OK…OK…clearly given that it’s now a week since I said these essays would be going up one a day for a week, and this is only the fifth essay, I may have overestimated my own ability. If only I could go back and talk to my past self and warn him of this…

The Two Doctors, for those who don’t know, has a mixed reputation among fandom. It’s one of the three stories in season twenty-two (the other two being Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks) that at least some fans are willing to admit has merit. And any story with a returning classic monster, written by the fans’ favourite writer Robert Holmes, and featuring the return of an old Doctor (Patrick Troughton, coming back just before his death), will have its admirers.

But at the same time, many point out that the story feels like it’s rather less than the sum of its parts, while Tat Wood goes so far as to argue (in About Time), that the story is outright fascist, citing the Second Doctor’s belief that the Androgums are unchangeably evil and his referring to Jamie’s Scottish accent as a “mongrel tongue”.

And certainly it is possible to read the story that way – if one accepts that Robert Holmes, one of the best writers ever to work on the series and someone who largely shaped the series’ anti-authoritarian ethos, was either a terrible writer who didn’t understand what he was writing or a fascist.

On the other hand, it’s also possible to read the story in the context of the season it’s part of.

And here we see that something rather different is happening. It’s been noted that throughout this season there’s a theme of body horror, of the human body being treated as meat. This season sees a disgusted fascination with the physical and the embodied, and this shows in the grotesquerie of the villains, in the way every story deals with the physical conversion of people into monsters, and in several stories, including this one, with actual cannibalism.

But what’s not commented on so much is the way that in the previous story the Rani makes exactly the same arguments about treating human beings as meat that Shockeye the Androgum makes in this one, almost word for word.

And this is interesting, because the Rani is, like the Doctor, a Time Lord. And in fact The Mark of the Rani, in so far as it’s about anything at all, is about how the Time Lords are largely one-dimensional characters, driven by a single appetite (in the case of the Master, that appetite is for power, in the case of the Rani, it’s for knowledge).

So when, in this story, the Second Doctor turns up specifically working for the Time Lords, and then attacks the Androgums as being irredeemable by their very nature – for a flaw which we’ve seen in the episode before this, only a week earlier to be shared by the Time Lords themselves – then to assume that the Second Doctor is here intended to be a moral paragon, rather than to assume we’re meant to be reading the Second Doctor as in the wrong, is to my mind a misreading of the text.

(And certainly the production seems to be going out of its way this season to make sure we notice ties between episodes. The previous story featured an actor who had just finished starring in the hit comedy Brass, while this story features another actor from Brass along with one of the main stars of Blake’s Seven, and the next story features another star of Blake’s Seven. In all these cases the actors are playing characters who are very like their recent starring roles, and in a season which is so focused on how we watch TV, we can assume that these links are meant to be noticed).

What we see, in fact, is that the Second Doctor himself gets turned into an Androgum – and that the version of him as an Androgum is closer to the fan-memory version of Troughton’s Doctor, the version he played in The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors, than Troughton’s performance in the rest of the story is. He’s at his most “Doctory” when he’s a monster. The implication is clear – Troughton’s Doctor has the very faults he’s criticising in the Androgums.

Troughton’s Doctor-as-Androgum gloats with impish glee over meat dishes made with more than the usual amount of cruelty – and it’s interesting to note in that regard that some of the dishes he talks about turn up in the Voigt-Kampff empathy test in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

In Dick’s book, anyone who fails to be disgusted by those things isn’t truly human – isn’t empathetic enough – and unless we think this is just a coincidence, the first item in the Voigt-Kampff test is a butterfly collector with a cyanide killing jar, just like Oscar in The Two Doctors.

The Two Doctors, then, is about where we draw the line as to who or what deserves our sympathy and empathy, and argues that we should extend that sympathy as widely as possible. But it’s also, like most of this season, about looking back at the past of Doctor Who. And so we see that in the past, the Doctor has dismissed whole species as being irredeemable for sharing flaws he has himself. And we also see that the Second Doctor’s specific criticism of the Androgums is wrong on several fronts. Not only is he attacking them for something he does himself, but he becomes an Androgum and then stops being one again, so it is in fact perfectly possible for an Androgum to change.

And that lesson is mirrored for the Sixth Doctor. At the start of the story he enjoys fishing and is a meat-eater, but he changes in the story, and becomes a vegetarian (something that sticks for the rest of Baker’s time in the role).

So the message of this story is that the Golden Age in the past is not all it’s cracked up to be, and when examined the recent past turns out to be a bit nasty and a bit racist. It says we’re all flawed, and that the biggest moralists are generally also the biggest hypocrites. But it also shows that we can change, that we can become kinder and better people by extending our empathy, and that there’s no such thing as someone irredeemable by their very nature.

As far from fascist as you can get, I think.

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Leave a Reply