"Time and the Rani" (season 24, episodes 1-4; originally aired 9/7/1987-9/28/1987)
By the time the Seventh Doctor rolled around, Doctor Who was probably already in a death spiral, weakened by years of cumulative creative gaffes, schedule changes, and growing hostility from the BBC brass. By now, they were making shorter seasons on a smaller budget, and I suspect the show was only kept on the air because the Beeb needed a sacrificial lamb to program against Coronation Street, the most popular soap opera of its day. The previous year's season-spanning "Trial of a Time Lord" had ended in backstage disaster. Scriptwriter Robert Holmes died with the final episode unfinished. Script editor Eric Saward quit, incumbent Doctor Colin Baker was fired, and both complained bitterly in the press. Producer John Nathan-Turner also wanted to leave, and had made a deal to move on to a more prestigious show in exchange for firing Baker. Since he thought he was out the door, he didn't try to hire their replacements and made no plans for the upcoming season. Which came back to bite him when the BBC decided to make him stay on Doctor Who after all, a decision that seems a little mystifying to me because everything I've read suggests that JNT was largely responsible for almost every change in the 1980s that made the show worse.
Let's get this out of the way right away: "Time and the Rani" is not very good. It's got a reputation as one of the series' worst episodes—in the fan poll I mentioned last week which had "The Twin Dilemma" dead last out of 200, "Time and the Rani" came in at 198. I'd rank it a little higher, but not by much, and mainly because I feel sorry for it. It's a shallow, trifling story that is just oozing with dumbness, but given the chaos in which it was made, you kind of have to grade it on a curve. Nobody was swinging for the fences here; they were too worried that the ballpark was collapsing. (Which does raise the question, why bother to write about "Time and the Rani" when there are so many better shows to choose from? Partly because the regeneration episodes are convenient leapfrogging points on this staggered trip through Who history. But the very badness of "The Twin Dilemma" and "Time and the Rani" was something I thought needed to be highlighted as part of the legacy of the show. It had some great years, and some great individual episodes, but it also gave us some really staggeringly incompetent television that ought to be acknowledged, if just as a cautionary tale.)
Pressed for time, Nathan-Turner found his two key creative hires in script editor Andrew Cartmel and lead actor Sylvester McCoy, and also hired Pip and Jane Baker to write the Seventh Doctor's introductory story. He'd used them twice before, and they had proven they could turn a script around quickly in dicey circumstances by finishing the "Trial" storyline. Sticking around from the previous season was Colin Baker's sidekick Mel, a perky redhead played by former child star Bonnie Langford.
For this assignment, the Bakers brought back the Rani, a villain they'd created two years earlier for the Sixth Doctor's "Mark of the Rani." A cold-hearted Time Lady scientist, she was meant as an amoral contrast to the Doctor's chief Time Lord rival, the gloatingly evil Master, and was played with chilly bitchiness by Kate O'Mara, who'd also held her own against ice queen Joan Collins on the American soap Dynasty.
Baker's media outburst eliminated the possibility that he'd return for a final story or even a cameo to hand over the role formally to McCoy, so a perfunctory scene before the opening credits was added with McCoy wearing a blond curly wig and the Sixth Doctor's costume. This was probably a mistake; Baker's firing had become a public-relations problem, and this just reminded everyone. Better, maybe, if the new Doctor had shown up on his own, the way the Third Doctor had in "Spearhead From Space." It was also badly staged—although it's clear that the TARDIS is under attack from the Rani, it doesn't look like the Doctor gets more than a slight bump on the head, certainly nothing that would require regeneration.
Sylvester McCoy makes a much more engaging lead than his predecessor, and he's the most entertaining thing about this story by far. The Sixth Doctor's overbearing demeanor and Technicolor nightmare-coat are replaced by a far friendlier Chaplinesque eccentricity and, for the first time in about five years, an outfit that a normal person might actually wear. (Give or take the question-mark sweater.) The Seventh Doctor—at least in his debut—marked a return to the comic buffoonery that Tom Baker and especially Patrick Troughton wove into their characterizations, and a touch of that for the Doctor is never a bad thing. It's OK for the Doctor to appear a little foolish—generally speaking, he's more interesting as a charmingly offbeat underdog than a Lonely God. McCoy adds a little hangdog pessimism and much-needed humility back to the role, which had gone too far the other way with Six. It's not without flaws. The clownishness and bumbling is laid on a little thick, and Seven's character tic of making endless malapropisms like "absence makes the nose grow longer" grows old very quickly. But I think "Time and the Rani" has to count as a success for presenting the Seventh Doctor as an endearing character, and it's surely on purpose that his last line, "I'll grow on you," makes an effective apologetic counterpoint to Six's "I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not."
The TARDIS crashlands (with a weird rainbow-like effect) in the barren rock quarry that the production team has designated as this week's stand-in for an alien planet, in this case a place called Lakertya. The Rani kidnaps the Doctor and drugs him into amnesia, intending to have him repair her malfunctioning lab equipment. (Because if you need somebody with technical knowledge, it makes perfect sense to erase their memory, right?) She's also been kidnapping scientific geniuses from all over history, and entombs an unconscious Albert Einstein in a wall creche. We'll get back to that subplot, sort of, later. First, the amnesiac Doctor is duped into working for the Rani, who furthers her deception by impersonating Mel, right down to the bubbly attitude and poofy-shouldered outfit. Stretching out over the first couple of episodes, this sequence is the only section of "Time and the Rani" that really works. O'Mara sinks her teeth into The Rani's campy diva qualities, and she and McCoy wring some comic energy out of the idea of the arrogant Rani trying to keep up a masquerade as a cheerful sidekick while seething at the Doctor's apparent idiocy.
