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Doctor Who: Time and the Rani (parts three and four)

Doctor Who tends to start out pretty strong and peter out as it goes, and boy, is the next adventure going to be proof of that. But “Time and the Rani” is one of the very small number of Who serials that leads with its weakest installment and gets progressively better. My favorite example of this is “Mawdryn Undead,” which opens with twenty-five of the stupidest minutes in the program’s history before turning into something incredibly imaginative and entertaining. “Time and the Rani” doesn’t manage that level of turnaround, but it definitely finishes stronger than it starts, with the broad slapstick replaced by a nearly convincing race against time, thanks largely to a new-to-the-series director, Andrew Morgan, who gives all this silliness an honest sense of urgency. It still suffers from too much Doctor Who dialogue – “don’t play the innocent,” “have a care” and so on – and Bonnie Langford screams way, way too much, but it’s a better story than its reputation suggests.

And, as usual, our son came around in the end. His initial fear of the Rani’s monsters gave way to fascination – “they have an eye on each side of their head!” – and he agreed with me that one of the Doctor’s tricks, tripping a circuit with a length of wire, was worthy of MacGyver. This Doctor even carries a Swiss army knife like MacGyver does! Unfortunately, I don’t believe we ever see the knife again. Like the Doctor’s mangled quotations and aphorisms (“Time and tide melt the snowman”), which were quickly phased out, I think the knife was dropped after this appearance, which is a shame. I like Swiss army knives much more than sonic screwdrivers.

A couple of notable memories about this story: I knew a guy in Atlanta who flew to London, got himself a hotel room on September 7, 1987, set up a VHS camcorder on a tripod, and flew home the next day with a camera copy of episode one of this story. I think everybody pretended to like it more than they really did.

But before that, either the last week of February or the first week of March, 1987, I taped something that I thought would be really memorable and would make the rounds of a million tape traders: Sylvester McCoy’s debut appearance after being cast in the role, on WXIA’s Noonday show. I want to say it was a Friday, and a school holiday, and I was home in time to catch it.

This happened because at the time, BBC Enterprises had a big trailer touring the United States, showing off costumes and props and promoting the program in whatever market had a PBS station showing Who. McCoy got the part and flew to Atlanta with the producer, John Nathan-Turner, with a little Sylvester & Tweety lunchbox in tow, because the trailer was in Atlanta that week, on the grounds of Mercer University’s Doraville campus. Jon Pertwee was touring with the trailer at the time, which is probably why WXIA, which is Atlanta’s NBC affiliate, was sent a clip from Pertwee’s story “Colony in Space” to accompany the interview, but Pertwee got bumped for the new guy at the last minute.

I remember that the presenter was completely unfamiliar with Who, but she didn’t seem dismissive or condescending at all, but really interested. McCoy was charming and funny and Nathan-Turner was engaging and professional and cool, explaining their odd twenty-four year-old show to Noonday‘s audience. McCoy didn’t have very many anecdotes to share, because this was a seat of his pants thing if ever there was one. He was cast, flown to Atlanta, and then learning lines and getting a costume fitted. They were in a quarry pretending to be an alien planet the first week of April.

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, I used to trade VHS tapes. I made many dozens of swaps with people all over the US and a couple in the UK. I kept up a trade list with microscopic print that got to be about twenty pages, two columns, front and back, and about a thousand tapes over the decade-plus I swapped. That appearance by McCoy and JN-T was probably on the very first version of that list, hammered out on my folks’ typewriter, because it was on tape # 15 – the things you remember! – and every subsequent update.

I never copied it for anybody in a trade. Not once. Nobody asked for it. And eventually, of course, I threw out almost all of my VHS tapes, so it’s long gone. I wish I’d kept it. It would have made a fine bonus feature on the DVD, but even if the BBC couldn’t arrange clearance with WXIA to use it, it should be on YouTube and it doesn’t appear that it’s ever been uploaded there. So, sorry, world. If they do put out season 24 on Blu-ray and there’s a hole in the special features where that interview should be, shake your fist at me… and all those other traders in Who ephemera who shoulda asked me for a copy!

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Doctor Who: Time and the Rani (parts one and two)

It occurred to me this morning that in better circumstances, the Doctor and Mel and their two guest star friends could have captured the Rani as she returned to her lab at the end of part two, said their goodbyes, and got on with another story entirely. Everybody would have agreed that it was a remarkably lousy forty-five minutes of Doctor Who, but at least it would have only been forty-five minutes and not ninety.

