Doctor Who: The Mark of the Rani Review
What gives a Doctor Who fan nightmares? It’s not as clear cut a question as you might think. On first consideration the answers seem easy: maybe it’s the sight of Davros’ withered hand, holding up the capsule which could spell the end of all life in the known universe. Or possibly it’s the thought of those steps in front of St Paul’s, down which the Cybermen once marched in triumph as they put their plans for world domination into action, or perhaps even just having to walk past the local Marks and Spencers, with its display of plastic dummies that at any minute could come alive and blast you to kingdom come? And yes, it’s true, all of those things do have a resonance, but in a cosily nostalgic way, the same feeling you get when you watch a film that scared you silly as a youngster or walk past that old weird house on the corner you always had to cross the road to avoid on your way to school. A nice feeling, but not one, sadly, that normally gets the average fan’s pulse racing anymore. Instead, if we’re talking about real honest-to-God, wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-in-a-cold-sweat variety then the hardcore fan will instead refer you to the terrors that come not from within the Doctor’s world itself but outside, the true baddies being those that threaten the very existence of Doctor Who itself in some way. The name Michael Grade, for instance, still brings about a genuine shiver down the spine, as does the phrase “TARDIS headed for Hollywood” and the headline “Paul Daniels Cast As New Doctor Who!” These are the things that can cause sleepless nights, the worries that lead to vitriolic postings on internet message boards and a general resignation that whatever happens next it’s bound to be rubbish. And, while luckily more times than not these things turn out to be little more than the literal equivalent of nightmares - unpleasant to think of the time but not something that needs fretting about unduly come the morning - just occasionally these fears are entirely justified. For example, there’s one phrase that to this day is still guaranteed to make even the most hardened optimist burst out crying, one that for the uninformed observer might appear entirely innocuous but for the more seasoned time traveller spells all sorts of trauma ahead:
“Written by Pip and Jane Baker.”
I know, I know, just try and relax, breathe deeply. It’ll be okay. Actually, it probably won’t be but let’s be brave anyway. After all, look at the facts: Pip and Jane Baker are, in actuality, a very sweet and well-meaning husband-and-wife writing team with a long career writing for children’s television who just happen to have one of the worst reputations of anyone who ever worked on the Doctor’s adventures. It’s a terrible shame, and I really really hope that they don’t realise in what low esteem they are held in fandom as it might just break their hearts, especially as they always seem so enthusiastic and jolly about their time with the show (about the only people who are). There are several reasons why they are so ill-favoured, but the most acute cause is the fact they wrote Time and the Rani, the Season Twenty-Four story featuring the debut of Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, a four-parter generally agreed to be one of the worst stories in the entire history of the programme (and in a fandom famous for not even being able to agree on what some of the stories should be called, the fact that there is no dispute about this indicates just how bad it is). This was a story that promised so much, a new beginning after the series’ troubles over the past couple of years, and a lot of the lasting rancour pointed towards the pair is simply down to the fact it was such a terrible disappointment. This, after all, came swiftly after the terrible disappointment of the end of the previous year, the season-long story Trial of a Time Lord, which was an anticlimactic mess making little sense and gave the Sixth Doctor the immortal last words “Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice!” As this story too was written by Pip and Jane, you can begin to see the problem why they are not held in much regard.
The thing is, though, it’s a reputation not entirely deserved. Admittedly TatR is beyond redemption, but the ToaTL climax was borne out of extremely difficult circumstances with the couple called in at the last minute to produce a worthy ending to the story when the original writer, Robert Holmes, fell ill. By that time the season was a calamity already, and it’s arguable that not even a writer of Holmes’ stature could have come up with a satisfactory conclusion, while it’s worth noting that Pip and Jane’s previous contribution to the season, the four-parter unofficially named Terror of the Vervoids, is actually the best of the year. It is true that they do tend to overwrite much of their lines (or, as they would put it, construct felicitously a majority selection of verbose instruction for the thespians employed in the televisual scenario) but it’s a way of writing that's pretty apt for the Sixth Doctor; he is a character who loves the sound of his own voice and rejoices in making loud, witty, erudite-sounding observations so it’s not as terrible a style clash as it would have been had they written for, say, the Second. They are, it’s true, in the lower pantheon of Who scribes quality-wise, but the sheer eccentricities of much of their material makes, I would argue, for a far more entertaining watch than some of the more dreary tales through the years (thinking of some of the Pertwee yawn-o-thans in particular). If one manages to forget that one is a fan of the programme, and that what you are watching is as often as not completely clueless to what the show should be like, there’s much amusement, albeit unintentional, to be found in their stories.
