It would be an understatement to say that “Time and the Rani” doesn’t exactly enjoy the greatest of reputations within Doctor Who fandom. Some place it among the very worst stories ever commissioned. Considering the unprecedented turmoil going on behind the scenes of the programme at the time, it’s hardly surprising in a way that this unfortunate first outing for Sylvester McCoy’s seventh incarnation of the famous Time Lord proved to be such a controversial introduction to a new era. The DVD production commentary and some of the clips included in the accompanying ‘making of’ documentary for this release, give us a sharp reminder of the kind of dismayed fan comment the opening shot of season twenty-four was getting from the off: ‘the most appalling mindless drivel … [that] would insult the intelligence of a five-year-old’ wrote one viewer to “Points Of View” after the broadcast of the first episode; while a later edition of “Open Air” devoted almost an entire programme to the shaky response the adventure was getting from worried fans, with presenter Pattie Coldwell grilling a nervy-looking Sylvester McCoy and an unusually sombre Bonnie Langford who came on the show to answer viewers’ questions; and long-time producer John Nathan-Turner delivering his infamous ‘the memory lies’ response to the suggestion that the programme had plunged into a particularly acute doldrums this time, defensively claiming that nostalgia for its history had led some people to falsely remember the show they grew up with as being far better than it perhaps was. There is, of course, more than a little truth to this, but at the time it sounded dismissive and complacent.
With hindsight, “Time And The Rani” was a mixed-up product of some very uncertain and transitional times for the show, and it would have been a miracle if it had turned out any better. It could have conceivably been a lot worse.
Season twenty-four followed a period in which the show had been placed on probation pending possible cancellation by BBC controller Michael Grade, who had little love for the programme. Having been saved by the skin of its teeth, viewing figures had nevertheless continued to plummet and the previous “Trial of A Time Lord” season arc had provoked a certain degree of dispute and acrimony between John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward, the latter eventually making the decision to leave the programme. Nathan-Turner himself was expecting to leave the show for pastures new, his last act as producer (so he thought) that of being forced to deliver the news to actor Colin Bake it had been decided for the good of the show, and in order to give it a fresh start, the lead role would have to be re-cast. This had been a decision imposed by Michael Grade against the wishes of John Nathan-Turner.
However, the producer then found himself reallocated to Doctor Who for yet another year. There was a slight problem though: having been convinced he was leaving, he had failed to commission any new stories for season twenty-four. This meant that Nathan-Turner had just a few months to get some new stories, find a new script-editor and cast a new Doctor! Sylvester McCoy had put himself forward for the part as soon as Colin Baker’s departure had been announced, and as husband-and-wife writing team Pip and Jane Baker hastily adapted an old story idea for his debut adventure, Nathan-Turner eventually managed to convince BBC bosses that McCoy would be right for the part.
Unfortunately, Colin Baker was unwilling to return to film a regeneration scene and new script editor Andrew Cartmel was not impressed with the results of Pip and Jane’s work, believing the story to be old-fashioned. He had had nothing to do with the commissioning of the story and it did not have much to do with the way he envisioned the show developing in the future. Furthermore, there was little time to give much thought to how exactly the new Doctor would be characterised, beyond the vague idea that he would have a more comic persona based on Patrick Troughton’s ‘cosmic imp’ portrayal. Sylvester McCoy thus found himself in the unenviable position of being the main focus of much of the discontent when the first episode eventually aired. He must have started to regret his decision to ever put his name forward for the role in the first place.
The story also marks a new era for the show in terms of presentation. But as always it’s a mixed bag: computer graphics started to be used for the first time, first in a pre-title sequence in which the Doctor’s regeneration is tackled, and then in a brand new titles sequence accompanied by yet another arrangement of the Ron Grainer theme music, based on eighties synthesiser sounds. The then-recent developments in computer generated graphics enabled the new title sequence to have a more three dimensional appearance than it ever had before. Although it looked modern at the time, the primitive nature of the graphics compared to modern CGI actually makes it look a lot more primitive and old fashioned than any other title sequence in the programme’s history.