“Time and the Rani” hasn’t lost any of its power to bewilder and amaze audiences who just can’t believe this mess ever got made, but it did at least have the excuse of being born under very weird circumstances. The producer had resigned and was metaphorically cleaning out his desk waiting for his next assignment somewhere else at the BBC when the higher-ups told him no, to go make fourteen more episodes of Doctor Who instead, with no staff, no scripts, and no lead actor. So he quickly asked the writing duo of Pip and Jane Baker, who could be relied upon when deadlines loomed to turn in something, no matter how unlistenable, to give him four episodes while he cast the new Doctor and then got a new script editor. His name is Andrew Cartmel, and I’ll come back to him in a few days.

Earlier, in Los Angeles, Kate O’Mara’s year as a regular on Dynasty was coming to its conclusion, and the actress sensibly sent postcards to contacts with whom she’d worked recently to let them know she’d be back home and available soon. So Pip and Jane Baker got to write for their villainous character the Rani again, and continue to have everybody onscreen tell the audience how amazing she is. The script had to go through several drafts; the higher-ups reluctantly agreed to give Colin Baker one last story. He declined the offer, probably a lot more professionally than I would have done, meaning the story had to be rebuilt around a new Doctor’s debut, with all the attendant post-regeneration goofiness.

And as a debut, it’s not promising. Sylvester McCoy was then best known for some very weird fringe theater and some outrageous physical comedy on a children’s variety show called Tiswas. (Okay, “variety show” isn’t strictly accurate, but darned if I know what else to call it.) To my mind, he remains the most unlikely candidate to ever play the Doctor, but he’s always been among my favorites. McCoy does “quiet” brilliantly, and he does “funny” very, very well, but unfortunately most of what he does in “Time and the Rani” is vomit out the writers’ paragraphs of adjectives and synonyms. I think you can make a case that even by the end of the show’s run, the actor was still having trouble expressing real anger and fury, which contributes to his really unusual and off-kilter feel. The overall effect will become, if you’re willing to tilt your head a little, one of the most decidedly and successfully alien Doctors in the series, a character unsure of what emotions actually are, and how to express himself.

But that’s getting ahead of myself. At the start of things, “Time and the Rani” goes for wacky comedy for some dumb reason, which didn’t even resonate with our son. He liked this somewhat, but he wasn’t thrilled. He didn’t like the Rani at all, and when a big chunk of this story is built around Kate O’Mara dressed as Bonnie Langford, which doesn’t work for grownups and doesn’t entertain the seven year-old in the audience, something’s not clicking. He thought the Rani’s new monsters were “too scary,” but he did enjoy the bit where the Doctor picks out some new clothes – “He wore that already!” – and the physical comedy where the Doctor and Mel don’t know who each other are.

If our son did recognize Donald Pickering after seeing him a week ago, he didn’t let on. He also didn’t recognize Wanda Ventham, either, of course. He last saw her in Doctor Who almost a year ago, but her skin was golden in that story and yellow in this one. I wonder whether actors and agents have conversations that sound like “Doctor Who again? Will I be green this time?”

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The Champions 1.8 – To Trap a Rat

The strange finger of coincidence visits our blog again. We just saw Kate O’Mara in a Doctor Who story filmed in 1984 a couple of days ago, and here she is in a Champions filmed in 1967. Although I was also telling Marie about how the actress had picked up a reputation of glamour and glitz in the late seventies and eighties – look, I don’t know whether it was earned or not, I’ve never seen Triangle – and here she’s playing the incredibly unglamourous role of a desperate drug addict.

The real selling point for this adventure is all the location filming in London. Sure, there’s some stock footage and Elstree backlot stuff too, but lots of material shot in city parks, major streets, inside a big department store, and the London Zoo at Regent’s Park. The story’s an entertaining one about our heroes busting some drug smugglers, but it’s also a wonderful time capsule of the city in the swinging sixties.

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Doctor Who: The Mark of the Rani (part two)

It’s somewhere in the second episode of this story that it really starts to feel like everybody working on this show is enjoying themselves a whole heck of a lot. Well, other than the script editor, who seems to have completely lost both heart and interest, anyway. But it’s really looking and feeling more like a bunch of television veterans and luvvies having a big showbiz party while making some run-of-the-mill, unthreatening, unchallenging television. Not one person involved with writing this script paid the slightest attention to the rule of showing and not telling. There are something like seven occasions where either the Doctor or the Master tells the viewers just how brilliant and amazing the Rani is, when the Rani steadfastly fails to actually accomplish anything brilliant or amazing. It feels like the writers are patting themselves on the back for creating a new returning character before she’s actually done anything to make her worth a return visit.

