February 1985. During the previous 12 months, the year-long miners’ strike tore communities across the country apart, a breakdown in the social and political order of Great Britain. It ended with the most powerful trade union crushed by the Iron Lady. Having defeated the enemy without and freed the Falklands, Thatcher had now crushed the enemy within. So began her imperial phase.
The strike hangs over any British TV from 1984-85. Even in Doctor Who, Season 22 features two stories that touch on honest miners being exploited. Arguably, the upsurge in female villains in this season – three (the Rani, Kara and Chessene), compared to none in Season 21 – is an indication of the writers’ sympathies in the dispute.
Any reference guide will tell you that Robert Holmes was not entirely happy with his ‘shopping list’ brief for The Two Doctors – on top of Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines he had to incorporate a foreign location that changed from New Orleans to Seville midway through the writing process, and the return of the Sontarans, B-list monsters that last appeared in 1978. Equally, Holmes must have been aware of the plaudits his latest script, The Caves of Androzani, had won. The script editor Eric Saward immediately felt an affinity for Holmes’s writing, and modelled his own Season 22 scripts on Androzani’s mix of florid revenge tragedy and conflicting agendas, so that Revelation of the Daleks is almost nothing but double acts working at cross purposes towards a gore-drenched climax.
The result of this is a writer who’s both irritated and flattered by the production staff, but within the constraints of John Nathan-Turner’s bids to grab fanzine headlines – Foreign locations! Old Doctors! Famous monsters! – a script editor who’s willing to give him pretty much free rein. Given the last time Holmes was working to his own agenda the producer ultimately got moved off the show for making it too violent, this is a bold move.
Holmes’s initial response was to write a story themed around cookery – he claimed, because he couldn’t think of any other reason why aliens would visit New Orleans, although given the list of ingredients Nathan-Turner gave him to concoct a story with it could just be another example of Holmes’s mordant wit. And with Eric Saward asking Holmes for more of the same after the success of The Caves of Androzani, Holmes writes Titus Androgum, a story that has one eye on Shakespeare’s first and bloodiest revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus – a play in which “justice and cookery go hand in hand,” according to the 18th Century writer George Steevens.
Holmes was clearly thinking of Shakespeare when he wrote this – if nothing else, the Bard-quoting Oscar Botcherby makes the point explicit. And I think he was deliberately referencing Titus Andronicus, a play that’s been condemned for centuries as being in bad taste, which features graphic depictions of dismemberment, cannibalism, murder and rape. Whereas literary historians usually race to declare Shakespeare the author of anything and everything, there have even been attempts to remove the play from the Shakespeare canon on the basis that it’s too brutal. Some Doctor Who fans similarly feel that The Two Doctors is a blot on Robert Holmes’s reputation.
One of the central themes of Shakespeare’s play is of civilisation reverting to brutality. When the Goth Queen Tamora is wed to the Roman Emperor Saturninus, barbarianism is introduced into Roman society, and the city becomes “a wilderness of tigers”. In The Two Doctors, Chessene is the barbarian queen, elevated above her station by Dastari’s augmentations but unable to ever forget her own true nature. She’s a blank slate villain, unknowable, except that she has a burning ambition for maximum power. And, in the end, she’s unable to become civilised but reverts to licking up the Doctor’s blood like a dog, just as Tamora is reduced to feeding on the flesh of her children. All the way through, we’re reminded that while she might look human, Chessene has the pedigree of an Androgum, “a lowly, unthinking creature of instinct”. Her nature, barbaric and cannibalistic, can’t be changed however much she is taught to be a ladylike. As the Doctor says, “Whatever Dastari’s done to her mind, her nature will stay exactly the same, and Androgums have as much emotional capacity as a gumblejack.”
Throughout the story, there’s a deeply unpleasant suggestion that race is intrinsically linked to concepts of good and evil. Even that is present in Titus Andronicus, where the black character Aaron is motivated by simple malevolence. He might be the smartest man on the stage, manipulating others for his own ends, but his nature is evil. Robert Holmes suggests that the same is true of Chessene. She is irredeemable.
The Doctor himself is the best example of how Chessene’s barbarism infects even the most civilised person, changing them into a monster. Just as Titus Andronicus opens with the proud Titus arriving in Rome and demonstrating his allegiance to the Empire, so The Two Doctors opens with the second Doctor arriving in the grand surroundings of Space Station Camera, uncharacteristically showing off his inheritance (“How dare you have the impertinence to address me like that? I am a Time Lord!”) and somewhat arrogantly defending Time Lord interests to Dastari. His reward, like Titus’s, is to be wrong-footed, tortured, imprisoned and converted into barbarism. He’s infected with the nature of an Androgum so that he becomes as brutal as Chessene. There are few things as shocking in Doctor Who as watching the second Doctor transform into a monster that’s willing to stand by and watch a van driver get beaten to death, before merrily stealing the murdered man’s vehicle.
