We fans keep changing our collective mind about which is the best ever Doctor Who story. Is it Androzani? Is it Genesis of the Daleks? Is it The Day of the Doctor? We can’t decide. There are too many contenders.
But when it comes to the worst Doctor Who story, we’re unanimous. Time after time we say, The Twin Dilemma. There’s been nothing as bad as that one, we’ve said, in the last three Doctor Who Magazine all-time surveys. As long as we disregard Dimensions in Time, which I’m more than happy to do.
Ranking his debut story last among all Who makes Colin Baker sad, as we know from his 2015 interview with DWM. So sad that he questions the whole practice of mercilessly listing every story or every Doctor from best to worst. Unfortunately, this is what fans do. We list, we score, we compare. We ignore the good intentions, the extenuating circumstances and the mishaps beyond everyone’s control. We know which is the worst Doctor Who story ever, but we forget that no one on its production team deliberately set out to make the worst ever Doctor Who story. Quite the opposite, in fact, in the case of The Twin Dilemma where they sought to kickstart a new, vibrant era for the program.
This blog is not about casting judgement on Doctor Who stories. I try not to tell you which ones I think are good, better or best. Although I’m sure I fail, maybe on every single post, I’m not here to review or rate. Partly because there are loads of other websites that do that already. And partly because I want to hear fresh ideas about Doctor Who. I don’t want to read another article telling me that City of Death‘s brilliant and Time-Flight’s not. If anything, I want to read the opposite.
Facing The Twin Dilemma is a problem though, when something’s so famously, patently bad. It may or may not be the worst Doctor Who story in either my opinion or yours, but I think it can be overwhelmingly agreed that it’s not good Doctor Who. So I’m going to try to put that aside, in order to think about why we need a worst Doctor Who story in the first place.
Apparently showrunner Russell T Davies described this story as “the beginning of the end” for old Who. Having just watched Survival, I have been wondering if this is true – if a five year wind down of the series started with The Twin Dilemma. If you subscribe to that reading, I think that helps explain our need for a “worst story”. We’re looking for a scapegoat to blame for the old series’ cancellation.
I also think identifying the best and worst of something is an inherent part of fandom. I’ve written before about when I think fandom starts; for me, it’s when you seek out more information about the show than an average viewer would have access to. As part of this quest for knowledge, fans are building up a kind of expertise on the program. They develop opinions about what’s good and bad Doctor Who, as opposed to casual viewers who I suspect see any Who they watch as being roughly the same in quality. Fans are connoisseurs, and the ultimate expression of this is choosing not just good and bad, but best and worst.
Then there’s a tendency to ‘pile on’ a particular story. Once The Twin Dilemma started to get its reputation as the worst story ever, it became harder and harder to watch it without being aware of that tag. It became easy for everyone to agree. A similar thing is happening to Fear Her, which seems to be gaining the unwanted notoriety of the worst new series episode. The more we all buy into this idea, the less likely it is to shift.
So there’s scapegoating, piling on and fandom’s need to assess. The Twin Dilemma falls victim to all of these. Still, no smoke without fire – none of these things would gain any traction unless the story in question was dodgy to begin with. And there’s loads of material to work with here – ugly design work, flat direction, clunky dialogue.
On top of it all, it ends with a direct challenge to the audience, daring its audience to dislike it. “I am the Doctor,” declares Colin Baker, delivering the story’s final line from within that colourful maelstrom of a costume, “whether you like it or not!” An extraordinary way to end a story, which speaks of a vast but misplaced confidence. This story was already playing hard to like, and then it ends with an invitation to its audience to bugger off.
If The Twin Dilemma is about anything, it’s about the darker side of people, hidden under the surface. The sixth Doctor, in his post regenerative illness, releases a nasty, violent side which would have been unthinkable emerging from the gentle fifth Doctor. The story’s villain, the sluggy Mestor (Edwin Richfield) may be a laughably immobile, crosseyed panto costume, but the idea behind him, that he inhabits people’s minds, filling them with dark thoughts while lurking in shadows, is quietly sinister. Even the titular twins have the mental ability to destroy the universe, so we’re told. And it’s a theme that lasts throughout the sixth Doctor’s era, and culminates in the creation of the Valeyard, a supervillain created from the Doctor’s dark side.
So the seeds of something interesting are there, along with a bold ambition to try something new – to present regeneration not as a blessing, but a dangerous gamble, and to move the Doctor to being louder, ruder and, in many ways, harder than ever before. Here is a strikingly different Doctor, inherently theatrical in words and action and openly confrontational with friends and foes alike. It’s near impossible to imagine The Twin Dilemma as a fifth Doctor story, but not so impossible to imagine a universe where it worked as an innovative and invigorating launch for the sixth Doctor. The beginning of something brilliant, not the end.
Ultimately, being bad Doctor Who is only the first of this story’s crimes. The second is that it posited a brash new vision for the series that failed to convince the audience to go along with it. And while there have been lots of below par Doctor Who stories before and since, there have been none which managed that.
So that’s why I think fans insist on having a worst story, and why we’ve collectively decided it’s The Twin Dilemma. None of which is any comfort to Colin Baker or to anyone else involved in the story’s production.
What I hope is some comfort is that it wasn’t the beginning of the end. The series lives on loud and live, with a spiky, bad tempered Doctor at the helm. Plus the sixth Doctor hasn’t been shunned or quietly ignored; books, comics and audio dramas have crafted new Sixie eras which have garnered new fans. None of which would have been possible without The Twin Dilemma showing what didn’t work, but also what had the potential to work.
LINK TO Survival: wildlife (birds and cats) anthromorphised into alien species.
NEXT TIME: Life depends on change and renewal. Time to switch on The Power of the Daleks.
Do you think the same thing about episodes like Orphan 55 which have gotten a really bad reputation among the fandom? One person was trashing on it and it led to the episode having a tag as “one of the worst stories ever”?
Hi Zoë. Yes, I think the pile on factor exists for Orphan 55 as well. I think it’s fan nature to work out the best/worst of each season for some reason. And process that can have a role in shifting opinions. I remember quite enjoying O55 and then logging on to Twitter and realising I was in the minority.
I definitely agree. I didn’t really enjoy O55 when I first watched it, but I didn’t dislike it to the extent that the fandom did. I always felt like the Chibnall era has gotten some unfair criticism. Obviously a little bit of criticism is good, but 5 hour video essays are a bit excessive in my opinion.