Five Hundred Eyes

Time and the Rani

Your poem must eternal be,
Eternal! It can't fail,
For 'tis incomprehensible,
And without head or tail!

- S.T. Coleridge.

Last issue, the editor of this esteemed organ stated that FHE would be an essentially appreciative zine: people would write about what they liked in Doctor Who, hopefully resulting in a less depressing read than that constituted by torrents of apocalyptic doom and gloom. With this in mind, it's difficult for me to comment on Time and the Rani as, to be blunt, I regard this story as one of the very worst ever produced under the Doctor Who banner. Still, having since seen Delta and the Bannermen, a story of truly monumental lousiness (to paraphrase the inimitable Richard Wagner, Bannermen had a certain warmth to it - the warmth of the dungheap), I can now appreciate that Rani has sufficient merit (in comparison with Delta) to be worth criticising constructively. So here goes...

The plot. The evil Rani draws our hero's TARDIS off-course, a fact communicated to the audience through exquisitely subtle scripting: "A Navigation Guidance System Distorter! This would force any passing spaceship into landing here!" The Doctor's awesome genius is to be added to the collective brilliance of various other kidnapped eggheads, notable among whom is a confused-looking extra in joke wig and baggy cardy who's apparently meant to be Albert Einstein (small intellectual beer by Gallifreyan standards, I should have though). The Rani's diabolical scheme is to lob a warhead at a lump of circling "Strange Matter", an action which, we are confidently told, will turn the planet Lakertya into a sort of giant time machine, thus enabling her to fiddle about with various evolutionary processes. Quite why the Rani should want to do this is unclear, as is the exact nature of the contribution made by the aforementioned abductees. So far, so crap - but wait! There's more - to be precise, a big plastic Brain. It's virtually axiomatic that all hack television sci-fi will have a big plastic Brain floating about somewhere. Exactly what this particular specimen adds to the plot, or where it came from in the first place, is shrouded in mystery. A reviewer's lot is not a happy one...

Anyway, the Doctor does something (don't ask me what) and the missile misses. All that now has to be dealt with is a nest of green computer-generated blobs ("killer insects") left by the Rani. Cue groan-inducing scene in which the young rebellious Lakertyan rejects the Doctor's offer of an antidote on the grounds that the Lakertyans Must Develop At Their Own Pace, Work To Find Their Own Solutions, etc.

So much for the plot. What did JN-T say in that recent DWM interview? "There's also the wit of dialogue..." Wit of dialogue, eh? "I've drawn the short plank... absence makes the nose grow longer... two wrongs don't make a left turn..." Oscar Wilde it ain't, but I suppose it's marginally less eye-glazing than "Rail/boat/stack/brick/knacker's/etc.-yard". I suppose. Actually, dialogue throughout this story was quite astonishing. Permit me to quote at some length :

RANI: So now you know!
DOCTOR: Not the complete story. The last chapter is missing... It (the big plastic Brain) could be wondering why you want Helium 2! That's why you want to explode Strange Matter, isn't it? To reproduce Helium 2!
RANI: The last chapter, Doctor? The denoument? In the aftermath of the explosion Helium 2 will fuse with the upper zones of the Lakertyan atmosphere to form a shell of Chronons! I don't have to tell you what Chronons are, do I, Doctor?
DOCTOR: Indeed you don't! Discrete Particles of Time!
RANI: In the same millisecond that the Chronon Shell is being formed, the Hot-House Effect of the Gamma Rays will cause the Primate Cortex of the Brain to go into Chain Reaction, multiplying until the gap between Shell and Planet is filled!
DOCTOR: A Time Manipulator! You're going to change this planet into a Time Manipulator!
RANI: A Cerebral Mass! Capable of dominating and controlling Time anywhere in the Cosmos!
DOCTOR: I don't believe it! (And he's not the only one) A Time Manip... this monstrosity will give you the ability to Change the Order of Creation!... Before I thought you were a psychopath without murderous intent! I withdraw the qualification!
BRAIN: 87k to the power of 19e, correlated with 52 to the power of 6.4, equals 29...
BRAIN: Correction is noted. 39v, plus duck (well, that's what it sounds like to me!) . Eureka! Objective Achieved!! LOYHARGIL!!!
RANI: I knew it! I knew they could do it! Ha ha! (A screen flashes up the word "Loyhargil") I have the Loyhargil!! NOTHING CAN STOP ME NOW!!!

Look, joking apart, it needs to be said in no uncertain terms that any writer or writers capable of producing such utter faeces ought to be chased out of the immediate vicinity of Doctor Who with a hail of rotten eggs. Never should Jane "Styggron" Baker and the cadaverous Pip have been entrusted with such a crucial story as this.

What's that? Ah yes, "the magazine of Doctor Who appreciation". Well, considering that the characters they has to cope with were as cardboard and two-dimensional as Hindle's citizens, the actors were reasonable. Mark Greenstreet (the Impetuous Rebellious Youth) was never worse than wooden, while Donald Pickering (the Noble Doomed Leader), Wanda Ventham (the Noble Doomed Leader's Wife) and Kate O'Mara are three very talented individuals who deserve far, far better than this. Ms Ventham's case was particularly poignant as she had previously appeared in Doctor Who in a story which, if not outstanding, was very, very good. What have we come to? O tempora, o mores!

