Time and the Rani

DVDThis is from DWM #426, and the opening paras were my attempt to bring a slightly different perspective to the story. Namely: Can you imagine nowadays if they introduced a new Doctor in such a haphazard fashion? You probably can’t, because they absolutely wouldn’t. It’s staggering to think poor old Sylvester McCoy was revealed in such a botched way.

I did enjoy coming up with my own bastardised aphorisms; making some fun out of that silly conceit. Although I fear I rather over-egged the prodding.

DWM #426Let me just take the eye-patch off.

Right. Back from moonlighting in an alternate universe where I’ve been filing a review for The Official Doctor Who Monthly. The Seventh Hour is just out on laserdisc there – Sylvester McCoy’s debut, of course. A corker! It begins with a classic pre-titles sequence: The TARDIS in flames and a new man emerging, roaring, from the wreckage. That’s how you do it.

It made me reflect on that reality’s dud curtain-raiser for Matt Smith, cos no one’s got a good word to say about Wibbly-Wobbly-Timey-Wimey and the Rani (Wani). Poor Matt, having to wear David Tennant’s quiff and dentures, just to bluff through his predecessor’s absence. He’s a trooper. Much like Kate O’Mara, who looked fabulous as the titular villainess. “Leave the girdle!” she’d told her trainer in prepping for the comeback. “It’s The F-plan I want!”

Comparisons, as the saying goes, are commodious, and this jaunt sideways in time has provided me with ample space to compare and contrast the debuts of two Time Lords. In that other place, the long shadow of cancellation now hangs over Doctor Who. But back here things are happier. Events for Seven and Eleven occurred the other way around, and while The Eleventh Hour was a clever and meticulously honed first night, 1987’s Time and the Rani – the subject for this review – remains a resolutely unimpressive opener for Sylv.

Seriously, can you imagine if something so slap-dash had been concocted for Matt Smith? At a point where the stakes were so high? Unthinkable. Someone would have staged an intervention.

So, to the plot. Well, I suppose we should. The amoral Rani – accompanied by the bat-like Tetraps – has set up shop on the planet Lakertya, where she’s kidnapping history’s greatest minds so she can create a giant super-brain, which will assist her in building a time manipulator. But only once she’s detonated an asteroid made of strange matter and… look, I dunno, really. We can at least be certain that somewhere en route, Mistress Rani dropped by the universe’s equivalent of Camden Town to get a nose-stud. Those Time Lord rebels! It’ll be skinny jeans next.

Watching Time and the Rani today feels like a journey to an all together more far-flung shore than ordinary 1980s Who. It’s a moment when the production on the show had become so unprecedentedly parlous that, having lost their leading man (the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ mendacious BBC1 Controllers…), the new boy was forced to don a Shirley Temple wig to cover up the gaffe.

Aside from this hideous lapse in etiquette, the situation also results in a regeneration robbed of all drama – the Doctor prone on the TARDIS floor, his features changing almost in embarrassment.

An inglorious arrival continues with McCoy seemingly at a loss as to how to play the role. He fakes outrage, eccentricity and befuddlement, but never believes in any of them. He doesn’t feel the least bit Time Lordly, something that’s emphasised with his rummage through the TARDIS’ dressing-up box. Donning Tom Baker’s scarf, Jon Pertwee’s frills et al, the scene is supposed to underscore his lineage, but it just invites comparison. And it’s impossible to imagine any of his predecessors mangling aphorisms or tumbling ineffectually around the Rani’s lab. Oh yes, the tumbling. In this four-parter there’s many a slip ‘twixt spoon-playing and quips.

The irony is, thanks to McCoy’s impressive audition piece (available elsewhere on this disc), we know he’s got an altogether more charismatic take on the character. He’ll get there – time will gel. But right now the Doctor is loose at the seams. “The more I know me,” he moans, “the less I like me.”

