Written by Pip and Jane Baker
Directed by Andrew Morgan
In 1987, Doctor Who died. They just didn’t know it yet. Doctor Who was a dead show walking, an inherited legacy whose only purpose was to fill the time while everyone watched Coronation Street on ITV. Yet in a final irony, this meant that almost nobody saw Doctor Who become great again, with three last years of quality and mad ambition. “Time And The Rani” isn’t that, though. This is not Doctor Who’s future, but the last gasp of its past. But look from the right angle and you can just about see the future from here.
The mid-80s had not been kind to Doctor Who. The 1985 season had been so poorly received the 1986 season had been – according to some accounts – completely cancelled, before instead became an eighteen month hiatus. Numerous conflicting stories surround exactly why (it’s worth noting BBC financial chicanery meant other popular series went on hiatus around the same time), but when Doctor Who came back it was clear that everyone involved felt they were on trial for their lives… and so they made The Trial of a Time Lord, theoretically a statement of why Doctor Who deserved to exist. To cut a long story short, it almost worked. The series survived, barely. Veteran writer Robert Holmes died midway through his final script. Script Editor Eric Saward quit midway through the season. And Colin Baker became the only actor to be unceremoniously fired from the title role.
And so we come to “Time And The Rani”. John Nathan-Turner has tried to leave a programme he’s worked on since 1969 and produced for the whole of the 1980s. It hasn’t worked and he’ll spend his last two years taking a more laissez-faire approach to the creative direction of the show. The biggest sign of this is his new script editor Andrew Cartmel, who gets the job when he says his ambition for the show is to bring down Margaret Thatcher’s government. We also get a new title sequence, made with new-fangled computer-generated imagery. This comes with a new arrangement of the theme and a new regular composer in the synth-tastic Keff McCulloch. And finally, we have a new leading man.
Percy James Patrick “Sylvester McCoy” Kent-Smith, like Tom Baker in the previous decade, came to the role via a circuitous route that didn’t encompass the traditional acting roles of his immediate predecessors. Instead, he came from a background of traditional music-hall acts and clowning, filtered through the postmodern prism of the Ken Campbell Roadshow. He would have been most familiar to viewers as a regular on kids’ shows like Tiswas, Vision On and Eureka. McCoy was a performer rather than an actor, who idolised Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. This gave his Doctor a very physical screen presence. Some of it was obvious – McCoy could do a proper pratfall, play the spoons and perform any number of small magic tricks – and some was less so, like the way he lounges, or rests his chin on his umbrella. He was also quite good at running away in interesting ways, a useful skill for any Doctor!
Often, when there’s a creative regime change on Doctor Who, the first story is the last gasp of the previous era. (Usually the production timetable meant next year’s first story was the last commission of the previous year. Tom Baker’s debut “Robot” was the last commission of the Dicks/Letts UNIT era, for instance.) This is the case here, with a script by Pip and Jane Baker, old hands writing for Colin Baker (no relation) at this stage. They also wrote it under somewhat unusual circumstances, with neither a script editor nor a Doctor to write for. And unfortunately, like all of the Bakers’ scripts, it’s full of the strange, ill-judged mix of darkness and camp that characterised the mid-80s. But more on that later.
So if that’s what was happening behind the scenes, what was happening to the Doctor? Last we’d seen him, he had left his Trial with his future companion Mel. At the start of this season, we get a rare pre-credits sequence where the TARDIS is shot down by a rainbow beam and crashlands on the rock-quarry planet of Lakertya. The Doctor bangs his head on the console or something – it’s never exactly clear – and the “Sixth Doctor”, played by Syl with a wig, rolls over to reveal he’s become the Seventh Doctor, played by Syl without a wig. It’s an ignoble start, to say the least. Then we meet our villain, the Rani, the scheming scientist Time Lady played with deliciously camp relish by Kate O’Mara.