Their debut script for the series, The Mark of the Rani is a perfect illustration of this. It combines overblown dialogue and some truly ridiculous concepts with a fairly good basic idea and a suitably interesting addition to the Who mythos. They came to write it after having worked with Graham Williams, a previous producer on the show, and thereby coming to the attention of the current Executive Producer John Nathan-Turner (JNT) who asked them to pitch something. The story they came up with features the introduction of the Rani (Kate O’Mara), a renegade Time Lady who has been popping in and out of Earth’s history at regular intervals to extract a particular brain chemical she needs for the people on her own adopted world. Her latest stop is a small Geordie mining town in the middle of the Nineteenth Century but her plans are upset by the arrival of both the Doctor (Colin Baker) and his arch enemy the Master (Anthony Ainley), who attempts to blackmail the Rani into helping him bump off his nemesis once and for all. Can the Doctor and his pert pal Peri (Nicola Bryant) survive the deadly machinations of the two Gallifreyeans long enough to stop the Rani in her tracks, or will two evil Time Lords be too much for even him to handle?
The title refers to the mark left on the locals necks after the Rani has taken the chemical she needs from their brains (one which looks suspiciously like a circle of lipstick). As you might expect with a group of men whose necks have been sucked by Kate O’Mara, the result of this operation is to make them angry and aggressive and liable to go round the village smashing up machinery and trying to chuck the Doctor down the nearest mine shaft. At first the local peer Lord Ravensworth (Terence Alexander) believes them to be Luddites but the Doctor cottons on almost immediately there’s foul play at work, possibly because the miners unaffected are such a boring lot that it’s difficult to believe there’d be enough spark in them to even join a movement like the Luddites, let along actively participate in such exertions. When they're not having a fight, this is a story that cares little for its secondary human characters - Ravensworth is ultimately pointless while the inclusion of George Stevenson (Gawn Grainer) is a waste, a character who doesn’t show up until episode two and does little when he does. As with nearly all the native villagers, they are used as padding and scenery, little more than bodies to fill in the scenes between what’s of most interest to the scripters, namely the rivalry between the three Time Lords. The supporting artistes have little to do other than utter such Geordie stereotypical lines such as “Reckon aye’ll knock back a Toby,” (translation: “I think I might have a drink,”) and act as heavies for the baddies, and it’s notable that when one of them is killed off near the end (in a particularly daft manner, of which more later) the Doctor seems hardly to notice.
No, this is a story almost exclusively dedicated to the interplay between the Doctor, Master and Rani. Indeed, the characters spend so much time standing around trading insults that nothing much actually happens; once we learn the Rani’s plans at the midpoint of Episode One nothing much changes, and the two baddies spend their time issuing orders, threatening the Doctor, or wandering around aimlessly in the woods or mines instead of, you know, actually getting on with their plans. Indeed, they seem almost laid back about the whole affair, in no great rush to achieve anything, and while the Rani lets us know her work is vital she doesn’t actually seem overly concerned when things go wrong. The result is that much of the middle forty-five minutes feels like this story’s version of that old Who padding staple, running up and down corridors, with the Doctor being captured, escaping, arguing with the others a bit, being chased around by the enraged miners and then getting captured again while Peri flaps around uselessly in the background. This lackadaisical approach by both the characters and writers is perfectly summed up by the fact that, when asked how he escaped certain death in Planet of Fire, the Master - and scripters - just shrug and says that nothing can ever kill him. Oh, okay then. Go have another shot at bumping off the Doctor. (On a side note, the Doctor has a particularly undignified time of it this time, being whacked on the head by heavies with a spade, tied to a trolley which Peri then, in a presumably unintentionally hilarious moment, pushes accidentally down a hill, and then is hogtied and left to dangle between two trees. No wonder this incarnation spends much of his time shouting and getting irate; like Victor Meldrew, humiliation seems to follow him around).
Ignoring the fact as a structure this is pretty bad, there’s good news and bad news regarding the style of the story. The good news is that the three leads have sufficiently good chemistry that one can forgive a certain amount of their running on the spot. The bad news is that Pip and Jane start as they mean to go on in regards to the level of dire-logue they write. Lines veer wildly between the unintentionally amusing and the deeply banal, with very little in between. Look out for the unintentional double entrendres - “Hoist up your skirts, Peri, off we go!” and “You don’t get much do you?” being particular favourites (as well as the fact the story’s original title was “Enter the Rani”) - but there are many other things to look out for, such as the phrase “As you say in your vernacular…” variations of which pop up at least three times, and the simply glorious lines in which the Master extols “The precious brain fluid!”
