'Every dogma has it's day!'
And that fan favourite...'Leave the girl, it's the man I want!'
By 1987, Doctor Who found itself in the unenviable position of being unloved save by the most die hard of its remaining fans. The 18 month hiatus imposed by Michael Grade and the very public sacking of Colin Baker had certainly taken their toll. The series had diminished in the popular consciousness. Clearly the BBC fifth floor disliked the show... I mean, why else schedule it against Coronation Street like a token sacrificial lamb? No, the series was unpopular with the movers and shakers and they needed the excuse of poor viewing figures to quietly retire what they saw as an anachronism. Hard as it may be to swallow but perhaps they were right.
With Time and the Rani the home run begins and Andrew Cartmel steps into Eric Saward's shoes as script-editor. Sylvester McCoy dons Baker's coat and a blonde wig and does a quick and unimpressive bit of regenerating (see the disc's Easter Egg on how it could have looked) almost in a state of embarrassment after falling off an exercise bike onto the TARDIS floor. The omens are not good. For old times' sake Pip 'N' Jane (AKA 'safe pair of hands') are on scripting duties and from the outset Time and the Rani struggles to move the series forward because it's mired in the sensibilities of the previous two years.
... retina-searing colour schemesThere are two versions of Doctor Who pulling in opposite directions here - a pair of writers and a producer with their 'light entertainment sci-fi panto' schtick and there's Cartmel, director Andrew Morgan and visual effects boffins Colin Mapson and Mike Tucker with their 'fast paced, exploding comic book' ideas.
They're all fighting for attention and certainly in these first four episodes it's the 'gaudy panto' that has the upper hand merely by dint of some very broad performances and the retina-searing colour schemes. The Bakers were indeed a safe pair of hands, perhaps the only safe pair that would bother to go near the series at this point, and it's a tall order to open a new series and introduce a new actor in the central role as the series's producer fought to be released from a show he had clearly had enough of. And even though it isn't littered with their usual rococo word inventions this still feels very much like a Season 23 story and that's inevitable in the period of transition we have entered.
A change of lead actor means either a tweak to the existing titles or an 'oh, bugger it, let's have a new set of titles' discussion in the production office. John Nathan-Turner, often a man who believed in impulsively spending his budget, and seeking to strike the right tone, commissioned one of the first computer animated title sequences seen at that time. Now another example of how technological developments can quickly date such sequences, I rather liked the new titles and their swirling purple galaxies, spinning TARDIS and winking Doctor.
The grey blobs, supposedly asteroids or rocks that even then showed the limitations of the form and when the money eventually ran out, turn into the most wretched looking logo and immediately carbon date the series as mid-1980s, leaving the viewer in a state of flux - is this a cartoon, a comedy or good old Doctor Who?
The theme music is given a disco make over by Keff McCulloch and is okay, although listening to it now I thought the art of using paper and comb had died out years ago. Either that or he found a kazoo lying about somewhere. But it is an improvement on the Dominic Glynn 'can't be bothered' version. Again it's a case of the technology of the time future proofing the series for about the length of Season 24's run. As ever, the Delia Derbyshire original still sounds unearthly and timeless in comparison.
A particularly ill sort of wind.So, even from the outset there's a struggle going on with tone and integrity. Time And The Rani veers between embarrassment, spectacle, kitsch, tragedy, comedy, circus act and unintentional farce. Who the target audience was, I don't know. When I saw the first episode on transmission it made me feel intermittently very sad and exhilarated at the same time. And then, much as I did in 1978, I stopped watching the series and only caught the odd episode from then on. The sacrifice of it to a weekday slot opposite Coronation Street signaled 'the end' and provided no incentive to view. A year later, however, I was pulled back in. Doctor Who does that to you an awful lot.
Is Rani a complete disaster? No, but it sails very, very close to the wind. A particularly ill sort of wind. Let's talk positives, then. Morgan's direction is very good and his choice of shots and pacy editing does create a sense of drive, tension and progression through the story. Compare this with the 'slow-motion' of Season 22's 45 minute format and it's clear that there's a director working on this who knows about quick cutting, short scenes and that television audience attention spans have shortened considerably since the mid-1970s.
He also has a sense of scale and the location matching with Colin Mapson and Mike Tucker's impeccable effects create a sense that the visual appeal of the programme has emerged from a long slumber and all three are determined to up the ante. The startling work with the Rani's bubble traps and the way this is married into the footage is also an indication that the effects department has a point to prove, mixing model filming, computer generated imagery and live effects to great success. The set design is also much improved and Geoff Powell's work on the Rani's lab and the Lykertyan Centre of Leisure is rather good with the many levels he's built into them again giving a sense of scale, layering and movement.
... she was unfortunately saddled with that image of Violet Elizabeth BottThere is a vaguely interesting plot attempting to elbow its way front and centre. If I've got this right then the Rani's plan is to harness the minds of kidnapped scientists to create a huge super-brain. She then will use strange matter to make the brain expand and turn the planet Lykertya into a time manipulator so she can diddle about with history, evolution and...well, it all seems terribly convoluted in only the way Pip 'N' Jane can be.
