“The Two Doctors” is a deeply personal story for its writer, Doctor Who legend Robert Holmes. The previous time he wrote from a really personal perspective: this wasn’t an entirely positive thing: he wrote “The Sun Makers”, a reactionary rant about the evils of taxes. The story itself isn’t necessarily reactionary, certainly Phil Sandifer makes a very convincing argument in favour of it. But in a world where conservative politicians advocate for the reduction of corporation tax to continue lining their own pockets, and the pockets of the corporations that fund them, a story coming from such a place has uncomfortably ugly undertones. It’s a thread of uncomfortable politics that runs through much of the work of Holmes, and that reactionary thread can definitely be explored in the context of “The Two Doctors”, and as such will form a part of this essay. However, this story comes from a very different personal experience: just before time he wrote “The Two Doctors”, Holmes converted to vegetarianism. Writing a story that comes from this experience shows a slightly more tender side to Holmes, one that counterbalances his famed cynicism in a way that I do greatly appreciate. And yet, that reactionary side to the Holmes I mentioned, that’s also there throughout “The Two Doctors”. In many ways, the story is an ideal demonstration of Holmes’s strengths and weaknesses, and unpacking it reveals a lot about both his approach to Doctor Who, and Doctor Who in general, due to Holmes’s massive influence on the show. As such, unpacking the story is what we’re going to do.
Let’s begin with the delightful opening scene in the second doctor’s TARDIS. We get a lovely few seconds of the story in black white before bringing Jamie and the second Doctor into the world of colour television: a gorgeous moment that is also symbolic of the way this story uses the second Doctor, bringing him out of his era, and into the Sixth Doctor’s. I particularly love the cheek of the fan enraging continuity references that make a mess of continuity. It wouldn’t be a Holmes script with them: the war Doctor has nothing on season 6B. And it’s not a mistake, Holmes has talked about the deliberate nature of the references all along, even if his explanation is different in key areas to the (in my opinion, better, so I go with it) season 6B theory. While this can seem like needless continuity, it’s actually very relevant to the themes of the story. The Second Doctor and Jamie are brought into the world of the sixth Doctor’s era, and we see this era rapidly distort their characters. In his own era, the second Doctor was an anarchic, mercurial figure of fun and whimsy, in a story for the sixth Doctor’s era he’s an establishment patsy to the Time Lords, trading borrowed freedom to carry out the tasks they don’t want to be known to do.
The Sixth Doctor and Peri’s opening fishing scene also ties into the story’s themes very cleverly. The Doctor fishes for the gumblejack, which he and us have no problem with, the gumblejack chases the smaller fish, who the Doctor pities. And shockeye wants to eat Jamie, which we view as outright monstrous, because it places us in the position of the animals we eat. It’s a fascinating dissection of the contradictory standards we hold for the consumption of living creatures. This double standard is made even clearer when Shockeye says of Peri: “Animals can always scent danger. They have to be dragged to the abbatoir!“. Once again, human characters are placed in the position of the animals we consume, and and the audience is horrified because it is a human character being placed in the position of a lamb or cow being put to the slaughter, a theme also explored by Steven Moffat in his recent work.
Later, we are introduced to Oscar. And while he is, in many ways, a barely necessary character added in to pad the story out to three parts, he definitely adds to the story’s themes. He kills and preserves butterflies, but can’t stand the sight of gore. It’s another example of more double standards in the way humans treat animals. It’s worth considering the Doctor’s “never more a butterfly” speech in the context of Oscar’s introduction, seeing as they are linked by the recurrence of the butterfly motif. It’s a lovely scene: upon realising the universe is apparently doomed to end, the Doctor tries to impart the horror of what has happened to Peri, but when he tells her the universe won’t end for a few hundred years, she smiles in relief, and goes to help Jamie. The scene contrasts his philosophy and perspective on the universe to Peri’s beautifully: his is large, Cosmic, and infinite, while hers is, small, human, and immediate. It’s a contrast that ties into the power dynamics of Shockeye wanting to consume Jamie and Peri, and the Doctor Wanting to consume the gumblejack people who consider their perspectives larger and more important prey on, take advantage of, and dismiss people and animals they consider less important. Recognition of this hypocrisy causes the Doctor to change, telling Peri, who is discomfited by the thought of more fishing after her experiences in the story, that “It’s a healthy vegetarian diet for both of us from now on”.
The double standards behind the consumption of meat can be tied to the story’s racial politics, too. And these are complex, to say the least. It’s pretty undeniable that all the characters, the second Doctor in particular, are outright racist to the Androgums in this story. The second Doctor’s comments on Chessene, who Dastari genetically modifies, are the best example of this: he says “She’s still an Androgum! You can’t change nature!“, and “She’s an Androgum! A race to whom treachery is as natural as breathing!“, comments that notably prompt Dastari to claim he’d expected the second Doctor to have a more “progressive” attitude. For real world context, change the word “Androgrum” for “Mexican”, or “Muslim”, and the inflammatory language the Doctor uses becomes even clearer.