The story from there is basic, at best. It’s a runaround that’s at least one episode too long, in which the Rani is trying to do… something, involving the brains of prominent Earth scientists, a giant super-brain, and an asteroid made of “strange matter”. (The Bakers loved impressive-sounding technobabble but rarely cared what it meant – “The Ultimate Foe” featured the villain’s “megabyte modem”, and Strange Matter is something that might exist in the centre of neutron stars, not a kind of space rock.) One of the captured scientists is Albert Einstein, yet he’s utterly incidental to the plot. This was actually typical of the ill-treatment historical celebrities got in the 80s, with Einstein joining HG Wells and George Stephenson in the “pointless cameos” corner. Hypatia and Louis Pasteur are there too, and don’t even get the dignity of a line. The Doctor and Mel convince the Lakertyans to rebel, blow up the Rani’s big brain, and that’s that. Part 3 drags, and the serial could easily have sacrificed an episode to one of the season’s three-parters instead.
Yet despite this, the story does any number of small things right. Since McCoy has to spend the first half of the story in the traditional haze of confusion, O’Mara gets to dominate the first two episodes. Sourly posing as the purer-than-pure Mel and trying to convince the Doctor to build a superweapon, in particular, is hilarious. And McCoy finds the seeds of his Doctor almost immediately. He’s smaller than his predecessor, both literally and figuratively. Where Sixie would bluster and bloviate, the new Doctor is altogether more melancholic. There’s a telling moment where the amnesiac Doctor opines “the more I know me, the less I like me”. Within the story, he’s talking about his previous self supposedly building the superweapon, but it’s hard not to take it as an indictment of the previous seasons.
There’s also a good establishing moment for this new Doctor. When he considers a universe under the Rani’s complete control, rather than rage about it, he quietly ponders that “Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Louis Pasteur, Elvis, even Mrs Malaprop will never have existed”. For this Doctor, a universe without freedom is bad not just because of high-minded principles, but because it takes away the normal, ordinary pleasures of life, like “Heartbreak Hotel” and comedy. The idea had most recently been mangled in “Earthshock”, when the Fifth Doctor denounced the Cybermen’s inability to enjoy a nice shepherd’s pie. The difference between the Saward era and the new Cartmel era is being drawn already. There, it was meant to depict the Fifth Doctor as dangerously impotent and naive in a macho, dog-eat-dog universe. Here, it’s bringing the Doctor back to the old model of the unassuming little anarchist wandering the universe, tripping up the powerful so normal people can get on with life. Patrick Troughton for the Thatcher age.
The production design is also pretty good, in that camp 80s TV-SF way. The Lakertyans’ makeup design is uninspiring but technically impressive. Their mauve, beige and pink settlement looks like Farscape if the budget was a fiver. Then there’s the Tetrap, which is both one of the ugliest monster designs in the series and also quite an achievement on Doctor Who’s budget, with its animatronic head. And the Rani’s bubble-traps are an unqualified triumph, a combination of good CGI and sympathetic direction to make them look as good as possible.
I’ve given so much (qualified) praise to this serial you might start to wonder why it’s regularly ranked in the bottom five serials ever. I think part of it is backlash from older fans. If you saw this in 1987, it seemed to indicate the new season was more of the same. Indeed, aside from what little of Robert Holmes remained in “The Ultimate Foe”, there hasn’t been a serial not written by the Bakers in a year. It’s only looking backwards that you can see the little seeds of Doctor Who’s future.
But there are certainly flaws. For a start, Mel is still terrible. This is hardly Bonnie Langford’s fault. She’d been cast as Bonnie Langford, Panto Star and nobody gave her much direction beyond “be Bonnie Langford, Panto Star”. Mel might be the flattest character in the show’s history probably because her first three stories were written by the Bakers. She was introduced and marketed as a supposed return to the “classic screaming companion” archetype that never actually existed. Her Pollyanna-ish positivity wears thin quickly, and her supposed past as a computer programmer is irrelevant and frankly hard to believe. It didn’t help that Andrew Cartmel vocally disliked the character and sidelined rather than reworked her. Mel is another character that was drastically improved by Big Finish. It’s a subtle shift in emphasis, a pivot from “bubbly, cheerful Girl Companion” to “optimistic, brave young woman”, but it makes all the difference, changing her from a simple caricature to a real person.
