Doctor Who goes from the high-quality storytelling of “Androzani” to a sadly far less stellar story with Colin Baker’s debut, “The Twin Dilemma”. This story is definitely one of the low points in the series history, which gives the unfortunate Baker a very rough start out of the gate. Coming immediately after “Androzani” doesn’t help, but “The Twin Dilemma” would have been a mixture of success and failure no matter which story it followed.
Let me lay my cards on the table: I’ve been a fan of Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor since day one. I’ve always found his brash and loud sixth Doctor to be a very refreshing contrast with Peter Davison’s almost watered-down fifth Doctor. Colin Baker dominates the screen from his first appearance at the end of “Androzani”, though not always in the same way that Tom Baker or William Hartnell did. Colin Baker’s acting style often has a certain “stylized” or theatrical quality to it, which I think is largely by design given the way his character is written, though I’ve only seen him in one other role so I have little compare his Doctor Who performance with in order to guage his acting range. His acting style takes some getting used to after the almost effortless naturalistic style of the previous three actors to play the part. However, he commands the attention of the viewer with the combination of his Doctor’s forceful personality and the character’s wardrobe. I’m speaking of course of the hideously tasteless outfit he wears, which I’ll discuss in the next paragraph.
The story picks up right where Androzani left off as far as the Doctor is concerned. He’s still dressed in Davison’s costume, but unlike the fifth, the new Doctor struts around the console room in a manner that suggests he’s very pleased with himself while Peri looks on in dismay. Past regenerations have seen the Doctor physically weakened by the experience, but the sixth Doctor suffers from mental rather than physical instability, with rapid mood swings and memory loss. What this generally leads to over the course of the story is a lot of verbal abuse directed at Peri, and even an attempt on her life by the manic Doctor. He sheds the cricket outfit and chooses an ensemble that can be described as a mix of ‘wildly colorful’ and ‘mismatched’. Producer John Nathan-Turner’s criteria for the new costume was, famously, something ‘in totally bad taste’. That’s arguably what we got, though I have to admit that I’m quite fond of the jacket, hideous though it is. The Doctor’s clothing without the coat isn’t all that bad, though it could hardly be said to be in good taste. The white shirt, brown vest and yellow trousers don’t clash all that badly, and the red spats with green shoes are far enough from view most of the time that they don’t really present a problem. Witness the Doctor without his coat later on in “Vengeance on Varos” or “Mark of the Rani”, and the ensemble isn’t too bad, with the eccentricity of the clothing suited to the Doctor’s character. But add that coat and he’s suddenly a mess of clashing colors. I like the coat, but I have to admit that it grabs a lot of my attention in any given scene when I probably should be watching something else. As Colin Baker said in one of the DVD commentaries, one tends to be “slightly uncomfortable” when looking at it, and that’s probably fair. It’s unique, it’s different and it’s inventive, but it’s also a bit too much. It makes the Doctor look like someone who really shouldn’t be taken seriously, and that’s unfortunate.
Moving on, the actual plot of the story involves a pair of twins who are mathematical geniuses, an old retired Time Lord mentor of the Doctor’s, and the attempts by a telekinetic giant slug to propogate his race. And if that sounds like a bizarre mixture of elements, that’s because it is. Not that the plot has no merit, because the basic idea of an alien species trying to expand and thrive by spreading eggs all over the universe isn’t too bad. The giant slug in question, named Mestor, is a member of a race of giant gastropods that were thought to be only legend until they returned to ravage the planet Jaconda, which the Doctor’s old mentor Azmael ruled. The story never explains where Mestor gains the massively powerful telekinetic powers that he displays, which include taking over someone’s mind, destroying spacecraft from light years away, or causing someone to die from nitrogen bubbles in the blood. It is implied that Mestor’s power is what enables the gastropods to conquer the planet. As the former ruler, Azmael works with him in an attempt to save lives, but also seemingly out of a genuine belief that despite his harsh rule, Mestor’s goal of ensuring his race survives is a laudable one.
Now, this plot is fine and within the believability scope of what we’ve seen before on Doctor Who. But it falls down somewhat in the execution. I’m not sure giant slugs are all that fearsome a foe, even if they do fit the plot. They are also perhaps conceptually a bit too close to the Tractators, seen earlier in the season. And even if I buy Mestor’s astounding mental powers, which are never explained, the idea that he can destroy spacecraft that are light years away surely takes his abilities way over the top. If Mestor is that powerful, why does he need lackeys to do his dirty work? Why does he need the twins? I can buy some of what he does, but not all of it. The vast distance of space seems like it should be a barrier even to fantastic fictional mental powers like Mestor’s. I realize that it’s just fantasy, but even a fantasy world needs limits if it’s to be believable.
Now I like Azmael as portrayed by Maurice Denham. The old man is convincingly played with weariness and reluctant determination. As a retired Time Lord, a former mentor of the Doctor and the former ruler of Jaconda, he initially appears to be the villain of the piece as he kidnaps the twins and robs them of their memories. It quickly becomes apparent that he’s not happy about the situation, but that he’s doing some terrible things because he feels he must for the greater good. While this makes him sympathetic to an extent, he also looks a bit blind as he completely misses the true implications of Mestor’s plan, something it only takes the Doctor about ten minutes to work out. When he dies at the end of the story, it’s a genuinely touching moment which allows Colin Baker to play the Doctor quiet and somber for the first time, and to allow us to see beneath the bluster and ego.
Without a doubt, the story fails when it comes to the twins. The young men employed to play Romulus and Remus are poor actors. No doubt their youth and lack of acting experience account for that, but then again I’ve seen very talented child actors that are far younger than these two. Whoever cast them is the one at fault and should bear the blame for the fact that the two of them really let the production down. But it’s not just the twins. The whole production has a cheap, gaudy feel to it. I’m sure by the end of the season that the money had run out, but that’s no excuse for all the overlit sets, shiny tin-foil clothing, oversized and loose-fitting space police outfits, or Mestor’s utter inability to move.
In the end, “The Twin Dilemma” fails to meet the potential of what could have been an interesting plot. The poor acting of the twins and the gaudy production values are a marked contrast with the interesting direction taken with Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor. I have to confess that being the big fan of the sixth Doctor that I am, I cannot dismiss this story as the worst ever. Even if I judge it strictly by plot and acting, leaving aside my enjoyment of the central character, it still exhibits more quality than stories like “Time and the Rani” and “Battlefield”. Colin Baker deserved a better entrance than this. Watch it and judge for yourself. It will never be a classic, but it doesn’t deserve to be labeled as the worst story in Doctor Who. It’s definitely in the bottom tier, but not the worst. That’s still to come.