Doctor Doctor Who Guide

There are many advantages to being an American Doctor Who fan, and one of them is that I can show “The Two Doctors” to fresh-eyed viewers who are unaware of its controversial--and rather lowly--place in the series’ canon. Strangely, this often-panned episode has been a hit with my friends, who are invariably mystified when I tell them that it’s generally loathed. Maybe there’s something fundamentally American about the gratuitous violence and sexuality in “The Two Doctors”; it’s just tacky enough to be one of our own productions, isn’t it? Or maybe “The Two Doctors” is secretly rather good, and like “Duck Soup” or “Gojira,” it’s begging to be reassessed by the same critics who have been gleefully bombing it for years.

Part of the problem is that “The Two Doctors” will forever be associated with Doctor Who’s hiatus and eventual cancellation. Fans, eager to prove that they have mature and sophisticated viewpoints, have stopped blaming various BBC executives for the series’ downfall and have turned their venom upon the series itself, blaming episodes like “The Two Doctors” for turning Doctor Who into a violent and gaudy shadow of its past success. No member of the production team is above criticism--Colin Baker is blasted for his ham acting, John Nathan-Turner is accused of “camping up” the series (though I sometimes wonder if fans aren’t attacking his sexual orientation instead of his actual work), and even the mighty Robert Holmes is generally regarded to have burnt out by this disastrous point. To most fans, there’s a stink about this production that’s attached to all involved. You’ll even hear people say that Doctor Who deserved to be canceled after producing this turkey. 

What short memories we seem to have developed; “The Caves of Androzani,” which is often cited as the best Doctor Who story of all time, had been made only the season before, and with the same man in the writers’ chair. Did the series really beg to be cancelled so soon after hitting that peak? I’d argue--and I know how alone I am here, believe me--that much of Androzani’s brilliance still shines in this episode. 

But before I get to the positives, I’d like to rebuff some common criticisms of “The Two Doctors.” Let me sum them up--the Spanish locations are superfluous, the violence is over-the-top, the storyline is padded and muddled, and Peter Moffatt’s direction is flat. Have I got it covered? Indulge me while I address these issues one-by-one.

I think that too much knowledge of the series’ production history might be a bad thing. Fans know that “The Two Doctors” was originally supposed to be shot in New Orleans (or one of several other locations), and consequently they’re hyper-aware that the Seville setting is largely arbitrary. Yet the settings of most Doctor Who stories are equally arbitrary. The authors of “The Complete Useless Doctor Who Encyclopedia” had lots of fun lampooning the series because episode after episode takes place in London. There is, of course, no particular reason why aliens should so often elect to invade England’s capital, just as there is no particular reason why the Sontarans base themselves in a hacienda near Seville. With all brutal honesty, the Spanish location was chosen because it’s pretty. One might say that such reasoning is rather shallow but, since television is a visual medium, I’d argue that such reasoning actually fits perfectly. I would certainly rather look at Seville (and its surroundings) than yet another mud flat at the bottom of a slate quarry.

The violence issue is rather more prickly. The same fans who rush to defend the Hinchcliffe era against accusations of excessive violence are the ones who feel that, in the case of “The Two Doctors,” the production team really did go too far. For whatever reason, Condo’s stomach exploding in “The Brain of Morbius” is perfectly acceptable, but Shockeye eating a rat is not (needless to say, I don’t think Mary Whitehouse would have drawn such a fine distinction here). In today’s post-Tarantino climate, however, “The Two Doctors” seems rather tame. In fact, it was pretty tame at the time, seeing as how violent spectacles like “The Wild Bunch” and any one of a dozen slasher movies had preceded it. The violence itself is clearly not the problem, but somehow its execution in this particular episode has come to be criticized as flawed and in poor taste. I simply don’t share that judgment. In Doctor Who tradition, the gratuitously violent acts are all perpetrated by the villains, and serve to build up suspense and tension. Never is the violence depicted in a humorous light; Oscar’s death is obviously supposed to be horrible, just like the Dona Arana’s (and Oscar’s sense of humor makes his death more tragic, not less). The Doctor does kill Shockeye, but only in self-defense, and can you really blame him? The only dubious moment is his “just desserts” pun, but again, this all seems rather PG compared to the gore fests and callous anti-heroes we get today. “The Two Doctors” still has its moral compass correctly aligned; the good guys are generally pacifists, and the bad guys are the bloodthirsty ones. Robert Holmes has pushed the violence envelope a little further here, but he’s operating in the same vein as he did during the Hinchcliffe era, which had itself pushed the boundaries established by Barry Letts.