There’s no getting away from the fact it is a poor script with its non-existent structure and substandard lines, but to condemn the serial utterly would be wrong, especially when one considers the serial’s original context. In a season famed for its increased violence, this made for a placid, relaxing change, with a decreased sense of threat. The Rani herself (the name coming from the Hindi for Princess or Queen) is a nicely realised creation: although a villain, her motivation is sufficiently different to the Master’s to make her a worthy addition to the pantheon of Who baddies. (As one commentator notes on the DVD’s extras, she is amoral, doing whatever it takes to achieve her goals, whereas the Master is immoral, causing chaos for chaos’ own sake). There are amusing parallels drawn between the Master and the Rani’s bickering and the Doctor’s and Peri’s, although admittedly that parallel seems pretty pointless, while there’s also an environmental ethos thrown in there: Peri, inexplicably, starts warbling on about the tragic loss of England’s hedgerows while the morality of vegetarianism (an oddly constant theme in the Sixth Doctor’s adventures) is espoused (although later on she suggests concocting a cure for the brain-addled yokels from the flora and fauna in their surrounding environs and even hunts out the herbs she needs, a pleasing, if rare, example of Peri’s botanical background being put to good use.) That said, everything is let down by the climax involving landmines which turn people who step on them into trees. Just stop and think about that for a moment. Landmines... that turn people into trees. It's as silly as it sounds, and if possible looks even worse on screen. (Interestingly, being turned into a tree doesn’t seem to affect young Luke’s libido: watch him in tree form grab Peri’s breast when he stops her stepping on another mine - he obviously got wood).
For those involved, they perform adequately. Anthony Ainley was thoroughly put out by the introduction of the Rani, believing her to be a potential rival for his role as the series’ regular Evil Time Lord, and his concern is evident on screen, the actor giving the least spirited of any of his Who appearances. Flat is the only word for it, lacking the enthusiastic glint in his eye he has previously had. As for O’Mara, she has an undeniable presence (and, as said, a good chemistry with the others) but I’ve never been overly impressed by her performance. It’s okay, but not memorable in the way one feels she could have made it. The last thing anyone would want is over-the-top campery (although with O’Mara and Ainley on screen together the camp factor is already pretty high) but I find it difficult to believe that many children watching at the time would have found her a remarkable or scary baddie, and as such it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity - dare I say it, she’s actually better in her second story. Bryant has little to do and spends much of her time looking as though she feels a spare cog, while Baker is fine but, given he spends a lot of his time tied up or lying down, given to attempts to compensate by shouting even more than usual, which don’t work, even for his bombast.
What does work is the location shooting. Director Sarah Hellings, on her only Who assignment, makes splendid use of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum setting, taking full advantage of its period look and surrounding foliage, and gives the story a far more impressive look than a look at the script alone would suggest. From the opening moments, in which we follow a group of miners as they wend their weary way home, we are immersed in the atmosphere of the village and its environs (even if there is the suspicion it’s not quite as big as a real village would be) and the story benefits enormously from the fact a serendipitous bit of luck resulted in an extra week’s shoot in the outdoors, breaking free of the confines of the studio in the way few other Baker stories manage. The blending with the studio work, too, is good, with one highly memorable set in the Rani’s TARDIS, designed by Paul Trerise, which looks great, especially its console. The music score by Jonathan Gibbs is fairly mournful and in keeping with the setting but would have been far superior had it not sounded so artificial; it’s difficult to fully blend in with a period setting when using a synthesiser.
But ultimately, it’s all a bit of a muddle. By no stretch of the imagination is this a good story, being as aimless as its leading characters and at times ill-thought-through, from the silly beginning (why on earth does the Master dress up as that scarecrow?) to the tacked-on end, which comes out of the blue and feels half-hearted (or at least does until the plastic dinosaur comes to life, at which point one truly wants to hide behind the sofa in sheer embarrassment). Just why are we promised a collection of prominent Victorian scientists in Episode One who then conspicuously fail to turn up in Episode Two? Why is the TARDIS thrown down a mine shaft - it’s not as though it’s going to do it any harm? Why is the Master busy threatening everyone with what appears to be a handheld phallus? And so on and so forth. And yet, although it’s a muddle, at times it has a charm about it that dyed-in-the-wool cynicism can’t quite dispel entirely. There’s an innocence to proceedings, a total lack of malevolence and a spirit of well-meaning, rare indeed at this period of the series’ history, that makes one desperately want to forgive the tree mines and the dialogue and the comedy yokels and just give it a great big cuddle. In the end, though, that proves to be a bit too much to ask, but, like its writers, this is a serial that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand entirely. It might not be the dream Doctor Who story, but it’s far too nice to be a total nightmare either.
The complete two episodes are presented on a single-sided dual-layered DVD, held in the familiar grey case and coming with a four page leaflet detailing information about the contents. The set-up is identical to nearly all previous Who DVDs, with a main menu that has looping clips running down the left side and options down the right - even the Easter Egg pops up in the same old place as most others. The options are Play, Episode Selection, Scene Selection, Special Features, Audio Options and Subtitles.