There’s a good argument, most prominently made by writer of “Dalek” and several of the best Wilderness years stories, Rob Shearman, that the uncomfortable racial politics of the characters in the story is part of the point of “The Two Doctors”, and there’s weight to that argument, so let’s explore it. As Shearman argues, the Androgums look human, so we’re less comfortable with the story ascribing the same traits to an entire race, as we would be in a story where the Androgums were all rubber suited monsters. And arguably that’s the only reason: very few fans are uncomfortable with the fact that the Sonatarans, who are men in rubber suits are portrayed as an inherently war-like race. Even the delightful visual gag of the second Doctor grabbing for the knife to defend himself from Shockeye and instead getting a cucumber plays into this theme: he’s only just met Shockeye, and has no reason to suspect him of foul play. Even though the story later proves that Shockeye is a nasty piece of work, it’s an unjustified judgement at this point.
As a result, this becomes part of the distortion and reshaping of the second Doctor’s character. Being moved into this era turns the second Doctor into a racist old man as well as an establishment stooge. This does not say positive things about the Sixth Doctor’s era at large. Or perhaps that’s too harsh on the Sixth Doctor’s era. Troughton’s era was, after all, full of base under siege stories that turned the aliens he fought into generic, race essentialised “others”. Instead of making other eras of Doctor Who more cynical, the sixth Doctor’s era arguably draws the cynicism underlying the ostensibly more innocent and fun eras of other Doctors, and Doctor Who at large, into the light.
The climax of this paradoxically revealing distortion comes when the second Doctor is turned into an Androgum. “I can’t believe my Doctor would do that” says Jamie, reflecting the continued distortion of the assumed viewer’s comforting memories of the character, when we see the second Doctor befriend Shockeye and enable his murder of one innocent person: and yet this is, as Shearman has noted, the part of the story where the second Doctor behaves most like the folk memory of his character: an impish clown figure. And then he sleeps through Shockeye’s next murder: Oscar’s Death, which further draws attention to the incongruity, as Oscar continues getting funny comic relief dialogue during his tragic death. The Sixth Doctor’s behaviour also plays into this theme: he invokes race essentialism when he claims the Time Lords could never commit the crimes of which the ship’s computer is accusing them: a selfish defence of his own race, based purely on their perceived nature, that is nonetheless apparently justified by the narrative, which has the Time Lords being framed by the Sontarans. No era, and single aspect, of Doctor Who is innocent: the race essentialism isn’t a blip. All eras are put under the spotlight.
The challenging undercurrent to “The Two Doctors” is best captured in the following speech by Shockeye, when he talks about human cooking habits:
“The general principles are similar to our own methods. They cannot be quite as primitive as I first believed. In many Ways they resemble us. […] There cannot be a creature on the planet that human brings do not kill and eat.”
Well, damn. The story’s definitely got some subversive things to say on the portrayal of Race in Doctor Who. And that really is tied to the vegetarian themes of the story in this scene with Shockeye. Shockeye describes humans as “primitive”, invoking the language of colonialism, and in the description of our culinary habits as being similar to the his own simultaneously criticizes our eating habits and draws attention to the fact that, for all the narrative uses racial essentialism to justify its portrayal of the Androgums as monsters, they really do look exactly like humans, save for the orange eyebrows, which is the only reason we are uncomfortable with the race essentialism used in their portrayal. As a result, the story’s challenging and subversive elements really do cohere in a satisfying way.
But there’s also an unpleasantness to the story’s politics that isn’t made up for by its more subversive elements: even if it turns up in decisions made for individual moments, rather than the overall script. Take, for example, the horrible scene where the second Doctor calls Jamie’s scots a “Mongrel dialect!”, a shocking bit of writing that is so out of character for the second Doctor and for Jamie, that it can’t even be said to be critiquing anything the show has previously done: it’s just a moment of casual anti Scottish prejudice. Similarly, the second episode ends with an exploitative cliffhanger where the Shockeye creepily and lustily leers at an imperiled Peri while threatening her life. Because that’s how things are done in this era. The cliffhanger resolution in episode three is just as leery towards Peri as the cliffhanger – the direction makes Shockeye capturing Peri look even more sexualized, making the scene feel like a sexual assault, while also objectifying Nicola Bryant in a blatant “for the dads” moment, something that speaks volumes about the hideous way sexual assault is made “sexy” in the worst television and film, even though there’s nothing sexy about sexual assault. On top of this, the way Shockeye’s design is an uncomfortable mix of stereotypical visual features linked to ethnic minorities also plays into the reading of the scene. As Jack Graham says in his excellent essay “Beyond Redemption”:
“the Androgums are not consistently reminiscent of any particular group of stereotypes. To a certain extent they chime with stereotypes about Scottish people (think, for instance, of the roughly contemporaneous MacAdder from Blackadder the Third… a violent, lecherous, orange-faced, ginger-haired lunatic). Similar stereotypes – red hair, violence, dissoluteness, primitiveness – have long been used in the representation of the Irish and Irish culture. There is also something reminiscent of the Arab in the Shockeye mix. He seems to be wearing a hat that is somewhere between a turban and a ‘Tam O’Shanter’. He wears harem pants under a decoration hanging from his belt that is halfway between a plaid (it’s hard not to see an echo in Jamie’s tartans) and a rug. He has a curved, scimitar-like blade. It will be noticed that all these stereotypes suggested by Shockeye represent groups – the Scots, the Irish, Arabs, etc – who have historically been victims of English/British imperialism. As usual, the imperial culture derides, demonizes, vilifies and appropriates the culture of its victims.”
