...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Day 4465: DOCTOR WHO: It's That Time Again...


There's a week to go until the new series of Doctor Who is on the tellybox, and you're THRILLED with anticipation. Will it be another "Rose"? Or another "Time and the Rani"?

Well, to spare you the agonies... we're reviewing "Time and the Rani".
I just don't get why this story is so reviled.

Yes, sure, at times it's almost literally batshit crazy; it's by Pip'n'Jane Baker so the dialogue's practically unsayable; the Rani's plot is off-the-scale berserk; there's another tedious collection of (all human) geniuses; and it's set in a quarry.

But it is quite a nice quarry.

Seriously, it's visually interesting to look at, full of unusual shapes and colours, caves and pools of water. And the Rani's deathtraps are exciting and make sense (yes, they bounce you around and make a lot of unnecessary-seeming sound and fury – she's keeping the local population intimidated and these are a terror weapon). The special effects used to create the Rani's laboratory/fortress (never mind what it looks like) are pretty convincing, and okay maybe it does look like she's subcontracted Hammer for the architecture, but at least the Castle Dracula look is in keeping with her batty assistants.

Seriously, though, "Time and the Rani" is fast, colourful, never short of plot developments. The Rani clearly likes to "drezzz for the occasion", and can apparently do so in next to no time. It keeps moving, even when it's moving in circles to pad out the third episode. Above all it's hilarious.

From the immensely quotable opening line – oh you know which one – to the fact that Sylv is clearly having a whale of a time from scrambling his proverbs to jangling his spoons but head and shoulderpads above it all, Kate O'Mara as the Rani in disguise as Bonnie Langford.

Fresh from the glamour of playing Joan Colins' super-bitch sister Caress Colby on "Dynasty", dressed in white leg-warmers and an enormous orange wig, and doing a bouncy, perky walk to match the bouncy perky accent, she is an absolute hoot. Yes, it may be very low humour – slapstick, boss-humiliation and puns ("Not frilled?") – but I happen to like low humour and I'll forgive a show a lot if it makes me laugh as much as this does.

Most of the first two episodes see the Doctor in the Rani's power, under the influence of her amnesia drug, believing her to be his companion (and the innocent Melanie to be the amoral Time Lady).

Or does he? (Clue: he really does.)

However, especially with hindsight, given what we know about the arch-manipulator the chess-player on a thousand boards, it's terribly tempting to suppose that the Doctor sees through the Rani's simplistic substitution... damn, this alliteration must be catching! I'm so sorry ...sees through her plan at once and spends the rest of his time winding her up until he can work out what she's up to. Or possibly just because he thinks it's funny Perhaps his subconscious mind is thinking for him – or even his autonomic brain – while is consciousness is a bit frazzled?.

Certainly, the humour of "mop my brow" and him playing slapstick with the spoons over her pastel-bloused chest depends largely on the humiliation of the evil genius having put herself in this position. Mind you, "outsmarted by her own disguise" is straight out of "Carry On... Don't Lose Your Head". Come to think of it, so are the various iterations of "trussed-up by her own sidekick".

I mean, the alternative is that he behaves like a moron for two episodes because that's the way that Pip'n'Jane think he should be characterised...


...but alas, Alex points out that he treats Mel with suspicion and (clumsily inept) hostility. Why would he do that if he'd cottoned on to the truth? Actually, he carries it way beyond what's reasonable. Once she starts claiming to be Mel, Melanie! he could at least consider giving her the benefit of the doubt rather than continuing to insist she must be the Rani. He's clearly already got doubts about the false Mel ("Why was she dressed like you?"). But although he's the one to suggest putting it to the test, it's by way of proving his point not settling the argument, and he's visibly surprised that Mel has only a single, human pulse.

Clearly, the joke is on him.

So this is "Carry On Doctor Who?", a bowdlerised, humorous version of the popular television show from the BBC, a bit like that "Curse of the Fatal Death" (whatever happened to the writer of that?), taking the clich├ęs of the series and repeating them because it's funny to see the same things over and over again, isn't it? Isn't it?

The regeneration, thanks to Colin Baker's dignified refusal to play patsy (and/or his justifiably stroppy suggestion that Michael Grade could go try one of the more challenging tantric positions), is almost a deconstruction of the process. We all know that what the lead actor is replaced, the Doctor "dies" and comes back so BANG there he is gone. With, charmingly, that wretched exercise bike lying in pieces on the floor behind him (suggesting that (a) this is immediately following on from "Carrot Juice Carrot Juice Carrot Juice" no matter what Big Finish tell you and (b) it was the exercise wot killed him. Think on!).

The way that the "new costume scene" is played like an old gag that we'll be pleased to see again, it's almost like it's commenting on the way that the show has been trading on its own form and legend. It's funny because of how badly unfunny it is(!).

"It looked like you were losing control!"

In fact, I think it's only Tom who does the whole dressing up in silly outfits game; the first three never bothered, while Peter took it much more seriously, Paul and Matt follow Twerpee in stealing from a hospital, and Davy T has just the most fabulous wardrobe imaginable short of Narnia. Nevertheless, it's rolled out with the inevitability of that double-taking bloke with the wine bottle in the Roger Moore Bond movies.

If it was deliberate it would be genius worthy of sticking in one of the Rani's damn collections.

What is it with Pip'n'Jane and walk-on parts for extras dolled up as "geniuses"? If they were actually meeting the Doctor and bouncing off him, showing that he's even smarter than they are... yes, like, er, "The Shakespeare Code"... then there might be a point, but they never even have lines. And it's not like Einstein is short of an understanding of time... or if he is then what he needs to unlearn makes even Bristol from "Shada" look smart and would surely screw up the Rani's big red rubber time brain more than the Doctor does.

