Warning: contains spoilers for Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who series 6, Knightrider, and a 1969 episode of Star Trek.
When it comes to shenanigans and shock value, it’s hard to go past the trope of the evil twin on television. It’s so much fun seeing old-school split-screen on the small screen, where the same actor plays two (or more) parts. It ramps up the fun and fantasy, or delivers a fabulous freak-out moment.
Science fiction feels like the natural habitat of doubles. The audience is already suspending their disbelief, so what’s one more?
Hands-down one of the best uses of twins (or multiples) is from the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Cylon hybrids were flawless versions of humans who looked, sounded, acted and believed they were just like you and me. It ratcheted up the paranoia factor to 30+, because the person sitting next to you could be your best friend, lover, or a sleeper agent, and neither of you would know.
Grace Park played the two Cylon humans called Sharon (Boomer & Athena). Boomer was programmed on sabotage-and-mind-wipe mode, causing problems for everyone right from the get-go. In the season one cliff-hanger, Boomer landed on a Cylon basestar. Staring her in the face were half a dozen more of her.
It was a terrific payoff. It wasn’t just digital trickery for the sake of it, this plot twist had huge ramifications. If a Cylon wasn’t behaving as programmed, or died, there were plenty more where they came from.
Jumping into the WABAC machine, Star Trek:TOS embraced the evil twin trope like a long-lost brother. How good was ‘evil’ Spock’s goatee in Mirror Mirror? The answer is so iconic it became trope-speak for ‘look out, he’s evil!’, something that didn’t escape Community. The next time Star Trek:TOS played with split-screen (and a body-double) it was Kirk’s turn in Whom Gods Destroy. His double was a morphing bad guy, who made himself identical to the captain in every way. Who does Spock shoot? When the real Kirk tells his to stun them both, thus putting the ship and crew ahead of himself, Spock phasers the other guy.
The 1960s were a golden age for actors performing double duty. Comedy is a happy hunting ground for mischief and seeing double, because the audience is already primed to embrace the crazy.
Samantha’s prankster cousin Serena in Bewitched livened things up no end. At first Serena and Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) didn’t appear in the same shot, but by season four’s Hippy Hippy Hooray they’d worked out a way to get both witches together. And if the split screen wipe looked a little wonky as one character walked stage left, nobody noticed on their low-res CRT television sets.
Keeping step with Bewitched was I Dream Of Jeannie, where Barbara Eden played Jeannie and her dastardly sister . . . Jeannie II. Even the mum was called Jeannie, also played by Barbara Eden.
Would you believe… the comedy that dished out one of the best double deliveries was Get Smart. The perfectly crazy season three opener, The Spy Who Met Himself is a classic. Enemy agency KAOS had created The League of Imposters, a troupe teeming with evil twins who were kidnapping CONTROL agents and replacing them. Two Agent Smarts, (Don Adams) each one thicker than the next, were pitted against each other.
In season one, it was the Chief’s turn (Edward Platt) for Too Many Chiefs. In season 5’s And Only Two Ninety-Nine, viewers were rewarded with two Agents 99 (played by Barbara Feldon). Barbara Feldon was an early role model for me, and as one of the few women on television with a speaking role, she was head and shoulders above everyone else. In fact, in many scenes she deliberately slouched or sat on the edge of a table, to disguise how much taller she was compared to Don Adams.
Here in Casa McKenna, we’ve started re-watching Star Trek:TNG with our little geek. Season 1 delivers a cracker of an episode in Datalore. Brent Spiner (on an HD telly, his eyes look so sore and red wearing those gold contacts) does a banging job of being Data and his bad brother Lore. The ‘goatee beard’ giveaway is replaced with a facial tic, which Lore quickly installs onto Data, making it even harder to tell them apart. Only Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) can tell the difference. He tries to warn everyone, but the captain tells him to shut up (always cause for celebration!) Then ‘Mom’, Dr Crusher (Gates McFadden) tells him to shut up. (More celebration!) Son was devastated. Although Wesley was irritating to adults, he appealed to the kids. It turns out the producers knew what they were doing after all.
Another lesson in the continuing education of our geeklet was from recently re-discovered classic black and white episodes of Doctor Who. It was a happy day in October 2013 when The Enemy Of The World was available to watch for the first time in decades! Patrick Troughton played The Doctor and Ramón Salamander, the good guy had his trademark Beatles mop top, the bad guy had a side parting and tilted his head so he glared at everyone through his eyebrows.
Honourable mention goes to Doctor Who’s season seven ep, Inferno, where the twin trope became an entire evil planet. In this alternate universe, Britain was a dictatorship and “Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart” (Nicholas Courtenay) was so evil he bypassed the goatee and moved straight on to an eyepatch. Also, the mad scientist Stahlman (Olaf Pooley) already had the goatee, so we knew straight away he was bad. Everyone on the parallel Earth was hardened and tough, including companion and scientist Liz Shaw (Caroline John), who becomes a brunette military Section Leader. If you’re normally blonde, your doppelganger must be dark. It’s the rules.
Fast-forward to 2011 with a two-part twin dilemma with The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People. Matt Smith is The Doctor investigating a vat of doppelganger soup. The ‘gangers’ emerge looking like Odo from Star Trek: DS9, then morph into an exact copy of real people. The story is creepy and wonderful and oh so emotional, especially the ending…
Evil twins and doppelgangers don’t always work though. Long-running shows are often accused of getting splinters from scraping the bottom of the barrel by bringing in an extra role for one of the cast. One of the most bizarre cases of evil twinning was in The Brady Bunch. Alice the housekeeper (Ann B Davis) takes a vacation in the Season 3 episode Sergeant Emma (1972) and invites her cousin Emma to do her job while she’s gone. Emma is a Sergeant in the army, so she runs the Brady household with military precision, sending them crazy. Did they use split-screen? I can’t tell (curse you geoblocking!) But the kicker is, they didn’t have to, as Ann B Davis already had a real-life twin sister, Harriet (as did Nicholas Brendon, well, a brother, used to the same effect in Buffy’s season five episode, The Replacement).
And sometimes you just have to scratch your head and wonder what they were thinking. The 1980s gave us Knight Rider and David Hasselhoff, who played the hero Michael Knight, a lone crusader in a dangerous world.
This time, the evil twin wasn’t a person, it was another car. Or K.A.R.R. to be precise. A replica of K.I.T.T. who was bad to the er… battery. In the season 3 episode, K.I.T.T. vs K.A.R.R., beachcombers uncover a foul-tempered vehicle who at first looks just like K.I.T.T. but against all established tradition and audience expectations, the bad car had a makeover so you could tell immediately which was which. I never really knew if I was supposed to take that show seriously or not… I mean, one talking car is enough of a suspension of disbelief, but two?
I feel I’ve barely touched the tip of the identical twin iceberg. There are so many doppelgangers on television, who are some of your favourites?
Ebony McKenna is the award-winning author of the 4-part Young Adult series of novels Ondine. Find out more at: ebonymckenna.com.