I’d like, for a moment, to focus on that last sentence. “the imperial culture derides, demonizes, vilifies and appropriates the culture of its victims.” Because one popular tactic for demonizing and vilifying minorities comes in the form of sensationalized claims that the minority culture is more susceptible to sexual assault than “our” implicitly “more civilized” culture. See the false claims of mass rape in refugee camps, or Donald Trump literally claiming that “all Mexicans are rapists”. Demonizing ethnic minorities in such a way, and conveniently only showing any care about the issue of sexual assault when it is a tool for the demonizing of ethnic minorities, was just as much of a reactionary political tactic when this story originally aired in 1985. And in fairness, the story could be read as commenting on this, too, if we continue the redemptive reading. But given the way the scene unabashedly sexualizes Peri with no sense of irony, this really feels like a case of the story trying to have its cake and eat it. In this world, it is at best hugely irresponsible to depict a character whose depiction leans into several stereotypes about ethnic minorities attacking a sexualized and objectified woman in such an exploitative and uncritical manner.
In many ways, “The Two Doctors” is an inversion of “The Talons of Weng Chiang”. “Talons” has occasional moments of subversion, such as Chang mocking the racist attitudes of the Victorian society he is in by saying “I understand we all look the same” in a voice dripping with bitter irony, but is overall hugely racist in its themes, genre, and basic production decisions (the subversive nature of that line is hugely undercut by dint of it being delivered by a man in yellowface). By contrast, this is a story, that, overall, can be read as having subversive things to say on race, but undercuts and sabotages this subversion with all too many moments of racism and sexism.
Except I’m still left wondering if even that conclusion isn’t too kind to the story. In “Beyond Redemption”, Jack Graham draws attention to two key scenes with the main villain of the story, Chessene towards the end of the episode. The first sees her lapping up the Doctor’s blood, apparently unable to contain her biological desires, in spite of the fact that she is a genetically modified Androgum. The second comes after her death, when she reverts to her “true” form, with orange eyebrows and the warts on her cheek. To Quote Graham: “Chessene’s ‘true’ and underlying alien ugliness reasserts itself at the end. Her evil inner core is thus represented by the red eyebrows, the heavy features, the warts… just as it was earlier represented by her inability to resist tasting the sacrificial blood of someone outside her own race”. This is arguably more than the story having the characters make essentialist statements about the Androgums, it can be seen as the story ultimately showing those statements to be true. There’s a lingering sense, and I’m not sure whether I agree with this sense or not, that “The Two Doctors” ultimately just ends up being a piece of race essentialism rather than something that depicits and critiques race essentialism.
How does one respond to a story like “The Two Doctors”? There’s an eloquent and powerful defence to be made of it, one that has been made by the likes of Shearman and Phil Sandifer. There’s also a damning critique, as has been made by critics like Jack Graham. It’s visibly got a thematic coherence and skill in its craft lacking in most of the Sixth Doctor’s televised stories, there’s a touching and forward thinking personal element in its championing of vegetarianism, and this is cleverly tied to some subversive commentary about the underlying racial politics in Doctor Who’s depiction of aliens and monsters. But at the same time, it’s a bloated and overly padded story, marred by the unpleasantness and cynicism that appears in all of the era’s stories, with an uncomfortable racialized undercurrent. Ultimately, when trying to critique a flawed story from a progressive perspective, I think it can be useful to acknowledge the usefulness of a redemptive reading, while also acknowledge the importance of a damning critique. Sometimes you just have to admit that you don’t know where you land. Because it’s rare that you can understand something perfectly. And you can never assume you understand what a person is like solely because of their race. As the Twelfth Doctor says:
“I try never to understand. It’s called an open mind.”