As regeneration stories go this is obviously not ideal. It is a million times better than The Twin Dilemma, but still arrived with some pre-packaged faults. Andrew Cartmel took over as script editor from this story onwards, but as usual a new script editor inherits scripts that were commissioned before he arrived. Cartmel was the architect of the greatest and quickest improvement in standards that Doctor Who ever saw, but he couldn’t do much about this one, the last effort of the old regime. The reason Cartmel cites for disliking this inherited script is telling: it was “a story which wasn’t about anything”. That sums up, in a nutshell, the ethos that is going to drive the massive step forward that the McCoy era represents. Pretty soon, Doctor Who is going to always be “about something”, but we’re not quite there yet.
So Cartmel inherited a Pip and Jane Baker script, which was written originally for Colin Baker, and then hastily rewritten for Sylvester McCoy, who was cast at the last minute. In the fourth episode there is a scene where Beyus makes a heroic sacrifice and it doesn’t make much sense because he kind of sticks around in a room with a bomb for no apparent reason. The interesting thing about that scene is it should have been the death of the Sixth Doctor, but instead a newly regenerated Doctor had to be written into the script right from the start.
We of course get the obligatory post-regeneration trauma, always used to pad out a new Doctor’s first story and ease him in. I have explained before in some detail why I dislike that approach, but it is kept to a reasonable level for the first time since Robot. Unfortunately the Doctor is then prevented from being the Doctor for a bit longer by being drugged, which is frustrating. If you squint you can kind of see the thinking behind it. If you’re not sure how well the new actor is going to settle in, or how well the viewers are going to accept him, then it makes a wonky kind of sense to hang the story on a compelling returning villain and make this the Rani Show for a couple of episodes. Having said that, it makes a whole lot more sense to just do what The Power of the Daleks, Robot and The Eleventh Hour did, and have confidence in the new lead actor.
All this week we are going to be looking at McCoy stories, and we are right at the start of his era here, so I suppose this is the right time to mention a particular problem I have with Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. Right from the very next story, he is embarking on a run of probably the best set of scripts that any actor had to work with on the Classic series. Just about everything from Paradise Towers to Survival is stunningly well written, and miles ahead of its time. But they are frequently compromised by the quality of the acting, and unfortunately that problem generally begins with McCoy. There is no way to sugarcoat this: he is the only actor who ever played the Doctor and was not quite the standard of actor required for the part. Even now I find his audios difficult to listen to, and often so irrrrrrritating that I feel like throwing my mp3 player across the room. There are plenty of things he is brilliant at. Like Pertwee, he is a comedy actor who turned out to be great at some of the serious stuff. But when he tries to do the comedy bits his performance is highly reminiscent of the debuts of Troughton and Tom Baker, but lacking their charm. Without a doubt his Doctor is a massive improvement on the Sixth, but we have a very different vibe from now on. Colin Baker was a great actor being let down by appallingly bad material. Sylvester McCoy is going to be provided with the best material to work with of any Doctor, and fall short. Luckily the degree to which he falls short is reasonably insignificant, but there will be frequent am dram moments throughout his era that make you wince. But his decision appears to have been to model his Doctor on Troughton, and that works reasonably well for him.
At the risk of damning with faint praise he doesn’t do too badly here. The malapropisms are excruciating, but as soon as McCoy gets into his new costume and is allowed to actually be the Doctor he has a quiet authority that will typify his version of the Doctor and works very well. He has an uphill battle to win us over, and to shed some light on the disadvantage he is placed in immediately, let’s look at what was happening at the beginning of the previous regeneration stories, when the Doctor has his first interactions with other characters:
- The Power of the Daleks: the Doctor is in the TARDIS with Ben and Polly.
- Spearhead from Space: the Doctor is suffering from post-regenerative trauma. The Brigadier and Liz visit him in his hospital bed, and he later turns up at UNIT HQ.
- Robot: the Doctor has regenerated at UNIT HQ, with the Brigadier and Sarah there to meet the new Doctor.
- Castrovalva: the Doctor is in the TARDIS with Nyssa and Tegan.
- The Twin Dilemma: the Doctor is in the TARDIS with Peri.
So every time the Doctor has regenerated, we see him first of all through the eyes of familiar companions, and generally in familiar surroundings. The companions (including the Brig) are the vehicle for introducing us to the new Doctor, and at least we have the starting point of somebody who already likes the Doctor: Ben, Polly, the Brig, Sarah Jane, Nyssa, Tegan, Peri. But look what happens here. We are introduced to the Doctor from the viewpoint of one of his enemies, the Rani, who belittles him as we would expect. Meanwhile, Mel is denied her proper introductory story as planned, now that Colin Baker has been sacked. Everyone is facing an uphill battle to get anything good on screen, but particularly McCoy, Bonnie Langford, Cartmel and the writers.