Meanwhile, Mel engages in the longstanding Doctor Who tradition of padding the episodes by running around and being chased by the obligatory monsters, the Tetraps—human-sized walking bats with four eyes that are the Rani's main henchmen. She's joined by a Lakertyan rebel, Ikona, who looks like the bastard son of Ziggy Stardust and Ronald McDonald. In her first appearance, the Rani had shown a penchant for setting traps near her lair, including land mines that, I am not making this up, turned their victims into trees. This time, she's planted tripwires around the rocks that encase people inside giant transparent plastic bubbles which shoot off across the canyon walls and explode—worth mentioning here because the computer-generated effect is actually pretty impressive even in 2011. Less impressive is Mel's way-overdone hysterical screaming, which has justifiably made her character infamous despite an otherwise pleasant personality. She's captured by a bubble in the first episode's cliffhanger, and her shrieks go on without interruption for 45 excruciating seconds.
The Rani's plan is insanely complicated and yet also seems to be entirely made up of meaningless technobabble. She's kidnapped all these geniuses, see, and she's hooked up all their brains into one gigantic disembodied super-brain. She needs the super-brain to calculate how to create a lightweight version of ultra-dense "strange matter" that she can shoot at a passing asteroid. (This is probably a problem you'd want physicists and number-crunchers for, so it makes sense that she's kidnapped Einstein and Hypatia, an ancient Greek mathematician. But why the hell did she grab Louis Pasteur? He was a microbiologist. You want someone to boil your milk and keep it germ-free, Pasteur is your man. Astrophysics was not his specialty.) The Rani's description of what happens next deserves some kind of Nobel Prize for incomprehensibility:
"In the aftermath of the explosion, helium-2 will fuse with the upper zones of the Lakertyan atmosphere to form a shell of chronons… In the same millisecond as 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."
I think the only person who might be able to make sense of that is the Time Cube guy. Her final goal? All this will allow her to go back to the Cretaceous Era and prevent the dinosaurs from going extinct. Which is something that she could have already done anyway—she has her own TARDIS.
The kidnapped-geniuses plot is a huge disappointment, first of all because it's a bit of a rehash of her scheme in "Mark of the Rani," but moreso because it's completely undeveloped beyond the Doctor's lame pun to Einstein that time travel is "all relative." Surely there was some story potential in having Earth's most famous scientists running around an alien planet together, and maybe not knowing where they were?
Previously, Doctor Who had been a pretty good show, and at times a great show, never completely outgrowing its roots as a kids' show but interweaving it with material designed to intrigue a more sophisticated audience. "Time and the Rani" has no ambition beyond being adequate, middlebrow entertainment in the vein of Sid & Marty Krofft—not as smart as Land of the Lost but less dumb than The Bugaloos. And it's kind of OK at it. It's campy, it's colorful, it's got trippy-looking monsters and guns that shoot glitter, it's dopey and pointless but tries to be fun. That's all it's trying to do, which is both its excuse and its crime. On its own mediocre terms, "Time and the Rani" isn't the total disaster that it's often made out to be. The garish colors, the simplistic plot, the completely nonsensical science, the cheesy synth music, the one-dimensional characters, Bonnie Langford's perky/screamy performance—all that makes perfect sense if you assume that the show is now trying to appeal primarily to eight-year-olds. Of course, I'm assuming intent based on what's up on screen, and maybe that's not fair since after this episode, Cartmel made an effort to add more depth, making Seven's character darker and more devious. But it's hard to imagine why they thought grownups would want to watch this.
It may be a victory that "Time and the Rani" was made at all, since the series might have died right there otherwise. And if nothing else, it's a significant improvement on "Twin Dilemma." But when you get down to it, "Time" is a formulaic exercise on a rather standard Doctor Who plot. It's not really about anything beyond the action onscreen; there's no social commentary, no particular insight into the human condition, no complex characterization beyond what Sylvester McCoy adds on top of his written lines as the new Doctor.
• The Doctor says his age is 953—about 50 years older than the Eleventh Doctor says he is in the current series. Is he lying about his age to seem a little younger?
• It's a nice touch that the super-brain's calculations are only successful because the Doctor absentmindedly corrects a numerical error while he's trying to shut them down.
• Right after that moment comes my favorite bit of physical comedy: The Doctor improvises a defense against a Tetrap by pretending his umbrella is a rifle. Behind him, Mel shoots the Tetrap. The Doctor looks down at his umbrella, slightly confused.
• Next week: "Doctor Who: The Movie," the sole TV appearance by Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. After that, we'll leave the often-mediocre regeneration stories behind to explore some of the classics.
Aug. 7: "The Daleks"
Aug. 14: "The Mind Robber"
Aug. 21: "The Time Warrior"
Aug. 28: "The Brain of Morbius"
Sept. 4: "Earthshock"