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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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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts thirteen and fourteen)

“There’s a lesson here,” our son opined. “If you’re a bad, bad person, don’t stand so close to your crazy, crazy high-tech machine!” Well, you said it, kid.

So at last this troubled season and absolute mess of a story comes crashing into its barely watchable end. It should have been a much more satisfying conclusion than this. The problem is that the final two parts were meant to have been written by Robert Holmes, in close collaboration with the script editor Eric Saward. But Holmes was dying, and Saward is said to have completed the final draft of part thirteen before writing the concluding half-hour himself. Then Saward elected to leave the show and took his script with him. With deadlines looming, the producer turned to Pip and Jane Baker, who’d written parts nine through twelve, to finish from the half-hour that Holmes had set up, while a grave BBC attorney ensured that not one word of Saward’s script was used.

I contend that the more sensible solution would have been to dump the script of part thirteen as well. I know that’s heretical – Holmes was the grand master of classic Who, the writer everyone loves – but the Bakers shouldn’t have been hamstrung with all that setup to bring the epic to their rushed conclusion. I can’t imagine what they would have come up with, and since I dislike very nearly all their Who writing, I wouldn’t bet that I’d have enjoyed it, but I do believe that they could have developed something much more coherent than all the guff about Victorian bureaucracy, wherever that was going. Perhaps it was considered, and perhaps they told the producer that they had barely enough time to write one half-hour, let alone two.

One thing these parts badly needed was a proper conclusion to the huge revelation that Peri had been killed. There’s an all-smiles moment where the Time Lords tell the Doctor that she’s alive and well and living with Yrcanos as a “warrior queen.” So how’d that work? Did they reverse time so that the mad scientist never transplanted Kiv’s brain into her body? Did Yrcanos still storm into the room shooting people? What happened to everybody else in the room, and the scientist the Time Lords were so afraid of? Even more insanely, the Doctor accepts that this is a satisfactory happy ending for Peri and leaves her to life in the 24th Century, departing with Bonnie Langford’s character Mel, presumably to transport her back to her timeline.

Naturally, this hasn’t set well with anybody. There are novels and audio dramas that pick up Peri’s story and, in different ways, resolve this properly. But to be honest, I like the first way this was resolved. In the late eighties, Philip Martin, who wrote the Yrcanos episodes of the story, novelized it for Target Books and explained that Peri and Yrcanos did not go back to his planet where she could live with him, but they returned to Earth in the 1980s and Yrcanos entered the world of professional wrestling in California, with Peri as his manager. I have never been interested in wrestling, but I can get behind Yrcanos putting Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik in choke holds. With or without the wrestling part, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant should have had a farewell scene together, and the Doctor should have gone immediately to his companion to see that she was all right rather than just taking some random woman’s word for it. Nobody thought this through.

But that’s kind of the Colin Baker era in a nutshell. Everything should have been better. Colin Baker’s a good actor and certainly seems to be a great guy. He could have been a great Doctor in better circumstances, without the lousy scripts that Saward had developed for him, and without the interference of the higher muckity-mucks at the BBC screwing with the show. Twisting the knife one last time, they accepted the producer John Nathan-Turner’s resignation on the understanding that he fire the star before he went. Then they unaccepted his resignation and told him the only show they wanted him to produce was more Who. But with Saward gone, this is the end of what I call “the swamp.” There are a couple more turkeys to come, but overall, things are about to get a lot better.

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who to resume a couple of shows that we’d shelved for a breather, but we’ll start Sylvester McCoy’s first season in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts eleven and twelve)

In the scene above, Honor Blackman’s character proves that she has never seen a horror film where the mad scientist thinks the monsters won’t attack her. Her character is seen reading Murder on the Orient Express earlier, so it’s not like the tropes of fiction are unknown to her. Then again, Orient Express is not a particularly long book, and the props department seems to have wrapped a dust jacket around one of those mammoth thousand-page James Michener novels, so maybe 20th Century fiction has mutated wildly by the year 2986 and she’s expecting the monsters to embrace their creator?

