Tony looks at the strange matter of the first McCoy.
No-one’s going to convince you that Time and the Rani is an overlooked classic Doctor Who story, least of all me. But taken in and of its time, or watched again after nearly thirty years, it’s probably nowhere near as bad as you thinks it is. As John Nathan-Turner infamously said at the time to defend Time and the Rani against critics who loved earlier eras, the memory cheats, remembering Time and the Rani as a great big technicolour, spoon-playing, pratfalling, ‘this is idiotic’ mess. Not entirely, but perhaps a little unfairly.
Even before the first shot of Time and the Rani was broadcast, there was a taint to it for many fans. The taint was guilt, pure and simple – there were fans who were still outraged that for the first time in history (as far as we then knew – the Hartnell situation and Jon Pertwee’s push for money not being widely known in the 80s), an incumbent Doctor had been forced out by bureaucrats at the BBC. When the manoeuvring meant that everything else remained the same but our Sixth Doctor was gone, there was almost a duty felt by some fans to disapprove of his successor, because the alternative – to embrace the Seventh Doctor immediately – felt like collusion in the removing of Colin, a tacit admission that the bigwigs were right and that he was what was wrong with Doctor Who at the time.
To give them their due though, JN-T and the Production Team threw everything they could within the time constraints at the new series to make it feel distinct and different from what had gone before – the pre-credits sequence, involving hot new computer graphics, tried to draw a line between the eras, though the choice of the Rani as the villain of the piece and the unfortunate regeneration option of Sylvester McCoy in a Sixth Doctor wig didn’t help, the latter feeling particularly disrespectful. But then bang! New titles, new logo, new theme arrangement, and the visuals at least were unlike anything we’d seen before – swirling around in space, as though the camera was actually travelling and changing its perspective. Oliver Elmes and the technicians at CAL Video had delivered something big and bold and brand new (though yes, even then, the rendered rocks were naff), and Keff McCullough’s new arrangement of the theme gave exactly what Dominic Glynn’s Trial season version had been lacking – energy, excitement, and the sense of a great adventure about to begin. It all looked good and fresh and primed us for the return of the Rani.
And the return of the Rani was what we got – Kate O’Mara seeming positively born into the role. One of the main differences about the Rani in McCoy’s first story though is that she’s the Big Bad, and so, at some point, has to fail, has to overreach, which feels instinctively like a very un-Rani thing to do once you’ve seen her in Mark of the Rani. The point being of course that in her opening story she got to be the intelligent one and the Master, with his monomania about the Doctor, could be responsible for her downfall. Seeing the Rani fail on her own instantly makes Time and the Rani feel like a lesser Rani script, and if you actually examine the storyline for the briefest of moments, it becomes bizarre. You can actually excuse the faintly absurd ‘dressing up as Mel’ malarkey – the newly regenerated Doctor is clearly not disposed to help her, but perhaps he will if he thinks the experiment is his own, and has his trusty assistant by his side. But the Doctor’s knowledge of time is surely not special enough for her to expressly seek him out to add to the Superbrain, and his knowledge of thermodynamics, as it’s revealed in the story, is actually nothing that special. So why the arch-rationalist Rani thinks it would be a good idea to introduce the ‘meddling cretin’ that is the Doctor into her Superbrain is anyone’s guess – there’s little evidence that anyone either in the story or behind the scenes has any kind of an answer beyond ‘because we need a story.’
O’Mara’s characterisation though is still phenomenally strong here, and within the parameters of needing to ultimately fail, she delivers a Time Lady far more impressive in her plans than the Master had been in recent history, so as a performance, she did her best to ensure the Rani’s enduring place in the hearts of fans.
Sadly, Bonnie Langford as Mel feel like a real weak link in this story – screaming at every Tetrap she sees, no matter how increasingly familiar they are, and delivering lines without much in the way of identifiable personality. To be fair to her, there was practically nothing given to her – or indeed to writers Pip and Jane Baker – to shade her characterisation beyond being a computer programmer, so she comes off as a walking exposition-engine, even when saving Ikona from pink spinning balls of death or challenging the new Doctor as to his new Doctorness.
Pink spinning balls of death? Oh yes, the computer graphics were impressive in-story too. Except the killer insects, which looked like they belonged on a BBC Model B computer, with its 32k of processing power.
The Lakertyans are better than people remember – Mark Greenstreet, Donald Pickering, Wanda Ventham and Karen Clegg in particular rendering a society given to indolence, yes, but also torn between obedience and destruction. Also, they add a sense of Lakertya being a distinctly alien world, rather than another humanoid-filled quarry – check out the action when any of them has to run anywhere and with one arm position they give you a distinct sense of evolution from a reptilian ancestor. Sadly, they’re a creation of two halves, and in close-up shots, there’s more than a hint of Underwater Menace Fish People about them, not only in the peeling-off facial scales, but also inasmuch as their skull-plates are very evidently hats, rather than the bony ridges they’re supposed to be.
Similarly with the Tetraps, the masks are surprisingly good, (though not by any stretch good enough to warrant the couple of close-ups we get as cliff-hangers), but the wings – the things which define them as bat-like creatures – are self-evidently just scraps of material, so they lessen the effectiveness of the creatures as a whole.
But really, regeneration stories hadn’t been about actual stories since Spearhead In Space. By the time of Time and the Rani, the story was just there as a background to show us the new Doctor, how they reacted differently to their predecessor, but still delivered an interpretation we could run off with into time and space. And there’s no doubting that Sylvester McCoy keeps up the standard – until the script calls for him to start falling over and getting amnesia, he’s a blazing new Doctor, barely awake a few seconds when he’s roaring his indignation at the Rani and threatening to smash her equipment to pieces.
And once he recovers himself too, the McCoy Doctor promises much that is good – working out how to free the Lakertyans from their bangles of death, stirring up trouble, and adding an unstable element to the Rani’s superbrain.
In the middle, there’s less consistency, but still a good touch of sulky darkness. Is the Seventh Doctor played too often for laughs in Time and the Rani? Absolutely, and McCoy would be the first to agree with you if you said so. But let’s not forget the casting of McCoy was intended to steer the programme away from the violence the BBC erroneously thought embodied the Colin Baker era, so if Pip and Jane Baker’s script has a handful too many tortured proverbs (a John Nathan-Turner idea, not one of the Bakers’), there is at least a cogent reason for it. And McCoy’s comedy instincts allowed him to make comedy choices in this first story that were, to be fair to him, rarely made again as his time went on, the balance quickly feeling more realistic between comedy and darkness. So yes, there’s too much of the same kind of comedy in the Doctor throughout Time and the Rani, but McCoy still takes the serious stuff seriously enough to add pace, and cleverness, and rabble-rousing, and responsibility to both the character and the story.
Time and the Rani is by no means a perfect story, nor even a perfect regeneration story – too many of its faults, like the pratfalling, seem entirely avoidable to be rationalised away. But in terms of establishing a different tone, and a Doctor who would ‘grow on you, it certainly achieves what it sets out to do. Give it another watch, and cringe where necessary, by all means. But recognise too how different a thing it is from the Trial season that came before it, and what it begins to show is possible for a new Doctor.
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