It’s easy to use our hero’s words against him, but that’s because in Pip and Jane Baker’s script no one talks in a remotely realistic fashion. Granted, we’re in deepest sci-fi territory, but we’ve still got to believe in these people. Mark Greenstreet’s Ikona sniffs that Lakertya’s Centre of Leisure (and, incidentally, Blue Peter wants its Italian sunken garden back) is more like a “centre of indolence”, Mel chirpily opines: “I could nominate a few candidates for extermination myself!” and the Doctor describes a hologram as being “as substantial as the Rani’s scruples”. None of this is dialogue. It’s a bunch of weird epigrams never meant to be spoken aloud.

Time and the Rani is an odd one. It’s a terrifically able production. It often looks great: the Rani’s bubbly booby-traps and that giant iPad in her lab. Sure, the Lakertyans are rubbish, but the Tetraps are quite good and all the model work is top rate. Ultimately, then, what we’re looking at is a team coming together to make bad DW terribly well. But you can’t polish a TARDIS. Not a steaming great one.

Some crawl from the wreckage. Kate O’Mara is brilliant – big-haired and bitchy, with no patience for the neophyte Doctor (“Cretin!”). It’s to her credit that when she too is instructed to don a fright wig and impersonate a peer, she does so with brio. Her take on Mel is hilarious. That tiny Bonnie Langford-esque chuckle when secretly spiking the Doctor’s drink… Urak the Tetrap is also adorable, a kind of Gareth Keenan to the Rani’s David Brent, alternately cloying (“The mistress will be over… joyed!”) and treacherous (stringing the Rani up in her TARDIS).

There’s light at the end of the turmoil, too, for Sylvester McCoy. At the story’s close a banjo starts a-twanging pleasantly on the soundtrack while he grins at his incredulous companion. “I’ll grow on you Mel, I’ll grow on you.” A doff of the hat, and it’s roll credits. A neat outro. There may be something about the Seventh Doctor after all.

Over in that alternate universe, viewers got it straightaway. Here though, like the traveller himself, we had to go on a voyage of discovery. But what do they say? The longest journey starts with a single misstep…

DVD extras

That Sylvester McCoy was always right for Doctor Who is obvious in The Last Chance Saloon, a documentary about the show’s new start in 1987, which unearths his audition tape. Facing off against a Margaret Thatcher-esque Janet Fielding, McCoy is mesmerising and owns the part in a way he wouldn’t on screen for another year or so. He runs rings around rivals David Fielder (bootlace tie, inappropriate moustache) and Dermot Crowley (Irish, bit vague), neither of whom seize the day.

The other highlight is a chance to peep at Sydney Newman’s prescription for revitalising DW in the 1980s. Gems include bringing onboard a 12-year-old girl who plays a trumpet and wears John Lennon specs, and regenerating the Doctor into a woman, “but not a Wonder Woman”. Stand down, Lynda Carter.

Elsewhere, Helter Skelter details the creation of the McCoy title sequence, and features designer Oliver Elmes and – for me, the star player – CGI animator, Gareth Edwards, responsible for pretty much anything on TV in the 1980s that was shiny and rotating. “By the time I got to the Doctor Who logo,” reveals the immediately likeable Edwards, “I’d become a master of tumbling chrome bevelled logos”. Other revelations: his embarrassment at the poorly rendered meteorites that follow the opening starburst (“Bogus!”) and the admission it took him 128 hours-straight to create the graphics for The Paul Daniels Magic Show. Truly, a man who excels.

The commentary track is very jolly, marking Bonnie Langford’s debut in the booth. She reveals she’s never watched her DW stories before, and concludes the experience “wasn’t so bad”, while also recalling the Mel action-figure: “Poseable, unfortunately!” Sylvester, meanwhile, is quite nostalgic: “I had the most amazing great time… I’m still journeying through Doctor Who.” But it’s Pip and Jane Baker who rule the roost, ensuring chat never veers too far from their tale. “Do you remember, Sylv?” coaxes Jane. “You have some quite good lines”.

The final treat lies in the ‘Easter egg’ extra. Search it out. It’s a fun take on Time and the Rani’s opening sequence – one presumably plucked from an altogether more pleasing alternate reality.

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