The Rani remains a massive missed opportunity who’s caught the imagination of thousands of fans, partly because she’s so unlike the Master and isn’t a revenge-crazed megalomaniac, and partly because she’s played by Kate O’Mara, who everybody loves. She was largely unknown in America in the mid-eighties, with only the flame-keepers of Hammer horror fandom really knowing who she was here, but her profile was so high in the UK that she was the obvious choice to come to Los Angeles for a year and play Joan Collins’s character’s scheming sister Caress on Dynasty for most of 1986. I hadn’t even seen “The Mark of the Rani” yet, but I’d read in Doctor Who Magazine that the new Who villain was on Dynasty, so I started watching the show for the only time, which was just about my only experience with prime-time soaps. (There was some time spent later obsessing over Knots Landing on account of some fool girl, but that’s another story.)

I’d like to think that the end of this television adventure isn’t actually the end of the Doctor’s time in 1810ish. Our heroes leave and the credits roll, but I choose to believe that they actually pop over to Redfern Dell and clean up all of the Rani’s silly mines that turn people into trees, and then return to hang out at the conference with Brunel, Stephenson, Faraday, and Davy, and to actually report the sad news that the good-looking character with the unbelievably anachronistic haircut had been killed. And with that paragraph, I can confidently say that I’ve spent more time thinking about the consequences of this story than the people who wrote it.

That’s four turkeys in a row. We are really due for something memorable and wonderful.

Photo credit: Radio Times

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Doctor Who: The Mark of the Rani (part one)

The nicest thing to say about tonight’s adventure is that it’s the only Doctor Who story directed by Sarah Hellings, and it’s an incredible shame that she never worked on the show again. The story was mostly filmed around two of the “living history” museums operated by the Ironbridge Gorge, and it looks completely fabulous. It’s a pity she wasn’t given a better script.

The second nicest thing to say about tonight’s adventure is that, like the previous one, it introduces a promising new villain badly in need of a better story. The Rani is an unethical, exiled-from-Gallifrey Time Lord scientist who is played by the awesome Kate O’Mara. It’s also a pity she wasn’t given a better script.

Anyway, “The Mark of the Rani” is also the first contribution to Doctor Who by the writers Pip and Jane Baker, and the nicest thing that I have to say about their work is that part one of this adventure is as close to entertaining as they ever get on the show. It’s a bland, boring hour with a guest appearance by Terence Alexander and the return of Anthony Ainley as the Master, who actually kills a dog this time out, just to remind you there’s no depths to which this criminal won’t sink. Our son said the only thing he liked about this story was the cliffhanger, in which the Doctor is strapped to a runaway cart. Hellings and her team truly did make the climax look great. Wonder how the Doctor will get out of this mess!

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The Avengers 7.16 – Stay Tuned

I’ve picked up on a cute similarity between “Stay Tuned” and an earlier Avengers episode written by Tony Williamson, “Killer.” Both stories are completely perfect for younger viewers who haven’t been exposed to all this spy business for decades, and both of them feature really good, quick-thinking villains who improvise and change direction when needed. This won’t tax adult viewers very much – Steed has obviously been kidnapped and made into a “Manchurian candidate” and we’re even given the kill-word very, very early on – but our son was completely riveted and worked hard to figure out the mystery.

Even though this won’t tax grownups, particularly the jaded ones, it’s still a really entertaining story just because of how well it’s done, plus there’s the inclusion of some memorable guest stars, and there’s a sadly too-brief expansion to the world of Steed’s department. With Mother temporarily away, Steed reports to a blind woman called Father. She’s only in this one episode for about five minutes, but the character, played by Iris Russell, was also used in the ill-fated Avengers film of the late nineties, where she was played by Fiona Shaw as though she had been a major presence in the TV show.

As for the other guests, there’s Howard Marion-Crawford, in one of his last roles, as another agent from Steed and Tara’s department. It’s a throwaway part for a great actor, and he died less than a year after making this. But it’s best remembered by genre fans – huh, that term again – as featuring two future Doctor Who recurring villains, Roger Delgado and Kate O’Mara, as two of the baddies. Sadly, as nice as it would have been to have the Master and the Rani share a scene together, they don’t get the chance. Weirdly, just a few years later, Kate O’Mara would appear in another production with a Master-of-the-future, Anthony Ainley. They’re both in the BBC’s 1972 adaptation of Clouds of Witness… and they don’t share a scene together, either!

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