However, it's a truly bonkers story (and not in a good way) and the performances of Bonnie Langford and Kate O'Mara, already impeded by the wearing of some of the gaudiest, tasteless costumes in Who's history, tilt it all into rather empty kitsch and as stylishly fallow a piece of 1980s television you could want. I was never easy about the casting of Langford and while she is a gifted entertainer, dancer and performer, as a child star she was alas saddled with that image of Violet Elizabeth Bott from the Just William series of 1977 and it never went away.
Unfortunately, she's also lumbered with Nathan-Turner's back of an envelope character development for Mel Bush (a name that even now raises inappropriate titters) and is pretty much reduced to screaming herself hoarse repeatedly, being blown up, molested by pot bellied Tetraps and generally given little else to do. In certain scenes, she does seem to demonstrate more of an affinity for working with McCoy, perhaps by dint of the fact that we hardly got to know her character in relation to Colin Baker's Doctor anyway, but it's explored too little in favour of O'Mara's deeply disturbing turn as a version of the same character. When O'Mara has to impersonate Bonnie, it becomes a warped and, for all the wrong reasons, an admittedly hilarious dig at la Langford.
... the sense of a Doctor 'under construction'You could be generous and offer it up as one of the series's archest attempts at postmodern subtext but it's too obvious and isn't clever enough to stretch beyond what is in essence a bit of tomfoolery more in keeping with the origins of Harlequin, Columbine and Clown. I think O'Mara is actually quite funny with her muttered asides whilst trying to deal with a wobbly Doctor and puts in a camp, entertaining turn. Her facade as Mel does go on rather too long, becomes irritating and then she only gets back into gear as the Rani herself in the final episode.
The problem with Mel, the Rani and the Lykertyans is that they don't emerge as identification figures at all. You don't really care about the plight of the insipid Lykertyans that much, the Rani's plan is baffling in the extreme, Mel screams a lot and the Doctor bumbles about as McCoy searches for a mode of performance that works. He does eventually get to be the Doctor and he's rather good in Part Four and although his signposting of the Doctor's eccentricity through his various improvisations is too pronounced, I do feel you aptly get the sense of a Doctor 'under construction' as it were.
... blowing whistles to 'Pump Up The Volume'It's enjoyable to see that process despite the pratfalls, malapropisms and spoon playing. But again, Nathan-Turner just can't let a bad idea go and we still have the literalness of those question marks, a hangover from 1981, in the costume. Mind you, McCoy complained about these obvious trademarks and along with the question mark brolly, it epitomises Nathan-Turner's continued obsession with 'surface as depth' that had been hampering the series since he took over as producer.
The costumes by Ken Trew again set much of the tone. Very acidic looking pastels of yellow, green and pink for the Lykertyans and more searing pinks and reds for Mel and the Rani do suggest a design palette influenced by rave culture and it would not look out of place for most of the cast to be blowing whistles to 'Pump Up The Volume' in the middle of a field. Or in this case, a quarry. The Centre of Leisure or a club chill out area, anyone? Pass the light sticks and a bottle of water.
His work on the Tetraps is marginally better and the masks weren't bad for their day (they look too immobile now) and there is some good atmosphere demonstrated in the scenes set in their lair. At least the 'clown' outfit of the Sixth Doctor goes, even though McCoy comically drags it around for most of the episodes but then ends up wearing something appropriately sober (apart from the hideous jumper) by the conclusion. Trew's riot of colour ushers in an emphasis on bold comic book stylisation (pink skies, anyone?), given further exploration throughout the rest of the season, but it doesn't quite work to the story's advantage here.
While the story itself is rather underwhelming, the DVD does includes some very interesting additional material.
- Commentary by Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford, and Pip & Jane Baker. By the range's standards this is a fairly entertaining example and McCoy provides some insights into his casting while the Bakers explain how they had to write a script without knowing who was cast as the Doctor and with little help as the script-editor position was vacant at the time of writing.
- The Last Chance Saloon
An excellent documentary by Nev Fountain covers the crisis at the heart of the series and the development of the script for Time and the Rani. The most fascinating aspect is the audition footage featuring a number of actors trying out for the role opposite Janet Fielding. Some interesting choices but it really is clear that McCoy was the fella.
It also looks at the struggle between the BBC's fifth floor, Nathan-Turner and their mutual mixed feelings about the series and includes some of the mud-slinging from fans on Open Air and from media critics alike. Nathan-Turner's 'the memory cheats' accusation on Open Air now seems rather misjudged in light of his own tenure.
Andrew Cartmel also explains his ethos for the show as the incoming script-editor and how little he could influence the Bakers' script. It seemed to please no-one in the end as it went into production.
The usual production subtitles, photo galleries and PDF materials accompany these features.
Time and the Rani
Released 13 September 2010 / BBCDVD2808 / Region 2 / Cert PG / Duration: 100 mins