|Let’s play “what part of the Doctor’s disguise is ill-advised.”|
It’s February 2nd, 1985. Foreigner is still at number one, as they are on the albums chart as well. After one week, however, Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson unseat them on the singles chart. Bruce Springsteen, The Art of Noise, and, just out of the top ten, Phil Collins and Bryan Adams also chart. In real news, the first British mobile phone call is made and nine miners are jailed for arson in the miners’ strike.
Let us start with the Rani herself. The name is an odd choice, to say the least. On the one hand, she is clearly situated in the naming conventions that brought us the Doctor and the Master – as opposed to the other style of Time Lord who actually has names. BThis is a meaningful distinction within the series – even among the renegade Time Lords the Doctor, the Master, and the War Chief have had special status distinct from those Time Lords who have retained their names. Those with names are either still on Gallifrey or appear merely to be expats – Time Lords who are on the outs with Gallifrey, but who are still living, if not within its laws, within its worldview. Whether it be that they take relatively menial positions in the grand order of things – i.e. Drax and Azmael – or that they retain outright distance from the world like K’anpo, even the named exiles seem to remain part of Time Lord society.
Then there are the outright renegades – those who have lost their names, and who live fundamentally at odds with the Time Lords. This category, of course, includes the Doctor, and by extension his inversion in the Master. Its precise nature is thus complex and inscrutable. But it’s clear that there is a power to this group – one based on the old logic that the lowest and most debased part of something – that part of Time Lord society that has lost even their names – is inseparable from the highest point of it. (A point reiterated time and time again – when Borusa or Hedin attempt to engage with Rassilon or Omega it kills them. Only the Doctor and the Master can walk out of Rassilon’s tomb alive because, as lowly renegades, they alone are his equals.)
But the Rani makes a strange addition to this group. Described externally, at least, she’s a joke. Where the Doctor and the Master have their deep and hidden reasons for joining the nameless her reasons sound like parodic fanfic – her lab mice mutated, ate the President’s cat, and took a chunk out of him too, leading to her exile. This is not the origin of a legendary character. Even her name is odd. The name means the Queen, but is, of course, from Indian culture instead of British culture. Diegetically this is more difficult to explain than people give it credit for. We can allow that Time Lord names are translated into British English as a basic conceit of the series, but here we have one whose given name is presented in a different cultural context than all the others.
And, crucially, it’s just her name. It’s not like the Rani is built meaningfully out of Hindu mythology. That would be absolutely fantastic – if Doctor Who actually started doing real and serious engagement with non-Western mythologies – but it’s not going on here. So the overall effect is much like that of the naming of celestial bodies after Greco-Roman mythological figures were all used up finally turning to various other mythologies. As if all of the first pool of honorifics were used up so they had to start drawing from one of the secondary pools.
But if the Rani is conceptually a parody she is, in practice, reasonably compelling. Kate O’Mara may be more than a little mockable, and yes, the Rani is self-evidently designed to be a gay icon, but in building her character the show has returned to what actually worked with Roger Delgado as the Master, hiring a ubiquitous and familiar supporting actor and letting them define the role, as opposed to hiring a reasonably good actor and telling him to just mimic someone else’s performance. As a result she gets proper villainess moments, including the frankly wonderful gunning down of her two henchmen when they become inconvenient.
So the story ends up in the odd position of presenting a character who is far less interesting on paper than the Master and then allowing her to upstage him at every opportunity. Indeed, the Rani doesn’t just get to upstage the Master, she gets to openly mock the conventions of his character and point out that he’s being ridiculous at almost every turn. This is clearly intended to be the central pleasure of this story as well – hence bringing the Master in on a story otherwise designed to introduce a new villain. Ainley is clearly a supporting role here, with the Rani serving as the main villain. He’s there to establish her. It’s a normal enough approach, but it’s somewhat stranger to see it done by just shamelessly undermining the Master.
Let us pause here and observe the setting of the story, since it is focused on so intently, the first episode opening with an exceedingly lengthy establishing shot of period Britain. We’re back in British history again, and continuing on the theme of heritage theme park Britain that we’ve been dealing with for the past two histories. Here the story is actually shot in one to boot. But this story, to its credit, resists that. It’s in no way coincidental that we’re having two stories about mining in a row here, and the “machines are coming in and putting all the miners out of work” themes of the industrial revolution echo directly with the “progress” underlying the pit closures. Unfortunately, of course, this story ends up simply endorsing progress and suggesting that the only reason anybody would oppose it is if they’ve been turned into aggressive brutes by the Rani, but, you know, you can’t win them all.
(This may, in fact, be one of the most schizoid stories in the series history when it comes to politics. On the one hand you have a story that revels in introducing a camp gay icon. On the other, it uncritically ends up endorsing neoliberal economic policies. One would almost believe Roy Cohn wrote it.)
Each of our three Time Lords, accordingly, have their own position on this history. The Doctor, frustratingly, ends up being the arch-neoliberal who insists on maintaining the arc of history with no reference to any points other than great man theory. The Master, meanwhile, ends up as the mercurial anarchist who wants to destabilize history’s flow seemingly for the sake of it. And finally we have the Rani, who seems almost completely disinterested in historical processes, caring only for her hazily-defined scientific project and, in passing, maybe in ruling the universe a little bit. (Though even there she mostly rubbishes the Master’s plan, seeming far more interested in killing the Doctor.)
