|Well, clearly something has changed about the program.
It’s September 7th, 1987. The number one song has to be linked to, I fear. It remains there for three weeks before being unseated by M/A/R/R/S with “Pump Up The Volume/Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance).” Also in the charts are Michael Jackson with Bad, Madonna with Causing a Commotion, U2 with “Where The Streets Have No Name,” and The Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield with “What Have I Done To Deserve This.”
In real news, recapping since Colin Baker went down in a hail of carrot juice, British Gas and British Airways both go public. The highest ever audience for a British television drama tunes in for the grimly depressing EastEnders Christmas episode. Kurt Waldheim is barred from the United States, Klaus Barbie goes on trial in Lyon, and Rudolf Hess dies. Thatcher wins election to a third term, and the Docklands Light Railway opens in London. And the entire Spycatcher affair rumbles on, with The Daily Telegraph being sued in an attempt to block them from publishing details from the book. And Jeffrey Archer wins a libel trial against the Daily Star. He will go on to lose a perjury trial over his actions in the libel trial. Oh well.
While during this story, Pat Robertson announces that he’s running for President, Spycatcher gets published in Australia, and Star Trek: The Next Generation premieres.
Speaking of television, we have here Time and the Rani. Time and the Rani, obviously, is not very good. We might, if we wanted to, suggest that this was some sort of major problem that damaged the series and screwed over the rest of the Sylvester McCoy era, but let’s face it, it wasn’t. Ratings dropped after the first episode, but recovered healthily over the remainder of the season such that it’s difficult to blame Time and the Rani for any long term damage.
This is oddly liberating. For five seasons – arguably for nine – every bad story has required some larger contextualization in terms of the failings of the production team and some exploration into what specific role the offending story played in the downfall of Doctor Who. But here we’re free from that! It had nothing to do with the downfall of Doctor Who. There’s nothing left to explain here – we’re on a twelve story run of bonus stories. The show is doomed, nothing save maybe for realizing that they could have promoted Remembrance of the Daleks as a stunning rebirth of the franchise could possibly have saved it, and we’re free to simply enjoy the steady improvement the show undergoes and the fact that it very quickly becomes better than it’s ever been before.
So, yes, Time and the Rani is rubbish for all the reasons you expect it to be rubbish, most of which are Pip and Jane Baker, but really, who cares? Not only does it not matter for once, what’s bad about this story isn’t even one of the most interesting things about it. What’s interesting about it are, frankly, the myriad of casually good things.
On a technical level, at least, this is a much more solid show. This, in many ways, began with Trial of a Time Lord. The decision to switch entirely to video gives rise to a newfound unity in the look of productions. It also coincides with a willingness to use locations better and an increased savviness in camera placement and movement such that the flashes of brilliance that characterized Camfield or Maloney or Harper stories in the past suddenly become the norm.
But the technical side can safely be saved for the video blog below. So let’s move into the aspects of this story that are better than people give them credit for and don’t have anything to do with the production. For instance, the writing.
No, really. For all of its flaws, let’s not forget that this story had a genuinely massive mountain to climb in terms of writing. With McCoy’s hiring happening barely a month before production, there was no way that his entrance wasn’t going to be rough. As good an actor as McCoy is – and we’ll talk about that in a minute, his opening scenes are tough to watch.
It’s to their credit that the Bakers come pup with a good solution to the problem. If the Doctor isn’t going to be up to snuff in this story then pair him with Kate O’Mara’s Rani, a character who had already acted Anthony Ainley’s Master off the screen in her last appearance. And on top of that, cover up his first two episodes with the utterly ludicrous conceit of Kate O’Mara impersonating Bonnie Langford. Which is a genuinely clever way of papering over that crack. It’s notable that Time and the Rani doesn’t really start to drag until after the Rani’s ruse is exposed. The wheel-spinning of the first two episodes is genuine, but to be honest, Tat Wood’s declaration that episode one is the single worst episode of Doctor Who ever is simply bewildering. Much worse, for my money, is episode three, in which all pretense of comedy is drained and we watch a still-not-quite-there Sylvester McCoy in a turgid Pip and Jane runaround through a quarry.
