24.1 – “Time and The Rani”
The Doctor forgets to fasten his seatbelt during some turbulence, bangs his head on the TARDIS console and is instantly regenerated. In what must surely be a hallucination, he finds himself beset on all sides by The Rani in pink legwarmers and a ginger wig, po-faced hair metal lizardfolk, four-eyed bat minions, Albert Einstein and a giant pulsating red brain. It’s not an hallucination…
Given how handily our hero eludes the clutches of everything from black holes to the Pandorica on a regular basis, it’s amazing how difficult it is for The Doctor to escape from received wisdom. Oh God, not “Time and The Rani”, almost anything but “Time and The Rani”. Definitely one of the five worst stories ever. The worst story from the worst season ever. The story that, even if it didn’t nail shut Classic Who’s coffin right there and then, surely had the general public changing the channel in droves, depriving the show of any chance it might have had of making a comeback. There’s no smoke without fire, obviously, and it would take an even bigger contrarian than me to argue that “Time and The Rani” is anything even approaching good. But I genuinely don’t think its terrible reputation is fully deserved. Rather, it has the misfortune of existing at the eye of a perfect storm of reasons why people might want to hate it.
Let’s start with the fact that many fans are understandably sore about the show’s ill-treatment (and ultimate cancellation) at the hands of Messrs Grade and Powell. If you resent the fact that poor Colin Baker was given an impossible remit to salvage the ratings, and then acrimoniously sacked for his “failure”, then the opening scenes of “Time and The Rani”, with Sylvester McCoy having to shoot the most miserable, perfunctory regeneration sequence ever in a curly fright wig, are going to fill you with fury. A couple of minutes in and already boiling over with rage, no fan is primed to give this story the benefit of the doubt.
Next up, the unpopular companion. Regular readers will know that there are persons involved with this site who have a violent, borderline irrational hate-on for Adric. But Mel – aka Bonnie Langford, and never before or since has a companion been such a flimsy excuse for some stunt-casting – is surely a harder pill to swallow than even the yellow-pyjamaed one. Introduced as “a companion from The Doctor’s future”, Mel conveniently never had to be given a proper backstory or personality. This script tries dejectedly at points to persuade us that she’s a computer expert and well-acquainted with the Laws of Thermodynamics from having read the complete works of CP Snow, but no one looks like they believe a word of it, least of all the blank and uncomprehending Bonnie. Mostly she spends her time emitting high-pitched shrieks. A lot. Fair play for trying to sell us the visceral horror of the Tetraps, but when even the local aliens are urging her to “Stop squawking!” you know something’s gone terribly wrong. Plus here she’s kitted out with a costume that’s so eye-wateringly pink and 1980’s that it would be an affront if there was only one of it. But more about that plot point shortly.
On scriptwriting duties, Pip & Jane Baker. It’s almost impossible to imagine the chain of events that must have occurred to have resulted, by 1987, in the Baker husband-and-wife team being the most trusted and experienced writers available for the important task of ushering in the Seventh Doctor. The sad passing of Robert Holmes was clearly a lot to do with it and, while Holmes may have been a bit off his game since “The Caves Of Androzani”, it’s still tempting to imagine an alternate universe where he was around to write the first story of Season 24. Pip & Jane could clearly get scripts in on time and to spec, in trying and chaotic times. Unfortunately their dialogue is invariably overwrought – SO MANY ADJECTIVES! – and their plotting seems to be a matter of throwing ever wackier ideas into the mix until the contractual 90 minutes has been achieved. The B-plot of this adventure, wherein the native Lakertyans get blown up or stung to death by cruel traps until they realise that collaborating with their oppressors for the sake of the peace is bad and wrong, is hackneyed and dull. It’s no stupider than another race of blond alien dumbbells coming to realise that pacifism can never work in a different story circa 1963…but that still doesn’t justify these proceedings.
But enough negatives. This is a really well-directed story with some remarkable special effects and production values. It may be set in a quarry but it’s a great looking quarry; that entrance to the Rani’s base is really something. The Tetraps are an excellently creepy monster design, compared to, say, the Androzani Magma Beast, that work splendidly while shot half-glimpsed and in the shadows, and only fall apart due to the strange decision to make their leader so talkatively servile (“Your powers are truly wondrous, Mistress”). The Lakertyans may be generic but they’re all played by good actors who are giving it 100% – including Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum! And of course Kate O’Mara is superb as fabulous TLILF, The Rani. Yes, the script lets her down by having her make idiotic choices at every turn (“Leave the girl, it’s the man I want,”) and calling her off on endless errands to allow characters to reunite and steal stuff from her lab in her absence. But she’s incredibly watchable, actually totally hilarious in the abjectly ridiculous impersonating-Mel plotline, and a joy to behold sparring with Sylvester McCoy.
And so we come to the crux of why “Time and The Rani” isn’t a complete waste of…time and The Rani. If you unilaterally despise McCoy and his era then I can’t persuade you and, again, received wisdom is that he may not have fully perfected his portrayal at this stage. But for me he brings a spectacularly doleful charm to the role from the moment the Seventh Doctor regains consciousness. This Doctor is a genius, but he’s instantly compassionate with it and, just as importantly, he’s funny. He cracks jokes and commits egregious acts of wordplay – the mangled proverbs he continually spouts in this script are generally written off as an erratic post-regenerative behaviour, but when he lists the Earthlings who will tragically never be born if The Rani gets free rein with her Time Manipulator, Mrs Malaprop tops the list! And it’s even plot relevant; his mind sabotages the other geniuses by being too lateral, too puntastic, for the Big Red Brain(TM) to deal with. A hero after my own crossword-puzzling heart, then, and one of my top three Doctors of all time. He will only get better from here, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t start off great.
You may well find this story terrifyingly camp. You may not like the loquacious pot-bellied aliens from a planet with a silly long name. You may think the storyline involving a faaaaaabulous villain impersonating The Doctor’s companion is ridiculous, or that a companion stunt-cast from the world of light entertainment instead of serious acting is a bad idea. But all of these elements that were supposedly killing the credibility of Doctor Who in 1987 are the very same things that were brought back for the really rather successful 21st century show. If it wasn’t for a third episode that is a pointless time-wasting runaround, I’d have gone so far as to say there is more good and fun stuff in “Time and The Rani” than there is bad. A controversial-for-some 5/10.
Written and edited by Matthew Marcus