Sunday, March 11, 2007

Defending Time and the Rani (or "I'll Grow On You")

"The proof of the pumpkin is in the squeezing!"

There are two falsely-attributed facts to Time and the Rani.

The first is that Kate O'Mara gets the best line when the Rani announces "I've had enough of this drivel". Despite what The Television Companion will tell you, she says nothing of the kind. It's Bonnie Langford as Mel who says this, to the Doctor in episode two.

The second is that Time and the Rani is the worst story ever made.

That's wrong. In fact, Time and the Rani easily gets a mediocre-to-above-average rating. After Season 23, this is just the story that was needed and, frankly, if it wasn't here, I'd be whinging about its absence. The fact is that just about everyone seems to take one look at it and damn it without a second thought - I was guilty of it, for a time. Of course, the real reason we dislike it is because it is the first Sylvester McCoy story, or to be more precise, the first story robbed from Colin Baker. His dismissal is the outrageous crime you've heard it was, and is as unforgivable now as it was back in 1987. This knowledge taints the viewing experience, I can't deny, but when I first saw Time and the Rani I had no idea there was a Colin Baker and was able to judge the story on its own merits.

And I liked it.

Time and the Rani is everything a first story needs to be, and after The Trial of a Time Lord it's blessed oxygen. When the Doctor unintentionally shoves a Tetrap to its death, it is a true relief when we aren't sucked into a courtroom for a few minutes of pointless bickering with the Doctor and the Valeyard. And there are monsters! Monsters! In the last season we had to wait until the third story for any monsters, and here we get them in episode two! And they're great - humanoid vampire bats with four eyes and electrified cobweb guns, lead by the sadistic and sychophantic Urak... I'll tell you for a fact that of the sparse Doctor Who action figures available in Australia, the Tetraps were the most popular. Indeed, if the bloody things weren't so expensive, many a child would have bought up a Tetrap army to pit against GI Joe.

And not only are these monsters hiding in the dark, slurping blood from a tray, hiding behind rocks and growling, they're not even supposed to be the most impressive thing here - there's a giant purple brain built up of all the cleverest people in the universe! And a Gothic disco mirrorball full of lethal points of green light (OK, "insects") that kill one person a time! And bracelets that turn you into skeletons! And those bubble traps that take you on the coolest ride you can be on... until it ends and you DIE! This is cool! This is the stuff we want - not a bunch of people in silly hats watching a Doctor Who story and interrupting it whenever it gets even remotely interesting. There's no hamfisted continuity, you need to know no more than Joe Average - the Rani's evil, the Doctor's good, the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, that sort of thing. It doesn't ask you to sit there for fourteen weeks to the answer to questions that didn't bother anyone in the first place, and it even has little catch-ups at the start of each episode.

What is the Rani doing with the geniuses? Why does she need them? What's behind the locked door? What is a Strange Matter asteroid? And what do the Tetraps look like?

That's all Time and the Rani asks and it answers the lot of them. Yes, the Rani's become a Master-like super villain but the fact is the Doctor is stunned by this - he never expected her to go this route. This is character development. The Rani was bad and now she's worse. Yes, Mel screams a lot but think about it - if a Tetrap jumped out of the shadows in front of you and tried to bite your neck, you'd probably let one rip. And the Tetraps have two sets of ears, so Mel's screams are probably the best way to defend herself. Plus her screams seem able to steer the gyroscope of the bubble trap (Sarn and the Tetrap are quiet and die almost immediately). Yes, the 'benevolent climate of Lakertya' looks like a quarry, but we haven't had a good quarry since The Caves of Androzani and anyway, the rest of Lakertya probably looks different. It makes sense for the Rani to set up her base in a grey landscape that makes people stick out like sore thumbs. Yes, the Lakertyans aren't particularly interesting or sympathetic - that's the point! The Rani and Ikona spend the story damning this yellow lizard-cum-bird people for being lazy gits, but even lazy gits don't deserve to get crushed to death by a giant, ever-expanding brain!

And on top of that, it introduces Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor! A couple of Big Finishes with him I was less than impressed with (he always sounds like he's out of breath), but as the Doctor he was brilliant. He's physically the mirror opposite of his former self and that gives him a phobia about mirrors; he's horrified at the thought his new self will be sulky and bad-tempered and apologizes profusely for insulting "Mel"; he's so insecure he dressed up like other Doctors before trying on his own outfit, being his own Doctor.

While I personally don't subscribe to the "Seventh Doctor killing the Sixth for the greater good" theory put forth by The New Adventures, you can see where they got the idea. With his memory gone and the Rani constantly demeaning his old self, the Seventh Doctor makes a conscious effort to improve (even though there wasn't really much that needed fixing). "Mel" says the Old Doctor was dismissive and rude to the Lakertyans, so the New Doctor determines to save them. "Mel" says the Old Doctor was setting up a laboratory on an alien planet, so the New Doctor scraps the plans. Yet at the same time he keeps trying to act like the old one, quoting various authors and scientists, and using metaphors - and "Mel" doesn't recognize the former and he never gets the latter right. This is a Doctor who has to cross his fingers when he's saved the day - a far cry from the Sixth Doctor's "of course it will work" attitude.