Yes, the Rani has flaws as a character and is at times annoying in her vapid campness. But Kate O’Mara can anchor a scene capably – indeed, she makes a fair meal out of some painful dialogue here. As bad as this story is, it ran the risk of being incoherent and having nothing at all that clearly anchored it if they forced McCoy to the center too early. The decision to have this be Kate O’Mara’s show first and foremost steadied the ship considerably and gave McCoy the space to start to feel out his character.
And McCoy, let’s be clear, is quite good here too. The usual (and utterly wrong) brief about McCoy’s three years are that his first season involved a lot of clowning around and then he settled down. This is based on two things, neither of which have a lot to do with his actual stories. The first is the fact that one of McCoy’s pre-Doctor Who jobs was as a physical comedian in roadshow comedy. The second is that, starting with Season 25, the series takes a somewhat darker and more serious turn, and as a result everything prior to that turn is automatically relegated to being “silly.”
In truth, both judgments are thoroughly off-base. Season 24 has some comedic stories, but with the arguable exception of Time and the Rani – and let’s face it, the Bakers weren’t trying for comedy – all of them have serious undertones. As for McCoy, well, this is a complete misunderstanding of him. Yes, he was a physical comedy clown. In the Ken Campbell Roadshow. So that would be a physical comedy clown for the guy who did a nine hour staging of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy. Clearly this is not quite as straightforward a career as “stuffing ferrets down his trousers” makes it sound. And that’s ignoring the fact that McCoy had already branched into serious acting performances.
It is true that McCoy’s earliest training was in stage shows played to potentially indifferent or hostile audiences, and that he as a result internalized the crucial skill of being willing to do absolutely anything to win over an audience. It’s arguable that this leads to his one real failing in the part – his marked weakness in scenes in which he has to be angry or over the top – but for the most part it’s to his credit, keeping his Doctor constantly animated and active. Indeed, the more brooding, dark elements of his character that later come to define him are only really possible because of this aspect of McCoy’s performance. The skills he honed getting indifferent and intoxicated audiences to keep being entertained are the same ones he later uses to get away with the more somber Doctor he plays.
What’s interesting, then, is that McCoy, over the course of Time and the Rani, shrinks into his role. Or, perhaps more accurately, he fills the space he’s given with increasing thoroughness. He starts, unsurprisingly, with a broad and comedic scope, but between having Kate O’Mara vamping her way across the first two episodes and, I think, a growing realization that the part calls for something smaller, he draws inward. He learns quickly how to play the part so as to suggest hidden depths. Again, there’s an odd way in which the Bakers’ script benefits him here. The script spends two episodes with a lot of the plot hinging on the details of what the Doctor is thinking, which means that McCoy gets the opportunity to work at implying a vast and incomprehensible amount of thought under the surface.
By the end we routinely get moments that seem like what we all remember McCoy’s Doctor as being. The moment when he muses over what the Rani’s control over the universe would mean, commenting that “Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Louis Pasteur, Elvis, even Mrs Malaprop will never have existed” is telling for its lack of bluster. It’s not delivered as a furious rejoinder to the Rani, but rather as though the Doctor is thinking through her plan and naming the first consequences that come to mind. Even much earlier, when the Doctor refers to “that sad skeleton” the line resonates in compelling new ways.
The other thing to note is that for all the script’s flaws, the Bakers do tend to have interesting ideas clanking about in the depths of their scripts. The line that “the barrier to understanding time is empirical thinking” is deliciously suggestive, even if the Bakers don’t do anything at all with its implications.
These are, of course, all small things in the face of a story that is pointedly not good. But it is, I think, more sensible to look at this as the first step in a necessarily gradual process of improvement. It’s simply not possible to go from being the sort of show that does Trial of a Time Lord to the sort of show that does Remembrance of the Daleks in a single story. That Doctor Who got there in four stories is remarkable, and the fact that it’s not good yet after one story can’t be taken as grounds for criticism.
If we’re being honest, much of this story’s reputation comes from the circumstances surrounding its original airing. Watched without knowledge of the future it was a terrifying moment of “oh God, here we go again.” But again, we don’t have to do that anymore. We know the series gets better, and can afford to look at this story in the context of that improvement. Its innovations are incremental, but they’re important ones that have a huge impact later on. Its flaws are massive, but they’re holdovers from an era that is already almost completely shoved out the door. Watched in the context of Doctor Who’s larger history, this is clearly more the beginning of improvement than it is a continuation of problems.
But in any case, let’s move on to the editing and visual improvements I was talking about and bring in, after some time, another video blog.