The first episode gets off to a poor start when the Doctor’s regeneration seems to happen for no real reason after he falls over in the TARDIS control room while the ship is pulled towards an alien planet by a powerful tractor beam. Originally, the seventh Doctor was to have appeared only at the end of the story, but because Colin Baker would not come back, McCoy had to make his appearance right from the start, dressed in Baker’s garish costume (which is about three sizes too big for him!) and clad in a curly blonde wig, making him the only actor in the series history ever to play two incarnations of the Doctor. The regeneration thus comes over simply as an extremely rushed botch job, with no real explanation given as to why such a minor event (which hardly affects his companion Mel at all) should have such dramatic consequences for the Doctor.
The TARDIS is forced to land on the planet Lakertya and the unconscious, freshly-regenerated Doctor is abducted by the Rani (the evil exiled Galifreyan research chemist, first introduced in “The Mark of the Rani” – another story by the same authors) who plots to fool him into helping in her latest scheme to combine the knowledge of all the best brains in the Universe from throughout time, creating a giant brain that will be able to engineer a time manipulator device -- which will then give her the power to re-write evolution anywhere in the Universe. To do this she has joined forces with a shaggy, quadruple-eyed, furred bat-like species called the Tetraps to help her enslave the lizard-man population of Lakertya; this slovenly race are content to let her continue her experiments while they are diverted with a sedentary lifestyle inside a vast leisure complex that provides for their every need, all the time unaware that her plan involves the eventual destruction of their home world in a giant supernova explosion.
The Rani is once again played by Kate O’Mara – only recently returned from Hollywood at the time, after a stint on the show Dynasty; Sylvester McCoy was apparently nervous of working with her, but found her to be both professional and fun to be around. She spends most of the first few episodes dressed up as Bonnie Langford’s character, the Doctor’s companion Mel, in an attempt to fool the Doctor into taking part in her plan. It’s rather a witheringly accurate impersonation as well, which O’Mara plays totally for laughs, stomping around in an exact replica of Mel’s shoulder-padded pink blouse (where did the Rani rustle that up from at such short notice?) and speaking in a high-pitched squeaky voice. Luckily Langford didn’t take offence, but with the Rani already being the pantomime villainess she was, O’Mara’s camp pantomiming only adds to the already facetious air of the production. For the Doctor in this episode is almost completely different from the markedly darker portrayal McCoy eventually came to essay: here he is relentlessly clowning around, employing lots of Chaplinesque physical comedy and displaying an almost idiot-like personality, forever speaking in mangled aphorisms and dropping malapropisms left, right and centre. McCoy had been informally told by John Nathan-Turner to make the Doctor impish and comedic as a contrast to Colin Baker’s previous portrayal, but he undoubtedly goes too far. Just as the writers had no script editor to talk over their ideas with, McCoy was also working in a vacuum, virtually making up his characterisation as he went along. Once Andrew Cartmel began to employ his own ideas for the development of the series, the seventh Doctor’s personality underwent perhaps the most radical change over the course of a single actor’s tenure in the series history, becoming a much more manipulative and mysterious figure. Here though, he is reduced to playing the spoons all over Kate O’Mara’s décolleté and generally prating around in a way that quickly becomes annoying! Fans mostly hated it, and reviled the way the BBC’s most prestigious Sci Fi series was being made a mockery of with over-the-top use of ill-advised humour.
While Sylvester McCoy and Kate o’Mara indulge in their theatrical pantomime whimsy at the Rani’s laboratory, Bonnie Langford’s Mel (the real one!) joins up with the Lakertyans. Incoming script editor Andrew Cartmel was right to see this as something of an old-fashioned (or one could say ‘traditional’ if one wanted to be kind) “Doctor Who” adventure – relying on the conflict between two sets of protagonists (in this case, the slothful lizard-like Lakertyans and the lumbering, hairy bat creatures brought by the Rani -- the Tetraps). As usual, the story relies on splitting up the Doctor and his companion, each of them becoming involved with opposite sides of the conflict. The Lakertyans are garishly attired yellow-skinned creatures, the men sporting outrageously outré Mohicans and all of them dressed in bright orange robes. The Tetraps, meanwhile, are fine in theory as an extravagantly weird-looking alien monster foe, but in the cold light of a Somerset quarry their costuming leaves something to be desired. Conceptually they’re quite cool when pictured suspended like vampire bats in their darkened cave-like eyrie, awaiting the blood which gets delivered to them down a filthy runnel-like chute. But once you see them in daylight, lumbering around the rain-soaked quarry in which the episode’s OB sequences were filmed, the huge head with animatronic eyes arranged around the circumference looks amateurish and clumsy, and the creatures are one of the more ridiculous species in the series’ menagerie of unlikely aliens.
