Sunday, September 14, 2014


Doctor Who – The Mark of the Rani and Time and the Rani

I’ve been watching Sylvester McCoy’s first story as the Doctor this week, inspired by Time and the Rani turning twenty-seven years old last Sunday and by the BBC celebrating this happy anniversary the day before with another new Doctor, Peter Capaldi, playing the spoons. It wasn’t the most promising debut for Richard’s favourite Doctor, but over the years I’ve come to find a lot of fun in it, most of all revelling with Kate O’Mara in her villainous star turn as the Rani. And who’d have thought back then that Sylvester would star in bigger films than any of Kate’s?

It didn’t seem at the time that Time and the Rani would mark the start of one of Doctor Who’s most fabulous eras – and that heralding another – but it did. I’m not just fond of it for that, though. I’m fond of it because it’s ridiculously bright and cheerful, because I can rouse myself shouting at the screen over its politics, and most of all because some of the bits that most embarrass other fans are absolutely bloody hilarious – and are meant to be.

So I dug out a pair of old reviews, almost the oldest I’ve written that I still have copies of, and read what I had to say about the Rani’s twin mid-’80s TV escapades. They weren’t good. The stories, nor the reviews. And I hesitated before republishing them not just because I’d do very much better today should I manage to get my finger out, but also because it seems unkind so shortly after the sad news has broken of co-author Jane Baker’s passing (following that six months ago of Kate O’Mara). But Time and the Rani Part Two was first broadcast on this day in 1987, and Doctor Who online lists tell me that this is also the birthday of Gary Cady, who caught the thirteen-year-old me’s attention without knowing why in the Rani’s first story back in 1985, so it’s as appropriate a day as I’m likely to find.

These twin reviews were published in September 1995, shortly after the release of the two stories on VHS, in Liberator Magazine 231’s idiosyncratic review section. After all this time – blimey, nineteen years – I can’t quite understand what I was thinking by picking these two stories to review. I have a nagging memory that I’d heard a rumour both Kate O’Mara and Colin Baker were celebrity Liberal Democrat supporters and used that to justify their getting a place, but what my real reason was eludes me. Perhaps the two VHS releases just came out the month I fancied writing Doctor Who reviews. Perhaps I was aiming to write several pieces in the run-up to the no-doubt fantastic TV Movie due the following Spring (a clue: doubt, though I did better immediately before it aired with a review of Survival). But while I used to write reviews mainly to evangelise to a Liberal audience – how unlike today’s blog – and remember, for example, proselytising several Babylon 5 and The Avengers releases, these reviews had a very different agenda. To crit-fic my own motivations, I suspect I was writing about how bad the writers were because it was easier and more fun to write snark than to find an interesting way of praising something I loved (or even a sympathetic way of criticising something). So now the reviews look more to me like bad writing, and I feel I’ve learnt better since. Or you may feel I’ve lost the knack of writing a short review when spending a year chipping ten thousand words out of a novel-length block of notes will do.

Doctor Who – The Mark of the Rani
“What’s he up to now? It’ll be something devious and overcomplicated – he’d get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line…”
The Rani, a new renegade Time Lord played by Kate O’Mara, gets all the halfway decent lines in a generally weak script, and usually at the expense of the Master. Given some of the worst dialogue ever heard in Doctor Who (“Unfortunate? Fortuitous would be a more apposite epithet,” he quips at one point, apparently playing Just a Minute in a story that might have been tolerable at that length), Anthony Ainley falls to the occasion and gives his worst performance as the Doctor’s very arch arch-enemy. He all but twirls his moustaches in capering villainy as the Doctor is strapped to a table sent hurtling along a railway line…

Set in Nineteenth Century Northumberland, this story tries hard to convince you it knows a lot about the period. Sadly, it’s too late for Luddites, George Stephenson didn’t do half they claim and a few of the other characters mentioned – such as a passing inspiration of geniuses – weren’t alive at the time. Colin Baker is excellent and endlessly watchable, his portrayal of the Sixth Doctor being much-underrated, but even fairly high production values, sumptuous location footage and Gary Cady being one of the sexiest men ever to appear in the programme can’t rescue a story damned by a silly plot and an earnestly awful script.

