Following the nostalgic tedium of The Pair o’ Docs Paradox, the Sci-Fi Sea Cruise largely bounces back with Twice Upon a Timelord, a decidedly better fit for the production’s limited reserves of money and talent (right down to their surely conscious decision to misspell “Time Lord” in the on-screen title). The story this time round focuses on Sergeant Benton’s wedding. Admittedly, this sounds like the concept for a rubbish fanfic (or low-rung Big Finish audio), but it’s not every day you get to see actors slumming it in an unofficial film depicting events which would actually mean something to the lives of their beloved characters.
The opening credits inform us that this video is based on ideas by Sylvester McCoy, John Levene, and Sophie Aldred (along with someone named Adam Henderson), meaning that this may well be the closest Doctor Who‘s lead cast have ever come to actually writing an episode. And what do they do with this unprecedented opportunity? Well, the cruise’s creative ethos of grabbing whatever and whoever is available and crowbarring them into a makeshift narrative remains the order of the day, but in addition to the usual non-sequiturs, a couple of genuinely interesting notions somehow find their way into the mix.
We open with the awful, now-familiar effect of the TARDIS materialising on the deck and the actors emerging awkwardly from behind it, but this time it’s accompanied by the rather syrupy sound of “Time Passages” by Al Stewart. It quickly becomes clear that the choice of music is a key development in Twice Upon a Timelord – in addition to synthesised instrumentals taken from the classic series’s soundtrack, this video includes several upbeat songs united only by the presence of the word “time” in their lyrics. Feeling less “Doctor Who” than “luxury cruise advertisement”, it’s a rather blunt joke, and a curiously American one, echoing Fox’s decision that the Doctor’s TARDIS should be full of clocks in the 1996 television film – it’s nearly impossible to imagine any kind of British production making the same choice.
In one of this series’s stronger justifications for its setting, the Doctor and Ace are simply on the ship to attend Benton’s wedding, which even explains Aldred’s normal dress and haircut. McCoy still looks… somewhat Doctorish, dressed all in beige with shorts and a panama hat. He does overuse his “grab Ace with the umbrella handle” trick from the show somewhat, particularly considering that this one isn’t shaped like a question mark, but at least we can pretend his sunglasses are supremely prescient foreshadowing for the Capaldi era.
The Master is back, but unfortunately he’s played by an amateur American this time (we miss you, John Messenger). With the production taking advantage of this cruise liner’s Egyptian-themed hallway, we even get to see the Master’s TARDIS appear as a sarcophagus – exactly the type of thing a TARDIS with a functional chameleon circuit should turn into. This Master has sunglasses and a cane, creating a shallow visual parallel with the Doctor while also making the Master look like he should have a seeing-eye dog. The official incarnation this one resembles most closely is Eric Roberts, particularly if you factor in the accent, but he does manage a half-hearted beard. (Since there’s no clear sense that the characters on a given cruise adventure are necessarily from contemporaneous points in their lives, we can’t assume that this version of the Master is necessarily one from anywhere near the Anthony Ainley incarnation typically active in a Seventh Doctor story. Really, he could go anywhere. Occam’s razor suggests that he’s shortly post-Ainley, perhaps even an incarnation from the Time War, but since that period is already contested by various official materials, the nebulous, incontrovertible void that is the far future seems like the safest bet.) Skulking around, he mutters to himself about how he’s going to do something evil. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Ace find that they’ve missed the wedding itself, arriving just in time for the after-party.
A blunt reference to the Brigadier being “invited to a ministerial meeting” is used to explain the character’s absence, but it’s fair enough, as one could reasonably expect Courtney to be here considering how many of these things he’s attended already. The explanation is likely inspired by a line in the then-recent episode “The Poison Sky”, which mentions that the Brigadier is busy attending to some business in Peru. (The Sarah Jane Adventures would go on to excuse Courtney’s absence in exactly the same way, several times. I like to think that each Peru trip is another wacky cruise adventure.) Fan productions like these are often inclined to “canonise” unofficial truths, so it’s not surprising that several characters in this video refer to Benton as John, the forename he was first given in the semi-official video spin-off Wartime, and which was later adopted by other non-TV material. (Speaking of which, perhaps the title is a subtle nod to Once Upon a Time-Lord, the similarly misnamed 1985 comic strip featuring the Sixth Doctor and Frobisher?)
The Doctor and Ace have the inevitable meet-and-greet with Benton and his wife, where we get the usual wilderness-years back-and-forth about whether her name is Ace or Dorothée. Benton recognises the Doctor instantly, despite the fact that he has never encountered this incarnation before in any media.
