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I've entered the Sixth Doctor era. This would appear to mean unusual verbosity, even for me. Sue me: there is Classical receptions and meta-commentary, and I have Stuff to Say about both of them. You have been warned.

Sixth Doctor: The Twin Dilemma
Although Vengeance on Varos is the first Sixth Doctor story currently available on DVD, I decided that I could only really get a fair impression of his era by starting with his first story. By accident or design, that's what I've done with most of the other Doctors I've explored so far, so it seemed the best way to make a fair comparison. In retrospect, that was definitely a good idea in terms of understanding where the series was going at this time. And although mainstream fan opinion would probably have it that it was a disastrous way to seriously encounter the Sixth Doctor for the first time, I'm not so sure.

It may be because I have seen other stories of his in the past, so knew that if I gritted my teeth and hung on, the odds were that by the end of the story he would have settled down into a more stable and likeable character. Those watching this story on first broadcast, of course, wouldn't have had that guarantee, so it's understandable if by the end of three episodes of Teh Crazee, they had given up on him for good. Even with the benefit of hindsight, though, I still wouldn't say that having him spend three episodes shouting at, dismissing and attempting to kill his companion was the best possible approach.

It's not that it isn't a good idea on paper (cf. the Peter Davison era). After all, the First Doctor is presented as prickly, selfish and unwelcoming for much of his first four episodes, too, and that makes for compelling viewing. To an extent that held true for Six as well – I was fascinated, for a time at least. But I just don't think it's handled in the best way here. One retains an air of intriguing mystery, and his prickliness is tempered with likeable qualities such as a curiosity about Gum and its people, and genuine sorrow when he realises how he has endangered his companions. Six, however, is too brash and blustery to suggest hidden depths or vulnerabilities (especially once he dons his Technicolor dream-coat), so that it's very difficult to feel any sympathy for him. And while no Baker (T) fan can really harp on too much about hammy acting, I'm afraid Baker (C) also gives in to the urge sometimes here – and in the circumstances, it doesn't help. For a while, I felt all too much as though I wasn't really watching Doctor Who at all, but some derivative knock-off of it, like the American version of Red Dwarf or Life on Mars, which has all the same elements on paper, but still somehow just doesn't get it.

For all that, though, once you've been through the baptism of Six-ly fire that is The Twin Dilemma, I do believe it's actually easier to enjoy his other stories. Sure, he's arrogant and tends to rush headlong into things with little thought for the consequences (especially to other people). But that's always been an element in the other Doctors. And if it's a bit annoying and a startling contrast if you've become too accustomed to Five in particular, once you've seen The Twin Dilemma, you can still comfort yourself with the thought that at least he isn't like that any more.

This story also constituted my first proper look at Peri for several years. I did encounter her in The Caves of Androzani this time last year, but since that was literally the first Who story I watched in my current re-discovery of the Classic era, I wasn't concentrating particularly hard on her as I was too busy re-acquainting myself with the general character of the programme. I remember her from my childhood quite vividly, and indeed she must have been quite important to me at the time, because although Tom Baker is the first Doctor I remember, she is the first companion who really caught my attention enough for me to remember as anything other than some generic person hanging around the Doctor. (And I know that's a terrible slight to Romana II in particular – but let's remember I was only three-and-a-half when she left).

That's another interesting insight into how the programme actually appears to younger viewers, of course, because although the companion is supposed to be there to help the viewer relate to the Doctor, it doesn't seem to have mattered to me in the slightest who that companion was or what they were like until I was seven-and-a-half years old. I'm not saying the function of the character wasn't important in helping me follow the show and latch on to the character of the Doctor. But the specifics clearly weren't.

Going back to Peri, my childhood memories of her mean that there's some degree to which I still think of her as 'my' companion, and I'll probably always retain some liking for her for that reason. But I'm pretty sure that if I were actually meeting her for the very first time now, I'd find her really unbearable. Her general reputation as whiny and useless precedes her, and it's not undeserved. And I'm afraid Nicola Bryant gets serious black marks for her absolutely abysmal attempt to look upset when she thinks that the Doctor has been killed at the end of episode two of this story. Where Tegan in Resurrection of the Daleks shone an unflattering light on Martha's reaction to the death of her Hath friend in The Doctor's Daughter, Nicola here makes Freema look like an Oscar nominee.

And, after nearly 1000 words (seriously – I'm writing this in Word on the train, and I just counted), let's get on to the actual story. Um… it is kind of sub-standard, isn't it? There's one redeeming feature – Edgeworth / Azmael, a Time Lord turned Professor of Astrophysics who is genuinely interesting, and whose death scene with the Doctor is essential in the latter's development from psycho to decent chap. His resemblance to the First Doctor also serves well as a foil to Six's character, showing how much he has changed (though whether that's something that should have attention drawn to it, I'm less sure).

