Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. But recently I decided to spend some of my 50th birthday spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.
Time and the Rani
Starring Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.
Companion: Bonnie Langford as Melanie Bush
Written by Pip & Jane Baker. Directed by Andrew Morgan.
Format: 4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: September 1987. (Episodes 1-4 of Season 24)
OK, full disclosure–every one of the Doctor Who episodes that I’ve commented on recently (see here and here and here and here, for example) were acquired because I thought I might like them. Time and the Rani, by contrast, is not a story that I had any expectation of liking (based on either my memory of viewing it previously a long time ago) or by its reputation. But it came as a part of a package with Remembrance of the Daleks, so I started watching it shortly after finishing the more prestigious serial, out of a sort-of morbid curiosity.
Time and the Rani is a bit of an infamous story for fans. Behind the scenes, the previous starring actor, Colin Baker, had been basically fired by the BBC. Refusing to put his career on hold during the show’s hiatus, he turned down the offer to return just long enough to film a regeneration scene, and the production team was forced to come up a patch job. That turns out to be the underwhelming image of the Doctor apparently regenerating due to being knocked over when the TARDIS bumps around a bit. It’s easily the show’s worst regeneration sequence, and an unprestigious start for the 7th Doctor Sylvester McCoy. The only reason it’s not considered the worst Doctor-debut story is because of how bad The Twin Dilemma (Colin Baker’s first story) is generally considered to be.
The story itself is an odd mish-mash of elements. You’ve got the Rani kidnapping smart people from earth’s history to make a gestalt brain in a jar. You’ve got her nutty plan to make an asteroid crash so she can turn that brain into a planet-sized time manipulator. You’ve got the Rani’s servant monsters, the Tetraps, whom she eventually runs afoul of. You’ve got the Rani cruelly forcing the native Lakertyans to serve her using all manner of death-devices, including killer bugs that live inside a disco ball, and lethal anklets. And you’ve got the Rani trying to trick the Doctor into fixing whatever’s wrong with her machine so that all this can happen.
Holding all this together is…sort of nothing. What any episode of this show needs to provide a counterpoint to all the villainy is the strong presence of the Doctor himself, but in this case he ends up spending most of his time being ineffectual and silly (at one point he literally points behind the Rani to trick her into looking away). The plot demanded the Doctor has amnesia for a big bunch of the story which works against him making a strong impression. His personality ends up only being broadly defined, with his strongest trait being his shtick of mixing up old aphorisms–apparently the story was actually written before the Doctor’s personality was actually worked out. Mel is around a lot, mostly with the Lakertyans, but her main contribution is to scream, get in trouble, and facilitate exposition.
What one does remember from the story is more the Rani herself, and the episode’s excessively gaudy design. The look of the Lakertyans is put together with a lot of detail, but it’s so over-the-top that it almost completely distracts from everything else going on. It looks especially silly when put against the drab background of the obvious quarry that much of the story happens in.
I’ve never been that fond of the Rani in particular, but after rewatching the show I can see why she has her fans. She is different from the Master in that she is seeking knowledge rather than power, but with a ruthless drive that seems to leave everybody devastated in her wake. These leads to some gruesome (though not gory) violence, with many a hapless Lakertyans dying horribly. Probably the biggest thing I’d really change about the Rani’s character is the fact that she’s a renegade Time Lord–one of classic Doctor Who‘s crutches was relying on Time Lords a bit too much for their major villains.
There is the odd bit of interest to Time and the Rani. It’s the series’ first use of CGI, which is not impressive by modern standards but is a notable step for the show. The cliffhanger at the end of Episode One is a strong one–Mel is caught up in one of the Rani’s lethal death traps, screaming for her life in an explosive energy ball that is launching her into the air. Unfortunately, it’s resolved in less than satisfactory way (apparently these balls don’t explode if they land in water). And the Rani’s idea of creating a giant planet-sized time-brain is at least novel.
But really, I’m reaching for stuff. Mostly, Time and the Rani is pretty bad, and doesn’t bode well for the 7th Doctor. However, in retrospect, we know that Remembrance of the Daleks and some other good stories were coming soon.