by special request for bibliophile1887
I never thought I would be sitting down to write this post. And the reason for that is that I have always hated “the Twin Dilemma.” Partly because of the immediate contrast to “the Caves of Androzani” (my single favorite episode of the show), but mostly because it has always borne the brunt of my anger over the problems that beset the Sixth Doctor Era, the loss of Colin Baker, and the ultimate cancellation of the show. Which is hardly fair. But for those of you comparatively new to the franchise, it may be hard to imagine the bitter pain of turning on the tv one saturday morning at the tender age of nine to watch my favorite show… and finding instead only Barney. Hopefully it is a pain you will never have to endure. I was angry, looking for someone to blame (it was years before I learned the hated name of Michael Grade) and so, sadly, this episode was it. But that’s the remarkable thing about Doctor Who, and the point of this long and rambling introduction - every episode has it’s goodness, and everyone takes different things away from it. I have never been so delighted to be wrong as I continually am about this show. As a wise man once said: “to lose is to win, and he who wins shall lose” - the “loser” of an argument is the one who has achieved the most cognitive gain. For me, the threshold seems to be at about three watchings. After my third watch, I finally understood “Ghost Light,” and after my third watch I finally do like “the Twin Dilemma.” Does it still have flaws? Of course. Everything has flaws. What’s important is the fact that I like it.
"The Twin Dilemma" is…difficult, but it is intentionally difficult. It is, first and foremost, a regeneration episode, and while regeneration episodes are often wacky fun, the fact remains that regeneration is a deeply traumatic experience. "The Twin Dilemma" is the first episode that really deals fully with that idea. More importantly, it deals with the effects of regeneration, not just on the Doctor, but on whatever companions happen to be around. Peri has also spent the past three days being mostly dead, and she is the first companion to have no one at all to help her through the regeneration. Ben and Polly had each other, Sarah Jane and the Brig had just been given a regeneration primer 101, and Nyssa and Tegan weren’t really all that invested in the old Doctor yet, as well as having (a) each other and (b) a lot of other things to worry about. But Peri is invested, and alone, and what she sees is, frankly, horrifying. To say that the Doctor is "not himself" is to put it mildly. He’s erratic, gripped by violent mood swings (and, well, violence) - he’s no longer Five but not yet Six - and Peri has no assurance beyond the word of a madman that it’s every going to get better. And, in fact, the lingering after-effects of the Sixth Doctor’s post-regenerative brain-crazies persist into the following episode, much longer than any others in the series thus far.
On top of all the misery this causes, there’s also the inherent problem that regeneration is a death which cannot in principle be grieved for, since the deceased is up and walking about. He’s both gone forever and right in front of you demanding attention. How do you deal with that? This issue is explicitly dealt with after the Ninth Doctor’s regeneration, which is extremely similar to this one in a lot of important ways. The difference there, though, is that Rose is surrounded by her friends and family, and the new Doctor has the decency to spend most of his regeneration asleep in bed. Peri has no one but the Doctor, and no opportunity to deal with the fact that she’s really not okay, since he’s busy being Not Okay enough for the both of them.
The really heartbreaking thing about all of this is that the Doctor really is trying. He’s like a wildly swinging needle, always hyper-correcting, but he does occasionally swing through the zero-point of sanity. He just overshoots a lot - and the amazing thing is that you can see it happening. It’s an utterly masterful performance by Colin Baker. Bombast and Subtlety falling over each other in quick succession. Probably the most powerful moment in the sequence is when he goes to comfort Peri and she flinches away. “You…really are frightened, aren’t you?” It’s that shock of realization, and it’s heartbreaking. He’s faced with the horror that there might actually be something seriously wrong with him that must be dealt with and cannot be brushed off. It doesn’t take long for him to swing too far the other way into ostentatious contrition, but the moment is there and it’s beautiful. And Colin Baker just does an utterly fantastic job throughout.