So what does sci-fi do to paper over the cracks when a story isn’t going to hold up very well? It goes big on the visuals. But surely Doctor Who can’t do that, on its miniscule 80s budget? Oh boy, can it!
I cannot stress enough how visually stunning this was at the time. To get any kind of a sense of that you would probably have to approach this from the perspective of a viewing marathon, but even when it came out on VHS in 1995 it still looked amazing. The opening sequence is great, but those bubble traps are an astonishing achievement for one of the first forays into CGI for Doctor Who. For a sense of what computer effects meant for viewers at the time, take a look at this article. Nobody was expecting Doctor Who to manage this kind of thing.
And it’s not just with the effects work that the visuals have improved. The direction was inspired for this one. Just look at the what the Lakertyans do with their arms when they run. Not only is it adorably cute, but it says “alien” more effectively than a ton of prosthetics can. This is something we haven’t really seen since Mavic Chen and his quirky penmanship. It’s just a shame that the regeneration scene itself is such a mess. All it would have taken was a visual effect that obscured the face more for that to work, so it’s a silly mistake that gets the story off on a terrible note. But for the first time in several years, it really feels like we are heading in the right direction here, and maybe, just maybe, we might be standing at the dawn of another golden age for Doctor Who. One last gasp of brilliance before the Doctor walks off into the sunset. RP
The view from across the pond:
In another rare moment of my early life with Doctor Who that I was able to share with someone else, a friend and I were anxiously awaiting the premiere episode of Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor. The episode opens with a cool shot of the TARDIS, the crash and the Rani turning the Doctor over to find him mid-regeneration. The music bursts out of that old TV’s speakers with a wild new opening in a star field and my friend looks at me and says, “Maybe this guy brought some money to the show”.
That was the first couple of minutes of Time and the Rani. I’m going out on a limb now to admit something that will shock you: I really liked Time and the Rani. Not because it’s good, but because I loved how new it was; how new McCoy was as a Doctor. I loved how fast he spoke and that brilliant Scottish accent. I love the manic energy and the tongue rolling. I love the idea that one could even play the spoons! I also loved Mel’s genuine confusion about regeneration followed by her warm acceptance. I even enjoyed that 80s synthesizer music.
Look, I know it doesn’t hold up well – that’s a fact! The plot is off the wall, for one thing! The Rani is a terrible villain in this story, having lost all her brilliance from the Colin Baker episode The Mark of The Rani. And McCoy isn’t a super-genius unless he’s in the ranks of Pinky’s friend, The Brain! But somehow, the humor of the post regeneration amnesia is jolly good fun. The Tetraps, being four eyed bats (no, not like the old woman with glasses across the street) are interesting creatures and I love that they hang upside down and drink blood (which the Rani doles from her secret stash of blood in the wall). The Lakertyans are a bit Thal in their anti-violence ways, but hey, many cultures could have similar traits. I also loved that they had a prehensile tail visible on their skeletons. “Do you want to pet it?” “Nooooooo!” (See Shallow Hal for that reference…)
The worst part of the story is the Rani’s utterly idiotic idea of dressing up as Mel. Forget getting an Ood brain and teaching it advanced Accounting; that wasn’t even the worst of it! First off, the Rani couldn’t have planned for the masquerade: she had no way of knowing the Doctor would have died and been mid-regeneration by the start of the story, so capitalizing on post regeneration trauma had to be totally spontaneous! The thing is, Mel shopped at “50’s Cheerleaders R’ Us” so where would the Rani even get that attire? I’m sorry but if I spontaneously decide to throw a party, I’d have to have some of the ingredients at hand. But even if she could duplicate those clothes, she looks like a reject from Dynasty. (Not the Duck one! Or… well, actually…) To have fooled the Doctor really makes him a bit more like Pinky than the Brain. Meanwhile, out in the wasteland, Mel screams with an ear piercing screech that shatters souls. How Ikona develops any feeling at all for Mel must be based on her ability to keep Dementors at bay with her screams. And really, what was up with the “bees”? At least we know the term “house arrest” exists on other planets too, considering those ankle bracelets!
But all that said, I thought it was great fun. I walked away from it super excited for more McCoy episodes. Alas, what followed… But as bad as it is watching O’Mara (the Rani) run about in clothes that no person should wear, and giant Furries running around terrorizing Mel, I still enjoy the heck out of the episode. It’s like a guilty pleasure; you don’t want to admit to liking it, but you secretly do. Although, my open admittance here doesn’t really make it like a guilty pleasure at all does it. I know, I’ll go find a giant brain and make it work on Stats for a few hours and we can come up with what it really is like… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Paradise Towers