The bride, one Gloria Benton, is an original character portrayed by Jennifer Woods, Levene’s real-life spouse, who doesn’t seem to be a professional actor but is more than capable of holding her own against the rest of these people. Apparently, this is also Benton’s retirement party, and the couple say they’re planning on setting down in Majorca. (After all, if you’re going to bring back a moderately popular character whose most recent episode was 33 years ago, anything other than a happy send-off is just mean-spirited.) Masquerading as a bartender, the Master hypnotises a guest and makes her introduce him to the bride as an old friend. She calls him Mr Delgado, and to be fair, going metafictional is a refreshingly literal take on the Master’s technique of using aliases obvious to the audience but not the characters.
The Master presses a few buttons on some menacing gadget or other, causing an appalling blue-and-green vector image (presumably meant to represent some sort of glowy energy effect) to flash across the Doctor’s neck. “All we need to do now is add water”, the Master laughs to himself in the sort of weird Shakesperean aside these videos sometimes resort to giving their lone villains. In an almost admirable demonstration of incorporating any vaguely interesting surroundings into the story, the brainwashed woman dares the Doctor to plunge down a large spiralling water slide situated on the deck. McCoy, clearly loving every second of this, begins to clown and preen his way up the stairs, performatively stripping as he goes. (If you were expecting more of the Seventh Doctor as arch-manipulator, you might as well stop watching now.) Bizarrely, everyone in the area cheers like this is the greatest thing they’ve ever seen, and there’s a clear implication that all of these guests know who the Doctor is. The cheering lasts an extraordinarily long time, mounting with the sound of wind as recorded by a shoddy microphone, all to the accompaniment of “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper. The Doctor finally jumps in, and it’s something of a relief when a jarring, cartoon-blue flash across the screen (accompanied by a “boing” sound effect, no less) signifies that something bad has happened to him on the way down. (A similar visual and noise are used every time anything science-fictional happens in the video, so for the sake of my own sanity I’ll stop trying to describe it.) While the Americans scurry about like headless chickens, literally searching for the Doctor under sun loungers and small plastic footstools, Ace rushes to the bottom of the slide and finds that the Doctor has been transformed into a small child, at which point the video’s stupidity takes a turn for the marvellous.
After 2014’s “Listen“, the idea of depicting the Doctor as a child no longer seems quite so transgressive, but it’s worth comparing the approaches used. Where that episode framed the young First Doctor as a kind of mythic talisman, shrouded in darkness and instilling Clara with a deathly fear that she will unwrite the Doctor’s story, Twice Upon a Timelord plays the concept entirely for laughs, making it quite clear that this is a de-aged McCoy Doctor rather than some metaphoric vulnerable inner child. The child actor even bears a decent resemblance to McCoy, but unfortunately, he seems virtually mute – it’s abundantly clear that the boy was either unable or unwilling to deliver his lines on-camera, and that the dialogue was hastily rewritten to accommodate this fact. “Who are you? Doctor? Oh, Doctor, it really is you!” declares Ace, demonstrating a fascinating chain of logic.
While it’s possible that this plot element was written in simply because the filmmakers realised that one of their passengers happened to have a kid, it’s also a nice echo of The Time Monster, where the Master briefly reduces Benton himself to a baby using the TOMTIT, a teleporter he modified into a time-travel device. The gadget in Twice Upon a Timelord seems unrelated, except perhaps via inspiration. While it’s not quite as relevant, the storyline also calls to mind the scene in Mawdryn Undead where Nyssa and Tegan are turned into children by a time-travel glitch. Those two retained their adult minds, though it’s not easy to say whether the same is the case for the Doctor here, since the kid remains so resolutely silent.
With the precedents in mind, it’s reasonably clear that the Seventh Doctor will be restored to his usual self by the end of the story, but these cruise videos are so bloody weird sometimes that you never really know. In any case, it’s still great fun to see the de-ageing concept applied to the Doctor for once – it remains refreshingly different from anything the show itself has done, and the transitory nature of the plot also supersedes the awkwardness that normally comes with a fan production casting its own Doctor. Ace nervously dragging the miniature McCoy around the cruise liner, peering around corners and hiding in elevators, all to the sounds of “Time Won’t Let Me” by the The Outsiders… it’s a sight you’ll never get anywhere else, and if that’s not what these videos are for, what is?
Using the same gadget, the Master brainwashes Benton, with the inexplicable side-effects of turning his white suit black and causing a glowing blue light to appear in his mouth, as if he’s become some sort of cyborg. (The glowing blue light never appears again.) Benton takes his wife hostage, and starts demanding the child Doctor. Seven American passengers take it upon themselves to save the day by… splitting up and running around the place. (They are never seen again. One begins to wonder if there is some terribly clever satire at play here, but if there is, it’s too nuanced for me to articulate.)
