Doctor Who: Big Finish: THE RANI ELITE Review

Here we go again, says Tony Fyler.

‘Regeneration – it’s a lottery,’ said the Tenth Doctor in the 50th anniversary special.

Except of course in reality, it isn’t. Regeneration is one of the hardest decisions for any Production Team to make – who is your new incarnation going to be? How are they going to be different from the previous version? What’s the fundamental core of the character, and how do you show that while entirely changing the actor on whom you’re relying to bring life to the part?

Of course when it comes to the Doctor, we’ve now had 51 years to come to terms with all this. Even with the Master, there have now been nine solid incarnations (including audio versions, but not including peripheral versions like the child-Master).

There’s only ever been one Rani. And she’s only made two full appearances. Well, two appearances, the Execrable Waste Of Lifetime that was Dimensions In Time, and a BBV audio which you have to be a real hardcore geek to have heard (Annnnnd that’s the sound of geeks around the internet polishing their badges of geek excellence). Kate O’Mara is the Rani. Given that Dimensions In Time was such an EWOL, and with the best will in the world, Time and the Rani wasn’t that much better (I was called on to explain that one to a friend recently, and they, entirely reasonably, thought I’d escaped from a local insane asylum), it’s a testament to the power of O’Mara’s total grasp of the character that the Rani is always high on the geek wish list for a TV return. In fact, it’s down to that total grasp of the character that anybody remembers the Rani at all. The point is that O’Mara, coupled with the writing of Pip and Jane Baker, made her a character you wouldn’t dare to forget.

And now at last, she’s arrived on Big Finish audio. Only…erm…who the hell is that, pretending to be the Rani?

That’s Siobhan Redmond of course. You probably know the story, but it was O’Mara herself, through her agent, that got in touch with Big Finish to suggest a Rani renaissance. Big Finish, perfectly sensibly, nearly bit her hand off, secured the rights from Pip and Jane and set about locking Justin Richards in a dark room till he created something worthy of the great and glorious Rani.

He succeeded, to give him his due. The storyline of The Rani Elite is big and demented and based on an amoral scientific experiment (something of the Rani’s calling card, like the Riddler’s riddles or the Joker’s jokes). The lines positively drip with the sneer that O’Mara made her own, and all in all, the whole thing hangs together with a touch more of a ‘period Sixth Doctor’ feeling than we’ve been used to in recent Big Finish stories with the Time Lord in the Technicolour NightmareCoat.

Except of course, it’s not O’Mara who’s delivering the lines. It’s Redmond. Because sadly – no, hell, I don’t use the word lightly, but tragically - about six weeks before recording was due to begin on The Rani Elite, Kate O’Mara passed away. It seems impossible that she would ever have done so mundane a thing as dying – rather it feels right to imagine her being carried up to a diamond-studded, white fur-draped afterlife by the shoulder-padded angels of fabulousness.

Before she did any such thing though, she gave her blessing for the casting of that somehow so sacrilegious thing – the Second Rani. And Redmond, who had worked with Big Finish just weeks before on The Revenge of the Swarm, stepped forever into the audio canon to fill the Rani’s shoes.

We’ve had years to get used to it when the Doctor regenerates. Even when it first happened – and when it was, to be fair, the most massive of gambles – the First Doctor has been establishing his character for three years. Imagine he’d only been the Doctor for An Unearthly Child, The Daleks, and The Edge of Destruction before laying down on the floor of the Tardis and turning into Patrick Troughton. Would you have coped with it?

It’s possible to analyse the differences in Redmond’s Rani. She’s more playful than O’Mara’s. There’s more of a sense of being able to roll with the punches of unlikely events – she’s a Rani lighter and quicker on her mental feet, and here that’s a key part of the storyline – she’s convinced one bunch of people that one thing’s going on, another bunch of people that something else is going on, while really of course, something entirely else is going on, and each way makes the Rani’s gain. There are hints of the person the Rani used to be (including what sounds terribly like a name), and there are definite strands of the Rani we’ve known and loved – make no mistake, this is a story in which O’Mara would have reveled, and it makes sense that it could have been played by her, inasmuch as she was the Hartnell Rani, the one who established the fundamental qualities of the character. Redmond takes the groundwork and plays it lighter, younger, with much less sneer and rather more charm – if you want a comparison, the change in gears is more like the shift from Tom Baker to Peter Davison than it is Hartnell to Troughton – almost dancing her way through a script which takes a space university, and threads a darkly comic idea through it: imagine the rich could outsource their dying to penniless students. There’s much more to The Rani Elite than that – including some truly traumatic resonances for Peri (and the third story in a row that gives Nicola Bryant much more to do with the character and the voice of the 80s’ favourite botany student than she’s accustomed to), and you’re left with the idea that this Rani, like some Doctors, is a ‘grower,’ rather than an instant smash-it-out-of-the-park interpretation, as O’Mara’s obviously was (if it hadn’t been, we wouldn’t still be talking about the character, some twenty years or more later). There are more Rani stories planned with Redmond in the role, and in all likelihood, discussions have been had prior to the writing of them on how to develop the new Rani in a way that lets her be as definitive as the original, but in her own way.

So should you buy this one? Oh who are we kidding, you know you want to hear what the Rani sounds like now. Is it worth buying? Yes – solidly, yes. It doesn’t quite free itself of the pall of might-have-beens this time around, because the first draft was written for the O’Mara Rani, and you can certainly hear how she would have played it – in fact, if you’re particularly geeky, you might even hear her version superimposed on Redmond’s new take, which will lessen the pleasure you’re able to take in the new version in and of itself. But as the beginning of a new chapter in Who history, it’s unmissable. The story’s strong, the pacing’s fast, the characters are sharply drawn and voiced. And if the timing of O’Mara’s death hadn’t been quite so close to the development of the story, the emotional tug would have been less potent and Redmond would have had a clearer shot at making this her definitive debut in the role. It isn’t quite that – for that, we’ll have to wait for the next Rani releases. She’s not the same as she used to be, but that of course is part of the point. Make your mind up to it – The Rani is back.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at
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