Criticisms of the storyline hold slightly more weight, but not much. Chessene switches plans and has the Second Doctor turned into an Androgum because she believes that the Time Lords are closing in, and she doesn’t have time to deconstruct his genetic code piece by piece. Killing just the two Sontarans is sufficient because the other Sontarans have no interest in Earth; they’re fighting the Rutans elsewhere, and have no intention of invading (the planet is “conveniently situated” for Stike to stop over before the battle, not for him to occupy it). The “padding” in the third part is, in my view, some of the best comedy that the series ever featured. I don’t know what to say if you didn’t laugh at Troughton as an Androgum; I think his performance is priceless, and I’m glad he got one last showcase for his comic talents before bowing out. Ultimately, the much vaunted plot holes in “The Two Doctors” seem to be either nit-picking or totally inaccurate myths based on sloppy viewings instead of sloppy scripting.

I’ll surprise you now and say that I agree, to an extent, with the common assessment that Peter Moffatt is a sub-par director. However, there is really only one terrible shot in this episode; that much maligned first appearance of the Sontarans outside the hacienda. Bizarrely, the earlier shot of a Sontaran raising its gun at the Second Doctor is wonderful, and I can’t quite account for the contrast between the subtle directing there and the artless directing that comes later on. Generally speaking, though, I don’t have much of a problem with Moffatt’s work; it’s standard TV directing, not adventurous, but not rubbish either.

It’s a shame that I’ve had to write such a defensive review of this episode; now that I’ve trawled through all of the establish criticisms, I feel obliged to keep my positive comments short. Suffice to say that the Androgums are a more interesting race than they might at first appear to be. Their obsession with blood and lineage lends weight to their characterization that balances out their very stereotypical (but very amusing) obsession with food and other carnal pleasures. Like all satirical figures, they’re half serious and half joke, and over-the-top in the best way. Fans balk at the comical treatment of the Sontarans in this episode, but they’re being used for satirical purposes as well; and remember, the first Sontaran episode is a comedy, too. Holmes clearly conceived them as a humorous attack on narrow military minds, and attempts to make them more menacing during the Tom Baker era, whether you judge them as successful or not, deviate far more from this concept than does “The Two Doctors.”

The villains are so memorable that they detract somewhat from the novelty value of the episode, which is of course seeing two Doctors together. But that’s what I love most about Holmes’ script; it tells a proper story, and doesn’t rely on the same silly gimmick that barely held “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors” together. Big Finish should’ve learned their lesson from here when they made “Zagreus.” That story was so keen to escape the gimmick of multiple Doctors that it cheated and didn’t deliver the goods, and the result was pretty much widespread disappointment. Yet “The Two Doctors” proves that multiple incarnations of the same Time Lord can appear in the same story, without that story stinking (ironically enough, “Zagreus” ended up being more bogged down in continuity than any episode of the series. While fans tend to condemn episodes like “The Two Doctors” for being continuity-driven, violent, and overly complex, their own writing often possesses all three of these qualities in spades).

There are interesting political undertones in the script, and it’s surprising to see Holmes serve up a liberal message (the vegetarian not-so-sub-text) right alongside a conservative one (is the notion that Androgums can’t evolve beyond barbarism a criticism of failed attempts to reform criminals?). The Gallifreyans are again depicted as manipulative and menacing after too many bad episodes had turned them into the Doctor’s buddies, and it’s possible for viewers to agree with Dastari that their interference is selfishly motivated. Holmes doesn’t tell us exactly how to feel about the issues involved, and that’s what makes this good drama instead of irksome soapboxing, a storytelling style that has infested way too many Doctor Who stories of late.

While I don’t think that “The Two Doctors” will ever storm the Top Ten (honestly, it’s not even in mine), it does deserve better treatment, especially if even a handful of the arguments that I've presented here hold any weight. The recent DVD release was coldly received, but I couldn't tell if fans were reviewing the actual episode, or the politics and history behind it, which still seem to be distracting even after all this time. I honestly think that this tiresome baggage needs to be shelved. There’s a Robert Holmes gem here, waiting to be discovered, just beneath a very thin layer of dust (or perhaps I should say, more in keeping with the episode’s gruesome content, a very thin sheen of blood?)

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