Last night, after our son condemned this whole adventure as lousy, he started playing one of the video games on his tablet, and something or other went wrong and he lost it completely, crying uncontrollably. He was exhausted, and hadn’t slept well the night before. On Sunday evening, we had come home late from a trip to the local observatory, and heaven only knows when he fell asleep. So by the time we watched Doctor Who on Monday, he was a mess, grouchy, and overtired.

Tanned, rested, and ready, he was more in the mood for the show tonight. He enjoyed seeing the recap of the end of part ten, when the Doctor sets off a fire alarm and sends a guard running so he could get past him, and told us “that’s my favorite part of this whole story!” Some of this was still a little over his head. He had trouble understanding why the scientist decided to destroy everybody (to keep the plant-monster Vervoids from reaching Earth), he grumbled that the bright red part of the Vervoid mask looked like a wool sweater, and the cliffhanger ending to part twelve landed with a thud. The Time Lords realize that by killing all the grown-in-a-lab Vervoids, the Doctor may have committed genocide, but I forgot to check to see whether our kid knew what that meant first. Well, he’s learned a new word.

I asked whether he enjoyed these two parts more than the previous two, and he agreed, but with a shrug. “It’s tolerable,” he decided, before going on at the lengths that a seven year-old can enjoy about how if he was going to either watch other Doctor Who stories or take money to watch ones he doesn’t want to see, he’d probably take the money, because he doesn’t like this one very much.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts nine and ten)

Tonight, our son let us know he’s like most of fandom and is not impressed by this epic-length storyline. He doesn’t like this segment of the story, because it’s too scary, “and I don’t like the other two DVDs of ‘The Trial of a Time Lord,’ either!” And that’s not true, because he laughed all the way through the last two episodes during all of King Yrcanos’s shouting, but the dreariness of these two has retroactively turned him against the rest.

Well, I may not care for the other two DVDs we’ve watched either, but they’re art compared to this chunk. It’s written by Pip and Jane Baker, and because they were seemingly incapable of giving any of their characters any kind of individual dialogue, everybody talks with the same voice, and it’s a voice that does crossword puzzles all day. Arthur Hewlett is here, briefly, and so is Honor Blackman, unfortunately, because she is playing to the rafters. Nobody wants to say anything bad about the actress who played Cathy Gale and Pussy Galore, but she really is awful in this. Bizarrely, this story is set on a 30th Century cruise between planets, and the only passengers we see in this have speaking parts. The passenger lounge should be absolutely full of people, but I guess there just wasn’t any budget at all for even a single extra. It’s really, really noticeable.

Monday morning quarterbacking again, but if we must have had the whole season dealing with this one story, I really would have prefered if they dropped this dopey “here’s an adventure from my future” angle and just spent episodes nine through [spoiler!] dealing with the Valeyard and what he’s up to. That’s a plot that doesn’t get anywhere near the attention it needs, while this totally boring murder mystery drags on.

Joining the cast this time, it’s the odd situation of the Doctor introducing us to a companion that he has yet to meet. She’s called Melanie, and she’s played, to the abject horror of many SRS BSNSS fans in Britain, by Bonnie Langford. Most of the Who companions up to this point were played by unknowns near the beginning of their career, but Langford had a reputation. She had been a child star – I reminded our son that we saw her in Wombling Free – and was really successful in musical theater. She’d been playing Peter Pan when she was cast as Melanie. But a decade before Who, she had played an infamously bratty little girl in a popular series called Just William who was always shrieking that she would “thcweam and thcweam until she was thick.” I think she might have been similar to Angelica in the cartoon Rugrats.

