it gets, but it’s the mundane qualification of “on the floor” that really brings you down. Perhaps worst of all is the Doctor’s reaction when he learns that Mestor is dispensing “death by embolism.” “Little tiny bubbles go very well in champagne and purgatives, Noma,” he expounds. “But not in the blood.” What? Still, this stands as the Doctor’s first and so far last reference to bowel movements, however oblique. How appropriate that it should occur here.
As for the Sixth Doctor… Well, he’s Saward’s fault too. Colin Baker is doing what he can with the thin material dished up, but he never makes a connection with us, never transmits any warmth through our screens. The shocking bi-polarity caused by regeneration has always been, and will always be, a great idea, but it’s vital to make at least one of the Doctor’s two personalities likeable. We can cope with a smug ying – for a few episodes at least – if the yang isn’t equally insufferable. Here, we’re left feeling uneasy up to and beyond the Doctor’s final insincere smile at Peri.
Of course, stories of a compassionate, friendly Sixth Doctor would eventually come, once Baker was free of Saward’s stewardship and safe in the embrace of his fans. But might some of The Twin Dilemma‘s other players find redemption too? Well, we see a wobbly black sprite of Mestor’s ‘soul’ flee his death in Part Four, so his evil may well survive somewhere. Perhaps he’ll return in Matt Smith’s first series? “And now on BBC1, a new Doctor meets an old adversary…” Similarly, the twins are still in the TARDIS when the credits roll, so who knows what other exciting adventures they had with the Doctor and Peri? Set to it, Big Finish! The Sylvest boys deserve to see the universe – on audio. Romulus and Remus remonstrate with Rutans and Rills on Ravalox and Ribos. Imagine how that might sound.
Look 100 Years Younger is a feeble discussion of the Doctor’s costumes, with Colin Baker and ‘media personality’ Amy Lamé stating the obvious for ten minutes. “Ah! There’s the famous scarf!” says Lamé, greeting a clip of Tom Baker wearing his famous scarf. But the vague chunter is all just preamble to this programme’s one great trick, where some nifty computer wizardry intercedes in the final scene of The Twin Dilemma and redresses the Sixth Doctor in a natty black suit and tie, which gives him the look of a civil servant turned serial killer.
Our star pays a visit to Blue Peter in the first of two little gems from the archive offered on this disc. Presenter Janet Ellis has a delightfully mumsy interview style. “Tell me more about the Gastropods,” she says, in the same breezy, matter-of-fact tone she might use to ask a boy scout about his badge for whittling. Having shown a short clip of Mestor, Janet adds: “These enemies of Doctor Who do have a habit of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.” Indeed they do, but in this case simply to make it easier to reach the ‘off’ switch. A further clip shows the Doctor in full homicidal rage – astride Peri, his hands tight around her throat. A bit early in the evening for that, surely? Was Blue Peter trying to launch a dark new era, serving up teatime brutality for tots? “And now it’s over to Simon, who’s certainly got his hands full today. He’s making another visit to his dad’s farm in Dethick – and those lambs won’t slaughter themselves!”
On a visit to Breakfast Time, Baker is joined by Nicola Bryant. Asked how long he’d like to play the Doctor, Baker replies, “For as long as they’ll have me.” It’s the sort of thing any modest actor might say when joining a long-running series, but in Baker’s case he was exactly right. When Bryant comments, “I’m looking forward to a whole new season with Colin,” the camera makes a queasy lurch to the left. Perhaps a ghost of future calamity was already in the machine, or Michael Grade had a special ‘abort’ control fitted to his desk upstairs.
There’s no production documentary here; perhaps not surprising given than the story’s writer, director, producer and two of its principal guest stars are now dead. It falls to an enjoyable commentary to provide the sweet distraction of gossip. While there’s little new to be learned – with many of the anecdotes now well-enough established to play simultaneously on the ‘info text’ subtitles – we do discover that Maurice Denham was allergic to prawns. The charming Kevin McNally joins Baker and Bryant to recall happy days on set, and acts almost as moderator, questioning and even gently challenging his co-stars.
Sadly, the absence of a documentary means we are deprived of the one thing we really want from this DVD – a chance to see the Conrad twins as they are today. On the commentary, McNally recalls bumping into one of them a few years ago, and reports that he’s now “a very tall boy.” We may presume they both are.
Happily, your reviewer can offer a little more information. At the 2005 TV Bafta ceremony, when the newly-revived Doctor Who won a Bafta for Best Drama, Russell T Davies and team stepped up on stage to collect the trophy. Less than 10 minutes later, Andrew Conrad – once Remus, and much later the producer of Jamie’s School Dinners – was standing in the same spot, to collect the award for Best Factual Series.
It’s such a lovely coincidence, you have to laugh.