Back to that JN-T interview. What, Gary Russell asked, did he think of Time and the Rani ? "I think there are probably some of the best special effects in it that I have ever seen on television," replied the Great One, diffidently. Actually, special effects oscillated between the appalling (the opening computer graphics sequence of the TARDIS being drawn off-course; as a fellow fan put it, you expected the words "Game Over" flash up at the end of it), and the technically impressive but vulgarly flashy (the balls, that horrible new title sequence). Credit where it's due, that model-shot of the Rani's missile taking off was "stunning" in all the right ways, but JN-T's reply is still disturbing for what it implies about the man's priorities. Pink bouncing balls do not compensate for half-baked excuses for scripts or inadequate casting in the central role.

Thought I'd never get to Sly, didn't you? This may sound like heresy at a time when he's apparently Flavour of the Month, but here goes: SYLVESTER McCOY IS NO DOCTOR! This is a sincere point of view, not half-witted slagging, and I'll try to defend it.

There are two main reasons, I think, why Sylvester has failed in the role, the first of which is no fault of his. In my humble opinion, one of the most important factors in the success of the first four (five?) characterisations was the ability of the actors to impart to the role a sense of overwhelming alien power that was on occasions almost alarming in its intensity. Even when this aspect was not especially to the fore it was always present: you could believe that this Doctor was an alien from a distant planet, possessed of powers scarcely imaginable. Partly this was due to the very striking physical appearance of Docs 1-4, and partly due to inner charisma. This is where Sly falls down - he just lacks any screen presence, any sense of stature (no pun intended). He's just a rubber-faced, middle-aged bloke prancing about in clothes too bright and pale to help convey any feeling of mystery - he almost blends into the background, whereas you could hardly tear your gaze away from, say, Tom Baker. McCoy has been termed "Troughton- esque", but the resemblance really ends with the baggy checked trousers. Sylvester doesn't convery one tenth of the personal magnetism and fierce, burning intelligence that Patrick Troughton could conjure up.

The second factor underlying Sylvester's failure as the Doctor is his actual performance. Nothing can excuse the appalling hamming of his first speaking scene, and although this was certainly toned down to a great extent after the purgatory of episode one, and in later stories this season, it has always been present, usually in the form of over-enunciated vowels, rolled "r"s and furiously windmilling limbs. McCoy, in a word, overacts. Now I am not suggesting that this is necessarily because he is a bad, unsubtle actor (as Colin Baker was). Rather, I fear it stems from the simple fact that he treats the whole role as something of a joke. William Hartnell through to Peter Davison all played the role straight, even at moments of superficial flippancy. As yet, I am not convinced that Sylvester is, at heart, taking the role as seriously as he should. Let's be honest for a moment : can you really imagine Sylvester McCoy's Doctor delivering a "Some corners of the universe..." speech? Or a "Do I have the right?" speech? Not that he's likely to get the chance, scripts being what they are nowadays...

Indeed, the whole tone of the show is now definitely that of a pantomime. At Panopticon Colin Baker stoutly denied this, pointing out that Doctor Who did not feature, for example, the spectacle of men dressing up as women. No - instead it features the spectacle of women dressing up as other women! The Rani's "drag" scenes must surely rank among the lowest moments to which Doctor Who has ever sunk. Ineffably crass.

All that remains to be said about the fourth story from the leathery duo of Pip'n'Jane is that it looked poor, rivalling The Twin Dilemma for tacky gaudiness. Sets were largely tinsel and tinfoil, for which designer Geoff Powell must take responsibility. It's frankly worrying when Doctor Who's designers can get away with saying, as Powell did in the Monthly, "I don't take too much notice of what's written in the scripts". That's bad, even when it's a P&J script!

Admittedly, the Tetraps weren't too bad: they failed largely because (a) they were supplied with no culture or background whatsoever, and because (b) they were seen too often in bright daylight. With the Lakertyans, on the other hand, I would say that the fact that they were non- starters visually was as important as their total lack of culture or background. By and large, alien races tend to work best in Doctor Who if they are either wholly human in appearance (in accordance with dramatic licence) or else largely removed from the human physiognomy (eg. Friedlander's creations such as the Zygons, where the actor's face is wholly submerged by latex). Half-measures, such as two or three "Lakaertyan" scales on each cheek of an otherwise human face tend to fail, badly. (Notable exceptions to this rule would have to include the Argolin.)

So overall, then, I thought Time and the Rani was pretty awful. I'm sorry if I've sounded too critical: I don't get any pleasure from attacking my favourite show, but one should be honest. I would be very surprised if the majority of fans feel differently, in spite of the CT letters page, hovering, as usual, between comedy and tragedy. (Apart from the perennial "If the rest of Season X is as good as the first episode... etc.", we've recently been treated to such pearls as "[Sylvester McCoy's] very subtle (sic) movements of the eyes, the hands, the whole bod y...") I surely can't have been the only one slack-jawed at the sheer ex-cathedra effrontery of JN-T when he appeared on "Open Air" in puce jacket, various bits of ironmongery twinkling on his pudgy fingers (would you buy a used car from this man?), and proceed to drivel on about how the rosy mists of time "cheat", clouding fans' memories of past classics. Memory, clouded or otherwise, doesn't enter into it : the overwhelming majority of of the old stories that survive are every bit as good seen in the cold light of the 1980s as they were when they were originally screened, and nothing can ever alter that fact.

Time and the Rani was meretricious rubbish, and should be recognised as such.

Paradise Towers review
1001 things more enjoyable than watching Time and the Rani
Issue two contents
Five Hundred Eyes index