The other thing about regeneration is that it tends to be when the Doctor is at his most Time-Lord-y, and the show is usually kind enough to throw in other Time Lords to help remind us of this fact. (Only the 1->2 and 9->10 regenerations have failed to have other time lords around in either the set up or the aftermath - well, and 8->w, but the Sisterhood fulfills much the same role). In “the Twin Dilemma” this role is played by Azmael, an old friend and mentor of the Doctor’s, now going by the alias “Professor Edgeworth.” Azmael is an interesting enough character to warrant his own article, so I’ll be comparatively brief here. First off, he’s a stabilizing influence on the Doctor, helping to ground him in his own identity by calling up old memories. The fact that the particular memories happen to be of the Fourth Doctor’s drunken shenanigans is just an added bonus. Azmael also offers us a fascinating glimpse into what Time Lords get up to when not being stuffy bureaucrats on Gallifrey. And the answer appears to be getting wasted. Er, I mean, ruling planets. Azmael is the “Master of Jaconda” - the sentimental grandfather of an alien world. The Rani actually has a similar gig going on, although presumably less benevolently. It says something, I think, that Gallifrey is somehow okay with this, but nevertheless persists in hounding the Doctor all over time and space. Maybe grounded as they are, they commit less genocide than he does. In any event, Azmael is apparently “retired,” at the end of his 13th regeneration, and does not have a TARDIS (very like Professor Chronotis in “Shada,” only legit). It’s a very different type of “rogue” time lordiness in that he’s (a) sedentary and (b) not actually evil, although he is caught up in villainy. Poor old Azmael. He also looks a bit like Richard Hurndall’s First Doctor, and may be read as how the Doctor’s life might have gone had he engaged in less petty theft and incorrigible meddling. He certainly shares the Doctor’s love of kidnapping people…
When talking about “the Twin Dilemma” people tend to ignore, well, the plot, and complain about the Sixth Doctor’s post-regenerative brain-crazies. But there is a plot aside from that, and it’s actually pretty solid. It focuses on the titular twins, Remus and Romulus, who are kidnapped by aliens for their mathematical genius, and then rescued by the Doctor. Which, if you’re a kid, has got to be pretty awesome. As kids in sci-fi go, Remus and Romulus are way less irritating than they could be. They’re intelligent, but not precocious. They do no whining, but a lot of reasoning and figuring things out, devising a nearly successful escape plan. They’re good kids, if a little too clever for their own good. They do a very good job of showing both some of the difficulties of being a child prodigy and of intelligence outstripping maturity. Also, their Twin Speak is kind of adorable, especially since it’s not overplayed.
At this point I want to pause for a moment and just say - how cool is their marker-based math system? Super cool. Alternate number systems are not something ever tend to see a whole lot of, and when we do it tends to be very simplistic x means 1, y means 2, etc. But we know nothing about this system, except that it’s realistically abstract, and clearly designed to be used on computers, not hand-written. All those squares… and the the twins do an impressively good job rendering them by hand as well - with dry erase markers on acrylic screens! It’s a tiny detail, but I just think it’s really super cool. Subtle little world-building, helping everything fit together.
The villains of the piece are giant telepathic slugs. It’s an odd combination, to say the least. Giant Gastropods. Cool. Non-humanoid aliens are great. The most interesting thing about them, though, is that they’re monsters out of mythology. They are a biblical-style plague visited upon the people of Jaconda by their gods as punishment for some insult, and later lifted in an act of divine compassion. It’s a realistically standard type of story. Now, the genre-savvy watcher knows that nothing touted as “only a myth” ever fails to crop up, usually later the same episode. But this instance is nice because it’s an entirely alien myth and culture and world, and also because it’s not presented as “silly superstitions” or the “real” version of the myth or even OMG all myths are true! Nothing about the reality of the Gastropods differs significantly from their mythology, but the divine aspect is totally absent. It leaves the myth its mystery while presenting a problem you have to deal with now. We are not told whether to take the old stories as true or false - myth and history remain teased together in the depths of time.
The other cool thing about Mestor and the Giant Gastropods is that they’re giant mythological telepathic slug monsters who are interested in complex planetary engineering. That is, moving planets around, in fairly subtle ways. While being slugs. In a similar way, they’re also the only example I can think of of a sentient species with an R-type reproductive strategy (that is, many offspring, little investment in each one, by contrast to a K-type strategy, which is what, say, mammals have, which focuses on childrearing and such). We tend to make aliens who are very like us, and the Giant Gastropods really really aren’t, down to the socio-biogical level. (And yet Mestor is somehow still attracted to Peri).
Speaking of aliens who are very like us, the Jacondans are, well, just people. But they’re very obviously not human. And there are loyal Jacondans and quisling Jacondans, impoverished Jacondans, weasly Jacondans. It’s very effective that first Jocondans we meet are the thuggish kidnappers, and then we later learn that these are the oppressed people everything is going toward saving. When Azmael talks about saving “my people,” he’s talking about these silver-skinned furry-headed guys with horns. Their design actually does a quite good job at making them all identifiably the same (very alien) species, while permitting a huge amount of variety in their individual looks. They’re people - they look like people and they act like people. And although we have the two kidnapped human children to worry about and the human lieutenant who’s trying to rescue them, it is ultimately a very Jacondan story. Which is neat. More aliens are always a good thing, especially when they work as well as the Jacondans do.
"The Twin Dilemma" is, as I’ve said above, a very difficult episode. The first part in particular is extremely painful - but it’s making a point that needs to be made, and making it well. And as it progresses it has humor and good world-building and compelling characters and interesting plotlines. The main plot ends in a fairly dark place, but that is the darkness that typifies the Sixth Doctor era and gives it a lot of it’s power. Really, the only thing seriously wrong at it is that they bring up the Fifth Doctor again in the final scene, drawing battle lines against an audience who was just about ready to accept the new Doctor and get on with things. Because this was a difficult regeneration, but regeneration is difficult, and should be difficult. The point of the regeneration story is to work through that, and this one does. And is a decent plot to boot.