Today’s Doctor Who viewers may be interested to know that The Mark of the Rani is currently one of the stories being shown in rotation on the Horror Channel (as well as available on DVD and in the VHS department of a charity shop near you), so you too can get wood with Mr Cady. It also looks like the primary source of one of the recurring gags in Steven Moffat’s first TV Doctor Who work (as well as inspiring him to write every single female character since he took over the series as the Rani).

The paradox about The Mark of the Rani for me remains that the worst thing about it is also the best, and to take it out would make the whole thing unwatchable. This story’s a tipping point for Anthony Ainley’s Master, up ’til now veering between cracking and creaky performances while saddled with increasingly absurd schemes, then here a career-worst for character and actor and made the butt of all the jokes. You wonder what the programme thinks it’s doing to its lead villain, but his nadir gives the Rani a massive boost. She’s mostly written as coldly clinical, but those bitchy put-downs give her a character – as well as enabling viewer belief in her efficiency that simply wouldn’t have been possible had she gone along with the cackling idiot. Yet I can’t help thinking something’s gone a bit wrong when you need to invent another Time Lord to act as the voice of the viewer, and when even her best line’s stolen from the Police.

Doctor Who – Time and the Rani
“I have the loyhargil! Nothing can stop me now!”
The Rani is back, unfortunately bringing with her the same authors, Pip and Jane Baker, once infamous in British TV sci-fi for writing the worst Space 1999 story. Here they have a (synthesised orchestral) stab at doing the same for Doctor Who.

Kate O’Mara’s first appearance as the Rani, in which she acted, got her a role as Joan Collins’ sister in Dynasty. She returns with big hair, big earrings, big shoulderpads and a style so over the top it’s out of the trench and half-way to Berlin. Playing in effect a fusion of both evil Time Lords from her last story enables her to survive perhaps the most ludicrous Doctor Who script ever written, apparently based on a half-read article in a dentist’s waiting-room science magazine, with extra bizarre technobabble and a side order of more ‘geniuses’ – even a giant brain on top – because the authors again mistakenly hope it may rub off.

This is the first story with Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor… After which, he gets much better, though he does bring some fun moments first time out. Guest stars such as Wanda Ventham and Mark Greenstreet look rather embarrassed (although considering the latter’s appearance in Brat Farrar just before this, he was probably used to it). On the plus side, while the theoretically far superior earlier Rani story tries hard to be serious and is rather dull, this is immensely colourful and entertaining, in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category.

Worth watching if you like pretty special effects, because you have to see ‘Colin Baker’s exit’ to believe it, but most of all for Ms O’Mara’s hilarious impersonation of Bonnie Langford.

And I didn’t even spot at the time how dodgy its politics were, which would at least have been topical for a political magazine. Oops. In brief, think of the alien ‘hero’ as Nigel Farage.

You can read my lovely Richard’s far more enthusiastic and far more interesting review of Time and the Rani at The Very Fluffy Diary of Millennium Dome, Elephant.

At the same time as watching Sylvester’s opening story, I’ve started reading several books about or starring his Doctor. There may be more on those stories later… And though they’re all you’ll find of her in the regular TV series, the two stories above weren’t all there was to the Rani, either. Kate O’Mara came back for an even camper charity mash-up with EastEnders (no, really), in which a very respectable actor plays her henchman Shagg, then a semi-licit audio play that I can’t honestly recommend, and was due to return to the role again for Big Finish’s official Doctor Who audio series. In interviews she always said she loved the character and wanted to do more with her, and it seems behind the scenes she was just the same, giving her blessing when she knew she wouldn’t be able to do it for a new incarnation of the Rani to take over later this year. The Rani’s also turned up in the pages of several novels and short stories, as well as one 1986 book by Pip and Jane Baker themselves that had eventually more than a little to do with Time and the Rani

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