Otherwise, we're talking Underworld levels of badness. The giant slug should be a really fearsome enemy, given that he can travel in time, read minds, move planets and even open the TARDIS. But he just comes across as some wobbly creature on a throne handing out empty threats – and a retrospective knowledge of both the Extras Who spoof and the Futurama episode, 'Fry and the Slurm Factory' do him no favours at all. The twins are weak (as both characters and actors), and I'm less than clear about what 'dilemma' is supposed to surround them. I also can't see any good reason for the owl-people to be owl-people other than that the costume department felt like playing around with feathers.

I'm aware that a lot of the problems stem from the fact that they got into a mess with the script – but at the same time, why did they put themselves in a position where that could happen? Scanning down Wikipedia's handy list of Who stories, I can't see any other introductory story for a new Doctor (apart from the first one, of course) which was written by someone who hadn't already proved their mettle on at least one earlier story, and it seems like madness to have risked giving Six's first story to someone who didn't know the genre, no matter how good their reputation may have been in other contexts.

Like Underworld, though, there is at least a little bit of Classical receptions on hand to cheer me up. The twins are Romulus and Remus, and come from a house graced with at least one Tuscan column. They're kidnapped and put to work by a giant slug, which is a bit like being kicked out of your home town and being suckled by a wolf if you squint, I suppose. Similarly, they become agents in his attempt to found a new empire, albeit unwillingly and without success, which again is a bit like being ordered by the gods to found Rome – though not very much. Meanwhile, Mestor (the slug) seems to recall Nestor, and Azmael (the Time Lord professor) recalls Azrael. Character-wise, they're exactly the wrong way around, though – Nestor is a wise old man, like Azmael, but Azrael is the angel of death, as Mestor plans to be.

An apologist could claim that this is all incredibly clever – Classical and Biblical myths are twisted and inverted, as a way of demonstrating difference from them while at the same time remaining associated with their aura of rich tradition and mystery. And it probably is a shade better than plodding, empty imitations like Underworld. But I'm not going to be an apologist for this story. Even if the 'cleverness' were intentional (which I don't think it is), it still doesn't do much for the story. And even if it did, I still don't think this story could be redeemed. It needs to be watched once. But that is quite enough.

Sixth Doctor: Vengeance on Varos
This, on the other hand, is a great deal better. In fact, this is a perfectly decent Doctor Who story – which is unfortunately no longer the default in the era I’m exploring at the moment. It portrays a clearly-defined and interesting society, makes good use of its source material (largely Orwell’s 1984, but there are touches of earlier Who stories like The Monster of Peladon, The Armageddon Factor and The Sun Makers), includes decent solid British actors like Martin Jarvis, and (in stark contrast to earlier efforts like Warriors of the Deep) actually manages to look pretty good on screen thanks to low-level lighting and a generally 'grungey' set.

The plot seemed a little woolly on first viewing, and in particular I never quite understood the dynamic between Sil (maggoty-slug thing) and the Governor (Jarvis), but I suspect this is largely the result of heavy-handed editing, since everything became a lot clearer when I watched the deleted scenes included on the DVD. Although it's a pity the costume department have served up yet another giant slug at all (what are they thinking in this era), at least this time he has a bit of character to him. In fact, what with demanding to be watered, calling for a mirror to admire himself and rebuking his aides when they don't live up to his exacting standard, Sil would appear to have become a proto-type for New Who's Cassandra.

The most interesting element of the story has to be the meta-commentary on the medium of television. Doctor Who does this quite a lot actually, whether it's in the form of viewing screens on the TARDIS, CCTV via which the Doctor and his companions come under observation (e.g. in The Sun Makers or Four to Doomsday), or direct engagements like New Who's The Long Game or The Idiot's Lantern. But this must be the most pronounced version of it I've seen in Classic Who. We have critical and demanding viewers commenting directly on what they are seeing, officials making decisions about close-ups and cuts as they film people's death scenes, and a governor who will do anything to ensure high appreciation figures. And how fascinating that negative votes from the audience actually physically hurt the governor – who ever thought JNT had cared so much? It's all incredibly endearing to see the programme commenting so explicitly on its own relationship with its audience – and its critics.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is perfectly palatable here, and even quite likeable in some places. I enjoyed finding out that he had been trying to cook dinner for Peri at the beginning, even if he'd made a complete pig's ear of it, and I was most impressed by his suffering!Doctor scenes when he believes himself to be trapped without water in a desert.

In the middle of it all, though, is the infamous acid bath scene. I knew nothing about this before I started watching the story, but it made me wince when I saw it, and it's clear from the commentary (which I listened to afterwards) that Colin Baker still feels the need to defend his Doctor against the charge of casual murder as a result of it. I'm happy enough to accept that he didn't intend for either of his two opponents to end up in the bath – and indeed that many other Doctors have behaved similarly, if not worse. But it's the callousness of the quip afterwards ("Forgive me if I don't join you") that stands out as being starkly out-of-character for me. Again, Baker claims that this is a measure of the Doctor's alienness – it's just his way of coping with the situation. But 'alien' doesn't have to equal totally devoid of any sympathy.