This idea that civilisation is a veneer and there is a monster lurking inside all of us is frequently touched on in The Two Doctors. Holmes inserts odd jibes – Jamie is accused of speaking in a “mongrel dialect”, betraying his own barbaric origins as a “hairy-legged Highlander”. Dastari’s ambition has made him complicit in mass murder. The only honest monster is Shockeye, a creature entirely defined by his shameless devotion to self-indulgence: “The gratification of pleasure is the sole motive of action.” Unlike the Sontarans, who are barely characterised at all, Shockeye has one, clearly articulated and unwavering motive: he wants to eat a human being, preferably Jamie.
This introduces a second strand: a message of ‘meat is murder’. According to Nicola Bryant, Robert Holmes told her that as he was a vegetarian it amused him to write a story where humans are part of the food chain. Images of hunting are used in The Two Doctors to make the point that even the sixth Doctor will kill fish for their juicy flesh, while Oscar murders insects – not even the most educated and erudite characters are entirely free from wild instincts. In Oscar’s case, his obsession with gassing moths (and Anita’s baffled reaction) could be a reference to the famous scene in Titus Andronicus where Marcus kills a fly, and Titus, mad with grief, declares, “Out on thee murderer! Thou kill’st my heart.” While human beings are treated as meat, dead insects are lamented: “Nevermore a butterfly” as a proxy for the end of the universe. In The Two Doctors, this leads, via Oscar’s murder at the hands of Shockeye, to a punchline of the Doctor declaring that from now on he and Peri will follow a healthy vegetarian diet.
The third strand is the revenge tragedy: the nub of The Caves of Androzani is a little lost in the mix of The Two Doctors. The final episode ends, like Androzani, with events coming to a head, characters double-crossing each other, and – aside from the regulars – only one woman (Timmin and Anita) surviving the subsequent bloodbath. In Androzani, the point was that the fifth Doctor refused to become involved in the violence, and this was his salvation. That’s not the case in The Two Doctors, where the sixth Doctor reluctantly participates in the final death tally by killing Shockeye with cyanide. The problem with the scene is not so much the death – which is surely justifiable in self-defence – but the staging (two overweight men gently jogging through a field), and the Doctor’s subsequent quips – “Your just desserts” and later, “ He’s been mothballed!”
Shakespeare’s off-colour jokes about rape and mutilation are one of the reasons why later audiences have struggled with Titus Andronicus. Experience has shown The Two Doctors to be similarly problematic for Doctor Who audiences, unused to seeing the hero make light of murder, or the uncomfortable scene of Oscar bleeding to death while quoting Hamlet. On 27th February 1985, between Parts Two and Three of this story, the BBC announced it was cancelling Doctor Who. Anyone tuning in for the final episode would have been greeted with the above scenes of Shockeye’s death, plus Chessene’s blood-drinking, Oscar’s stabbing, the gruesome murder of the Sontarans, and Shockeye wandering about holding Stike’s severed leg (just as in Titus a messenger walks in holding severed limbs). On this basis, BBC claims that the show had become ‘too violent’ could easily be justified.
Modern critics have suggested that dismissing Titus Andronicus as gratuitously violent is to miss the point; that Shakespeare deliberately uses references to the works of Ovid to highlight the gulf between elegant literature and repellent reality, and that the violence is there to make a point about the ritualised violence of his own society. If Robert Holmes is using Titus in the same way, to give shape to The Two Doctors, to confront his own audience with the consequences of the breakdown of their own social and political order, then he couldn’t have picked a more apt precedent.
But while I’ve argued that in The Two Doctors, Robert Holmes deliberately references Titus Andronicus, it’s as much a product of Holmes raiding his own greatest hits: the deserted and deadly space station from The Ark in Space, the theatricality and the time-travelling villains hiding out on Earth from The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and the revenge tragedy of The Caves of Androzani. Holmes’s instincts remain sharp: he makes the second Doctor and Jamie a mirror of the sixth Doctor and Peri, with Jamie replacing Peri as an object of physical lust for the monsters. The script delights in the kind of overblown dialogue Holmes has always enjoyed, with lines like “I can’t bear the sight of gory entrails, except, of course, on the stage” worthy successors to the likes of “You wouldn’t want that served up wiv yer onions!” or “You stinking offal, Morgus!”. For all that it’s a problematic story, perhaps deliberately unlikeable and bridling at the yoke of the producer’s impositions, The Two Doctors is the last major work by Robert Holmes, and perhaps more than any previous story seems like the writer letting rip, howling his fury into the wind. To paraphrase Condon and Sangster, “It’s ugly, it’s manipulative, and it’s the last great work of the master.”
Next Time: “The Doctor. The man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not, out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor. I have shown you yourself.” The Doctor faces himself in The Trial of a Time Lord.