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Doctor Who: Time and the Rani (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Time and the Rani originally aired in 1987.

Right, that all seems quite clear. Just three small points. Where am I? Who am I? And who are you?

– the Doctor

A Doctor’s first story is always difficult. Even if it’s not as explicit as it was in Power of the Daleks, the new actor his constantly fighting against the weight of expectation, trying to cast off the spectre of their predecessor and make the show their own. There’s also a sense that the production team is trying to reinvent the show around their new lead. It’s transitional, and it’s not too difficult to see how the task could be daunting.

If that’s a typical first story, imagine how frustrating Time and the Rani must have been at the time. Hastily cobbled together in a rush, coming out of a season that had been a spectacular failure and with the shadow of cancellation looming heavy, there’s a lot of pressure on Time and the Rani. It is a story that is routinely trashed and mocked, and perhaps deservedly so. However, I must concede, it’s not as bad as it could have been and I’d be very reluctant to rank it among the worst Doctor Who serials of all time.

He's got an umbrella and he's not afraid to use it!

He’s got an umbrella and he’s not afraid to use it!

That’s hardly the most effusive of praise. Time and the Rani is a bad story. I’ll concede that. I can’t make any convincing argument that it’s a misunderstood gem, or an exceptional escape from a tight spot for the show. It is a terrible piece of television, and not something I would advise anybody to watch, and certainly not what I would recommend as an example of what Doctor Who is capable of. And yet, despite that, I can’t hate it. I can’t rank it among the lowest of the low. I can’t tear it to shreds.

There are a few reasons that I’m generally kinder to Time and the Rani than most, and why I don’t consider it as spectacular a failure as Terror of the Vervoids or even The Ultimate Foe. The first is the fact that there is very clearly a lower “bar” here. Terror of the Vervoids was intended to offer a vision for the future of the show, strong enough to vindicate Doctor Who and to win back the audience. The Ultimate Foe was supposed to close the meta-fictional trial of the series, and present a closing argument as to the value of Doctor Who. Both serials set their own objectives, and missed spectacularly.

Glam!

Glam!

Time and the Rani, in contrast, has no lofty objectives like that. The boat has sailed. Sitting through the whole of The Trial of a Time Lord, I pondered if cancellation was all but inevitable at that point. We’re just watching the death throes of Doctor Who from here on out. Time and the Rani doesn’t claim to be a heroic adventure that will redeem and save the show, or prove all the critics wrong, or lay out a clear plan of action for the future.

The production difficulties surrounding Time and the Rani are relatively well-known. For example, Michael Grade had Colin Baker fired from the role between seasons, something which (understandably) upset Colin Baker greatly:

I couldn’t take (being sacked) in, it was such a shock. I’d fought so hard for the show, I was stunned. What I couldn’t accept is that Grade didn’t have the guts to tell me man-to-man. If I knew why I was sacked then I would feel better about it all. But I got fobbed off with excuses about Grade thinking three years as Dr. Who was long enough. The fact is I only made 26 episodes before he cancelled the show. When it started again there were only 14 episodes. Hardly a long run, is it? All I wanted was a proper explanation. Many people believe, as I do, that I have been treated shabbily.

Colin Baker refused to come back for the regeneration scene, so the story opens with Sylvester McCoy being thrown around the TARDIS wearing a silly blonde wig.

The real McCoy...

The real McCoy…

It’s not an ideal situation for anybody, and it demonstrates that the season was starting under a pretty heavy cloud. Still, that means that the expectations are substantially lower than they might otherwise be. Time and the Rani simply has to be four episodes of Doctor Who that introduce Sylvester McCoy. That’s all they have to do. The serial simply has to run about an hour and forty minutes, check off a bunch of Doctor Who tropes and set-pieces, and prove to the audience that the show is still on the air.

That’s a pathetically low bar, to be frank. And, also being frank, I’m not entirely sure that Time and the Rani clears that somewhat meagre objective. However, while it still represents a miss, the miss here is not nearly as spectacular as the last two misses from Pip and Jane Baker. Which is, I suppose, why I don’t hate it as much as many people seem to. It might be a failure, but – judged on its own terms – it isn’t as dramatic a failure as the two adventures before it.

Note to self: find decent tailor...

Note to self: find decent tailor…

Of course, I know that things get better. This season will generally improve, and then Doctor Who will get ambitious again. That’s benefit of hindsight. I know that this is the last script that Pip and Jane Baker will deliver for the series, which is something. After three consecutive stories written by the pair, I know that this is the end. I try not to be too hard on writers, if only because it’s so easy to get a script mangled on the way to the screen, but I genuinely dislike the way that Pip and Jane Baker tell Doctor Who stories. I know it sounds terrible, but after three stories in a row, I’m glad to see the back of them. Good riddance.

Again, there is a point where I have to try to be fair to the duo. This was, like their script for the second part of The Ultimate Foe, a last-minute effort to turn a story around relatively quickly. As Pip Baker notes, this was all done in quite an uncertain rush, and there was considerable confusion on all levels of the production:

We were well into the story when we were shown a video of Sylvester – we had to find a way of (a) regenerating the Doctor, and (b) finding a character for him. John asked for a pre-credit teaser. All of us felt we couldn’t go straight into the story. If we had to regenerate in this way, we needed to start with it, then have a full stop and then start the story. You couldn’t open with Sylvester’s titles otherwise, it would have looked silly.