With its reliance on scientific gobbledygook, irritating comedy, clichéd storytelling and special effects which seemed state-of-the-art in 1987 but look decidedly weak now, “Time And The Rani” definitely doesn’t come up looking any much better in retrospect than it did at the time. McCoy’s portrayal is unstable and unsustainable, the basic premise of the plot is poorly thought-out and bears little scrutiny and the whole thing is perhaps one of the weakest introductions to a new Doctor since … well, Colin Baker’s introduction “The Twin Dilemma”. That doesn’t stop 2 Entertain pulling out the stops to make this DVD presentation something special though, with all their usual care and attention lavished on a wonderful set of extras. A Commentary with Sylvester McCoy, detailing the story of how he came to land the part and explaining the difficult circumstances in which his initial characterisation took shape -- and how it came to be so different from how he would eventually play the part -- is first up. Joining him are writers Pip and Jane Baker; this being the last Doctor who story they ever contributed to the series, it is obviously quite special to them, but the amount of compromises and re-writes they were forced to accommodate perhaps explains the rather muddled nature of the end results. Also appearing on the commentary track, and making her debut appearance, is Bonnie Langford. She claims never to have watched any of her work on the programme back before, but her memory proves rather good, and she makes an enthusiastic and bubbly contributor to the discussion.
“The last Chance Saloon” is an excellent and typically honest documentary detailing the behind-the-scenes travails afflicting the programme at the time, and is particularly notable for featuring audition tapes made not only by Sylvester McCoy, but several other actors who were put up for the part. This was really something of a ruse on John-Nathan-Turner’s part, he having already decided that he wanted McCoy for the role, but it is instructive to see other interpretations of the same scene, and McCoy’s is most definitely the strongest out of the three featured. There is a lot of footage of producer John-Nathan-Turner speaking before his death in great detail about the making of this particular story, so it has an immediacy few other of these retrospective documentaries can manage. Also included are contributions from Andrew Cartmel and writers Pip and Jane Baker, who detail the new script editor’s lack of empathy for this story; director Andrew Morgan, BBC head of series and serials Jonathan Powell appear, and graphic designer Oliver Elmes talks about some of the innovative special effects the story showcased.
“Helter Skelter” - “Time And The Rani” featured a brand new arrangement of the series' iconic theme music by Keff McCulloch (who also contributed the story’s synth-heavy incidental music), and an entirely new opening credit sequence and Doctor Who logo were commissioned that gave the titles a more comic-book appearance. In this featurette graphic designer Oliver Elmes and animator Gareth Edwards talk about how they created the first CGI sequence in Doctor Who history.
“7D FX” – this is another fascinating featurette in which visual effects designer Colin Mapson, visual effects assistant Mike Tucker and video effects designer Dave Chapman talk about the creation of some of the rather sophisticated graphics and video effects the adventure managed to incorporate. Much of it still stands up today, and although the story itself may have been second rate, few Doctor Who adventures from the classic era stand up as well visually as this one does.
“Lakertya” -- a mini-featurette in which the original vision of writers Pip and Jane Baker of Lakertya as a verdant paradise where the inhabitants had no need to strain themselves in work, is contrasted with the grim quarry setting the story was eventually filmed in, director Andrew Morgan admitting this makes rather a nonsense of the whole premise of the story!
“Hot Gossip” – this is another very small titbit in which Kate O’Mara and Sylvester McCoy remember their gossiping co-stars.
“On Location” – a piece of film shot for BBC Breakfast Time in 1987 in which reporter Guy Michelmore visits the production during location filming for the story’s exterior scenes and talks to John-Nathan-Turner, Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford and Kate o’Mara.
“Blue Peter” – a snippet from the legendary BBC Children’s programme in which Sylvester McCoy materialises in the TARDIS in the BBC studios to be interviewed by Janet Ellis (who had herself appeared in the series alongside Tom Baker’s Doctor in the story “The Horns of Nimon”), soon after the announcement that he had won the role.
“Photo Gallery” – eight minutes of publicity stills and location shots accompanied by Keff McCulloch’s incidental score.
Several Easter eggs can also be found by locating and illuminating an invisible green Doctor Who logo.
This will never be any “Doctor Who” fan’s favourite story, but an excellent presentation by the restoration team and some fabulous extras make it just as essential for any fan’s collection as any other release.