It's not the best. The image is resolutely soft, with detail being lost in anything but the immediate foreground, but as the masters the Restoration Team had to deal with were like that to begin with, there's not a lot that could have been done with it.
Fine and clear but again unremarkable, although to be fair this isn’t a story that has any special sound thrills.
Featuring Baker, Bryant and O’Mara, this is an amusing and genial yak track that combines stories about the filming with observation and a general appreciation for their time on the show. Colin Baker, who these days is Doctor Who’s leading raconteur, is the star with his effortlessly amusing stories (although I’m not sure what to make of his remark that Pip and Jane’s scripts were always scientifically plausible - tree bombs, Colin?) and it’s all very enjoyable. But, and it’s a big but, this track was recorded the same day as…
Lords and Luddites (43:20)
… this talking heads Making Of, and as a result there is a great deal of repetition between the two, with many anecdotes popping up in both, often told in almost exactly the same way, which is a bit of a shame. Other than that, this is a typically enjoyable documentary, and while the repeated stories are noticeable, there is plenty of consolation from the increased range of interviewees here: most of the principal people involved in production pop up (including Pip and Jane), with only director Sarah Hellings notably missing. All contribute well and it’s only the occasional, unnecessary and supremely irritating voice-over by Louise Brady which lets the side down.
A subtitled companion to the commentary, these cover both episodes and are jam packed with statistics about filming locations, other credits of the actors involved and any other trivia you could possibly wish for.
Now and Then (4:07)
Well-put-together featurette which revisits Ironbridge Gorge and, via split screens, compares what it’s like now to when the story was filmed. Miss Brady’s back again, though, which ruins things, and since I’m never that interested in these types of extras (gosh, a place has changed in twenty years… well, well, well, you don’t say?) this wasn't a winner for me. Still, nicely done.
Deleted Scenes (8:40)
Most of these are actually simple extensions of scenes included in the final cut, but are of some vague interest. Nothing thrilling though.
Playing With Time (9:44)
Composer Jonathan Gibbs chats about his score for the story. He gets quite technical in places (although at one point he appears to be just singing along with his score in front of him) but this is pleasant if non-essential and about the right length.
Radio Times Listings
Clippings from the perennial listings magazine from the two weeks of the story’s broadcast. In addition to the actual listings, there’s a feature article about the filming from “John Craven’s Back Page” and, more interestingly, a selection of letters which reflect the differences of opinion the new season was provoking. In PDF format.
1985 Doctor Who Annual
The inclusion of these annuals are one of the joys of the Who DVDs these days. This is a PDF of the complete Annual from the year of broadcast, complete with naff stories and dodgy-looking illustrations. Good fun.
Saturday Superstore (2:03)
The clip from Noel Edmonds’ Multi-Colour Swap Shop was one of the highlights of the last Who disk, The Hand of Fear, and this is one of the highlights of this one. Disappointingly brief (is the complete version no longer in existence?) it sees Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, in costume, taking phone calls from viewers. The second is from Anthony Ainley himself as the Master, challenging the Doctor to another battle, which he obviously accepts. Amusing.
Photo Gallery (5:57)
A slideshow of production stills and behind-the-scenes shots. I find photo galleries utterly boring but this one’s okay if unexceptional.
Blue Peter (11:22)
Half an episode from February 1978 which features Peter Purves telling the story of what became Ironbridge Gorge Museum a feature which Sarah Hellings worked on. Years later she would remember this setting and recommend it as ideal for the Who tale. As such it makes for perfect background material to the story and is a very welcome addition to the DVD. (Shame the rest of the episode couldn’t be included however, as ABBA were guests that day… or am I the only one who thinks that’s a pity?)
Alternative Music For Episode One
Originally it was going to be composer John Lewis who provided the music for these episodes, but shortly after beginning work on his score he fell ill and passed away. The small amount he did manage to write have now been recorded and are available to hear as an alternative on the first episode. As mentioned in the main body of the review, I don’t hold the music used in any particular regard so quite liked Lewis’ version - it’s pretty generic, but sounds less artificial somehow.
Easter Egg (1:39)
This time around it’s that old Who DVD Easter Egg mainstay the continuity announcements from the story’s original broadcast, which always bring back memories.
It might not be the best story in the world but the Restoration Team have provided a superb collection of Extras for this release which are almost without exception more entertaining than the story itself. The only blots on the landscape are the inferior picture quality on the main feature and the overlap between the Commentary and Making Of, but this is one disk that almost succeeds in persuading the casual buyer it's worth getting for the extras alone. Almost.