Like the Sixth, the Seventh Doctor is fully-formed from the moment he wakes up and it can't be denied he's more immediately likeable than his predecessor, and it ends with one of my favorite scenes in Doctor Who. Dazed, confused, concussed, at the mercy of the Rani and just tripped over his own feet, the Doctor is as weak as we've seen him. But when the Rani threatens Sarn just for her helping him up, the Doctor instantly finds the strength to leap to his feet and distract her. When he wields that umbrella and roars "I'll smash it! I'll smash it to pieces!" you do not doubt for a second he'd do it.

It's also good we see the 'proper' Doctor before he goes nuts, and it's a nice touch for McCoy to play the Doctor as a drunk for the scenes where the Rani dupes him, and snaps back to 'proper' when he meets the real Mel. He's also another Doctor who wears his hearts on his sleeve - when he realizes he's just killed a Tetrap, he takes his hat off and looks devastated. He is delighted to visit the Centre of Liesure, and is baffled that Ikona doesn't feel the same. He is furious when he discovers Mel is still a prisoner and he's been tricked for nothing. He gets the shakes when the Rani reveals just how much of a megalomaniac she's become. He's bored rigid with fixing machinery when there are spoons to play with. And when the insects are released, the Doctor is the only one trying to help the afflicted. And for a Doctor to become characterized as the Grand Manipulator, Chess Player on a Thousand Boards and Time's Champion, his first story shows him repeatedly tricked by the Rani, making mistakes, panicking and even his brilliant backup plan saves the day by luck, not judgement. The Doctor does sort of defeat the Rani by revealing the true nature of the situation to Urak, but the Doctor niether knows he did this or how Urak reacted. He the Archetypal Doctor, presumably down to the hasty rewrites of this story.
The other performances are pretty good, especially Beyus who gets plenty of good material. The scene where he apparently turns on the Doctor ultimately allows the Doctor to escape without giving the game away to the Rani. The terror on his face when he realizes that a Tetrap was attacked by a Lakertyan (which thus puts his people at risk) is palpable, and when he stands at the end of the story, clutching the gun and crying silently tears you remember this bloke has been refusing to mourn his dead daughter for the best interests of his people. On top of that, he doesn't sacrifice his life - he's killed by accident, as the Doctor wasn't intending the Rani to detonate right away, and certainly thought that Beyus would have scarpered by now. The only failing of this ending is the editing in the final scene, meaning the Doctor goes from "Who've I forgotten? Oh, yes, Mel!" to "I shall always remember Beyus with admiration" in under a second, giving it a slightly insincere edge.

There are a couple of problems with the script, I won't deny. For example, it's a bit lazy to have both of the Rani's schemes revolving around the fates of some geniuses, especially as it means that the Lakertyans don't really have a role in the story. They could be removed without effort, but I think it does add some verisimilitude to it. The asteroid is passing Lakertya and its unlucky enough to be inhabited. They serve no purpose and so the Rani will annihilate them. And couldn't they have thought up better names that Loyhargil ("Holy Grail") or Tetraps ("Star pet")?

The biggest hurdle is the whole Rani-impersonates-Mel scene. For a start, the Rani and Mel have never met before, as evidenced by Mel's non-recognition of her name - so the old 'missing adventure' angle is out. And while there's no flaw in Kate O'Mara's wicked impersonation, the fact is the Rani could simply have used a hologram device - she can use one in part three after all. It would be more interesting had the dazed Doctor awoken to find the apparently genuine Mel, the cliffhanger to part two (She's the Rani!) would have had more edge than it had. And once again we have this 'clever' villain constantly being told how below par she is today, along with her TARDIS that couldn't blend into the background if it tried. And if crashing the TARDIS killed the Sixth Doctor, how the hell did Mel survive unscathed?

Finally, there's the matter of the new title sequence. I like it too, and have never had a problem with the music (be it theme or otherwise). I love it when the mock Who theme plays over the Doctor sabotaging the brain - because it shows he's finally become the Doctor, doing Doctor Who-y things against the clock, armed only with a (sonic?) Swiss army knife.

The visuals are brilliant too - although I originally thought those grey asteroids flying around the place were the Doctor's coat and the TARDIS was trying to catch it. The winking of the Doctor is a beautiful moment. First he's scary, then he winks, then he smiles; and with the Doctor revealed to be Merlin in Battlefield, the choice of eye to wink gains a bit of significance. Considering we could have got the same bloody title sequence for the last seven years but with a different face, we should count our blessings.

Remember: Doctor Who is first and foremost a kid's show. And the kids loved Time and the Rani.

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