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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: Image of the Fendahl (parts three and four)

You know, I just didn’t enjoy this as much as I thought I was going to. I do enjoy the way that I’ve found lots more to like about some Who adventures, especially “The Mutants” and “The Time Monster,” than I thought that I would, so I guess the flip side is that naturally there would be one or two that drop down a couple of pegs from my remembrance to reality.

“Image of the Fendahl” is a really flawed story, particularly when everything starts to revolve around the Satanic coven that one of the four scientists has been leading in his spare time. It’s something that should have been developed and explored, but because there was such a huge money crunch during this period of the program, it’s even less convincing than the coven in the broadly similar Jon Pertwee-era adventure “The Daemons.” I particularly “like” the way that the only member of Stahl’s coven with a speaking part is also the only character in the village that we meet other than the two characters who help our heroes. Devil’s End felt like a real place because we saw it and all the dozens of people who live there. This place just exists in a TV studio.

So it fails at a lot of important things, but I still appreciate it because the tone is just right. This is prime “scaring children” Who, from an era where the horror is largely going to be swept aside for light sci-fi action like we saw in the previous adventure. In this, it succeeds, because our son tells us that this was really scary and “totally creepy.” This and “Fang Rock” both feel like holdovers from the three seasons of the show that Philip Hinchcliffe produced. The way forward is going to be much breezier.

I think that Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are both really good in this adventure, even if the guest cast all seem under-rehearsed. Dennis Lill and Wanda Ventham would be back in stories in the 1980s and I think they did better and more convincing jobs as their characters in those, and there’s a guy named Edward Arthur who seems to be doing a very good impersonation of Ian Ogilvy rather than making me believe that he’s a scientist who’s in over his head. So there’s a lot that boring old people like me can grumble about, but any story that gives seven year-olds the creeps can’t be called a complete failure, and while our son didn’t have a lot to say about this one, he seemed to enjoy it.

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Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl (parts one and two)

1977’s “Image of the Fendahl” was the last Who TV story written by Chris Boucher, and the last one script-edited by Robert Holmes, although happily, we still have a few more stories from his typewriter to come. It seems to be set a short time after “The Invisible Enemy,” since the Doctor’s had cause to dismantle K9 for repairs, and Leela has found a new, white outfit somewhere. I wonder whether people from her tribe sew their own garments. Maybe the Doctor bought her a few yards of leather, or imitation leather, somewhere.

This is a good, creepy story, although it’s one I’ve always had trouble embracing because all of the guest actors, including Dennis Lill and Wanda Ventham, manage to seem a lot more like actors in a TV studio than scientists in an old priory. The reason for their research is all mcguffins, the point is to get everybody in one place for something weird and creepy that deliberately evokes Quatermass and the Pit as much as possible. There are mysterious deaths, twelve million year-old human skulls with pentacles in them, and a local grandmother who practices “the old ways.” We catch a glimpse of eerie slug-like things that the Doctor calls embryos, and it’s going to build to something very memorable the next time we sit down to watch TV…

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The Avengers 4.2 – The Gravediggers

This morning, I enjoyed explaining to our son that The Avengers features quite a few very eccentric old fellows with very odd hobbies. I also enjoyed explaining what the word eccentric meant; he’d never heard it before. The Avengers is set in a world where dozens of old military men and industrialists trapped in the memory of a glorious past of Empire have retired with buckets of money to indulge their peculiar whims. Often, they’re either exploited or killed by the villains-of-the-week, who frequently use the cover of the eccentrics’ hobby to hide in plain sight.

So this week, we meet Sir Horace Winslip, the first of the eccentric old oddballs in the film series. He’s played by Ronald Fraser and he’s obsessed with old railway lines and hates motor cars. He lives in a railway-themed house with an imitation dining car with sound effects and scrolling scenery, and has his own private mini-train, which our son adored almost as much as Patrick Macnee, who got to ride it. He’s been manipulated by the baddies into funding a jamming system. But Sir Horace thinks its meant to jam the engines of automobiles, when it’s actually jamming early-warning radar installations, just like in “The Deadly Missiles,” an episode of The Bionic Woman that we watched last month.

This episode was written by Malcolm Hulke and it features Wanda Ventham in a small role. It memorably climaxes with Mrs. Peel tied to the lines of the miniature railway with old-fashioned player piano music like an old “Perils of Pauline” chapter. This really did frighten our son a little, but the very fun fight between Steed and a couple of hoodlums on the runaway train kept him riveted. I told him that they used to have a mini-train like that at Zoo Atlanta that I enjoyed riding. Sadly, they replaced it with a boring old full-size train ten or more years ago.

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