I do like his somewhat arbitrary decision about what “looks silly” in the context of Doctor Who, but I’ll try not to sound too acerbic.

Well, things have certainly changed...

Well, things have certainly changed…

I have been somewhat harsh on the pair. There is no defence for Terror of the Vervoids. I’m not sure they understood Robert Holmes’ first episode of The Ultimate Foe. Here, at least, the pair seem to acknowledge their limitations. There is a wealth of stuff that the pair are no good at, but the thought of Pip and Jane Baker defining the character of a new Doctor should chill your blood. Evidently, without any real idea of how Sylvester McCoy would play the role, they felt the same.

And credit where credit is due, Time and the Rani avoids really dealing with the character of the Seventh Doctor in anything resembling a thorough manner. I mean, compare the character introduced here to the one featured as early as Remembrance of the Daleks. There’s really very little evidence of that interpretation to be found here. To be fair, that’s a conscious decision on the part of the script, which does something remarkably clever.

Suits you, sir!

Suits you, sir!

Realising that asking Pip and Jane Baker to do character work is a recipe for disaster, the first ten minutes of the adventure move along at a quick enough pace, kidnapping the Doctor and giving him amnesia, allowing Sylvester McCoy and Kate O’Mara to play out a surreal version of the relationship between the Doctor and his companion. The Doctor writes off his lack of memory as a result of his regeneration (“I must be suffering from post-regeneration amnesia”), but it is – shrewdly – driven by plot rather than character.

The closest thing we get to a character trait in this story is the Doctor’s use of malapropisms. “A bad workman always blames his fools,” the Doctor remarks at one point. Later on, he states, “Absence makes the nose grow longer.” There’s very little sense of who this Doctor is going to be, beyond a few quirks and tics from Sylvester McCoy himself. That said, the script manages to avoid making this look like a massive cop-out by building it into the plot, which is no small accomplishment.

Mel has a sudden urge to see the Lion King on stage...

Mel has a sudden urge to see the Lion King on stage…

It should go without saying that this is a massive cop-out. It’s a way of cheating the fact that the Bakers are essentially being asked to write a script that they are physically incapable of writing. So they change the nature of the story, marginalising the regeneration and change in the leading character. It’s a blatant cheat, but it’s executed so confidently that I can’t help but admire it. I suspect that’s part of the reason I am fonder of Time and the Rani than most.

It is worth noting that whatever definition the Seventh Doctor receives is pretty much designed to contrast with his direct predecessor, the controversial Sixth Doctor. Exploring the landscape, the Rani (posing as Mel) explains, “There’s not a lot to remember. The benevolent climate has induced lethargy. They’ve failed to realise their full potential.” The Doctor responds, “Rather a harsh judgement, Mel.” She replies, “Not mine. Yours.” Of course, it seems to be her own opinion, but it’s not too difficult to imagine Colin Baker making a similar remark.

Meet the new Doc...

Meet the new Doc…

His outfit seems relatively understated when compared to that of his predecessor as well, perhaps an admission that the brazen in-your-face approach adopted with the Sixth Doctor may have been a miscalculation on part the writers. “Ah,” the Deventh Doctor declares, settling on his outfit, “thank goodness in this regeneration I’ve regained my impeccable sense of haute couture.” It is a joke, but a pointed one. As with all stinging jokes, it contains a grain of truth.

Still, the Seventh Doctor’s outfit feels like a costume. It still has those damned silly question marks, as if the show is trying to turn the Doctor into a superhero. At least it is a bit more subtle, a bit toned down. The Seventh Doctor’s outfit was reportedly modelled on a classic golfing outfit, and it suits McCoy quite well, giving the impression of a man of leisure strolling through all of time and space. Being honest, I like a bit of flexibility in the way the Doctor dresses, around a common theme. Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee and David Tennant might have had a couple of different outfits, but they all had distinctive looks.

For a world where eighties hair never went out of fashion!

From a world where eighties hair never went out of fashion!

Still, this is a Pip and Jane Baker script, which means that it is clumsy and awkward and generic in all the blandest of ways. In fact, quite luckily, Time and the Rani stands out from the rest of the McCoy era, as you can tell that Pip and Jane Baker were not necessarily the best fit with incoming script editor Andrew Cartmel’s vision for the show:

The thing about Pip and Jane is structurally their stuff is very sound and they touch all the bases and write well-carpentered stories. But the things I was looking for were much wackier, much more off beat; much darker, much sharper, much harder. They came from a background of writing a lot of children’s stuff, a lot of Gerry Anderson. So my style wasn’t their style. The other problem was I think they perceived me as this new kid on the block, they didn’t know if I knew anything.