In an impressive escalation of absurdity, we cut to a man in a t-shirt juggling oranges in a hallway while a particularly shrill version of “Sabre Dance” plays. Apparently the Master’s de-ageing and brainwashing gadget is also a teleporter, because he suddenly materialises a few feet away with Gloria and Benton, who threatens to break his wife’s neck if the juggler doesn’t give him the Doctor. Luckily, Ace appears with the boy in tow. In an oddly endearing attempt to work around the child’s inability or unwillingness to speak on-camera, Aldred stoops so that he can whisper the villain’s identity into her ear. Producing a can of “nitro-9”, Ace declares that she’d rather kill both than let the Master take the Doctor. In a close-up obviously filmed later, they somehow manage to get the (smiling?!) child to shout “Ace! No!”, followed by what might well be the video’s largest lapse in logic as the Doctor suddenly reverts to an adult Sylvester McCoy for no apparent reason (…stress accelerates ageing?). The juggler catches Ace’s bomb and starts, well, juggling it. The Time Lords’ mirrored umbrella and cane are finally justified (well, explained) when they start fencing with them, in a peculiar, utterly unchoreographed mockery of Pertwee’s iconic duels with Delgado. McCoy’s palpable joy at getting to do this much physical comedy on-screen almost saves it. The Doctor knocks the gadget out of the Master’s hand, and naturally it’s caught by the juggler. Through some arcane off-screen mechanism, the Doctor retrieves it by requesting an orange, then “reverses the polarity” to save the day. (It is only now that the video finds within itself the mercy to stop playing “Sabre Dance”.)
Amusingly, the exact moment Benton is freed from the Master’s mind control and restored to his white suit (white means good), he and Gloria are also teleported onto the deck for some reason, where they reconcile, with neither displaying the slightest sign of confusion, distress, or disorientation. Judging by the Eighth Doctor novel Genocide and short story Faithful Friends: Part 3, they go on to have at least three kids and a grandchild, which is nice. Considering Levene’s age and the revived series’s general lack of interest in exploring old characters, it’s likely that this will be Benton’s final on-screen appearance ever. So long, Sergeant – thanks for all those Pertwee serials, and have a great time in Majorca.
The Master makes a deeply half-hearted effort to knock the gadget out of the Doctor’s hands with his cane, to which the Doctor responds by zapping him with it and splashing him with a conveniently placed cup of water. This turns the Master into a small child, who asks, “Are you my mummy?” It’s the series’s most blatant nod to revived Doctor Who, far more so than the oblique Harriet Jones reference in the previous video, and it segues directly into McCoy playing the spoons as the Doctor, just like we’ve always dreamed. According to the credits, the two kids are actually brothers, with ties neatly into an old abandoned storyline – the classic serial Planet of Fire hinted that the Doctor and the Master were siblings, and the idea was even made explicit in early drafts of the 1996 film, though the revived series has done its best to thrash the idea.
(On a related note, why is this called Twice Upon a Timelord at all? Clearly it’s a bad pun on “once upon a time”, but what does it actually mean? Is it just a reference to the fact that there are two Time Lords involved, or could it refer to the central de-ageing plot device, which allows both Time Lords to relive their childhoods, at least in a certain limited sense? The Doctor quips “No Time Lord like the present” early on – does that mean anything?)
When the Doctor starts giving out to Ace for carrying explosives on a cruise ship, she reveals that she removed the primer out of her makeshift bomb. He accepts the excuse, but seriously, this woman’s in her mid-forties. Her habit of lugging explosive substances around the place was quirky and fun when she was a teenager under Thatcher, but now she’s starting to look a bit like an emotionally stunted terrorist. Perhaps extended TARDIS travel addles the brain. After all, she’s got to be the Doctor’s longest-serving companion of all time at this point, barring Handles. Speaking of which, when is this even set? Bernice is nowhere to be seen, and Ace seems to have already started and stopped using her birth name. With the characters’ visible age as our only indication, it seems that Twice Upon a Timelord takes place very late indeed in the Doctor and Ace’s timeline, perhaps even approaching Ace’s training at the Academy on Gallifrey.
The last two minutes are so utterly void of logical story progression, so packed with shameless in-jokes and bizarre events clearly made up on the spot, that they’re genuinely difficult to parse; however, it’s done with such unabashed verve that it’s hard to hold any of this against the filmmakers. There’s a cheerful lack of interest in tying up loose ends or having the story make sense, and it’s exemplified in the Master’s joke send-off – for all we know, the child ends up wandering about the Boeshane Peninsula and grows into Derek Jacobi.
And perhaps that’s the greatest legacy these silly videos have left us: the sheer sense of chaotic, unbridled possibility. This is a live-action series where no combination of Doctors and companions is entirely out of question, where the show’s past and present are brought to life in a glorious maelstrom of profound stupidities and unexpected pleasures. The Sci-Fi Sea Cruise is a gift to masochistic Doctor Who fans the world over, and the canon – if it existed – would never be the same again.