Yes, this is called ‘The Mark of The Rani’, with a second capital ‘T’. Not only is this at odds with the normal conventions of capitalisation, but it goes against the usual trend of Doctor Who titling, and is the only such occasion in the programme’s history. If you will forgive this tenuous link, it is quite fitting for a Doctor Who story that feels a bit wrong in amongst the stories that surround it. It is very different to anything else this season, and had this kind of semi-historical been a bit more prevalent at the time then it would not have been quite so easy to push towards cancellation with the excuse of “too much violence”, as this is a bit more of a gentle approach to Doctor Who.
So why else does this feel a bit wrong. Well, it’s a Master story where you could write out the Master and it wouldn’t really change anything, except for the loss of the extraordinary spectacle of the Master standing around in a field dressed as a scarecrow just on the off-chance that the Doctor might stroll along one day. He’s an incidental guest star, who seems to have been tacked on for the sake of it (but would I want him not to be in this – no of course not!). Then we have all that extraordinary Pip and Jane dialogue, which rarely resembles anything that would come out of the mouth of a real person: ‘Fortuitous would be a more apposite epithet.’ … ‘you’ll divest him of all his power’ … ‘finito TARDIS – how’s that for style?’ (pretty rotten, I think.)
While we are getting the negatives out of the way we can’t ignore the plastic trees. I have absolutely nothing against ambition and I think it is important to realise that there were limits to what was achievable at the time on a tight budget. However, the fault in this case is not with any of that stuff, but with the writing. The idea of the Rani turning people into trees was a silly one anyway, and should have been removed at the script stage as unworkable and unnecessary. The cliffhanger at the end of Part One, fun though it is, is a peril of the Doctor’s own making (with a bit of help from Peri).
There are lots of little problems, mainly due to sloppy scripting. We are supposed to accept that all TARDISis have the same key (?!). The Sixth’s Doctors’ trademark three-stage shouty tantrum rears its ugly head with ‘malfunctioning… Malfunctioning… MALFUNCTIONING!’ We also have a very sad reflection on just how far wrong the JNT era had gone with the Doctor/companion relationship during the 80s, with the very telling line: ‘What do you do in there?’ ‘Argue mainly.’
But let’s not ignore the positives here, and there are plenty of those, the most significant of course being the Rani. She is a credible adversary for the Doctor with pretty logical motivations, and it’s not often that Doctor Who shows us that kind of rogue Time Lord. Unlike the Master of this era, she is not making mischief for the sake of it, but simply has a different kind of morality to the Doctor. She is a million miles away from the pantomime villain that she would become in her next two appearances. Kate O’Mara completely overshadows Anthony Ainley, and that takes some doing. The excellent location filming at Ironbridge lends a degree of realism to the production and fortunately the crew were blessed with good weather, making for a bright, upbeat atmosphere.
I have to admit that I have a soft spot for The Mark of The Rani and I don’t go along with probably the majority view that this is one of the weaker Sixth Doctor stories. I came to the Sixth Doctor era after the event, having given up on watching Doctor Who at the time (more on that when I get to the nadir of Who, with The Twin Dilemma), and found this story a refreshing change. In amongst a sea of nasty natured, dark stories, this is one of the few exceptions: a Sixth Doctor story that feels like old-school Who and gives us something that is so much more feel-good and fun. RP
The view from across the pond (ish):
Once again writing my “across the pond” review from the wrong side of the pond, I have time on my hands and opted to use it for getting caught up on what I’m missing.
Colin Baker is a truly nice man; intelligent, interesting, and fun. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting him twice, most recently with Peter Davison and Paul McGann. Having listened to his audio stories, I realize the problem with Colin’s time as the Doctor was not with him, but the weak episodes. It always comes down to the writing.
I was a fan of the show at this point, having seen my first regeneration from Peter to Colin. I was utterly hooked by the idea of Regeneration – I had seen Tom Baker first, but never saw the transition to Davison. So having seen Davison become C. Baker, I was utterly captivated. But as we age, we look back on things we liked as younger people and often find they are not what we remember.
The Mark of The Rani holds up reasonably well nonetheless, unlike such travesties as The Twin Dilemma (or its one possible rival, Timelash!) or the first story in the Trial of a Time Lord series: The Mysterious Planet. I will concur with Roger that Kate O’Mara does a genuinely stand-out job as a villain who has a different set of ethics rather than being a caricature of villainy. (This theme of a different set of ethics comes back in The Unquiet Dead, with different results but that’s another story for another time.) But she is a villain because she’s experimenting on people. But take note: she was not killing them and, as I recall, her research on her subjects would wear off. Not the villainy of the Master, that’s for sure! In fact, she wants nothing to do with the rivalry between The Master and The Doctor. She wants to get away from it, distance herself and remain unnoticed to get on with her work. The Master, by contrast, seems to be tracking the Doctor just to mess with him. It’s standard, cardboard villainy.
This episode also gives us a glimpse of the brilliant TARDIS of the Rani. The Rani has a type 51… if I recall correctly… and it’s lovely. Sure, it’s darker, different, but also magnificent.
Peri (the lovely Nicola Bryant) gets a chance to actually be useful and make sense: she’s a botany student and actually understands botany. (Unlike Susan who is a time traveler/Gallifreyan and knows absolutely nothing about anything). Peri might still be fumbling around with a degree of uncertainty, but here she seems to understand things and be able to grow. At least a little bit!
The supporting cast is fun as well most notably with Robert Stevenson. It’s an episode that does stand out.
But there are flaws. The worst is the tree-traps. The moment Luke is turned into a tree, which later grabs and saves Peri from a similar demise… how absurd… It’s the sort of thing your cousin sees you watching and picks on you for being a fan for years. It’s cringe-worthy. Where were the editors who would say “We can’t do this on TV… we don’t have the budget!” Because maybe if done well, it would have been ok. Or maybe if we had some tie in with the Krynoids of Tom Baker’s era, it would have been far more frightening and not so off the wall looking. Not to mention, are all the traps collected? Or did some other poor sod go walking into Redfern Dell and find himself converted to vegetable matter?
And why on earth did the Rani need a disguise? Had she looked like herself or the old woman, the workers of the town wanted a shower! They were going to the bath house no matter what. “Oh. don’t go to that bath house… a reasonably attractive middle aged woman runs it! Better go to the one in the next town over, which is run by an ancient crone!” Why did she feel the need to wear a disguise? It made no sense! Even for the audience, no one knew the Rani yet! So what was the reason for it?
There’s also the volcano trap – what sort of psycho sets up a changing wall with a volcano trap?
And then there’s the violence in Doctor Who. Baker’s time is criticized for being too violent. Between Luddite riots, volcano and tree-traps, we have more than enough violent tendencies. But there’s another issue that seems to be overlooked. The Doctor sabotages the Rani’s TARDIS trapping two of his own people, two old classmates and one-time friends no less, in a TARDIS with a growing, hungry T-Rex. They are pinned to the wall while watching this creature grow right in front of them and they are powerless to do anything about it. His hands are blood stained, for sure!
I was always a bigger fan of the outright science fiction stories in Doctor Who, but Mark of The Rani does stand out as a good one. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a very watchable piece of Time Lord history. Just don’t let your cousins watch it with you, or distract them when Luke becomes a tree… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Two Doctors