Cartmel comes across as a genuinely nice guy in all his interviews. He’s notable, for example, for refusing to play into the vilification of producer John Nathan Turner. I do think he’s being a bit generous when he refers to Pip and Jane Baker’s as “very sound”, but he also very politely concedes that they are quite far from what Cartmel wants to do for the series.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

Quite simply, the Bakers are very conservative. And I don’t just mean in their adherence to the clichés of Doctor Who, but we’ll get to that. Their scripts avoid being too political, but there is one decidedly pointedly political moment in Time and Rani, as the Doctor laments the refusal of the majority of the native population to actually do anything. Ikona explains, “They’ve become spoon-fed drones. There’s no need for them to strive. An indulgent system provides all.”

That sounds suspiciously like he’s playing into old conservative rhetoric about welfare claimants, a vaguely Thatcher-esque condemnation of the Welfare State. (Indeed, recently released papers suggest that Thatcher might have been considering a more thorough reduction of public services than most people would have thought.) This is a rather strange political position for Doctor Who, which has more generally been more liberal in outlook. In fact, the conservatism of that line seems at odds with the rest of Cartmel’s stories, which were firmly anti-Thatcher. Which apparently the press only noticed recently.

His characterisation is hard to pin down...

His characterisation is hard to pin down…

Anyway, even when we get past the interesting political contrast between the Bakers and Cartmel, there is a sense that this is very much an attempt to do bland middle-of-the-road conventional Doctor Who, something that Cartmel would move the show away from over the next couple of years. Look at Mel, for example. I like Mel more than most, but it’s hard to argue that Mel is anything more than an archetypal sketch of a companion. She’s a two-dimensional plot element more than a character. And I suspect a major part of that dearth of characterisation is down to the fact that Pip and Jane Baker wrote all of her first three stories.

To be fair, I think her generic nature is part of the reason I like Mel. I’d argue that she was one example of normality for the series at a point when everything was going topsy-turvy and upside down and inside out. I also understand that – given how generic she was – she had to leave in order for the show to really evolve into something new. Because Mel is just the most bog-standard mode of companion. It’s telling that all Time and the Rani really asks Mel to do is to run around and scream a lot. The series avoided giving Mel an origin story. In essence, the series doesn’t even acknowledge that Mel must have a personal history. She just is.

Mel in her natural state...

Mel in her natural state…

Here, to be fair, we do get the smallest of hints that Mel might have been something before she was a companion. The Rani uses Mel as a computer programmer in the third part and the Doctor refers to her as a “computer expert” in the final episode. However, it doesn’t really give her a back story, as it’s so generic a description. And it doesn’t really tell us anything about her character, or inform Langford’s performance in any way. The show could have said “horse whisperer”, and it wouldn’t change anything about how we view Mel.

It’s telling that, three adventures later, the show is still using Bonnie Langford’s scream to close out episodes. Her first cliffhanger in Terror of the Vervoids saw Langford pitching her scream to perfectly match the show’s closing sting. It was a nice gag, but one that seems depressing in hindsight. It seems that’s really all the show is going to ask her to do as a character. The first and third episodes of Time and the Rani do something similar. Which just crystalises Mel as the scream-iest companion ever.” Which is nice if you’re grading a companion’s ability to conform to the broad and generic ideas of what a companion needs to do, but less compelling if you’re looking for an actual character.

Sylvester McCoy provides the lion's share of the episode's charm.

Sylvester McCoy provides the lion’s share of the episode’s charm.

The dialogue is also pretty painful as well. Sylvester McCoy might not be the strongest actor ever to play the lead role, but he has an absolutely great voice. I’m willing to accept the Rani as the villain of the piece if only because McCoy pronounces it so gloriously. That said, there are limits. Even McCoy rather wonderful enunciation can’t make lines like “a hologram! as substantial as the Rani’s scruples!” sound convincing.

So, Time and the Rani is pretty bad. But I don’t think it’s the worst episode ever produced. Of course, watching in 2013, we know that this will eventually lead to Remembrance of the Daleks or The Curse of Fenric. At the time it must have just looked like more of the same from a show that hadn’t really impressed in quite some time. We are, after all, coming out of three consecutive stories by Pip and Jane Baker.

Hang on in there!

Hang on in there!

The season break meant that it had been ten calendar months since audiences had watched a serial completed by somebody other than Pip and Jane Baker. I’ve watched those three stories in quick succession, punctuated with other DVDs, and it was still pretty painful. I can imagine how that pain must have been magnified at the time. Indeed, positioning a story like this at the start of a season would indicate that this is the blueprint of things to come. Now that is a terrifying thought.

Instead, it’s really the last gasp of this sort of storytelling, almost a coda to a whole sordid and confused era of the show. The following year would be a wonderfully experimental attempt to figure out how to do Doctor Who again. Andrew Cartmel wasn’t the most experienced script editor, but he was enthusiastic. And Doctor Who really needed some enthusiasm. His first season wouldn’t always work out, but the failures to come would be far more interesting than anything the show had done in years.

The bones of a good idea...

The bones of a good idea…

Time in the Rani is just a blip on the radar in hindsight. I can’t bring myself to hate it with any amount of passion. Not when there’s so much worth enjoying up ahead.

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