Tony Fyler never sleeps.
The return of the Rani to the universe of Doctor Who was a cause for joy, even though it was mixed with sadness at the death of the wonder that was Kate O’Mara, leading the character to a regeneration played by Siobhan Redmond.
The Rani Elite, her first story, was originally written with O’Mara in mind, and tweaked for Redmond to introduce a few strands of different characterization into the role. This slightly strange duality was evident throughout, and the whole script made more sense if you heard O’Mara’s incarnation performing the lines in your mind than it did if you listened to Redmond’s in your ears.
Now she’s back for a second outing, and the first thing you need to know is that the character has had time to gel a little more, Marc Platt’s script for Planet of the Rani seeming more tailored to Redmond’s particular take on the amoral scientist than Justin Richards’ Rani Elite had a chance to be.
The story takes us on some ninety years in the Rani’s personal timeline, and sees the Sixth Doctor and Wren Constance Clarke beginning to travel together in earnest after the end of Criss Cross. The Rani’s been in prison all that time, but hardly what you might call idle – there’s a Sea Devils vibe about the idea of the Rani being in prison in the first place, and that’s exploited here, with Redmond’s Rani majoring more in charm than a sneer, and doing a reasonable line in girlish eye-batting innocent acting when the situation calls for it too. The trick that needs to be pulled off there, in terms of making the Rani charming is one of balance – charming people can certainly be amoral, but to work in drama, it has to be shown. Platt takes a good stab at this here, playing on the same string as Missy’s recent ‘No, I’ve not turned good!’ – her escape from imprisonment is shocking and horrible, or at least it is in theory. In practice, we hardly see enough of the situation to invest emotion in the people who are used, and killed, to gain the Rani her freedom, so the mention of a high body-count feels distant and remote, something that happens on paper and out of earshot, so we don’t particularly feel the outrage of it. A good stab then, but not an especially effective one. That doesn’t particularly feel like a fault to lay at Platt’s door though – but oddly, at Ken Bentley’s, director of many Big Finish stories, including this one. One audio effect to give us the voices of the people used by the Rani could have delivered that chill we need to feel when a monstrously amoral act is committed, and it feels missing, along with its impact.
The impact gets better as this story unfolds though – there’s something irresistibly, oddly familiar about listening to a story where a Time Lady with a Scottish accent and a distinctly English companion of the Doctor are whisked off on an adventure of their own, as they are here, having watched The Witch’s Familiar just months ago, and while Redmond’s Rani is more analytical than Gomez’ Missy, the bite of superiority does land here and there, with the Rani telling Constance to forget about the Doctor ‘if you want to survive,’ and dismissing the Earthling’s certainties as ‘laughable.’ Perhaps most of all though as the story builds, we see the impact of the Rani, and her refusal to countenance anything as tiresome and messy as free will on her planet. Oh yes, Platt fulfills a long-term fan-fiction dream, and takes us to Miasimia Goria, the planet whose people she was trying to save from the results of a failed experiment when we first met her in Mark of the Rani. There’s a good deal of Platt’s inventive madness at play in the building of Miasimia Goria – stone forests, elegant metal cockroach-suits (he himself notes a certain similarity to the Daleks in the concept), and perhaps most creepily a kind of ‘people-forest’ too, a kind of Terracotta Army of the Rani’s ravaged, sleep-deprived vegetative victims. That said, overall, it’s difficult to measure up to the imagination of fans who’ve had thirty years to ponder what Miasimia Goria could be like, and overall, there’s a sense of some wild window dressing around a fairly standard Peladonian construct – a ruler, a couple of advisors, and the great unwashed.
Honestly though, any disappointment with Miasimia Goria only sinks in after you’ve finished Planet of the Rani, because while you’re listening to it, the pace is relentless – it’s a hundred minutes that really feels like fifty at the most, because the pacing and the story-threading is efficient, not to say relentless. The temptation to make the more charming Rani into a slightly sad disappointed mother-figure raises its head, but thankfully – so, so thankfully – Platt strangles that idea, if not at birth then certainly before the end of Planet of the Rani.
Overall, Planet of the Rani works and delivers to expectations, allowing us a glimpse of the Rani’s pet world, and showing us what being a pet world of the Rani’s turns you into. Constance gets a chance to stretch herself as a citizen of the universe, giving as good as she gets with the Rani, befriending the leader who’s taken the Rani’s place while she’s been absent and generally doing the traditional companion thing of interposing her own values between people and harm. The Sixth Doctor probably has stronger, deeper stories, but Colin Baker brings a vigour and a breathless, running-about-the-place energy to proceedings that helps pump up the pace and Siobhan Redmond really does begin to carve herself a niche as the Second Rani here, different from the O’Mara version in lots of ways, but still driven by the adamantine core of scientific determination that is key to the character.
If you felt a little deflated after the Rani Elite, wondering when the real Rani would show up, you’ll enjoy Planet of the Rani a lot more as Redmond flexes her characterization muscles. If you loved the Rani Elite, you’ll love Planet even more, for the same reasons. If you want a headline or an encapsulation of the whole, that’s easy: Happy days are here again – the Rani’s back, with a new, interesting personality. Get on the Rani bus now and watch where it takes you.
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
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 FylerWrites.co.uk