Oh yes, the big red rubber time brain. Job lot going spare on the Ood Sphere was there?

And speaking of the Tetraps – who at least don't speak backwards as they do in the novelisation – they are interestingly conceived, a race of oleaginous but ambitious Uriah Heeps (as referenced by lead Tetrap Urak's name). Okay so most of them spend their time just literally hanging about or shuffling menacingly, or eat pink, frothy "plasma". Okay, the man-in-furry-suit execution leaves a little to be desired. But the quadri-ocular vision is a neat idea well realised.

In fact, both "alien" races (okay, non-human-looking, in a story where the only human character is Melanie Bush. If you can call her human. Or a character.) have something interesting to say about them. There's a hint that the Lakertyans are indolent, basking reptiles, like upright iguanas if their crests were furry. A more competent script could have developed that, possibly connecting it to Beyus' (Donald Pickering) dignified if vaguely inexplicable policy of doing nothing. Or strengthened the satire: why does ultimate Eighties Girl Mel never end up in the Lakertyan Leisure Centre – sorry, Centre of Leisure? Surely the place is crying out for a collision between their masterly inactivity and her aerobicize mania?

But if we're talking taking the biscuit for missing the bleedin' obvious: the story starts with the Rani shooting down the TARDIS using her enormous great Chekov's Navigational Distortion Gun. She then attaches it to her console table, literally slap in the middle of every scene set in the laboratory, which is most of the rest of episodes one, two and three, and then when it comes to the climax and it's vital that the Doctor prevents the Rani's missile from striking the Strange Matter asteroid... for some reason he leaves it stuck to the tables and dickers about with a random circuit-board and crosses his fingers.

And these people were seriously in charge of the British writers' guild?

And yet, for all this, it's very clearly a Seventh Doctor story. The politics isn't subtle – the Rani as big Randian archetype, a huge monomaniac exploiter who's buggered up the local culture through her self-serving self-sufficient ego trip (the clue is the big red rubber time brain) – but it wears its heart on its sleeve with pride. All that goofing around may just be goofing around, but you can see in it the origins of the Seventh Doctor's misdirection and gamesmanship. And at the end, he doesn't just blow up his enemy... he talks to her.

"Time and the Rani" is not the worst Doctor Who ever got. It is the point where the series looked at the worst it could be and said "NO!"

The worst excess of the Saward era was not the violence or the grinding machismo or the bleak nihilism or the undermining of the Doctor's character at every opportunity and against every best effort of two fine actors. No, the worst of it was that it was so boring. Po-faced, slow-paced, crushingly banal amorality plays with – yes, I realise the irony for old Sixy – no colour.

"Time and the Rani" is at least determined to be fun, exploding with energy from the first instant with Technicolor CGI which looks cartoonish today, and even at the time looked technically inferior to the opening space station of the previous year, but the difference is it was experimentally cutting edge, risk-taking and out there again. Then the stunning CG title sequence ("Don't wink!") and a version of the theme (oh dear god Keff, I haven't even touched on what this story sounds like, and yet somehow, somehow... it's so crazy it somehow works) that tells us to forget any trialroom longeurs, this is going to be all pace and energy.

Yes, it's anarchic. Sometimes it's so chaotic it descends into gibberish. And god knows the writers are certifiably gaga. But there is so much creativity sparking here, from the sharpness of the script editor, to the ambition of the direction to the enthusiasm of the special effects team to the designer to the insane bombast of the musician to through it all and weaving it all together the performance of the lead actor who is visibly pulling this show up out of the dirt as we watch him do it.

And everything, everything that has happened since comes out of what they start to make in this story. New series via New Adventures, it all begins here. Reviled? This story should be revered.

Getting the finest modern writer in Britain and a budget of a million pounds, the enormous talents of Christopher Eccleston and pulling a stunning surprise Billie Piper out of the bag to make "Rose" turn out okay... yeah, fair enough mate.

But making "Time and the Rani" even work at all... if you can do that you can do anything. If you can do that, then you can do everything. Sylvester Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith McCoy, I salute you.

Next Time: That face rings a bell. Jenna-Louise Coleman finally jumps aboard as Clara the Third as the Golden Anniversary half-season opens with "The Bells of St John"


I recently listened to the start of the latest Big Finish trilogy, staring the ever-wonderful Colin alongside Bonnie in "The Wrong Doctors", a tale of tangled timelines and how time changes Doctor number six.

It occurred to me that – though you'd never want to do such a thing – if they were to even write the really final end of the Sixth Doctor then the final Sixth Doctor story should be called – not "Spiral Scratch" with all due respect to Gary Russell, nor even "Time's Champion" pace Craig Hinton – "Time and the Doctor".


Lawrence Burton said...

Yup. I'll probably never watch it again (or many of the others for that matter) but I'd agree with most of this. I've always found Bonnie Langford a bit painful, but Time and the Rani's major crime seems to be that it was never one of the cool kids (the cool kids presumably being those with Murray Lead firing a hundred London Philharmonic Orchestras into the sun every seven seconds for forty-five minutes) but in all honesty I'd rather hang out with Chas & Dave than the Sisters of Mercy, even if the latter had better tunes.

Nick Campbell said...

'"Time and the Rani" is not the worst Doctor Who ever got. It is the point where the series looked at the worst it could be and said "NO!"'

This is a wonderful assessment and one I shall be quoting in future.

I'm extremely fond of Time and the Rani and all Season 24 really, and if you do look at it in relation to the morally dubious, dramatically shaky, self-serious Saward era, it really does look like Doctor Who rising from its own ashes, in a fountain of pink and purple firework sparks.