And despite my praise of the production design earlier, Lakertya doesn’t have much personality. It’s the same rock quarry 80% of Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 were filmed in. The script is a dud, but O’Mara chews scenery and McCoy somehow finds little nuggets of goodness in the performance. Its biggest flaw, as Andrew Cartmel himself admitted, is that it’s not actually about anything. It’s just some things that happen in a quarry, just barely carried by competent production and interesting performance choices. It doesn’t even have the unlikeable nastiness of “Mark of the Rani” or the fumbled whodunnit angle of “Terror of the Vervoids” to recommend it. And if your tolerance for camp is low (in which case, why are you watching Eighties Doctor Who?) it’s even harder to enjoy, since Kate O’Mara gleefully gnawing the sets is one of the serial’s redeeming aspects.
But is “Time and the Rani” as bad as its reputation? I don’t think so. It’s a long way from great. It’s not even good, really. But you can feel a change in the air. The production aspects have a reassuring competence to them. The bad decisions are just bad decisions, not fundamental problems with what they think the show should be. The spectacular meanness and obvious desperation, respectively, of the last two seasons is gone. Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford actually feel like they’re enjoying themselves. And Andrew Cartmel has realised that the BBC has given up on Doctor Who. If nobody’s watching you, nobody’s going to stop you from burning everything down and rebuilding either.
- I plan to go through every Seventh Doctor story I own in chronological order. I’m not going to do full entries for books or audios unless one really feels worthwhile. Instead I will append them to TV reviews. Since most readers will probably have seen TV episodes, but not necessarily heard a BF episode, I’ll also give a quick rundown on whether I think they’re worth buying or not.
- Colin Baker might have returned. He was offered the opening scene, but rather reasonably (considering he’d been sacked) refused to commit to anything less than a full serial, since he would miss out on other work if casting directors thought he was still the Doctor. The serial was written with this in mind – he would instead have died blowing up the giant brain in Part 4. In the final episode, the Lakertyan Elder does it instead, but now it makes no sense as he has no reason to sacrifice himself.
- Mrs Malaprop is the breakout character of Restoration comedy The Rivals, and gave her name to the malapropism, which becomes the Seventh Doctor’s particular dialogue tic.
- Mel Fashion Watch: Immaculate white trousers and trainers, with pink-and-white striped legwarmers. Her pink-and-white striped top matches the legwarmers.
- The Doctor is 953 in this episode. So even leaving aside developments in other media (the Big Finish Eighth Doctor easily lives nearly a thousand years) the Ninth Doctor’s claim of 900 was definitely a lie.
- Part 4 uses a different, more transparent and skull-like McCoy face in the opening credits. It was the alternate version and accidentally attached to that episode.
- You might think from some of my comments here I dislike the Sixth Doctor. On the contrary, I think Colin Baker is often fabulous… just not on TV. Big Finish do a marvellous job of making Ol’ Sixie work. The trick is letting him direct his massive force of personality against villains rather than his friends. In my opinion, Baker’s also the most skilled voice actor. Plus by all accounts he’s a very sweet and friendly man.
- Speaking of resurrections, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuts the same day as Part 4, though it won’t reach the UK for another while yet. Like this episode, it gets off to a rough start before eventually becoming better than anything that had gone before.
- I’m going to be tremendously indebted to (though hopefully not derivative of) Elizabeth Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorum reviews, which made me re-evaluate the good in a lot of stories I thought I disliked, especially Season 24.
- The DVD includes a special feature to digitally insert Colin Baker’s face into the regeneration scene. Since he never filmed a regeneration, he used to claim that he was still the incumbent Doctor and his successors were merely pretenders. In 2015 Big Finish gave him “The Last Adventure”, a grand finale boxset where he finally gets to hand the role over to Sylvester McCoy properly. It also changes his last words as the Doctor from “Carrot juice?” to the rather more inspiring “ I’ve had a good innings. All those lives I’ve lived. I hope the footprint I leave will be… light, but apposite… Our future is in safe hands.”
- And finally, I wrote this with the aid of five strong mugs of tea from my Sylvester McCoy mug. “You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies.”