One of the weirdest casting decisions in all of Doctor Who comes with the final serial in season 21. It stars Edwin Richfield, a then 63 year-old character actor with an expressive face and a fine voice, wrapped in an old thick carpet wearing a full-face mask and speaking with some of “Weird” Al Yankovic’s marbles in his mouth. Mestor is such a dopey villain, and the costume is as embarrassing as it ever gets on Who, and instead of throwing a bone of a part to some kid fresh out of drama school and hungry for work, they waste, and I mean waste, the great Edwin Richfield on it.
But the real casting news here is that Colin Baker takes over as the Sixth Doctor. A decade before, Baker had played the very memorable Paul Merroney for four series of The Brothers. This was a boardroom drama, and Merroney was apparently something like a proto-JR Ewing or Gordon Gekko, a greedy tycoon out to crush the little guys. I’ve never seen The Brothers myself; Kate O’Mara played a corporate rival for a few years on it, which makes me curious to try out the DVD sets from Simply Media one day.
So after a lot of theater work and some occasional guest appearances as villains in other programs – including a bad guy part in Who just a year and change earlier, in “Arc of Infinity” – Baker got the role of a lifetime, playing a hero at last.
We’re in the swamp of Doctor Who at this point. Baker, a heck of a great talent, and Nicola Bryant, an engaging and promising rising star, were lumbered with an aging show led by a producer who was ready to move on to pantomimes and variety shows, and a script editor who had lost interest in the lead character’s intelligence and desire to find solutions without violence. The show needed a fresh start and new blood behind the scenes very, very badly, and American fandom, in particular, has always had a mean eye toward the Colin Baker years.
And to be honest, for a long time, I didn’t like Baker’s Doctor at all. I didn’t get it. I was too teenage when he started, I thought the costume was embarrassing, and I hated the constant squabbling.
And then, around 2005, I watched this run with my older children, who were then about six and eight years old, and I got it. They loved this Doctor. They forgot about Peter Davison inside fifty minutes. They breezed right past the shocking scene where the sick and mentally addled Doctor actually attacks Peri, because everything else in this story was what they wanted to see from their Doctor. This guy is a perfect hero for children. He is bad-tempered and does not react well to anybody telling him to calm down, he is as loud as he wants to be and nobody tells him to hush. This is a Doctor who does not have to clean his room or take out the garbage. He has an acid tongue and devilish wit.
And tonight, as I predicted, our son followed in their footsteps. After the awful scene where he chokes Peri – a poor decision at the time and one that has worn very badly in thirty-five years – our kid was smiling, laughing, and melodramatically facepalming at the Doctor’s antics. “He’s so unpredictable!” he shouted.
To be clear, “The Twin Dilemma” isn’t so much a mess as it is a catastrophe. It’s a dopey story full of terrible acting performances. Everybody rolls their eyes at the two bowl-hair kids playing the twins, but Dennis Chinnery, who plays their father, is even worse. Colin Baker can’t save the disaster, but if you watch this with a kid, and see what that kid is seeing, and loving, it’s entertaining in an honest and real way.
Although, as much as I enjoyed the experience of seeing our son grin and smile, the best part of tonight’s viewing was when Marie asked how long the Doctor wears that horrible jacket and I could only say “umm.”