Last year, when we watched that surprisingly good episode of Buck Rogers that guest starred Gary Coleman, I thought there might be a comparison. In the late eighties, there was a contingent of British Who fandom that desperately wanted the show to be taken more seriously – by the producers and by the public – and was exasperated by the show hiring sitcom stars and showbiz celebrities. I was reminded of how, when I was a teenager, I rolled my eyes at the memory of Buck using the “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout” kid, and I think that Bonnie Langford hit a similar chord. Remember we’re just a year away from the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation at this point, and no matter how much people may like Wil Wheaton now, the news that there was going to be a kid genius on the show made people write angry screeds to the letters page of Starlog whining that the Enterprise didn’t need a Boxey Adama.

As for me, I had no idea who Bonnie Langford was, I still haven’t seen Just William, and as soon as Pip and Jane Baker stop writing her dialogue, I’m going to like Melanie just fine.

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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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Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969)

Here’s a movie that I might have read about somewhere or other, but it never really sank in until we started this blog and I did a little reading about the film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Then I realized there were more screen versions of Captain Nemo than I was aware. This one, however, could have remained adrift. It is a boring, boring movie.

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City has an interesting international cast, bringing Americans Robert Ryan, as Nemo, and Chuck Connors to the UK for a production at MGM’s Borehamwood Studios. Luciana Paluzzi, best known at the time for her role in Thunderball, is also here. Thunderball is my least favorite Bond film, in part because of all the endless underwater scenes. This film has a similar problem.

The movie opens in the mid-1860s with a liner bound for Bristol sinking in a storm. Connors is playing a US senator, and he goes overboard, along with characters played by Nanette Newman, Allan Cuthberson (a claustrophobic engineer), Bill Fraser and Kenneth Connor (criminal brothers), and Christopher Hartstone (the token kid). They get rescued by divers from the Nautilus and brought along to Templemer, an underwater utopia that Nemo and his followers have constructed.

Then he refuses to let them leave. Complications, and boredom, ensue.

The problem is that this movie will end as soon as somebody gets out of there, and there is no reason to hold them, or even bring them below in the first place. The film is set during the American Civil War, when nobody on the surface had access to Nemo’s technology. As with the previous two films about Captain Nemo that we’ve watched, people are amazed by it. Nemo’s concern is that people from the warring world above will interfere with his utopia, but that’s not possible. Nobody can reach him.

A secondary problem is that we don’t even reach the character conflict of the film – the “why” nobody can leave – until its halfway point. Nemo tells them that they will remain in Templemer for the rest of their natural lives, but before there are any protests, debate, or character drama, he shows them his underwater farm for an eyeball-bruising ten minutes of scuba footage. Reefs, schools of fish, bubbles. There’s a reason why we’re never going to watch Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea for this blog, and why Thunderball puts me to sleep. Heck, I don’t even like Stingray very much.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, because the film was written by Pip and Jane Baker, who are notorious for some legendarily awful Doctor Who episodes, but directed by the reliable James Hill, who directed some very good episodes of The Avengers, The Saint, and most of Worzel Gummidge. So the movie settles into a mediocre gray area, with nothing of interest beyond some interesting sets and the acting of Bill Fraser, who was then best known as Sgt. Claude Snudge in three related BBC comedies and is very amusing here. Well, there is a neat scene where Allan Cuthberson’s bid for freedom goes terribly wrong, but not even a hundred foot mutant manta ray monster could keep my interest. Chuck Connors is lantern-jawed, gravel-voiced, and soporific in a part which, four or five years later, Doug McClure would play about once every summer.

Our son was actually more patient with this movie than I was – he got a little restless, but never seemed about to fall asleep like me – and he pronounced it “pretty cool.” The scene where Cuthberson’s escape plan goes wrong did frighten him into going behind the sofa, but he applauded early on and enjoyed the animals in the city, which include a pelican, a seal, and some penguins. The submarine chases and fights with sharks and monsters are pitched just right for kids, and perhaps if you can watch this movie in the company of one, then at least one of you will enjoy it.

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