I thought carefully about how each of the other Doctors might react in the same situation – i.e. realising that they have killed two men in the course of saving their own life – and this is what I came up with:

One would dust off his hands, tut grimly and say "Well, you gentlemen do appear to have got yourselves into hot water."
Two would look panic-stricken, say something like "Oh my ears and whiskers – I didn't mean for that to happen!", glance around guiltily to see if anyone had seen it and then half-back, half-run out of the room, knocking things over as he went.
Three would rush over to the side of the tank and peer in to see if there was any hope of rescuing the men. When he realised there wasn't, he would frown and declare bitterly, "What an unnecessary waste." He would then stand up, adjust his sleeves while still frowning at the tank, and finally turn and stride determinedly out of the room.
Four would wipe the sweat off his face with one sleeve, peer cautiously over his own arm to ascertain whether what he thought had happened really had, wince exaggeratedly, and say "I've always said too many baths were bad for a fellow."
Five would be devastated. Like Three, he would rush to the side of the tank, and stare into its depths in horror and disbelief. In fact, his horrified face might well be the cliff-hanger for that week. If not, he would then draw backwards, still staring at the tank, gather himself, adjust his collar, and say "There's something fundamentally wrong here – and it's about time I put a stop to it."
Six we obviously know about.
Seven would lean forwards slightly, peering apprehensively into the tank. He would then tut, say "What a stupendously foolish place to leave a vat of acid", and stalk off, still frowning. (NB I'm on my shakiest ground here, as I haven't seen any of Seven's stories for about 10 years, so do correct me if you know him better than I).
Eight would be in the devastated camp. Like Three and Five, he'd rush to the side of the tank in the desperate hope of doing something – anything – to put things right. When he saw he couldn't, he would simply close his eyes, drop his head forwards so that his forehead rested on the side of the tank and sigh, before gathering himself up again, saying "This is exactly what I feared when I came here", and turning to leave.
Nine wouldn’t look distraught as such – at least not on the outside. Just downcast and disappointed. He would dust off his hands, slowly and deliberately, and say “That’s it – this stops. Now.”
And Ten? Like Three, Five and Eight, he’d be peering over the edge of the tank, face contorted in emo agony to the accompaniment of slow panning, dramatic lighting and evocative music. And he would be the first one to say, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

In other words, several of the other Doctors would make jokes, or at least try to make light of the situation – particularly One and Four. But even they would also show in at least some small way (One’s tut, Four’s wince) that they recognised the consequences of their actions – however involuntary. That is what's missing in the case of Six – and he no longer has the madness of The Twin Dilemma to excuse it.

Possibly, given the meta-televisual commentary at the centre of the episode, it was meant to be unusually brutal – a device designed to make the Doctor Who audience feel suddenly uncomfortably akin to the Varosian viewers, rather than basking in moral superiority over them. Possibly that. Or possibly it was just poor judgement. I incline towards the latter.

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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 21st, 2009 10:33 pm (UTC)
Bugger. Blanking out The Twin Dilemma (and be fair, it's much, much worse than Underworld) means that there is absolutely no mention of Romulus and Remus in my "Greece and Rome in Who" chapter, and I think it's too late to add a bit now. Fortunately, it's not hugely important, because it really is just the names and the fact that they're twins. I'll fix it in my own book.
Jan. 21st, 2009 10:35 pm (UTC)
Hehe! No, don't worry - as you say, it doesn't really matter, and besides that is a perfectly reasonable reaction!
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 21st, 2009 11:05 pm (UTC)
I didn't see a big frown for Colin. But I've sent the DVD back now, so can't re-check.

And yeah... I'm not really sure every Doctor would actually say something. I guess I just wanted to see what they would say if they did.
Jan. 21st, 2009 11:00 pm (UTC)
I think the general theme of the Sixth Doctor era is grand ideas that fail abysmally. Mainly because they didnt know what to do with the characters, they didnt edit the scripts or cut it particularly well, and most of the season is hugely derivative.

The classic example being Attack of the Cybermen. I think there's only one previous Cyberman story it doesn't reference, it brings back characters from an earlier (the previous season, if I remember right) story, and they lock the doctor in the same room as the macguffin used to solve the problem.

I do like Vengeance on Varos, but it is the infamous acid bath scene that sticks out, even when the doctor kills the bad guys with their own deadly plants, which is shown as a particularly painful death.

Although the ending is worth it's weight in gold. "Dunno".

Jan. 21st, 2009 11:08 pm (UTC)
Yes, he's pretty callous about the bad guys at the end, too. It's not that other Doctors haven't done similar things, because they have. But there seems to be rather a lot of it going on here, and with no indication of regret that I can see.
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