Here we come to the peculiarities of the story’s title. Admittedly Season 22’s titles are not the greatest. Attack of the Cybermen is a strong contender for the blandest title ever, Vengeance on Varos is suspiciously lacking in any vengeance, and it’s not clear what, exactly, is revealed about the Daleks. Here, at least, the Rani does have a literal mark which she leaves upon her victims. But the term is perhaps more interesting in the context from which this post derives its title, especially given the strange nature of names with relation to the three Time Lords of this story. What is interesting about the Rani, if you will, is that she has a mark but no name.
There is a lengthy body of postmodern scholarship that, when exposed to this observation, would promptly begin to dance giddily around. Let’s extract a single line of thought from it, though – one closely related to alchemy. At the heart of alchemy is the idea of the symbol having some measure of power over the object it represents. But there are multiple types of symbols, and one major thread of postmodernism has involved the non-equivalence of different types of symbols and the interesting noise that comes out of this. The most obvious example – and by helpful coincidence the one relevant here – is the difference between speech and writing. A spoken word is fundamentally distinct from a written one – an observation that dates back at least to Plato. A written word is a geometric shape – a physical object (the usual jargon term is “grapheme”)- that we treat as the physical equivalent of a spoken one.
But there is a difference, and in some cases it’s a significant one. Here the Rani has a mark – a grapheme – that is disconnected from a name. She is, in other words, capable of being symbolized in the material realm but is not capable of being spoken of except as an object (“the Rani”) or in reference to her title/role. Thus the loss of name experienced by this particular class of renegade Time Lord is revealed not as a punishment but as a form of power. The Rani is capable of marking history without ever being a definable part of it. History, as we’ve reiterated time and time again, is knowable only through memory and narrative. But the Rani cannot truly be a part of the narrative because there’s no word for her.
And so in effect within this story we have three competing marks. The Rani’s mark is based on science. But here, again, we have to pause and look at the science she engages in – most obviously her tree mines. These are, to say the least… interesting. They are landmines that, when you step on, you become a tree. But it quickly becomes apparent that you do not become an ordinary tree because one of the people to become a tree proceeds, at one point, to reach a branch around and grab/fondle Peri to save her from danger. So apparently one becomes a tree that still retains some level of humanoid movement and a functional set of desires, emotions, and thought. Biologically, of course, this is not possible – trees have neither muscles nor brains. So the Rani’s treemines must work according to some other principle that extends beyond scientific empiricism.
But Doctor Who has always had some distinction between empiricism and science. Or, perhaps more accurately, science has never been reducible to mere empiricism within Doctor Who. “Scientist” is a social role, and has been since the Hartnell and early Troughton days when “but he’s a scientist” was the standard line trotted out to defend the character of someone. These days, of course, the sort of suspicion of unchecked science that the Rani represents runs rampant in the series, but it’s still worth noting that the scientist is defined here by a quest for knowledge and certainty, not by their epistemology.
The Rani, then, is a force seeking to fix and transmute the material nature of things (she dismisses moral concerns over her transformation of people into trees by suggesting that all organic material is essentially interchangeable) with no regard whatsoever for its narrative. Indeed, this is reflected in her basic concept – her narrative is absurd, but her material potency is considerable. Indeed, it’s implied that the Rani has been invisibly sewing chaos throughout human history – that the social upheaval of the American revolution and the Middle Ages were secretly her doing. For all that she’s a ludicrous character she’s positioned as someone who has, without our knowing it, genuinely altered the material history of our world.
What, then, is the mark of the Master and of the Doctor? The Master is, in many ways, the inverse of the Rani here. He is materially impotent – a laughably ineffective villain – but symbolically powerful. He seeks to alter history with no concern for certainty – indeed, his schemes seem to have no endpoint beyond the desire for continual upheaval and transformation. This does not mean he lacks a mark, but it does mean that his mark exists within the mythology of the series. It’s certainly the case that the Master has tangibly altered the overall structure of Doctor Who. But this alteration comes at the price of him being wholly unable to impact things. He cannot possibly affect the world. Where the Rani’s lack of name makes her unspeakable (consider how the idea that River might turn out to be the Rani was, in effect, a joke) the Master’s lack of name makes him uneraseable.
But when faced with these two polar opposites in villains there becomes little room left for the Doctor. It’s not just that he’s stuck basically endorsing neoliberal economics. It’s that faced with the Master and the Rani his position becomes, in effect, referee. He becomes the character trying to maintain stability and order. He no longer has a mark, save perhaps the series itself. By becoming a force of stasis – one who exists here to keep things as they are – he stops having a mark of his own and instead becomes something that is written upon. For all that Colin Baker defines the part with bluster and bombast he is, in a sense, more ineffectual here than his predecessor ever was, simply because there’s no effect to be had. In facing these two mirrors of himself he stands revealed as the hollowed shell we feared.